To say that The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears caused a stir when it premiered Feb. 5 would be a grave understatement. The Hulu/FX documentary, which investigates the pop legend’s conservatorship and her fight to break free of it, sent shock waves rippling across the internet and beyond. Almost overnight, #FreeBritney became a household topic of conversation. Justin Timberlake, Perez Hilton and Sarah Silverman apologized for their past behavior and jokes directed at Spears, while others reflected on the misogynistic media culture that paved the way for what she has called an abusive legal arrangement. Yet director Samantha Stark and senior story editor Liz Day, who have done subsequent reporting in The New York Times, insist that their film was only the beginning. In a conversation with THR, they discussed how they created one of the most-talked-about documentaries of the year and the significance of their Emmy nomination for outstanding doc special.
Framing Britney Spears is not a typical documentary in that it follows a case that is still in progress. How do you see your project fitting into a larger story that is ongoing?
SAMANTHA STARK Something that really struck me when Britney spoke [in court] on June 23 is that one of the reasons she didn’t come out and say this earlier was she didn’t think anyone would believe her. What I hope our documentary and our reporting is doing is bolstering her story with facts, with care and with a new viewpoint. In confidential court documents, we saw that she had been saying [she wanted to end her conservatorship] since at least 2014. I think Britney is not a victim, not a small person. I think she would have come forward and said this without the documentary. But I hope the documentary showed her that people believed her, because it did spark a lot of people around the world to come out and support her.
LIZ DAY When we first started going into production last summer, we knew we wanted to look backward as to how Britney got here, but we weren’t sure what was going to happen in the conservatorship battle. Shortly after we started, her court-appointed counsel started filing these big bombshells in the conservatorship case saying she wants more transparency, she wants her dad out. We were lucky to be there at that moment to capture that unfolding.
What has been the most surprising element of the massive public response the film has received?
STARK The most surprising element is people realizing that they were wrong to judge Britney and [are now] believing her. I do think that the misogyny that we showcased in the documentary is connected to where she is today. It has been easy for people to make fun of Britney, and that made it easy for there to be this silence around the conservatorship. At our first meeting together, we agreed we would never make fun of Britney Spears, and we all took that to heart. It’s been incredible that it feels like now the world is also taking that to heart.
DAY One other thing that has been surprising is the broad appeal of this story. When we talked about it inside of The New York Times, there were some people who felt there’s a lot going on in the world — why should people care about a celebrity case? That really frustrated me, because for me, it was always so much more than a singular story. It was a story about society, gender, power, money and fame, and our legal system. Any of us could one day find ourselves under a conservatorship. It felt clear to me why this would be broadly appealing, but not everyone felt that way. So it was surprising to see my hairdresser talking to me about it, my friend’s 76-year-old dad talking to me about it, people from all different backgrounds and ages and situations having an interest in this story.
#FreeBritney has played a significant role in public perception of the case, as has Britney’s Instagram account. How did you incorporate social media into your storytelling?
STARK It’s a double-edged sword, because a lot of people came to Britney’s case by looking at her Instagram and saying, “Oh, she looks crazy, that’s why she’s in this conservatorship,” without understanding what a conservatorship is and how social media can be misleading — particularly with Britney’s account, since it would be outlandish to think she controls it by herself when she can’t control basic things like who she interacts with, where she lives, what she does. It’s also the only window we got [into her life]. I looked at every post from 2015 until now, and there were some beautiful posts with her kids and with her laughing and making jokes that we included. What we realized when talking to her fans is that a lot of them were bringing up important questions about the conservatorship system. There were people trying to look into her case using public court documents, and social media was the way that spread.
On July 17, a post appeared on Britney’s Instagram stating that she “didn’t like the way the documentaries bring up humiliating moments from the past.” How do you contend with this in your reporting?
STARK While we were making the film, we talked a lot about re-traumatizing Britney and her family by showing these moments. Part of the reason it’s called Framing Britney Spears is there are these still-photo frames that were humiliating to her. We thought it was really important to pull outside the frame because so many people had all these assumptions based on one frame, one still image that they saw. In the end, we felt like we had to put some of them in because we wanted people to have more context. We always tried to have her talk back to [the paparazzi] if we could. She 100 percent deserves to be mad that we’re still looking at those photos, because it’s ridiculous that we’re still looking at them, and they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. As much as I want to explain myself to her, I totally understand where she’s coming from.
What was your reaction to the Emmy nomination?
DAY We’re incredibly honored … but also, it’s not about us. This is about the story. We’re very much committed to continuing to follow this conservatorship battle as it is heating up and continuing to develop faster than ever. We try through follow-up articles to be a beacon of information for the public to stay abreast of what’s going on with Britney’s case.
STARK The idea of being involved in a competition based on her story is hard because we don’t want it to feel exploitative. When the Emmy nominations were announced, it was the day before Britney had another court hearing on July 14, and she is still in the same situation that she was in before the documentary came out. We’re extremely committed to following through because we want to make sure we keep covering the story accurately and keep it in the limelight.
What does Britney’s case reveal about the conservatorship system at large?
DAY One big takeaway has been how the letter of the law can differ from what’s playing out on the ground. You can scour the court records and say Britney’s conservator is only allowed to do X, Y and Z according to the California statute. But what’s legally allowed to happen versus what is actually allegedly happening can be quite different. If this is happening in Britney’s case, what’s happening in the million other conservatorships across the country?
STARK Conservatorships don’t take into account coercion, power dynamics, emotional manipulation. Britney says, “I felt forced into this mental health facility,” and the other side is saying she consented to going there. Did Britney sign a consent form to go into this mental health facility? Maybe she did. But it doesn’t take into account the possibility of retaliation if she doesn’t sign it. With #MeToo, we’ve been talking a lot about how if somebody has power over somebody else, and they don’t object to something, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re consenting to it. This whole conservatorship has been presented as voluntary and we’re trying to figure out what that means in the conservatorship world because everyone has a different definition. What I’m hoping the Emmy nomination does is show how many people care about Britney, and how many people want to know the truth.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.