Hollywood filmmakers have a history of avoiding hot-button, potentially explosive subject matter. Let the record show: Samantha Stark is not one of those people.
The journalist turned director launches her feature movie career this week with the new documentary Framing Britney Spears. The film airs on FX and Hulu beginning Feburary 5.
At 37, the openly-queer Stark has already enjoyed a successful writing career, serving as a journalist for The New York Times for nine years. In that capacity, she also cut her teeth producing and directing short films as part of the media institution’s The New York Times Presents series.
No doubt she needed sharp teeth when biting into Framing Britney Spears. The film documents the meteoric rise and troubled career of America’s pop princess. After becoming a star in her late teens, Spears became one of the most sexualized–and popular–celebrities in the world before personal troubles landed her in the court-ordered conservatorship of her father, Jamie Spears. The conservatorship, coupled with a lack of public performances gave rise to the #FreeBritney movement, a fan campaign to end the conservatorship in hopes Spears would return to the public eye. Framing Britney Spears examines the rise of the movement and raises questions about the reason for the star’s conservatorship. The film also debates several fan theories, including one pushed by the #FreeBritney movement: that Spears is essentially a prisoner of her father.
We snagged time with Stark to discuss her transition to directing, the myth of Britney Spears, Spears’ connection with queer audiences, and the rise of #FreeBritney. Framing Britney Spears arrives February 5 on FX and Hulu.
So making a film like this about a celebrity with a rabid fanbase, and about someone who is both enigmatic and ridiculously over-exposed is a Monumental task. What made you decide to take the plunge and do it?
You know, it sounds naive, but I didn’t realize there would be this much interest in it. I’ve worked at The New York Times now for nine years, and done so many different things. People aren’t usually this interested in what I do. There’s a lot of pressure. I feel pressure no matter what project I’m doing, but this one has an extreme elephant in the room: it’s the only thing I’ve ever made where the person it’s about isn’t participating. So, trying to figure out how to tell a story about Britney that isn’t making any assumptions about Britney. I didn’t want anyone who didn’t “know” to be philosophizing around her not being on camera. And everyone wants to philosophize about her.
So it’s trying to get people to stick to their area of expertise, and the people who really know her describe their experience.
Great answer. That brings up another burning question. You cover an immense amount of territory in the film, though some of the key elements of the Britney “narrative” you don’t mention. Why did you make the choice to not discuss her plastic surgery for example? Or her 55-hour marriage? Is this a conscious decision to avoid making the film tabloid, even if its subject is a tabloid figure?
To me, the film is about control. So I wanted the whole thing to be about who is in control of what, when. There are so many examples of people making fun of Britney Spears that I wanted to pick and choose the most surprising ones. For example, the Diane Sawyer interview was really surprising to me. Hearing her show Britney this footage of a governor’s wife saying “I would shoot Britney Spears if I could.” Diane’s reaction is you know, it’s difficult to be a parent.
It’s like…what? To hear Diane Sawyer say that gives you more information and feeling as reading every plastic surgery/boyfriend story that everyone wanted to ridicule all the time.
Sure. It’s interesting that you mention that clip specifically. Watching that—I hadn’t seen it before—churned my stomach, particularly in the context of current events and our present cultural conversation about how words from politicians matter. Looking at that interview now, it’s amazing how much times have changed, and how young she was—18 or so at the time.
If we all remember from our gender studies classes, the virgin-whore dichotomy… It’s kind of a joke, but it really happened with her. We made a gigantic timeline of all the coverage of her to figure out the turning point between Britney the golden girl and Britney the horrible person. It did appear to be Britney cheating on Justin Timberlake, and how he was heartbroken narrative. You look at that now and see the premise of the music video [“Cry Me A River”] Justin made. I believe that was his first big hit on that album.
His first solo hit, yeah.
He’s stalking Britney. He breaks into her house, records a sex tape with someone else, following her home, watching her in the shower and hiding in her closet. Then he leaves the sex tape on her TV. I was screaming when I saw that. And nobody remembers it. I asked [the crew] what they remembered from the video, and they all remember it differently. Everyone was like isn’t that where you see a Britney look-alike cheating on Justin? It’s shocking to think everyone thought that was normal. It wasn’t that long ago.
Why did we think this was normal, that he wasn’t the creepy one?
It’s funny that you mention that, because it brings up two key elements here. One is sexism. You make a very strong case that Spears has been the subject of sexism in her entire life, not just for her performing career. Was it sexism that led her to be marketed as a sexual object? Let’s face it, without her being a sex object she wouldn’t have a career. There’s a paradox in that.
Well, I’m glad you asked. I wasn’t a Britney fan before [making the film]. I now am. Something that surprised me was interviewing Kim Hyman, her marketing director who looked at Britney and tried to figure out who she is and how to market that. She talks about it very differently. So do older women around her.
They say teenagers do have sexuality.
The reason she appealed to pre-teens so much is that she was in command of her sexuality, and showing her discovery of that. In “Baby, One More Time” we all remember the schoolgirl outfit. But there’s a basketball team as well. Britney played basketball in high school. She rolled down the shorts down to show her hip bones. Then that’s what all the girls did. I’m a year younger than Britney, and I remember we all rolled down our gym sweats after that to be sexier.
And that’s real. It’s part of being a teenager. There’s an idea that she exploded because she captured the space between a non-sexual kid and a sexual adult. We’re not giving her enough credit in owning her sexuality. That’s something I realized in talking to all these people.
One of the other contradictions of Britney is the idea that everyone was always fascinated by her sexuality and her relationship with Justin Timberlake. At the same time, she becomes the ultimate tabloid victim. We should say here that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the rise of TMZ, Perez Hilton and online celebrity gossip.
But her career benefited in the beginning from the public fascination with her relationship with Justin. But then, later, she couldn’t control that fascination. What does it say about us as a culture that we want it both ways: we want to know about someone’s personal life, but then we punish her for it?
Yep. Tale as old as time. Watching all this footage, you realize from the time she was first starting out she was constantly, in interviews, talking about how she wanted to get married and have kids. By all accounts, she was heartbroken [when she split from Justin]. Something interesting I learned from talking to Kevin Hunter Rowan who was a backup dancer. At 19, he directed her Onyx Hotel tour, which was right after the breakup.
He said it just emboldened her to take less sh*t. She had a very strong period then where she was like I’m in charge. Kevin described how they conceptualized it. They were left alone with a bunch of money, not controlled. She’s been rebelling her entire career.
Reliving some of those moments of her downward spiral which I didn’t even remember, I kept asking myself: where is her family? Where are her friends? Where is her mother? Why is nobody helping this woman? Why did nobody say let me go to Starbucks for you? In your research did you ever uncover why it seemed like Britney was almost subjecting her self-consciously to some of this paparazzi nonsense?
I mean, I think the alternative for her was to feel like a prisoner in her own house. She wanted to leave. I think it’s quite rebellious to go to Starbucks herself. There’s also footage of her saying “I feel like a prisoner in my own home.” It’s interesting because that’s what a lot of people talk about has happened now.
I think it’s what happens when everyone is scared to talk to a person because she has a God created out of her. She becomes untouchable. I think it must be lonely to be surrounded by people all the time and not have anyone close to you.
To that point specifically, it’s public record at this point that she was surrounded by a lot of leches in her career. Victoria Grigoriadis wrote at length about this in Rolling Stone [in the now-notorious article “The Tragedy of Britney Spears].
Everybody I’ve talked to, the one refrain I hear over and over is how nice Britney is. She doesn’t judge. She doesn’t talk bad about anybody. Felicia [Culotta, Britney’s longtime friend and assistant] even says “She was a stop and smell the roses kind of girl.” For someone to take that away from her really hurt. Meeting Felicia gave me a lot of insight into who Britney could be. Britney has a lot of exclamation points and emojis on her Instagram. That’s exactly how Felicia texts. And I’m not saying Felicia is running Britney’s Instagram.
But it’s a sweet southern charm, a joyous attitude. It makes me understand Britney a bit more.
That’s interesting. I think the crux of the film in a way is this sealed report that was given to the judge that initiated her conservatorship. Mr. Streisand [Brittney’s former lawyer] talks about it. It’s the document he was not able to read. We can say at this point that getting conservatorship in California is extraordinarily difficult. I have a friend who tried to get conservatorship of her parents who have Alzheimer’s and she couldn’t even do that.
I say this because whatever is inside that sealed file has to be something incredibly incendiary. No one in the film seems to know what it is. What did people tell you, officially or unofficially, about what’s in that file?
I don’t know. There are legal measures put in place. Doctors have to examine her. But it’s one of the big questions of the story. The central mystery of the film—Joe Coscarelli even says it—she lives the life of a busy pop star. Yet we’re told she’s at risk constantly. It seems there’s such a contradiction in that. As a journalist, to not be able to know: is there a reason? Conservatorships are meant for mostly elderly people who often die soon after. They’re not meant to be undone. So the question with a young person is, are they too difficult to get out of?
That’s a big question that no one case could address. It’s frustrating because we can only speculate. Would it have something to do with her bipolar disorder?
We don’t know that.
We don’t? I know it’s been widely reported that Britney Spears has bipolar disorder.
It has been, a lot. But we found zero evidence of any diagnosis, and that should be sealed via HIPPA.
And there’s a possibility that she does have a mental illness. That could be a reason for the conservatorship. It’s supposed to be a last resort because it so affects a person’s ability to make decisions for themselves. Another good question: what did they try first?
It’s questionable whether if someone that young—someone that’s 26—should be put in a conservatorship. I think there’s room to question the criteria. And it is legal, but that raises the question: should it be? What are the flaws in this system? The thing I think about so much is the image of Britney shaving her head and hitting car with the umbrella. Those images went everywhere. And you don’t see what’s outside the frame. That’s what we’re trying to show with the film.
I think there’s room to wonder how much those images affected what happened to her. People make all kinds of assumptions. The transformation when it comes to mental illness—and I don’t know if she has a mental illness—but the way we see people who look “crazy.”
We also—as two queer people—should discuss the LGBTQ interest of Britney Spears. Frankly, I’ve never quite understood it.
Can I share my theory?
Britney, from a young age, was marketed as the friend you aspire to be, that you idolize. And she was this perfect all-American girl: pretty, nice, perfect body. So a lot of fans now, having talked to them at #FreeBritney, it’s very striking out “outsider” they are.
How outcast, how queer, how bullied they are, or were as kids. Pretty soon after she got famous, she got ridiculed for her sexuality. Who responds and empathizes with people shamed for sexuality?
Watching that—it’s a huge thing to see someone given so much shame for being sexual. Also, even when she got chased by the paparazzi and shaved her head, I think that vulnerability made people double down on loving her. I heard this story that didn’t make it in the film: Felicia said Britney was judged for being herself. So if you were judged for being yourself, you related to her. She related to you. Felicia recounted many times queer people would tell Britney “You gave me courage because they judged you too.” And Britney was very moved by it.
One time this 14-year-old boy named David came in—this was on the Circus tour—he wrote Britney this letter that he was struggling because he was gay and having mental health issues. He had attempted suicide. He expressed his love for her in this message, that as a kid, he had a lunchbox with her on it. And none of the kids would eat with him, so he would pretend to eat with Britney. In this letter, he wrote that her message made him want to live.
Felicia said that he gave her the letter and left. Britney read it and started crying and sent Felicia to get his address. Then Britney wrote him a letter back, and proceeded to write him every year. And she gave him tickets to come back. He said that he came back for the meet & greet, and said “If no one else ever says they’re proud of you, know that I’m proud of you.”
And this was in Vegas when she’d been under conservatorship. So it’s confusing to hear these cognisant, emotional stories about how she’s helping another person. And then she’s in this system designed for people who don’t know how to act in their own best interests. I think she’s made a really strong connection in a way that’s different from Gaga or Madonna. It’s a you got so judged. You’re so vulnerable. It’s more of a camaraderie.
That’s very interesting. You mention Madonna & Gaga, both of whom have stood up for their queer fanbase. Britney’s fans, listening to you tell this story…it’s almost like they don’t identify with Britney. They identify as Britney on some level.
I don’t know what that says.
I totally agree. It’s hard for me to understand fan culture. I feel like I’m not a big fan of somebody. Every piece I ever do, I want to identify with everyone in it. So I thought so much about how to identify as a fan. I think that all these things you say, and this idea that she was sold as your best friend—it’s like [fans] are fighting for themselves also.
Interesting. That also begs the question: the #FreeBritney movement—the strange theories that have emerged from this about her sending coded messages in Instagram posts—first, is there any credence to these theories? And what is it about Britney Spears and her situation that lends itself to conspiracy theories?
First, I wouldn’t describe them as “conspiracy theories.”
That’s fair. Why so?
I think “conspiracy theory” is a statement that lets you not take something seriously. It’s outlandish. A lot of the stuff that [#FreeBritney activists] are concerned about is stuff that they find in actual legal documents. This is also putting a lot of scrutiny on the conservatorship system.
I also think that we don’t know what Britney wants. There’s such a tight circle around her. Because of the conservatorship, we can’t ask her. As a journalist, I have been trying to figure out what she thinks about all this, what’s true, and what’s not. And now I find myself checking her Instagram daily. There’s no other way to see her.
In the documentary, Joe Coscarelli says he’s never interviewed Britney Spears. Which is shocking for a pop music reporter. He used to interview everybody. I’ve heard that since the For the Record documentary in 2009, she hasn’t done an interview that wasn’t closely watched. I uncovered many stories that say her team has to have final cut over what goes out. And at The New York Times, we haven’t interviewed her because we won’t agree to those terms.
Can’t blame you for that one.
At this point, nobody is interviewing her at all. So it lends itself to all these theories because we can’t ask her.
That’s true. Now, you say you’ve become a Britney fan over the course of making the film. How did that emerge? When did you realize you’d fallen in love with her?
I mean, from the stories that I’ve heard from all these people that have known her, I love the idea that she was rebelling the entire time, and that part of the reason she rose to fame was because of this strength she was presenting. I love that she’s vulnerable all the time. I love that she’s one of the only people you hear about who doesn’t talk sh*t about other people. But, 100%, the biggest thing is the stories I heard about her relationship with her queer fans.
Framing Britney Spears airs on FX and streams on HULU February 5.