Director of Britney Spears documentary opens up about ‘huge internal conflict’

Britney Spears in 2015.
Britney Spears arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2015.
(Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s June 23. I’m Justin Ray.

Britney Spears does not make many public appearances these days. Social media has been the only way her ardent supporters have been able to see updates on her life. That’s why Wednesday is a big day for the singer: Spears will make a rare virtual address to a Los Angeles court in an attempt to leave her highly publicized conservatorship. She hasn’t addressed the court since a hearing in a closed courtroom on May 10, 2019.

Since 2008, when she was committed to a psychiatric ward twice, she has been under the legal guardianship of her father, lawyers and a care manager. The conservatorship enables the elder Spears to negotiate business on his daughter’s behalf, sell property and control whom she can see. Other celebrities who have recently had similar guardianships include Casey Kasem and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

What makes Spears’ arrangement so unusual is that conservatorships are usually set up for older people, often with dementia, who lack the ability to make informed decisions or physically take care of themselves. Since being under legal oversight, Spears has produced four albums and gone on as many world tours. Fans who believe the arrangement is exploitative have adopted a hashtag and rallying cry: #FreeBritney. Even politicians have been galvanized to explore potential reforms for conservatorships.

Their chants have grown thanks to the Hulu documentary “Framing Britney Spears.” It follows Spears from her meteoric rise to her public unraveling. It acts as both a documentary and a cultural criticism, highlighting how celebrity media has mistreated women. Justin Timberlake, Diane Sawyer, Sarah Silverman and others were criticized for past comments and interactions with the singer. A post on Spears’ Instagram account appeared to react to the documentary.

The New York Times’ Samantha Stark directed the documentary. She is also one of three bylines on a story revealing new details about the singer’s conservatorship, including the fact that Spears had questioned her father’s fitness for the role as early as 2014. We talked to Stark about the new report, the documentary’s reception, and how she felt about covering the singer without her participation. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Let’s start with the new report. What is the most surprising detail?

For so long, the public perception of this conservatorship has been that she never tried to get out of it, and that she seemed comfortable with it because we never publicly heard her ask to terminate it. And so when we found these court documents, it really told such a strikingly different story: The idea that she would be asking consistently over many years to get out of it, communicating to the court that she’s been afraid of her father for a long time. She’s wanted him not to be in charge for a long time. It’s so opposite of what they present to the public and also a pretty opposite of what the court is supposed to do in a conservatorship. It really turned a lot of these assumptions totally on their head.

How did the Hulu documentary come to be?

I work for the New York Times and we make our documentaries really collaboratively. So we have this new series on FX and Hulu: “New York Times presents.” We pull a lot of topics from stories in the newsroom and stories that we’re doing our own reporting on. The idea actually came from Liz Day, who appears in the film. Her original pitch was “O.J.: Made in America,” but for Britney Spears. She really felt like we could look back on all the media coverage of Britney through the lens of today and see how misogynistic it was and how so many things that we would think are inappropriate today were so normal that people didn’t even realize it was happening back then. So that’s where we started.

When the film had just started being discussed, a bunch of journalists and friends and I were thinking, wow, we’re really surprised the New York Times was doing this, just because (1), it’s not a local story and (2), it’s not exactly something that you all do: analyze a pop star’s career.

Yeah, that’s the thing about it. It’s not analyzing a pop star’s career. We treated it the way we would treat any New York Times story, which is finding resonance for the world and what’s in the public interest. And there’s two huge things that are happening here: We’re looking back at this media coverage and realizing that the way we treated women back then has affected all of us. And then also we’re talking about the justice system. The conservatorship system is part of our court system. There really seems like there’s a lot of places for huge conflicts of interest in the system.


Conservatorships are called guardianships in places outside California. And it’s so unregulated that we actually don’t know how many people are in conservatorships in the U.S. There’s an estimate that it could be more than a million people. So in a way, the story of Britney Spears is a huge story of so much going on in our culture.

When I was making the documentary, I really wanted it not to be a story about a celebrity. I wanted it to be a story that could happen to anybody. I’m the same age as Britney. And it was enraging to me watching this media coverage and realizing the way that they humiliated her and belittled her was so acceptable and was teaching me and my peers that it was OK. I think in that way, it’s definitely not a story about a celebrity.

You didn’t have her participation in the documentary. Did that influence how you put the film together?

Oh, a lot. Because of the conservatorship system, there’s been a very tight circle of people around Britney that’s impenetrable, and so even if we wanted. ... I mean, I wanted desperately to get her consent to do this.

We asked everybody we could find. You can’t just call Britney Spears. I’ve been in this business for a while and normally if I call someone, if I want to talk to a famous person, I’ll call their publicist and say, I’m from the New York Times. And they talk to me and they’ll usually say yes or I’ll ask them. And this was not like that at all. We went through the normal channels: publicists, managers. We went through trying to find people who were friends, family members, neighbors, everybody, and we still don’t know if the message ever got to her. That’s really scary. And it was a huge internal conflict for me.

I think maybe people who often cover celebrities or politicians are maybe a little more used to doing stories about people without their consent or participation but I had never done that before. And so it kept me up many nights, trying to figure out if we were doing the right thing. What we landed on — which is true also with [the new story] in a way — is that we were never going to guess what was in Britney’s head, and I think so many people want to guess what’s in her head all the time.

We had a spreadsheet with over a thousand people that we were calling to try to get interviews for the film. And if somebody wanted to give us their philosophical college thesis on what was psychologically happening with Britney Spears, we didn’t want to interview them. We wanted people who could tell us what they experienced from their own perspective, if they were there, or people who can analyze how our culture was treating her. And so in that way, I kind of felt like it ended up being something I could live with. And it felt like it was in the public interest as well, which is a big part of our journalism.

There were posts on Britney Spears’ Instagram account that appeared to discuss the documentary. What did you make of those?

You know, it bothers me a lot when people say ‘she said this’ — and it’s been reported in a lot of outlets in a way like they sat down with Britney and she told them that. And that’s something we never did at the New York Times. We would always say a statement posted to her Instagram account, because we didn’t hear it firsthand. There are so many restrictions on Britney. I mean, so many restrictions down to the color of her cabinet, which is something that appeared in our new article.

It would be questionable to me whether she was running an account that speaks to millions of people around the world herself, particularly because we know from these sealed court documents that she has been saying something for years, and it was always closed and sealed by people who are not her. So it would be surprising to me if she was allowed to do this.

It’s just hard for me to imagine people reporting her Instagram as if she is physically sitting in the room telling that to them. I think it’s very irresponsible. Also, the day that that was posted, the first one that was posted about the documentary was coincidentally the day where court records were released to the public that showed her father paying almost a million dollars for lawyers to defend him against Britney’s wishes and instead of the headline being about that, it was about Britney says she doesn’t like the documentaries, same day.

Justin Timberlake
Justin Timberlake is seen in this red carpet photo.
(Angela Weiss / AFP / Getty Images)

Justin Timberlake apologized and so did Sarah Silverman. Did you imagine something like that would happen from the documentary?

I did not. I was actually super surprised because Justin Timberlake played such a tiny part, like he was only in it for such a short amount of screen time. And we actually did that on purpose because a lot of the coverage before this was really like capturing Britney’s life based on the boyfriends. And we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to see how we could tell the story without them.

So I was surprised that that short amount of coverage of him got picked up. But I do think it was very surprising that this written statement was released to his social media accounts. Something that moved me the most, though, was how #WeAreSorryBritney was trending through social media after the documentary. I found it very moving that regular people were taking a look at their own complacency when, their own complicity in consuming this media coverage, making jokes about her and laughing at jokes about her. It was extremely touching to realize that we were able to reframe her in that way for a general audience.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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A record-setting walk. Two brothers from San Francisco say they have set a record for the longest highline ever walked in Yosemite National Park and the state. Earlier this month, Moises and Daniel Monterrubio spent nearly a week stringing a single line, 2,800 feet in length, from Taft Point west across a series of gullies that plunge as deep as 1,600 feet. “It was pretty intense and dangerous. But we made it happen,” Monterrubio said. Los Angeles Times

An important body of water. Diamond Valley Lake in Riverside County is the largest storehouse of water in Southern California. The reservoir is 4½ miles long and 2 miles wide and holds nearly 800,000 acre-feet of water — so much that it would take 20,000 years to fill it with a garden hose. It’s a body of water that “Southern California can tap into in the event of a major disaster and in dry times like we’re in right now,” said regional chief of operations for the Metropolitan Water District. Los Angeles Times

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Today’s California memory comes from Winfred Van Wingerden:

As a boy of 12 in April 1967, we came over with four families from the Netherlands. My dad had been told by a friend in his home country in the early 1950s that if he was going to immigrate to America to be sure to visit the Golden State. In 1965, Dad and his two brothers and the wives all visited the Land of Opportunity and were so impressed with the quality of life and the climate that they purchased 26 acres for flower growing in Carpinteria. Our lives were forever changed when we started our journey here in paradise.

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