“The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears” portrays the pop icon’s life and fame through a modern lens.
For the last 13 years, Britney Spears has been locked away in a metaphorical tower of “voluntary” conservatorship, the singer’s freedom of choice was removed by her father — he claims it was for her own well-being — while she works to her family’s benefit. The documentary, streaming via FX on Hulu, examines the circumstances surrounding the unusual legal arrangement through a present-day perspective, and has led viewers to realize we, the public, are the menace, tormenting the young singer with cruel gossip and ridicule.
The documentary landed at a time when Americans are scrutinizing the entertainment industry and the patriarchy in a time not so long ago, in a land not so far away. On the day of its release, #WeAreSorryBritney began trending on Twitter, with both public figures and private citizens acknowledging their complicity. “I don’t think any of us anticipated the size and intensity of the reaction,” says executive producer Mary Robertson, who was shocked that no one deflected blame. “I have never seen that happen before.”
Prior to the film, senior story editor Liz Day recognized how #MeToo was changing attitudes and made her pitch: “‘O.J.: Made in America’ but for Britney Spears.” “We could tell the singular story about Britney but come away with a greater understanding about society, wealth, power, family dynamics, gender and the media,” says Day.
Robertson sparked to it immediately. “I thought it was appealing and brilliant … just the idea that we could approach a subject matter that many had dismissed as being trivial with (journalistic) rigor,” the showrunner says. “And, hopefully, bring new understanding not only to Britney’s story, but of the culture that acted upon and shaped her.”
Production began while the #FreeBritney movement was building steam. “I came in thinking we’d be piercing a lot of misconceptions about Britney,” Day says. But then Spears filed paperwork to remove her father as conservator, finally breaking the assumption that everything was fine with the legal arrangement.
The documentary team had been warned they’d never crack the cone of silence surrounding the conservatorship. But once Spears’ legal challenge was public, director Samantha Stark says, “We realized, ‘Wow, this is another storyline we can go for.’”
Yet, even with the additional documents, the conservatorship remained an obstacle. “We talked to a lot of people on background,” says Stark. “It was very challenging to get people to appear on camera.”
With Spears’ life anchoring gossip websites and magazines for more than two decades, it took extra effort to discover what was real and what was not. Day says, “I was really shocked that I would talk to people who were incredibly close to the situation and claim to know XYZ. And, when you’d ask [how they know the information], they’d reveal, ‘Oh, well, I read it [online].’”
Every claim in the film, including archival video, was fact-checked for accuracy, Robertson says. “[There’s] a degree of meticulousness that not everyone is able to afford or achieve, and I’m proud we were able to do that,” she says.
Some of those old clips revealed media behaving in ways that would not be acceptable today but were common just a decade ago: A late-night host calling a young woman a slut; male interviewers asking a teen girl if she’s a virgin; a well-respected female journalist asking what Britney “did” to bring on a revenge music video from her famous ex-boyfriend. The clip stacking provided the audience with evidence that institutional misogyny was widespread during the aughts.
Yet replaying the clips risked inflicting more damage on Spears. “It felt like a lot of Britney being treated horribly over and over again,” says Stark. She says editing wasn’t just tight, but also sensitive. “We had to figure out how to make a story where you saw enough to understand the points, but not so much where it felt egregious, and not so much that it would retraumatize Britney and her family,” she adds.
Clarity in delivering the facts was also essential for the documentary with no narration. Day, who at the time was eight months pregnant, with no real on-camera experience, reluctantly agreed to be interviewed for the doc, offering the timeline and the facts. It hadn’t been part of the plan, but she’d become the best available expert on Spears’ conservatorship. “We had more in our notebook than anyone else had, or that was out there in archival.”
Interviews were conducted outdoors in accordance with COVID-19 protocols, creating an additional challenge for re-recording mixer Brian Bracken. Not only was he tasked with subduing the sound of leaf blowers, planes and trucks backing up from the location, he had to seamlessly blend it with a plethora of old footage — some of it coming from old VHS tapes — along with orchestral music.
Editors Geoff O’Brien and Pierre Takal worked with composer John E. Low to create the score, which was used sparingly for effect. “We wanted something that sounds opposite of her music,” says Stark. “And then this haunting score came out.”
The film’s impact goes beyond learning how conservatorship works; it’s a hammer strike aimed at demolishing the way celebrities have been covered by the media for centuries and the public’s role in accepting mean-spirited reportage. Day notes, “We have this shift viewing celebrities as having feelings too and being more thoughtful about relishing in their struggles.”
When they started production, it was “universally OK” to mock Britney Spears, says Stark. “My proudest accomplishment with this film is that it feels like it’s not OK to make fun of her,” she says.