Rumors that Netflix was at work on a Britney Spears documentary had been swirling around for years — not through buzz in the industry, but on Twitter where #FreeBritney fans were hard at work speculating about the project.
On Tuesday, the hotly anticipated project, dubbed “Britney vs Spears,” finally dropped — the third documentary to do so in as many days. Like The New York Times’ “Controlling Britney Spears” and CNN’s hourlong special report, “Toxic: Britney Spears’ Battle For Freedom,” both of which aired over the weekend, Netflix focuses mostly on the pop star’s controversial conservatorship.
The Britney documentary craze began this past February when The New York Times debuted its first doc on FX and Hulu, “Framing Britney Spears,” which has been widely credited for catapulting the singer’s conservatorship case into the sphere of public interest. But Netflix’s project from filmmaker Erin Lee Carr had been in the works long before. The over-saturation over Spears-centric programming was unplanned.
“When the film started, Erin was trying to understand what was going on with Britney Spears, at a moment when people weren’t really asking that question, except for a very small group of super devoted fans,” executive producer Dan Cogan tells Variety, speaking just hours after the doc launched Tuesday on Netflix.
When Carr started to work on the film, two-and-a-half years ago, her initial intent was to explore both the media portrayal of Spears and the conservatorship under which the superstar was being held. But as time went on and more information began to pour out about Spears case, Carr was obtaining new information.
“She kept getting more and more sources coming to her and sharing details of what has turned out to be an extraordinarily unjust process with this conservatorship and the way that it’s been handled,” says Cogan, the Academy Award-and Emmy-winning producer.
In “Britney vs Spears,” the singer’s conservators are exposed for severe allegations of misconduct, including forcing the star to work against her own will, and increasing the medication she was forced to take while working. By Spears’ own testimony, she has described her situation as “conservatorship abuse.” In response to the doc, the star’s attorney, Mathew Rosengart — who is currently fighting for the immediate suspension of Spears’ father, Jamie Spears — says that the film corroborates that “Jamie Spears is toxic to the well being of Britney and she deserves to be free.”
The filmmakers hope that Spears will watch their documentary, though they’re not sure if she has yet. However, a recent post on the singer’s Instagram account has spoken out against the recent influx of documentaries — but fans question whether Spears wrote the caption herself, and the Britney Army has had contrasting opinions on the slew of projects portraying the star: some are in favor of the docs exposing allegations against her conservators, while others say they are capitalizing off of Spears’ story, without her participation financially and in telling her own story.
Cogan speaks to Variety about the film’s intent and what he hopes “Britney vs Spears” accomplishes for audiences.
How did your work on the doc evolve over more than two years and while the conservatorship case was attracted increased scrutiny?
We started making a film that was equal parts about the conservatorship and also the cultural phenomenon that was Britney. We found a link between those two things, which was straight men framing and controlling Britney through a certain kind of lens, whether it was sexualizing her when she was a child, or controlling her and her revenue as an adult, and not letting her be whoever she wanted to be herself. As that story evolved over time and as there became more public awareness that she was stuck in this conservatorship, seemingly against her will, our focus began to shift to investigate that, more than exploring the cultural phenomenon of Britney. As time went on, the film began more and more journalistic and investigative.
Britney’s most devoted fans have emerged as investigative sleuths of their own. Did that add pressure for you and the production?
Whenever you’re doing a film about a story that’s already out there in the world, you feel an enormous amount of pressure to get the story right and to be sure that you can answer questions that have already been exposed by that interest. We worked really hard to uncover details and also a perspective that hadn’t been out there, so that we can say something new.
Can you explain your efforts to try to get access to Britney, and whether she’s aware of this documentary?
We reached out to Britney and to her representatives many, many times — multiple times over many years, both under the previous conservator and the current conservator. I think for a lot of reasons, they felt it wasn’t appropriate for her to comment. But as you see in the doc, her current lawyer Mathew Rosengart, made a statement to us for the record that is the final card in the film, saying that the film corroborates the worst abuses in the conservatorship that they are aware of We wanted very much for her to be able to speak, but her representatives didn’t feel it was appropriate. And I completely understand that, given that her primary goal has to be her own dealing with the injustices with the conservatorship herself and taking care of her children, as it should be.
For years now, it’s been near impossible to get a media request to her with how tightly controlled she is by this conservatorship.
We spoke to many, many people who were close to Britney and in current contact with her, and we did have multiple conversations with her current representatives, including Mathew Rosengart. I would let Erin get into exactly who she spoke to. I don’t think that’s my place to say.
There has been a debate over whether it’s appropriate for the media to repurpose old imagery of Britney when covering her story, particularly photos and video from when she shaved her head. Can you discuss the conversations that went into the decision over what imagery to use?
We specifically chose not to include a lot of that imagery that she has talked about publicly being triggering for her making her really unhappy to see out there in the world again. We didn’t use any of that imagery. Our goal was to investigate the conservatorship and the cobweb of the people running the conservatorship. It wasn’t to investigate Britney. And it wasn’t to show those moments that she’s talked about never wanting to look at again. It was really to focus on the conservatorship and what it was doing to her, so that’s where we focused our visual imagery. You also see that Erin used an enormous amount of imagery with the paparazzi hounding her, chasing her, and I think the goal there was to try to understand the unrelenting pressure that she was put under and the way in which she has been preyed upon so many people.
There has been an influx of documentaries about Britney with three separate projects launching just this week. Do you think that these projects are helping Britney, or are they capitalizing off of her story without her getting any piece of them?
I have two answers for that question. I think the more facts about the conduct of this conservatorship that can get out in the public domain, the better. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and showing what happened in this conservatorship, I think is incredibly important — not just for Britney’s case, but for what appears to be abuse of a conservatorship in the California system more broadly.
When we made our film, the goal was to speak from the fan’s point of view about a situation that looked terrible for her, and trying to understand how it happened and to expose injustices that were present there. That was Erin’s goal from the very beginning, and I think it’s important to note that in Erin’s case, two years ago, before anyone except the most extreme Britney fans were really talking about this. Sometimes films take a very long time, particularly in this case, it was so difficult to get people to talk because there was so much fear of the conservatorship and the people that were running it that it took a while to get it going.
So, it may seem that this film is coming out now, amidst all this noise, but in fact, this was an effort that started a long, long time ago out of an enormous amount love and respect for Britney and an attempt to understand this injustice that has been done to her.
How does this doc differentiate itself from other recent Britney projects?
We felt that a lot of the work that had been out there already had been journalistic, but it didn’t have the emotional worth that Erin wanted to bring to it, as a childhood fan and as someone who adored Britney as an entertainer, and as someone who was trying to understand what was happening to a heroine of hers. That was a kind of perspective that we wanted to bring that we hadn’t seen yet.
A legal letter was sent from a lawyer representing Lou Taylor, Britney’s former business manager who has been accused of conservatorship abuse, along with Jamie Spears, who has emerged as the primary villain of the conservatorship. Do you hope that the film generates a conversation about everyone involved in the conservatorship — not just Jamie?
I hope that this film and the other projects on Britney expose the actions of all of those who were acting in unethical ways around this conservatorship, whoever they may be.
What do you hope the film accomplishes?
I hope that this film can help educate people on the reality of her case, the extent to which she has tried to fight the conservatorship for many, many years and was not permitted to do so, even though the conservatorship says that is not the case. It clearly is the case that she wasn’t allowed to speak, so I hope this helps get some of those facts out there and also helps educate her fans on exactly what was happening because they all want to know why this person who they love and adore is not allowed to live the life she wants to life.
Do you have any indication on whether Britney has seen the documentary, or if she plans to watch it?
Do you hope that she watches it?
I do. I hope that she does watch it.