When “Framing Britney Spears” was released earlier this year, the pop star’s world was much different.
Before the New York Times-produced documentary launched on FX and Hulu this past February, Britney Spears had not yet testified publicly in court. Her father, Jamie Spears, appeared to have complete confidence in his role as conservator of her estate, and the singer was not represented by her own lawyer.
Fast forward a few months, and Spears broke open the floodgates of her truth on June 23, when she addressed the judge to bring validity to what the #FreeBritney movement had been saying for years: she was being held against her will in a conservatorship that she called “abusive.”
Following that June hearing, Judge Brenda Penny granted Spears the ability to hire her own lawyer, Mathew Rosengart, and through a game of dominos falling throughout the summer, much of Spears’ team has radically changed and her father petitioned to terminate her conservatorship altogether.
The next steps will be determined at the September 29 hearing, but ahead of the significant court date, the New York Times is releasing a follow-up to their Emmy-nominated documentary, “Controlling Britney Spears,” which debuted on Friday night.
“Controlling Britney Spears” exposes shocking allegations from those who’ve worked close to the star throughout the years, and finally decided to come forward with horrifying accounts of Spears’ phone being monitored and her home being bugged.
Nearly anyone who worked with the star was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, the filmmakers tells Variety, so getting to Spears’ inner circle was near impossible. But after Spears testified in June, those who witnessed what they perceived to be unethical behavior in the conservatorship felt compelled to speak up.
“Britney speaking out in court was really the game changer, in terms of people saying they’re willing to break an NDA, or they felt it was important to speak,” says producer Liz Day of the New York Times.
“Controlling Britney Spears” did not begin shooting until after the singer’s testimony on June 23.
“Almost everyone we talked to had signed an NDA. That was a big concern,” says the documentary’s director, Samantha Stark, adding that those they spoke with were willing to take a risk because they believed their stories would back up Spears’ own testimony, and they wanted to help the star. “A lot of people who saw things were really intimated because they could see how much money these lawyers cost that were working for the conservatorship and they were thinking, ‘How could I ever go up against these people?'”
And when they finally did decide to speak, the allegations were explosive, bringing light to the dark life that has been allegedly forced upon one of the most famous celebrities in the world.
Here, New York Times journalists and filmmakers Liz Day and Samantha Stark speak to Variety about their second documentary and what they expect to come in the conservatorship case…
You tried to get in touch with Britney to interview her for this documentary. Do you have any idea if that request got to her?
Samantha Stark: It feels like so much is changing with the conservatorship, but at the end of the day, she’s still under the conservatorship. Her father is still in charge of her money. She still has a conservator of her person, which means there are still a lot of people who get to decide who she gets to interact with. You can’t call Britney up on the phone in the normal way you would get in touch with a celebrity like through a publicist or manager. We asked her lawyer and said we would like to interview her, but at the end of the day, there is ongoing litigation. Any lawyer would advise their client not to do an interview while that’s happening, so it’s not surprising that she wouldn’t be able to.
Did you ever hear from Jamie Spears or his legal team, after your first documentary?
Day: No. We reached out his legal team to ask for comment. Jamie has not tried to contact us, as far as we’re aware of.
After the first documentary, Britney Spears’ Instagram account posted that she was “embarrassed.” We still don’t know if Britney wrote that caption herself, but have you had any indication on how Britney feels about the work you are doing?
Stark: It’s so hard. There’s still such a tight circle around Britney because she’s still under the conservatorship, so we don’t know if she’s watched and what she thought about it. But if, in fact, she was embarrassed or upset about some of the images in the piece, I totally understand that because I think those photos should have never been taken in the first place. I can imagine why she would feel that way and I think she is totally justified to feel that way. We went back and forth on whether to include them, and we just felt we had to, in order to reframe them because that was the whole point of the first documentary.
You’re speaking specifically about the images of her in 2007 when she shaved her head and was hitting a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella because fans have taken issue with the documentary showing that imagery.
Stark: Something we are very proud of is that before the first doc came out, it was okay to make fun of those photos. And now, it’s not okay to make fun of those photos in our culture.
This documentary exposes some shocking allegations, like Britney’s phone being monitored and her house being bugged. What were you thinking when you discovered these things during your reporting?
Day: It was completely shocking. One of the reasons why it was so shocking is because we had heard rumors about this — people have speculated that her phone is bugged or her house is bugged, but no one really ever had proof. Security, in particular, was just a literal black box because no one knew what they did or how they operated. So, to have someone come forward with proof was so revealing and helps us understand how so much of what Britney said in court in June could be true. It’s hard to understand how that could happen to one of the most famous people on the planet.
Stark: A lot of people said, “Why wouldn’t Britney just say something? Or go on her Instagram and say something?” We are really starting to unravel how difficult that would have been, now that we know she had such an intense surveillance around her for all these years.
Can you elaborate on the proof that was provided to you by Alex Vlasov, who was the assistant to Britney’s head of security at Black Box, and come forward to you with allegations of Britney’s phone being monitored?
Day: He provided extensive proof and materials. He had examples and evidence of the text messages, which we had independently verified with the other parties that she was texting with. He described how he saved the copy of the audio recording [from her home]. We reviewed that audio to make sure it was authentic and accurate to what he was describing. He also showed some emails in the documentary. We also talked to other insiders who corroborated other things that he said.
You also spoke to Britney’s former head of wardrobe, Tish Yates, who said that Robin Greenhill of Tri Star was just as controlling as her father. What surprised you the most of her accounts?
Stark: She is one of the only people who was ever alone with Britney because she was in her dressing room at all of her shows, and she explained how this took a toll on Britney emotionally. Britney said in court that she felt like she would be punished and was worried that visits with her boys would be taken away, so when Tish told stories about witnessing those things, that piece of the puzzle started to come into focus as well. What Tish was able to describe was a fear that she observed in Britney — and Britney has said herself that she felt scared.
Britney’s lawyer, Mathew Rosengart, has started numerous times that he will investigate Jamie Spears and the conservators for abusive conduct and financial mismanagement. Do you think this documentary will help expose those allegations?
Stark: Britney’s lawyer has called publicly to investigate them and investigate the money piece of it, so we’ll have to see. What we found in our reporting is that Jamie has been the public face of this conservatorship for so long, but there were a lot of other people behind the scenes who seemed to have power over Britney’s life, as well, and benefitted off of Britney. The more Britney was working, well, they make money when Britney works — and Tri Star Sports & Entertainment Group is her business manager, so as you see in the doc, they make money when Britney works.
You show court documents that were sealed, in which Britney said she wants out of the conservatorship. Did your team have discussions on whether or not to include those docs, since they are technically private matters?
Stark: We were very careful to only make things public that we felt were in the public interest, and we chose things that questioned whether this was legal and made us ask a lot of questions. We talked a lot about not invading Britney’s privacy just to invade her privacy.
Day: We were given those documents on purpose from someone who wanted them to be public and wanted us to report on them accurately and responsibly. The reason we felt they were in the public interest is because they revealed the truth of what has been going on behind closed doors, while the conservatorship had long maintained that everything is great and Britney is fine. Behind closed doors, she was waving a lot of those objections.
In 2019, Britney told the court that she wanted out of her conservatorship. Why do you believe the court didn’t start to take action until 2021 when she testified publicly?
Day: In June 2021, it was public and everyone heard and it could no longer be ignored or swept under the rug. Everyone was paying attention. The other thing that’s different about now is she was finally able to pick her own lawyer. Shortly after she spoke, she picked a new lawyer who is a former federal prosecutor, and less than two months after that, we’re looking at possible the end of the entire conservatorship.
Stark: I think a lot about what it must have felt like for Britney to say those things in 2019 and then to come back two years later and say that again. Imagine if you’re saying that you feel like you’re being abused or that you were forced into a facility, and the court doesn’t move to change anything. To come back two years later and say it again must take a lot of guts. There was a funny moment when the judge said something to the extent like, “Wow you’re so brave,” and Britney basically said, “I told you this two years ago.”
But what does it say about our justice system that the court didn’t take any steps until pressure was felt from the public, or until Britney got a high-powered lawyer? Isn’t the legal system supposed to protect us all?
Day: I think that’s really well put and it’s really concerning for all of the vulnerable people in conservatorships. It really makes you wonder how many people are in a similar situation and don’t have the money or the notoriety or the public attention on them.
Do you hope this second installment of your documentary makes changes to the conservatorship system?
Day: I’m really curious to see if it sparks a broader examination of the conservatorship system. One of the trickiest things with this story was figuring out whether some of this stuff is legal or not, like monitoring text messages and recording someone in a private place. That could be a violation of the law, but it’s really hard to know if the court was aware of this. Jamie and Britney’s security said that everything was in the bounds of the law, but we don’t know if that’s true. We spoke to conservatorship experts and we couldn’t really get a clear answer — people we spoke to thought that shouldn’t be legal, but the fact that we couldn’t say one way or the other because the records are sealed, I think is interesting and speaks a lot about the unknowns of conservatorships, in general.
What do you think will happen in court next week?
Day: I think the 29th is going to be a wildcard. I think it will be very interesting to see what the discussion is around Jamie and whether he has acted in Britney’s best interest, which is what the current argument is centered around.
Do you think Britney will be let out of her conservatorship?
Day: In terms of the conservatorship ending completely, I think it’s been a real roller coaster. Jamie’s position took an entire 180. It’s hard to know what will happen with that. According to Britney’s lawyer’s most recent statement, it seems they think it could end this fall, which is really soon.
What do you think the motivation is behind Jamie suddenly deciding he wants the conservatorship terminated? Based on your reporting, does that seem fishy?
Day: I think it’s impossible to look at that without the context — and the context is that Britney spoke in court and said she believes this conservatorship is abusive and wants her dad in jail. Then she gets a new lawyer who has said he plans to fully investigate and depose Jamie. Jamie has been saying, “I’m not stepping down and I’ve only acted in her best interest.” So, to first say that I’m willing to step down and then to say, ‘Okay, judge, why don’t you decide if we can dissolve this completely?'” It appears he’s saying that she needs my help. And then weeks later, he says she doesn’t need it. That stuck out to us. I think people can come to their own conclusion about what his intentions might be.
This documentary is not the only Britney-centric project coming out. Netflix also announced a Britney documentary, which is out on Sept. 28. Do you think that all of this Britney content and journalistic work is helping her case?
Stark: I tweeted that [our documentary always had this premiere date] because I didn’t want it to look like we were trying to undercut Netflix. We really did have it scheduled for this date, and it hurt my stomach when I found out the Netflix documentary was coming out because there definitely does not need competition among media. I say that because this has been going on for 13 years, there has been one narrative presented by one group of people — the conservatorship machine, who could speak freely — and we’ve heard that there was a lot of media that was able to be manipulated by the narrative of Britney’s conservatorship. There’s no way we could unpack 13 years and do justice in one or two documentaries. I’m really glad that Erin [Lee Carr] and Netflix are making theirs, as well, because I’m sure it will be completely different.
Do you plan to have more installments on Britney?
Stark: We want to cover this as long as possible and expose as much as we can. I’m very passionate to continue to report out this story. We’ll have to see what we gather and what happens in court.