'Framing Britney Spears' Doc Explores The Pop Star's Battle For Freedom
By James Dinh
February 5, 2021
13 years ago to this week, Britney Spears' personal troubles seemingly came to an unexpected halt when she was placed under a four-day conservatorship. Now, at 39, the pop titan's court-ordered guardianship is still in place and she's pushing back to have the conditions changed. The battle against the extended legal restraints over her person and estate is explored in a new documentary titled Framing Britney Spears, which premieres on FX and FX on Hulu on Friday (February 5) at 10/9 PM ET.
The 75-minute film, which features some of the pop superstar's personal and professional confidants, sees Spears' life — both personally and professionally — deconstructed to further understand the curious and complicated nature of her conservatorship. Almost entirely disregarding her accolades and pop catalog, the doc uses archival interview footage and members of her inner circle to shed light on her trajectory from aspiring small town entertainer to worldwide phenomenon, all while revisiting how the media treated her along the way. As her star grew brighter, so did the light on Britney's personal life, exploiting her sexuality upon entry to the scene, villainizing her over the fallout from her Justin Timberlake breakup and positioning her as tabloid culture's enemy amid the birth of the internet. The film holds our culture responsible for its predatory treatment, building its way up to a well-vetted play-by-play of her decade-plus legal saga for everyone from the casual followers to the armed #FreeBritney advocates. Under the court-appointed set-up, her father, Jamie Spears, who has previously been regarded as the savior in this story, remains in control. He’s in charge of all decisions regarding her every day life, career and finances.
Up until late 2020, the entertainer had remained mostly quiet on the subject, but her court-appointed lawyer dropped a bombshell revelation in November. She wanted her father removed as conservator. "My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father," Samuel D. Ingham III told a judge. "She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career."
Ahead of its premiere, iHeartRadio spoke to Samantha Stark, the director and producer behind Framing Britney Spears, to learn about the film's creation, the bigger issues at play behind guardianship abuse and her personal thoughts on the #FreeBritney movement. Below, read our Q&A with Stark.
Let’s start out with the title, Framing Britney Spears. It’s poignant and immediately sets up the film. How did you come up with it?
I came up with it at the very beginning when we started because I feel like the title can mean many things. There are these two images that I feel have traveled with Britney for so much of her career, which are the still frames of her shaving her head and her holding that umbrella up in the air. [I] wanted to know what was happening outside those still frames and we wanted to know how so many people seeing those images may have affected her then and now.
If you'll notice in the piece, we have these backdrops that kind of look like hedge walls with flowers. You're not exactly sure if those are real or fake and then at several points throughout the film, we pull out and show you that that wasn't what you thought it was. It's a set. We pull out and show you what's outside of the frame we're showing you. I think that the whole thing is about how people frame Britney, how they frame her story, how they frame what she needs, how they frame what's in her best interest, how they frame who she is and we're doing that, too.
When did you first learn about Britney's conservatorship?
I don't quite remember. I think it was probably through some headline about Free Britney in 2019. I didn't know. I was not a longtime Britney fan or a person who had been following this. I'm so happy I did and then learned so much about it and then [to] come from that perspective as the viewer who maybe doesn't know anything about what's been happening. I think a lot of people, myself included, were shocked to learn that she was in a conservatorship and what that means in a place where somebody else is making her medical decisions for her and decisions about where she lives, what happens with her money, what contracts she enters into, who she sees, who comes to visit. Her father, for most of the conservatorship, can decide if she has 24/7 security around her and who they are [and] signing for her every kind of business deal.
I guess that's so surprising to a lot of people because she is living the life of a busy pop star, bringing in millions of dollars while that's all happening. There's this central contradiction and mystery running throughout the piece. How can someone live the life of a really successful pop star and have us be told that she's at risk constantly [and] that she cannot act in her own best interest? Conservatorships are made for people who can't act in their own best interests generally. That's why it's mostly for elderly people with Alzheimer's.
What's wild about the Free Britney movement is that it's such a massive pop culture story that's notoriously unreported on — up until recently. As a storyteller, what do you make of that?
I think it's really easy to dismiss fan culture. I think that's because a lot of fan culture is associated with teenage girls and this idea that there's these screaming 12-year-olds makes it very easily dismissible. I also think that there is a way that the words "conspiracy theory" have been used to make it be that people aren't paying attention to them. It's really easy to use the words "conspiracy theory," but to weaponize them and to make it whoever you call a conspiracy theorist, it's automatically like a signal that you don't need to listen to them.
I think that's dangerous because a lot of these people are bringing up legitimate questions about the conservatorship system that are important to look at. I think also people kind of dismiss Britney Spears. A lot of people have this idea that she was just this puppet who was all controlled by music executives and she's dumb. We even have this headline "Bimbo Summit" with her hanging out with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. It's ingrained in our heads that Britney is someone who you shouldn't listen to because she doesn't know what she's talking about, which I find so dismissive. In doing the project and talking to so many people, realizing that that is totally not true. She had a lot of control over herself and her image, especially at the beginning of her career. She herself was a huge reason why she was so successful. I think people just automatically think it couldn't be true.
The New York Times explored her legal arrangement in a lengthy piece back in 2016. What was the correlation between that editorial and this most recent episode of the docuseries?
One of the coolest parts about making this docuseries is that it comes out of The New York Times newsroom, right? We put as much journalistic power behind reporting about Britney Spears, as we would about reporting Washington DC or any other kind of news story. We take it really seriously, which I think a lot of people are surprised to hear, at least from looking at social media. I think it's something that should be taken seriously because it has to do with our judicial system. It has to do with somebody that a lot of people care about. Millions of people care about her. There are bigger questions about how, as the media, we had treated her and about mental health and making people feel shame for their sexuality. These are big issues.
It was very exciting that we could work with the reporters who work at The New York Times. Now, I've worked at The New York Times for nine years. I used to do short documentaries. This was my first feature-length thing, and we had so much help from the reporters to get the story right. The first thing that we did was talk to Joe [Coscarelli] and Serge [F. Kovaleski], the two reporters who did that. They shared everything that they found out with us. It's really, really hard to report on this conservatorship because so many of the records are sealed, which for legitimate reasons. A lot have to do with healthcare. That's HIPAA. We can't release those and also she has minor children. That is a reason a lot of them are sealed. I think there's also other reasons a lot of them are sealed.
Relatively recently, Britney filed through her court-appointed attorney to not seal records. She said she didn't want this hidden away like a family secret, [which] was a very surprising quote from the documents. I think that Joe and Serge were the first mainstream media people to question the conservatorship. The headline was: "Is Britney Spears Ready to Stand on Her Own?" They talk about this fundamental question. Joe says this in the piece. He's like, "A fundamental mystery: She's living the life of a busy pop star and yet we're told she's at risk constantly. Why?"
We started with that question. Liz Day, who was a Senior Editor at the time and appears in the piece, dove, really deep into investigating this. We spent all day, every day doing this. This is the story that came out of it. Liz had said it's the hardest story she's ever had to report on because so few people will talk and there's so few records available to look at. This piece definitely was informed by The New York Times reporting that came before it.
What other obstacles did you encounter in making the film?
So many obstacles. We had a spreadsheet with hundreds and hundreds of names on it and we called everybody and very few people wanted to talk to us at all. We just had quite a number of off the record phone calls, and then you would have to convince off the record phone calls to be on the record phone calls and then on the record phone calls to be people who would show their face on camera. It was really challenging because there's this cone of silence around Britney that no one's talked about it for so many years. I think it was hard for people to want to be the first person. Also, there's a lot of NDAs that everyone around her has signed. There's a limit to how much people can say without something that might violate their NDA.
There's also this fact that the media has "burned" Britney so many times. If you are someone close to Britney and you've seen literally thousands of articles, videos and photos that are mean-spirited toward Britney and harming her, why would you think it's a good idea to talk more, you know? I think the biggest thing is that the family is in the middle of a legal battle right now. Nobody wants to talk because their lawyers tell them not to. I think it's standard for people not to speak to media outlets when they're in the middle of the court battle.
Joe Coscarelli also mentions that anyone who has interviewed Britney within the last 10 years or so has done so with careful watch from her handlers. As a longtime employee of The New York Times, can you elaborate on that?
We have very high standards for what we will print. One of our big things in our ethical policy is that we do not let anybody look at the piece before it publishes or airs. We've heard from many journalists within The New York Times and also outside The New York Times that in order to interview Britney, her team might have to ask for final cut, [so] that they could watch the piece and decide what should be taken out and they read the piece and decide what should be taken out [and] that questions have to be submitted beforehand and that they can pick and choose what questions are asked. As a journalist, that completely negates your interview because you want to know the truth from the person. In no world, would we let somebody have final cut over the piece, but we don't send our questions beforehand either and certainly wouldn't let somebody pick which questions to ask the person. It feels like, in part, because of the conservatorship, they have the ability to do this. Everything is under a really tight watch from this team. That is part of the court-sanction legal situation she's in.
Her former assistant, Felicia Culotta, makes it clear that she was not rehired to be around Britney in the same capacity as she was previously. What do you make of her transition back into Britney’s world after she entered the legal restraints?
It's hard to describe her relationship to Britney. She's someone that has been in Britney's life for almost her whole life. She left and wasn't working for her for a short-ish time around the 2007, 2008 period when Britney was leading up to her conservatorship. Besides that, Fe has been working for her pretty consistently. I think that she was offended that she wasn't hired by Britney's company. She says, "The Britney company wouldn't hire me back," and that's the Britney Spears brand. Britney Spears is a brand that makes tons and tons of money and is what's the thing that puts Britney's face on t-shirts and everything, but also it's Britney's name.
Fe was hired by the touring company to get these backstage tours. She can't talk too much about it because of her NDA, but I think she felt like if there wasn't a conservatorship, she would have been hired back in her position close to Britney. There's no way to know if that's true or accurate, but I think Fe felt like it would be different without the conservatorship.
The film does a really good job at reflecting on how the media handled Britney in relation to how our culture shape-shifted over the years. How important was it for you to include that element in the film's narrative?
I think very important. To me, the way that the media treated her and that we consumed her must affect today, right? That's the way that we all see her, first of all. Like, "Is she crazy? Is she too sexual?" Any of these questions that people have was based off of images they saw in the media. We show in the film all these behind the camera images of the paparazzi following her around and you really realize how invasive that was and how trapped she felt in her home, which I've heard her say in the past. I think it's valuable to know that when you're looking at those images of her shaving her head or her holding that umbrella, [you know] that the whole world saw and made assumptions about. We tried to pull out outside of the frame of the images to show you there was a lot more going on. She was in the middle of a custody battle.
Weeks after she gives birth to her second child, there's paparazzi taking upskirt photos of her. It's so shocking to watch the stuff. That was the original pitch of the project because the court filings hadn't started coming out yet when we first started it. We had watched this footage of Diane Sawyer seemingly shaming her sexuality. Looking at the footage, you realize how prevalent it was and how much nobody stopped it or made an outcry over. For example, Justin Timberlake, making a video where the visuals show him doing what looks like stalking Britney into her home and watching her shower. We remember that that happened, but when you look at it now, it shows us how far we've come, but we can't forget that that's where we came from. We saw what happened to Britney. She took the brunt of all of that. When you look at how disgusting that was, I think she made it easier for other people.
The film closes with a list of people who decided not to participate in the film, but it excludes her business manager, Lou Taylor. Taylor is mentioned in Lynne’s book as the creator of sorts for the conservatorship. Where is she in all of this?
Lou Taylor, you can say was Britney's business manager, but since it was after the conservatorship happened, her father and Andrew Wallet, who was the full conservator for her estate, were the ones that were entering into business deals. You can say that she was their business manager in a way. [She] recently resigned, which was I think surprising for a lot of the public, like someone who had been her business manager for so long. It is unclear to us and to the public, why and what was happening. She said she was getting death threats and there were a lot that were attached to the court filing. I hope that the film opens up questions about everyone who was involved in Britney's conservatorship or working with her post-conservatorship. There's a lot more to look into there, but from a story that we were telling, there wasn't a lot to include that was journalistically sound.
We end the film with a lot of thematic roses like the backdrop to the confessionals and the Instagram footage. What’s the alignment of this and what Britney has been hashtagging as the #RoseProject?
We did have the rose wall made before that started happening. I was so surprised when she started writing that. When we say that these people had all declined, we tried to contact them every way possible, through every outlet, through their lawyers, through their managers, through their friends whose numbers we found by digging around through everybody. I had been sending people photos and stuff of our background to be like, "Oh, show this to Britney. She might like it."
When she started the Project Rose thing, I was like, "Is she going to meet with us? What's happening, I'm so confused." If you look at Britney's Instagram, it's covered in roses, so it was supposed to be a reference to Britney's Instagram. There's a particular rose post video that we feature in a piece that is my favorite Britney Instagram video because it's just so interesting the way that she speaks about it.
We had to film outside because we followed all COVID-19 rules. This whole thing happened during the pandemic. Every shoot we had, we filmed outside. I wanted it to be motivated that we were filming outside [and] not just randomly filming outside. I wanted it to reflect for Instagram because so many of her posts have this greenery and flowers all around them and the California sun. There's just such a large amount of roses all throughout if you scroll through her feed. If you watched the piece, the Free Britney fans are people who consider themselves Free Britney activists. They are in front of the wall that's covered in roses. That was to differentiate them from the other people who were interviewed, who had greenery with different colored flowers more sparsely behind them.
What is your personal take on Britney's supposed secret messaging that she's sending through social media?
My opinion on that changes every day. I've looked at every post since 2015 of hers. I spent a few weekends doing that. I think it's hard to tell because we know that Britney's communication is limited by the conservatorship. We've heard that it's limited by her team through other journalists. I've heard through journalists I know. It feels like that's her only communication with us. There's this black box around her. You can't just ask Britney how she feels about the conservatorship, so I totally understand why everyone is wondering what her posts mean. It's the only thing you get to see that could maybe tell you, so I don't know.
Do you feel Britney will get liberation and freedom one day to share her own story?
I cannot say that or if it would be called liberation or freedom or anything, but I will say that Felicia thinks she will. Felicia says she knows she'll cover her story one day and Felicia knows her way better than I do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo: Getty Images