How Doc Filmmaker Liz Garbus Became So Sought-After (Even Harry and Meghan Came Calling)
It’s been 25 years since she was Oscar-nominated for the acclaimed documentary 'The Farm: Angola, USA,' and in her career, the director has talked to death-row inmates, contributed to solving the Golden State Killer case and now helms TV and movies: “I’m grateful to bear witness.”
Twenty-five years ago, Liz Garbus pulled out her Cover Girl compact at the Oscars just before the winner of best documentary was announced. The Manhattan-raised filmmaker didn’t think her 1998 doc, The Farm: Angola, USA, which she co-directed with Jonathan Stack, would win, but wanted to be prepared. The caked powder spilled all over her gown. “As soon as they did not call us, I thought, ‘Phew, I don’t need to go up there with powder all over my dress,'” she says of the fleeting moment when losing felt like a blessing. “And then being like, ‘Wait, no,'” she recalls of the disappointment settling in.
Netflix vp original documentary features and series Adam Del Deo — then just an aspiring doc producer — kept close track of Garbus’ prolific career after seeing The Farm at the Sundance Film Festival. He was blown away by her deep curiosity and ability to tell incredibly complex stories in a cinematic way, as well as her knack for building trust with her subjects. Another of his favorites was her 2011 film, Bobby Fischer Against the World, about the infamous 1972 Cold War showdown between the American Fischer and Russian chess champion Boris Spassky. In 2013, upon joining Netflix, Del Deo helped commission the streamer’s first feature doc, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which would also earn Garbus an Oscar nomination for best feature doc following its release in 2015. “She’s one of the most remarkable documentarians that is working today,” he says.
Garbus has spent her career zeroing in on social justice, women’s issues, the First Amendment, true crime and intensely personal stories, among other topics. “I wanted people to see what my mom was actually like, and not a guarded version of herself. Liz was great in making that possible,” says Anderson Cooper of 2016’s Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper. Garbus, who is decidedly down-to-earth, was his first choice to direct.
Her knack for making the most nervous of subjects feel comfortable was once again clear when she helmed last year’s high-profile doc series Harry & Meghan for Netflix and Archewell, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s company. “While viewers came for the love story, or the hot gossip, they were able to stay for other provocative and important stuff, [such as] the history of colonialism,” Garbus says of the popular series.
Garbus’ curiosity has led her into new territory: scripted TV and movies. She’s directed episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, including the Emmy-nominated season four finale, upcoming episodes of Yellowjackets and Apple TV+’s City on Fire. She’s also prepping the Untitled Orphan Project starring Ellen Pompeo for Hulu and ABC Signature in her debut gig as a showrunner. And last, but hardly least, she runs the relatively young production shingle Story Syndicate with her husband, Dan Cogan. The company, based in New York City, where the couple lives, has more than 15 docs in the pipeline, including a nonfiction project about the Rust shooting.
Can you talk about your earliest experiences behind the camera?
My big hurrah was the last week of my senior year in high school, when I managed to bring this video camera my parents had bought into my school. Cameras weren’t as common at that time. I ended up making this film about my last week of school, about everybody misbehaving and being sad and the teachers and all the connections — and myself getting thrown out of class because people were annoyed.
Your father, Martin Garbus, is a famed civil rights attorney. Have any of his cases influenced you?
My father represented Kathy Boudin, who was part of the Weather Underground and part of the Brink’s robbery case. She was a highly educated young woman who had chosen to join this armed political movement. Kathy’s father was a civil rights lawyer named Leonard Boudin, and so it was sort of a mirror of what our own family could be. We were somewhat under siege during it because there was so much anger at them for the murder, of course. [The 1981 armored car heist resulted in the death of two police officers and a security guard; Boudin served 23 years for felony murder.] My family received death threats.
How did you come to make the The Farm?
I started working with Jonathan Stack, my co-director, and the director Beeban Kidron. She directed one of the Bridget Jones movies and a wonderful British drama called Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. She was coming to America to make a documentary, and I ended up working with her. And then she brought me along on To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. I was her assistant. It turned out that the costume designer on To Wong Foo, whose name was Marlene Stewart, had worked on the movie Dead Man Walking, which they shot in Angola [Louisiana State Penitentiary]. She had fallen in love with someone there. Through that, I started talking to these different guy inmates, the warden and everybody else at the prison.
How are you able to talk with people about the most difficult, intimate topics of their lives: Gloria Vanderbilt recounting the suicide of her son Wyatt in Nothing Left Unsaid, or Patton Oswalt speaking of his late wife, Michelle McNamara, in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark?
In those moments, I’m often feeling very grateful that I’m there to bear witness. My first directing gig for the Discovery Channel, I was talking to an inmate who was facing execution in two weeks. We’re two humans. He wants his story told. He wants that moment to matter. He wants to be understood. And I am a vessel for that. For me, that entails both chatting somebody up and making them feel super comfortable, as well as handling silence. I realized in that moment the power of that dialectic. And also just how much it meant to the other person to be able to share. He was a person who probably wasn’t going to be alive in 15 days. Now, clearly that’s very different in the case of Gloria and Patton, but it’s not. Because they’re talking about their loved ones. They’re talking about their trauma and wanting it to be understood, respected and treated with compassion. That’s really the kind of documentary I’ve sought. It’s not a Michael Moore-style doc.
Harry & Meghan was another case where you had to make them feel comfortable.
That project was very different from most of my career in that we partnered with Archewell, their company, to make this show. Harry had a lifetime of experience of sharing stories with media and feeling that they were twisted into something he could not recognize, and, of course, Meghan had a short but very violent experience of that. For them to exert some control over their own story felt OK, as long as the viewer is aware of that contract. It’s like if you’re making a documentary with re-creations, just let your viewer know that they’re re-creations.
You’ve been pressed on the issue of whether the Duke and Duchess of Sussex had final cut on Harry & Meghan; you’ve said it was a collaboration. Anything to add?
It was a collaboration, and on all levels that is true. If I wanted to push for something, I did. That’s exactly that sort of contract between filmmaking and viewer that I think is key so that your audience is aware that this is not an investigative documentary; it was something done in partnership with the principals.
Any misgivings about Harry & Meghan?
I have no regrets. I don’t know if it was the most watched doc series on Netflix ever, but it certainly was in the first few weeks. [Viewers] came for the love story, or the hot gossip, but were able to stay for other provocative and important stuff. To be able to discuss the history of colonialism with billions of people — when else are people going to pay attention to issues like this?
I believe you worked at Miramax during the heyday of the Harvey Weinstein era, following graduating from Brown University?
Yes, before I was Jonathan [Stack’s] assistant, I interned at Miramax. I don’t remember exactly how long it was but what I do remember about it is that I couldn’t get a chair. Nobody would give me a place to sit. I was sort of responsible for the phones and everyone’s extensions. And that kept me pretty busy. Every time someone would get fired or rehired, I would change out those little pieces of paper on people’s phones. And that kept me pretty busy, given the turnover there. But I just remembered not being able to get a goddamn place to sit.
Did you have any Harvey interactions?
There was one day that John Gordon, his assistant said, ‘Harvey would like to speak with you.’ And I walked into the office and I sat on the couch and he talked to me for a few minutes, and that was it. Nothing happened. All I remember is the silence. It felt like that room was hermetically sealed. That’s all I remember about it. And now thinking back, I’m like, ‘Oh, maybe it was soundproofed.’ I have no idea. But that’s all I remember about that meeting, how silent it was in his office. And then when you walked out into the main space, all the noise and hubbub.
How does your company, Story Syndicate, maintain quality control at a time when the demand for documentaries has resulted in concerns that some filmmakers cut corners as streamers look to fill their pipeline with one documentary series after another?
Well, we’re just doing what we do, I think. And we’re proud of everything we put out. I mean, our most recent title is Stolen Youth on Hulu. We’ve built enough good will and relationships with the executives of this world that we’re able to support the best documentary filmmakers. People who don’t respect the intent of their subjects just aren’t doing this for very long. I think that as long as we are honest with our audiences about what our practices are, we are going to be OK.
You were trained in a different era. What do you think the biggest difference is between today and 25 years ago?
Documentary series were such a rare animal at the beginning of my career. And now, of course, doc true crime series are everywhere. Back when I started, it was basically just HBO or PBS. And now it’s [also] Hulu, Showtime and of course Netflix. But this year we’re unfortunately seeing more contraction.
How has your experience as a documentary director influenced your work as an episodic director?
You’re always bringing your experience. From I’ll be Gone in the Dark, the experience I had working with those survivors was key to working on Handmaid’s Tale. That became this incredibly rich experience that I had with Elisabeth Moss, being able to direct her and take these incredible lessons from these survivors. And a lot of stuff that is not instinctive. Our reactions to trauma and our triggers from traumas are not always obvious at all. And being able to take some of those things that are so unique and surprising and work them into the scripted world is a really rich experience.
Do you see yourself shifting away from documentaries?
The ideal flow would be the kind that I’ve had in the past couple of years, which is doing both [docs] and scripted. I’ve worked on shows that I love, and that I feel like I can learn something new every time.
And then can you give us any hint as to what the final episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale will be like?
I know I’m working on the show, but I have no insight. They don’t tell me anything. I’ll have to get Bruce Miller drunk or something.
Do you have any plans to be involved in The Handmaid’s Tale sequel, The Testaments?
Yes, I hope so.
What are your favorite projects among the films you’ve directed?
The Farm has always got to be one of my favorites. It was the O.G. for me. It made everything else possible: Lost Girls being my first feature; The Handmaid’s Tale being my first scripted television work [as a director]; What Happened, Miss Simone?; There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane — they’re all cherished.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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Liz Garbus Career Highlights
There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane (2011)
The acclaimed documentary profiles Diane Schuler, who was at the center of a 2009 Taconic State Parkway crash, and pieces together events leading up to the multiple-fatality accident.
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Garbus’ Oscar-nominated film was Netflix’s first commissioned feature doc. “She’s one of the most remarkable documentarians that is working today,” says Netflix’s Adam Del Deo.
Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper (2016)
“She made connections I thought were really interesting,” says Cooper of Garbus. “She saw things I didn’t see, and I’m pretty good in the edit room.”
Lost Girls (2020)
The mystery-drama about the unsolved serial-killer murders of young sex-worker women on Long Island, based on a nonfiction book, was the first narrative feature directed by Garbus.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (2020-21)
The acclaimed HBO documentary series was based on the late author Michelle McNamara’s seminal investigation of the Golden State Killer. McNamara was Patton Oswalt’s wife.
The Handmaid’s Tale (2021)
Directors of episodic TV don’t often get much attention, but actress Elisabeth Moss credited Garbus with bringing her own distinct voice to the Emmy-nominated finale of season four.
Harry & Meghan (2022)
“[Viewers] came for the love story, or the hot gossip, but were able to stay for other provocative and important stuff, [such as] the history of colonialism,” says Garbus of the popular Netflix doc.
Untitled Orphan Ellen Pompeo Project
Garbus is working on her first pilot for Hulu and ABC Signature, an untitled project about Ukrainian orphan adoption starring Ellen Pompeo that’s set to start shooting sometime this year.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.