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Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times Presents documentary that chronicles a years-long effort by pop star Britney Spears to be freed from her conservatorship and remove her father Jamie Spears from his role as conservator, only debuted on FX on Hulu this February.
But in the months since, the world both Spears and filmmakers Samantha Stark, Liz Day and Mary Robertson live in is noticeably different. As calls from Spears’ fan base to #FreeBritney have increased — and both Hollywood and media have begun accounting for their treatment of Britney and celebrity women in general — the singer has navigated multiple court dates and seen several key members of her longtime team depart.
Perhaps most significantly, on June 23, the 39-year-old artist spoke for the first time in open court about her case, demanding to be released from her conservatorship and sharing shocking details around it, including allegations of abuse. And while a judge denied Spears’ request to have her father removed from her conservatorship in June, she was granted the right to choose her own representation last week.
Framing Britney Spears producer and director Stark and senior editor Day weren’t able to speak directly to Britney or Jamie Spears for their documentary, but after publishing their own investigation a day ahead of the singer’s June court date, the team revealed even more about how much is known — and remains unknown — about Spears’ case.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Stark and Day following a long month of revelations about the new information that has emerged since Framing Britney Spears dropped, their reflections on their work in light of the past few weeks, and how they envision a follow-up to their Emmy-nominated documentary.
How are you feeling about the work that you have done in light of this really dramatic shift in how much the public now knows about Britney’s situation?
Samantha Stark: I think what’s happening now has been bubbling up with Britney for a long time, since before the documentary we made. We know from confidential court documents that we found — we’ve been reporting since the film came out and we published an investigation the day before she spoke on June 23 — that at least as early as 2014, she was communicating to the court that she wanted to end the conservatorship; she wanted to investigate her father in 2016, 2019, and now in 2021. And we know in 2019, she was very passionate, it seems, about getting the story out there that she was held against her will in a mental health facility, and she said she told the judge that that happened in 2019. She said, “I felt like I wasn’t heard, I felt like I was dead.” We know Britney has been trying to get across this idea for a really long time.
I feel like it could have happened no matter what, but what I hope our documentary and our reporting did is back up her story with facts. Because a lot of what she has been saying, we have seen in court documents. The other thing is, she said one of the reasons she didn’t say anything was because she didn’t think people would believe her. What we found with our documentary in the years of media coverage where they were humiliating her and belittling her helps to understand why she wouldn’t think people would believe her — because they haven’t. I hope that what our documentary did is contribute to this idea that we should start listening to Britney and believing her.
You both have talked at length about what you’ve known, and you released your investigation after an extensive amount of reporting. At this point, what questions remain unanswered for you about this case?
Liz Day: There are so many questions that are still unanswered. Big ones that we’re particularly interested in are the conservatorship as a money-making operation. Who profited off of the conservatorship? Many different players were involved in making money off of the money that Britney brought in under the “hybrid business model” that one of her co-conservators called the conservatorship.
There are a lot more questions, too. Including in 2016, in this court investigators report that we obtained, when Britney said, “I want to get out of the conservatorship,” the court investigator recommended to the judge that Britney should be given a path to get out of the conservatorship. So for me, a big question is, was she ever given that path and what happened after that? Conservatorship experts often point out that the whole system is supposed to be designed to respect the conservatee’s wishes, so I’m curious whether that happened.
We heard Britney say yesterday and say in June she wants her dad out. We know her lawyer said it in court in 2020. We know she said it in previous years, going back to 2014 through the confidential records we obtained. So, what happened with that request? Was that just ignored, and is that appropriate given that the conservatee’s wishes are supposed to be respected in the system?
Your documentary focuses on Britney, and you’ve said before that her case is both very specific and universal. In terms of the universality of conversations around guardianships and conservatorships, have you thought about its larger implications and pursuing that further in your work?
Stark: Absolutely. She said it on June 23. She talked about how other people were in the situation that she was in. What we’re talking about for conservatorship is about when you can’t feed, clothe and shelter yourself — and we know that Britney has been working. She guest-starred on national television two months after she was put into this. We definitely want to look into the system. I think a part of it is how much easier it appears to be to put in a conservatorship than to get out of one.
It almost seems that since it’s designed for people who are vulnerable, who need help a lot of the time or who are swept under the rug a lot, as Britney said, it appears like it’s very easy to take away rights. To just think it’s maybe a paternalistic thing and you’re doing the right thing because this person can’t do it for themselves — we want to look at that. Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is that Britney, on June 23 and then three weeks later, said, “I am being abused.” She gave very specific examples. She said she was put into a mental health facility against her will. She was made to take debilitating drugs that she didn’t want to take. She was made to remain on birth control and was forced to perform.
She said she was being trafficked to the court, and it doesn’t appear like there’s a kill switch or something in place where if someone says they’re being abused, X, Y and Z happens; they get pulled out of where they are, they get investigated by this department. She said that, we know she said it in 2019, and it really doesn’t appear like anyone has been looking into those allegations seriously. And if they are, it doesn’t appear like there’s a way to get her away from what she’s saying is abuse.
Day: In terms of the conservatorship system at large, I’ve talked to a lot of people close to Britney’s conservatorship, and I’ve been struck by how often some defenders of it will say, “Oh, well, you know it helped shield her from lawsuits,” or, “It helped make her a lot of money,” or these other justifications that conservatorship experts say are not what a conservatorship is for. Again, it should only be for if you are unable to shelter or feed and clothe yourself or if you can’t manage your financial affairs.
This is not like a rehabilitation device that parents or other people feel that they know better than someone else can use. I was really struck by people who are very close to it and have been inside for a long time, not understanding that — what a conservatorship is legally supposed to be for and what the statute in California is supposed to be.
Another thing that Samantha and I have talked a lot about is the difference between the letter of the law and what you may see play out on the ground. There’s a lot of allegations out there, and Britney has made several herself, saying, “I’ve not been allowed to do X,” or “They’ve done Y to me.” Yet, according to the letter of the law, the conservators only have X, Y and Z powers. I think it was really interesting for us to learn that there can be a chasm between what you’re allowed to do and what you can do on the ground.
Stark: Something also that we’ve been thinking about a lot that applies to Britney, but also to all conservatorships, is this idea of consent. They keep saying it’s a voluntary conservatorship, and we’re still trying to figure out what exactly that means. What a lot of people in their coverage of this and in the letter of the law are not taking into account is the idea of coercion and power dynamics. She’s saying, “I felt forced into this facility,” and they might come back and say, “Well, she signed herself in. How could she be forced?” But they’re not taking into account what we’ve been talking about a lot post-#MeToo, which is power dynamics and how not objecting to something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re consenting to it.
She even said in court that she felt like she got punished if she stood up for herself. She talked about having visits with her kids or boyfriend taken away. And so, if you’re a person who they’re signing a paper saying you consent to something, but being given consequences if you don’t — very severe consequences, it sounds like, from what she said — that’s not being taken into account. So letter of the law, they can’t force her into a facility, and then they’re saying, letter of the law, “We didn’t do it. She signed a consent form.” That seems like it could happen in all conservatorships.
You have talked about how difficult it was when you sent out requests to Jamie Spears or to Britney’s team to get a response. After her public comments in court, that team looks very different now than when you were reaching out for your reporting. Has that reporting dynamic changed, and what do you make of those changes?
Day: As you note, after Britney spoke on June 23 and really expressed herself, saying she does not want to be in this conservatorship and she wants major changes, we saw the co-conservator of her estate ask to resign. We saw her court-appointed counsel asked to resign. We saw her longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, resigned. Another thing that we started to see in the court filings was people starting to kind of point fingers at each other. Britney’s dad, Jamie, started to point fingers at Britney’s conservator, the person, saying, “She’s the one. I haven’t been in charge of things in two years.” Then Britney’s conservator, the person, said, “Jamie, you’re still in charge of the money, so you control everything.” It’s been really interesting to see that play out since Britney spoke, and I think there’s going to be only more of that to come.
Stark: The question of her attorney is something that has been really spotlit lately because it’s really important, right? We know that Britney was deemed incapable of hiring her own lawyer and so has had this court-appointed counsel, Sam Ingham, with her for the past 13 years. In looking at the confidential documents we found, we were really questioning if he would have been advocating for her based on what we saw in the documents. She said she didn’t know [she] could file a petition to end the conservatorship. And no matter what kind of conversations they had behind closed doors, that’s a really big deal because we know she’s been communicating that to him since at least 2014. Her business manager also resigned at the end of last year. So it’s unclear what will happen to all these people who have resigned and if there will be follow-up looks into what they’ve done.
Do you think that finger-pointing could have been at play when you were trying to get comments from Britney and from Jamie Spears? Or do you think it was something else?
Day: When we reached out to Jamie and his representatives to participate in the documentary, I don’t think there was necessarily finger-pointing going on, per se, behind the scenes. But I think that they were probably used to a status quo with journalists looking into that conservatorship where people could talk off the record anonymously and tell you everything was OK, “Nothing to see here,” but not say that on the record. For us, we need you to say that on the record. We need someone to tell us that on the record and how they know that, and no one was willing to do that. I think ultimately there was a reason for that because it may not have been true since we now know, according to these confidential court records, that behind the curtains, Britney was upset with a conservatorship for far longer or in part earlier than anyone knew publicly. So I think that’s probably what was going on with Jamie’s side when we asked them.
I should say we asked them not only to participate, and if Jamie wouldn’t go on camera, could someone else share his perspective for him, but we also went out to them with a detailed list of fact-checking questions. We wanted to make sure that we gave them an opportunity to respond or correct any of the allegations or statements that have been made, and they ultimately declined to do that.
Samantha, in a past interview, you spoke about the role that social media — and the fans combing through it — has played in your work on the documentary, down to the rose background for your interviews. In May, a statement was posted to Britney Spears’ Instagram that implied the filmmakers had misrepresented her and used the word “hypocritical.” How did you feel about that post, and how does it fit into your understanding of the way that Britney’s social media has existed prior to hearing from her?
Stark: Thank you so much. You’re the first person ever to say, “What was posted on Britney’s social media account” versus, “Britney said this.” That’s something that has really surprised me — that so many reputable outlets say, “Britney said this on Instagram,” as if they heard her say it themselves. We know there was a statement posted on her Instagram account, but when I think of Britney’s Instagram, I think about this idea that from court records, legally her conservators have the power to limit anyone she interacts with, except for one person who was her court-appointed counsel, Sam Ingram. So it would be surprising to me if she was given a bullhorn to the world via Instagram since we also know from journalists who have tried to interview her over the years that if they are able to, it’s under extreme careful watch from her team. We know people have said that her team would ask to get final cut over an interview, which we wouldn’t do. We wouldn’t allow somebody to be able to edit out what she wanted to say.
I’ll also say that on the day that that was posted, it was the day that court records became public. That revealed to the public that Vivian Thoreen and Holland & Knight, the litigators Jamie Spears hired to represent him, had charged almost a million dollars for four months of work. About $10,000 a workday, which included a lot of media relations and PR. That came out the same day but all these reputable outlets reported on the post on Britney’s Instagram and not that. I’m not saying the two are connected, but they happened on the same day. So, Instagram, I don’t know. On July 14, there was a post and on it said #FreeBritney at the bottom. Her boyfriend posted #FreeBritney. Maybe that’s a change. We don’t know. Maybe Britney will go live in video, and then we’ll know.
As someone who grew up with Britney and also grew up with Gossip Girl and Perez Hilton, it’s astounding to see so many celebrities, journalists, tabloid bloggers apologizing for their behavior. But that culture of misogyny and sexism that was pervasive, I would argue, is in some ways still pervasive. There is a lot of self-reflection happening. Was that a goal when you were doing this, and have you done any introspection as journalists yourselves since the documentary was released?
Day: That question really hit a nerve with me because I guess I’m a little bit older, but I certainly also felt of that era, and I was a tabloid reader, and I read those gossip blogs that you mentioned. I had internalized a lot of that conversation and may not have thought twice when paparazzi were taking upskirts of celebrities like Britney, and it was kind of treated as a sport, instead of, potentially, a crime. When we first started out with this idea, one of the inspirations was O.J.: Made in America and looking at, how do we get up to a certain point and what was society’s conversation like at the time? How did we talk about things at that time? I think we knew there would probably be some differences in going back to 2004 and 2008 and living in those moments.
But, at least for me personally, I was still really shocked from watching that footage of the time and seeing the trend for mainstream journalists like Diane Sawyer or Matt Lauer, of throwing a bunch of horrible headlines in front of Britney on camera and saying, “What do you think about this? People are saying these horrible things about you,” and just zooming in on her as she cries. I think that’s something that wouldn’t really happen in the same way today, but as you also know with your question, I don’t think any of us should feel that we’re all 100 percent better and that there isn’t still treatment of people today that we’re not going to look back on in 10 or 20 years and be like, “We were all really unfair,” or, “That was pretty horrible how someone was viewed.”
Stark: I didn’t remember the media coverage of Britney when we first started doing this. I was like, “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard Britney Spears speak before,” which is surprising now, watching all of it. We watched tons and tons of all this archival footage, and I saw a really smart, strong, funny, witty, kind person. It made me so confused because my only recollection of Britney that I think was like a lot of people in this country, but also around the world, is the schoolgirl outfit and her shaving her head. And then when we really started watching it, it made me really upset because I was thinking about how pervasive in our culture it was just to be able to treat her like that. She was bullied and humiliated and shamed for her sexuality and ridiculed for any mental health issues that she was going through.
I remember hating being a kid and a teenager and being bullied and being shamed for my sexuality, and being scared to talk about mental health. I think I never realized how powerful media was in making me feel that way and making all my peers feel that way or feel like it was OK to treat others like that. It’s really incredible that we’re all talking about this and rethinking it. Somebody wrote to me that what they felt the film was about was rethinking how we treat each other, and I really liked that because I think that is what we’re doing now.
The last time you spoke to THR, you broached the possibility of doing a follow-up. Are you still considering that, and if so, what would you like to cover?
Stark: There’s so much more to the story. There’s so much more. Liz listed a lot of things that we want to look into. Right now, we’re researching and gathering and seeing if it’s possible. We’re looking for people with first-hand experience who can shed light on things that have been very kept in secret. I think a lot of people have been scared to share what they know. I also think that the only person who can tell her story, who can tell the story of Britney Spears, is Britney Spears. So I’ve been thinking so much and, especially after the Emmy nomination [for Framing Britney Spears], about this idea that this is not over. Britney just got the right to hire her own lawyer after 13 years, and she expressed on June 23 that she wanted to do an interview and wanted to tell her story. But the only person who can tell the story is Britney Spears. So we’ll see what happens with that.
If you had the opportunity to interview Britney, what would some of your top questions be?
Stark: I think Britney has been so silenced that if we were able to interview her, we’d want her to take the lead. Something that I ask people at the beginning of interviews a lot is, “Do you want me to ask you questions or do you want to just start talking and tell me what you want to say?” Because sometimes, people, even though they have a lot to say, want questions because it helps get the juices flowing. But I think Britney has a lot to say.
I also think we would want to figure out how to make it as comfortable as possible for her and as empowering as possible for her. There would be a lot of talking about, where do you want to do this; how long do you want to do it for; do you want to say something and then get up and take a break; do you want us to come for a week and do a little bit every day? That kind of stuff. In court, Britney said: I want my father to be investigated; I want people charged with conservatorship abuse; people should be in jail. And so if she said, “Yes, ask me questions,” I think we’d want to know why. “Tell us what happened.”
I think storytelling is how we all communicate and learn and understand things. And she seems like she has a lot of stories to tell.
With so much attention on the case, multiple people and outlets are reporting on and talking about Britney, including an upcoming Netflix documentary. It brings to mind competing projects around Tiger King and Fyre Festival and how there are these swells of coverage. What are your thoughts on having more people covering this?
Day: We have often had an observation that this could have been a 10-part series. There’s so much to this story and to the conservatorship still that is unknown that is worth exploring. So for me to know that there are other projects coming out, that’s great. The more light shed on the situation, the better — as long as it’s obviously journalistic and has standards.
Samantha: I think one thing that our whole team has talked about, and that we make a huge point in the way we operate, is that Britney has been exploited by media a lot, particularly by media competing with each other for scoops or pictures. And so the idea that we could be competitive with anybody for a Britney story makes me sick. I don’t want to be competitive. I want the coverage to be accurate. The reason that we’re doing all these interviews is because there’s been so much misinformation, and we’ve been researching this for so long — about a year since we started, maybe more — that we want to make sure that what’s out there is accurate, because often we read things multiple times a day where we’ll say, “That’s not true, that’s not true, that’s not true.”
We do not want it to feel exploitative at all. That was an issue we had with the Emmy nomination, also. We are doing this because we think it’s really important and there’s a lot to investigate, so we don’t want it to be exploited. We don’t want to do the same thing that has happened to her for her whole life, which is people competing to make money off of her.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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