Princess Diana Documentary: How Princes William and Harry Agreed to Talk About Their Mother

Prince Harry and Prince William in Princess Diana Doc - H 2017
Courtesy of ITV

Exec producer Nick Kent discusses 'Diana, Our Mother,' which airs on U.K.'s ITV and HBO in the U.S. on Monday and shows her sons and friends speaking openly about her life and legacy 20 years after her death.

U.K.'s ITV and HBO are marking the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's death (Aug. 31) with a landmark documentary that they are airing Monday evening.

HBO earlier this year took the film, Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, produced by Oxford Film for ITV in the U.K., for the U.S. Executive produced by Nick Kent, it centers on interviews with Prince William and Prince Harry who talk about their mother and how she influenced their lives.

"This film will show Princess Diana in a way she has never been seen before, through the eyes of the two people who knew her best," said Kent. The doc also features interviews with Diana's friends and family, some of whom have never spoken publicly, and new archival footage. And it details the Princess' philanthropic and humanitarian work.

Among other things, the princes in the film discuss Princess Diana's fondness of laughter and fun and how they dealt with her death. It also shows them looking through a photograph album, recalling some of the most treasured moments of their childhood.

Oxford Film has also made such docs as Our Queen at 90 and Valerie Plame. Kent talked to The Hollywood Reporter about how documentary filmmakers need to build trust, including the royal family, the challenges of a film like this, the legacy and global appeal of Princess Diana and how the doc can stand out amid a slew of other Diana projects, including by the BBC and ABC. 

How did this documentary come about?
We did a documentary, Our Queen at 90, for ITV last year. It included the first solo interview with Kate [Middleton], the Duchess of Cambridge. As a result of that film, we were invited to Kensington Palace to meet the communications team.

We started talking about this year being the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death. Everybody has made their documentary about Princess Diana over the years, but obviously nobody heard that story from the point of view of the two people who really knew her better than anybody else — her sons. We suggested that idea, and a couple of months later, we got a message back that actually Prince William and Prince Harry were open to doing this. We met them to talk about the film, and it was very clear that they really thought this was the right time to show their mother through their eyes.

Is that how your film is different from other projects?
Many documentaries have been made, and more documentaries are coming out this year to mark the anniversary. They agreed to get their side of the story out into the world, also because since she died a whole generation of people has grown up that never knew Princess Diana. So this is an opportunity to kind of introduce her to this generation. As a documentary filmmaker, you are always looking to tell an untold story. Princess Diana is one of the most recognized people on the planet, so finding an untold story to tell is a real opportunity.

How important was it to build trust with the royal family for a project like this and how did you go about that?
Trust is the right word to use, because trust is really the foundation that documentaries, not just about the royal family but any kind of access documentaries, are built on. We made two big documentaries with the royal family before this. Three years before Our Queen at 90, we made a film called Our Queen where we followed the royal family during the Diamond Jubilee. So we have actually built trust with the royal family and their communications team over several years. In terms of the Princess Diana documentary, that trust really grew out of the experience of being filmed for Our Queen at 90. So we started with a basis of trust with Prince William and Prince Harry and Kate. 

What ground rules do you set going into such a doc? Do the royals get any special treatment?
Editorial control rests entirely with the production company and the broadcaster. So in any kind of access documentary, you never ever give up editorial control. But it is very common, and this is true not just with documentaries about the royal family but also documentaries we have made with the police force and others, to have the people come in for a viewing of the documentary. The parameters are around accuracy. With the royal family, there is an additional stipulation in that it is about accuracy but also about security, and they have an opportunity to point out [any problems there]. So we did have a screening for them, and there weren’t any notes on the film.

In terms of setting ground rules at the beginning of the process, the preliminary meeting we had with Prince William and Prince Harry was really to figure out what they would be happy to talk about. When we approached this, we thought it was going to be very much rooted in how their charity work is a continuation of their mother’s work. What we discovered when we had that first meeting was that they wanted to do much more, they really wanted to talk about her as a mother and as a private person. They really felt there was a story that hasn’t been told. It’s a film with a universal theme: how to keep alive the memory of someone you have loved and lost. There’s a very moving scene in the film when William and Harry go through a family photograph album that Diana put together, which they only recently discovered, and it prompts memories of their time together.

The film also shows how you keep someone’s memory alive by the way you live your own life. In the case of William and Harry, that can be seen in their charity work. But it’s also reflected in the way that Prince William brings up his own children. Harry talks about how Diana really tried to give them a normal upbringing as far as that was possible in the public spotlight. She took them out to see movies, she took them shopping, she took them to theme parks. Prince William says that he very much tries to do that with his own children.

What else can viewers expect from your film that sets it apart?
Besides hearing from her two sons, who are speaking openly and in depth about their mother for the first time, we also interviewed very close personal friends of Diana who have never spoken before. I got a very strong sense from them that because Princess Diana lived so much of her life in the spotlight of public opinions, it was only when she was with her sons that she could truly relax and be herself. The Diana revealed in this film is the real Diana, who was funny and fun loving.

So there are universal themes in the film?
In some ways, you can say this documentary is about a very particular person, it’s about Princess Diana, about the royal family. But in another way, you can say it’s actually about something that is universal — how do you keep the memory alive of someone you have loved and lost. It’s not just about who Princess Diana was — you definitely get a Diana you have never seen before. But it’s also about how her sons have sought to keep her memory alive. 

Why do you think Princess Diana became such a global icon?
How did this woman who married into the royal family touch millions of people all around the world? It’s a phenomenon, which was most dramatically reflected in the popular reaction in the aftermath of her death, but also in the continuing fascination with her 20 years later. I suspect it’s to do with empathy. Diana had this natural empathy. Her brother Charles in the film talks about how as a child she was very hurt by her parents’ divorce and how the way she coped with that was to empathize with people who were disadvantaged or unhappy. And she clearly continued to do that in her public life as well. Millions of people responded to something authentic and real about her.

The documentary will air on HBO in the U.S. and has also sold to such countries as Australia, Germany and Scandinavia. Did you set out to do a British or a more global film? And how do you make sure a doc has appeal in various markets or global appeal?
We didn’t think about it in those terms. But one of the stories in the documentary is about Diana going to Bosnia and meeting land-mine victims three weeks before she died. And two Bosnian boys who are young men now in the film come over to London and meet Prince Harry who is dedicated to finishing the work his mother began. And the way this two boys speak about Diana is as heartfelt as anyone in this country could speak about her. So she had universal appeal.

To make a documentary that has global appeal, you don’t look for an American character to appeal to the American market and so on. You are actually trying to go deeper into it to find something that is authentic and universal — such as our children know us better than anyone every will and also how do you keep alive the memory of someone you have loved and lost.

What was the biggest challenge on this project?
Obviously, William and Harry were on board very early on. Persuading Diana’s friends and her lady-in-waiting [or personal assistant] to talk publicly for the first time and winning their trust was a challenge. The other challenge is finding the heart of the story. With any documentary, you film hours of material before you go into the edit. There are a million ways to make this film. When you finally see it, you see it’s kind of simple.

You have shared some anecdotes and insights you gathered in making the film. Anything else to share or that figured prominently to you?
One thing that really [stuck out to] me from the interviews was how funny Princess Diana was. Both William and Harry talk about her as a great practical joker.

Any future projects you are doing on the royals or other people?
We are doing two more royal projects, but I can’t really talk about them. We are also doing a big film with Damien Hirst that has been in production for about two years and that is going to be completed in the next couple of months. The projects we are doing, because they are access projects, we can’t really talk about until they are finished.