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When Britney Spears’ father Jamie Spears agreed last week to step down as conservator of the pop star’s estate, it underscored the flexibility required of editors of nonfiction programs for which the story is still unfolding during postproduction.
That was the case for Geoff O’Brien and Pierre Takal, editors of FX on Hulu’s Framing Britney Spears (The New York Times Presents), who knew they might need to reinvent their story at any time. “The conservatorship momentum and hearings had already started,” Takal relates. “We didn’t know exactly how it was going to end, but we knew at least, that it was going to be a part of the story and that we would shape it and frame it around that story.”
Postproduction was tight, as editing started in the fall of 2020 and finished in January, meaning that when editing began, they already had elements such as the #FreeBritney rally outside of the courthouse. But the filmmakers continued to keep a close watch on the news, though in the end, the story didn’t change as much as they had anticipated. “There were other hearings that were happening and they were sort of keeping an eye on them, but nothing really ever manifested. There was one, I believe in either late December or early January, where we thought this might change the outcome of the film but it did not,” O’Brien remembers.
Still, the thread of the conservatorship also impacted the editing of the early years of Britney Spears’ career, as the parents — particularly the father-daughter relationship — were important to the story. “As we got to the end of the film, we realized we needed to sort of plant seeds along the way,” Takal says. “Knowing that her father was going to be the person in charge of this conservatorship, we needed to sort of represent his relationship throughout.” He adds that in the case of Jamie Spears, it was sometimes tricky. “We needed to show this relationship, but the fact that he wasn’t around made it hard because there wasn’t footage and things to show because he wasn’t around. When you find certain archival pieces like the podcast with the brother, you’re not directly speaking about the father, but you’re giving an impression of what the family life must have been. So sometimes indirectly you can create their presence.”
“People say about documentaries, they’re never finished. You just stop working on them. There’s often a question of when the story ends and a lot of times, unfortunately, it’s when the funding ends,” relates Davis Coombe, editor of docu-drama The Social Dilemma, which exposed the dark side of social media through its impact in areas including mental health, discrimination and democracy. “With stories like this, we could keep talking about the social dilemma that we’re facing. … And we probably could have made a series about it that that went on much longer, but I think [director Jeff Orlowski and producer Larissa Rhodes] really wanted to get the story out there and felt like time was of the essence. And so we figured out a way to wrap it up in a feature-length package and get it out there in front of people.”
He describes how the film evolved while it was in the editing room. “It felt at times like we were doing some kind of a research project ourselves. As things developed, there were sections of the film that we had put together that we felt were no longer relevant — things that had had become common knowledge in the general public that we no longer felt like we had to cover.” That included sections based around the 2016 presidential election and the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Additionally, following The Social Dilemma’s debut at Sundance in January 2020, the coronavirus situation was unfolding. “We’d already seen [the spread of] misinformation around COVID happening. We worked very quickly to incorporate some of that” into a revised version of the film, that then debuted Sept. 9 on Netflix.
“What was scary about it, both the COVID situation and [later] the insurrection, was that we had sort of wondered, in the film, where could this lead. And then to see it unfold like that was not satisfying, but reassuring in a sense that we were onto something. It was disturbing.”
Another nonfiction project nominated for its editing was HBO’s Q: Into the Storm, which delves into the QAnon conspiracy theory. In this case, editing began in November 2020 and then the chilling insurrection occurred on Jan. 6, which changed the direction of the project. “We reshaped the show around that, basically, because we wanted to start with it as well as end with it,” explains lead editor Tom Patterson. “We certainly wanted to keep it focused on Q, the ending on the January 6 sequence, we had the idea to cut it to a version of White Rabbit that we had found online, that I think helped shape the argument around Q. But at the same time, we’re just showing what happened basically, because it was still, of course, a little early to be commenting on what happened.” The doc concludes with a short aftermath.
“Obviously people are still believing in Q to this day, even though, you know, I think we made it pretty obvious who Q is. And we made it pretty obvious that a lot of people got taken in, but I think a lot of people don’t like the feeling of being taken in so they are going to keep believing it no matter what.”
As to how much of the subject’s misinformation to actually present, Patterson admits it was a balancing act. “That was a subject of a lot of back and forth. Some people think we went too far or some people think we didn’t go far enough,” he says. “I think it’s a good idea sometimes to just let people say what they believe and let the audience come to, sometimes what is a pretty obvious conclusion, that there’s a lot of problems with this philosophy. … Other times we also brought in the journalists, we brought in the critics, we brought in the debunkers who came in and were able to say, ‘none of this is true, by the way.'”
Patterson reflects, “Looking back on it now, I don’t know if we would’ve cut it differently now, and we certainly understood that we were dealing with a certain lack of information, because it had only been a month or two [since the insurrection]. We knew that from the perspective of history, it certainly is going to change.”
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