How Netflix's top-secret Britney Spears documentary hopes to get her story right
For months, that's the code name Britney Spears fans have used to refer to a secretive documentary on the pop star believed to be in the works at Netflix. The rumor began after the performer began making vague Instagram references using the phrase, often posting red-themed images of colored clothing or flowers. Red, of course, happens to be the color of the Netflix logo — hence the fan conspiracy theory.
This week, the theory became an actuality: Netflix confirmed "Britney vs Spears" will premiere on Sept. 28. And though Spears did not, in fact, collaborate with filmmaker Erin Lee Carr, the movie's release date will coincide with a pivotal moment in her life. The next hearing in her conservatorship case is scheduled for Sept. 29 — a court date that could determine whether the performer’s father, Jamie Spears, is removed as her legal guardian.
“Britney vs Spears” is not the first nonfiction film to investigate Spears' circumstances. In February, a New York Times-produced doc, “Framing Britney Spears,” premiered on FX and Hulu.
Taking a critical look at the media's treatment of Spears during the height of her fame, the release prompted “We are sorry Britney” to start trending on Twitter. Justin Timberlake, who dated Spears from 1999 to 2002, issued a public apology to “take accountability” for the way he had treated his ex-girlfriend.
The movie also forced Carr to reshape "Britney vs Spears," the project she’s now spent 2½ years developing. Carr has experience tackling subjects of high interest: She’s directed films about Gypsy Rose Blanchard, Michelle Carter and the USA Gymnastics scandal. (That last documentary, which aired on HBO in 2019, was the first of two films about Larry Nassar’s victims; a Netflix take followed a year later.)
Even so, Carr says she’s never worked on anything as highly anticipated as “Britney vs Spears.”
“People combed through my Twitter and saw that in 2018 I had posted her autograph. Somebody did a tarot card reading on what the Netflix documentary was going to be about,” said the 33-year-old, who teamed with Rolling Stone veteran Jenny Eliscu to help her report on Spears. “I was like, ‘This is next level.’ You can lose yourself inside the chaos of the story, but at the heart of it is this person publicly and privately trying to get their own freedom back.”
In an interview with The Times, Carr discussed the difficulty of convincing sources to talk about Spears, how she feels about the singer herself watching the movie and the prospect of the conservatorship finally coming to a close.
What initially interested you about trying to tell the Britney Spears story?
As a filmmaker who makes films about women, Britney Spears is one of the big stories. She’s an icon and a celebrated person but ended up somehow having the same legal rights as a minor. It was just a pervasive mystery of what happened to this really good person. So I very naively was like, “Well, maybe I can figure it out.” I called an industry insider at the beginning, and the person was like, “Yeah, good luck getting anyone to talk. It’s not gonna fly. It’s this story that nobody talks about.”
Did that only make you want to make the movie more?
No! I remember feeling panicked. People think that everybody in Britney’s life is trying to get their five minutes in the sun, and it just couldn’t be farther from the truth. People don’t want to return your phone calls. Some of the people that I really wanted that had not spoken before — they were like, “Absolutely not” or just didn’t respond. I’ve made things without access before, but you need other people if you don’t have access to the main person. And Britney, at the time, had never spoken about the conservatorship.
And you knew you’d never get her to do an interview.
I always hoped and dreamed and wished and prayed to the documentary gods. I tried to contact her repeatedly. But I had to sit with the understanding that it was unlikely ever to happen.
So what gave you the confidence to move forward, knowing how few people would talk to you?
We had a source that was connected to the conservatorship that began to give us documents in the fall of 2020. This was the first time I had seen what people in the conservatorship at the inception of it said. It made me feel like I was on the right track. Because there was this overwhelming fear: What is it I don’t know? Why is the legal system, her father, everyone keeping her in this conservatorship? What if I am making a story about something where I just can’t have access to the right facts?
It felt like news about this case came out weekly, if not daily, over the past year. How did that affect your process?
I have never been on such an evolving story. It was a complete 24/7 job, and it was wild because the story kept changing. I found it to be incredibly overwhelming, but in a way, it was like the story was finally opening up. You look at 2010, 2013, 2016 — nothing happened during that time. She worked so, so much, but she was in the conservatorship, and she was later with her boyfriend [Sam Asghari]; things seemed to be normal and OK. And then that changed in 2019. So to be a documentary filmmaker that was following the story as it was breaking open felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity, though I had trouble sleeping.
When you found out that “Framing Britney Spears” was coming out, how did that change things for you?
How do you think it did? [Laughs] This is such a huge story, and that was such a great primer for how the media treated Britney. I think it’s an incredibly important thing for people to understand. And then for my film to take on the responsibility of the conservatorship as Britney speaks out — focusing less on how she was culturally treated but more the consequences of it.
So you did edit your movie after the other project was released?
Absolutely. I didn’t know what was going to be in their film. I knew that there were certain subjects where there was overlap. So when it came out, my producer Dan Cogan was, like, “All right, get going, get moving, we have to change the film.” I was, like, “Well, my film makes the arguments in a different way.” And he was, like, “We are now going to change course.” Netflix was so understanding and gave us some more time.
What would you say are the vital differences between your movie and “Framing Britney Spears”?
This is a 2½-years-long investigative process into the conservatorship. There has been an amazing amount of coverage, but that’s a really long time to be focused on this. We wanted to be the definitive place to understand the beginning, middle and hopefully what we will find out as the end of this saga.
If you care about women, you should watch this movie. If you care about mental health, you should watch this movie. If you’re a fan of Britney Spears, you should watch this movie.
Britney’s Instagram account has been very active in recent months. Were you parsing her posts for clues about her state of mind, just like the rest of the fans?
I was very unclear on who was posting. It didn’t feel like it could be used as a primary document. I think now we see that she has been using it, so it’s been very important to look at it. Videos are the most important part, versus the captions.
One thing I noticed is Britney doesn’t "like" comments. If her boyfriend was, like, “Oh, you’re such a cutie pie,” then she wouldn’t like the comment. I think anybody who has a crush on anybody knows, “Oh, you’re gonna like that comment.”
Many fans used her IG posts to make judgments about her mental health. After making the film, what is your opinion on how her mental health and the conservatorship are connected?
I’ll be really careful answering the question because mental health is her own story. My understanding of a conservatorship is that you have to be unwilling to meet a need for clothing, shelter and to feed yourself. When I see someone doing really complex dancing and performing on a stage earning millions of dollars, those things don’t seem like they belong in the same sentence. So while at times she may need help because her life has truly been crazy, it’s hard for me to think that this type of legal arrangement would be necessary.
But I don't ever say I know or don’t know if Britney needs to be in a conservatorship. I know that Britney needs to be surrounded by people that care about her and have her not work when she doesn’t want to work. ... We’re all allowed to put whatever we want on the internet, Britney Spears included.
Britney has said on Instagram that she was “embarrassed” by “Framing Britney Spears” and cried for two weeks after watching it. Do you care what she thinks about your movie?
It’s something that [the filmmaking team] thought so long and so hard about. I really love her music and I care about what happens to women in the legal system. But it still had to be a journalistic rendering. So that meant talking to everyone involved, and not trying to let my own personal bias affect how I felt about it. We brought on an investigative journalist [Amy Herdy] who was there to fact check. She didn't have my same level of bias because I was a fan.
So you do want Britney to like this film?
Yes, I do. I would like her to. But I don’t know what it’s like to be her.
[In making the film I] was trying to not be another person to trespass on her privacy again and again. But she wants to get out of the conservatorship, so therefore we should know what is going on inside it. I specifically made the creative decision that we were not going to utilize the same imagery that she has said before is traumatizing. The incidents that happened in 2007 during one of the episodes at the hospital — you’re never going to see those.
Do you think she knows the film exists?
Yes. I sent her a letter and I have reason to believe that she was able to read it. I think she’s focusing on her new beau.
After everything you learned about her conservatorship, do you think the end is really in sight?
It’s so incredibly difficult to get out of a conservatorship, specifically Britney's because she does not want to be [medically] evaluated. By letter of the law, you must be evaluated to terminate a conservatorship. So there's been these moments where it’s like, "Jamie intends to step down" — but I have to remind people that he’s still her conservator. It is not done until it is done.
For the record:
2:38 p.m. Sept. 22, 2021: An earlier version of this post said Erin Lee Carr was 39 years old. She is 33.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.