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The director of Netflix's Pamela Anderson documentary hopes the film "strips away the caricature" and people "see the human being."
Ahead of Pamela, A Love Story's Jan. 31 release, filmmaker Ryan White talks to Yahoo Entertainment about telling the story of the famed blond bombshell whose life has captivated in the now decades since her first Playboy cover and slo-mo beach sprint on Baywatch.
White was brought into the project by Anderson's elder son, Brandon Thomas Lee, who produces the doc, which uses Anderson's personal video archive and journals. Having been born in 1981, White says growing up, "Pamela was like the most famous person in the world to me. She's like my Kardashian," but he admitted he hadn't "thought a lot about [her] over the last 20 years." And while the Serena and Ask Dr. Ruth director assumed her story would make a compelling documentary, he worried she would be "a larger than life personality" with "a huge machine of people around her," which wouldn't mesh with his bare bones filmmaking style.
White agreed to a Zoom meet with Anderson and, after talking for two or three hours, he found her "so different than everything I expected. And our conversation was different than what I expected. Her personality was different. Her sense of humor was different. I just felt like that's when you know you have a great doc: I am so shocked right now at who this real woman is — versus the public persona or public creation that we've done. If I could bottle this conversation and translate it into cinematic film, people are gonna be really surprised and love meeting her — the real one."
When it came to making the film, "Pamela said from the beginning ... 'Nothing is off limits. There are no rules. Ask me anything,'" White recalls, adding, "Pamela by nature is very vulnerable — for better or worse because I think that has burned her a lot in her life and career."
The story was to be about Anderson's new life. How after having a famously wild and crazy Hollywood run, she moved back to her hometown of Ladysmith, British Columbia, in 2020, married a construction worker and lived happily-ish every after. While filming, however, the marriage to her fourth (legal) husband fizzled, leaving the woman — painted throughout the film as someone just hoping for true, last love — vulnerable. Then, Hulu announced Pam & Tommy, a biographical look at the infamous stolen home video belonging to Anderson and first husband Tommy Lee, which was edited into a sex tape and sold without the couple's OK. Anderson never profited off the tape, declining a $5 million offer for rights in the '90s, and while the Mötley Crüe drummer was essentially cheered on for it, Anderson was mocked on late-night TV. She's said it impacted not just her career, but her marriage to Tommy and later the lives of her sons. The show, starring Lily James and Sebastian Stan, was like kicking her while she was down.
"She didn't know about the Hulu show when we started making the doc," White says. As word broke that was coming out, followed by the trailer and then the actual release of the series, "Those were the moments that I could tell Pamela just wanted to get away." Not from his cameras, but "from the world" as she was "being retraumatized" by the theft while "knowing the whole country was talking about" — again. While she never asked White to stop filming, there were moments — like when a friend texted her the trailer innocently, thinking she was somehow involved in the show — "that she would clam up" or become "nauseated."
White adds, "That was really difficult to watch her go through. I give her a ton of credit for allowing me to continue to film during that because it was really rough."
It wasn't easy going through all her old videos (of which there were "hundreds and hundreds") either, including her weddings with Tommy, Kid Rock and Rick Salomon. At one moment in the film, she and Brandon are watching old footage and she shares with him a realization that after her head-over-heels, true love with Tommy, she never truly loved anybody else. She said she carries the failure of that relationship with her son's fathers with her, now at 55 and a four-time divorcee. Amid the emotional scene, she and Brandon took a break from filming to take a walk.
"Making this documentary with her stirred up all of these emotions," says White. "I think it was almost like therapy for her."
White never considered interviewing any of her ex-husbands in the project — including Tommy, whom she has a friendly relationship with these days. (He married Brittany Furlan in 2019.)
"From the beginning, my conversation with Pamela was: 'If I'm going to do this with you, I want to be with you a lot. I want this to be incredibly personal and raw and intimate. I basically want your life and your world through your eyes,'" he says. "And my vision for that was no talking heads in the film, including the ex-husbands. We were lucky and that we have that massive archive, so especially Tommy, but all the husbands, can kind of shine through on who they were through footage of them... I wanted it to be her life through her eyes and not through anyone else's."
White did note that Pamela, Brandon and Dylan "all have a good relationship with Tommy" and he was aware from the very beginning that she was going to be in a documentary and that the archive was going to be used. "He was very supportive of her telling the story."
The film covers Anderson's whole life, from a tumultuous childhood, during which she was molested by a babysitter, raped at age 12 and abused by boyfriends, to landing on the doorstep of Playboy in 1989 and reclaiming her sexuality through her early nude shoots. Then it was taking on Hollywood and falling in love, but getting burned by showbiz deals that haven't left her flush with cash, the stolen tape (which she felt like another rape) and love.
As for what White hopes people take away from the film, he says a reminder that she's human.
"If this documentary accomplishes anything for Pamela personally — because she's not a chess player, she's not enterprising, she doesn't need this documentary to boost her fame or celebrity — I hope it's that people will understand her in a way that she was misunderstood and will root for her a little more than they'll make fun of her," he says. "I think people kind of always have. I don't think Pamela was always such a derided punchline. I think people have like a deep down affection for her. But she was easy to laugh at because of the more the caricature parts of her. So I hope that this strips away the caricature [and] you see the human being behind it.
He adds, "And I think people are going to be ready to root for her for, you know, the final chapters of her life. I think she deserves to be an American icon — and I think I think people are ready to get behind her."
Pamela, A Love Story comes out Tuesday at 3 a.m. ET on Netflix. Her memoir, Love, Pamela, goes on sale the same day.