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Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman's FBI transcripts omitted from 'Operation Varsity Blues' film. The director explains why.

Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·8 min read
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The new Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal uses actual FBI transcripts for its reenactments of conversations between college admissions fixer, William "Rick" Singer (played by Matthew Modine), and his many elite clients. But director Chris Smith deliberately left the recordings of the scandal's most famous faces — Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — out of the finished film, which mixes dramatic recreations with news footage and new interviews with some of the actual individuals involved in the case.

"We focused on the transcripts that offered the most in terms of pushing the story forward," the filmmaker tells Yahoo Entertainment about that potentially controversial decision. "Also, Felicity and Lori's story were already covered extensively in the media, so in making a documentary on subject matter that people think they already know, we were excited about trying to tell aspects and parts of the story that people might not be as familiar with."

Certainly, the two actresses were front and center in the media coverage of Operation Varsity Blues the moment news of the FBI’s multi-year investigation hit headlines in 2019. As Smith's film points out, the case was tailor-made for public fascination, as so many of those charged existed at the cross-section of wealth and fame. Huffman and Loughlin had particularly high profiles thanks to their memorable stints on Desperate Housewives and Full House, respectively.

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 27: Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli, right, leave the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on Aug. 27, 2019. A judge says actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, can continue using a law firm that recently represented the University of Southern California. The couple appeared in Boston federal court on Tuesday to settle a dispute over their choice of lawyers in a sweeping college admissions bribery case. Prosecutors had said their lawyers pose a potential conflict of interest. Loughlin and Giannulli say the firms work for USC was unrelated to the admissions case and was handled by different lawyers. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli, right, leave the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on Aug. 27, 2019. (Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

"These are two public figures that people are aware of, so they were interested in following their story, as opposed to a lot of the lesser-known parents," Smith notes, adding that the wealth of footage of both actresses convinced him that it wasn’t necessary to "re-cast" them for the reenactments. "They were in so much media, I didn’t feel like it was going to be additive."

The fact that the media and the public zeroed in on Huffman and Loughlin — often to the exclusion of their respective husbands, William H. Macy and Mossimo Giannulli, who also appear in the transcripts — suggests a stark gender divide in coverage of the case. Macy was ultimately not charged for his alleged involvement, while Huffman pled guilty and received a two-week prison sentence, as well as a $30,000 fine and 250 hours of community service. Loughlin and Giannulli both pled guilty and were sentenced to two months and five months in prison, respectively. Smith declines to comment on whether he thinks the coverage was unduly focused on the two actresses. "I think that they were the highest-profile celebrities. I'm also not fully up to date on why [Huffman] was charged and went to prison and [Macy] didn’t. My writer [Jon Karmen] would be more equipped to answer that."

Even though they were celebrities, Smith tried to think of Huffman and Loughlin as parents first. And like all the parents ensnared in the case, they proved highly susceptible to Singer's methods of persuasion. "We're always looking for the human side of any story, and we tried to show some of the tactics that Rick would use to get these parents on board. There's numerous cases of him telling parents that their kids had no chance of getting into the school that they wanted to, and those things obviously would have an effect and could sway their decision to maybe make a poor decision. Obviously in hindsight, many regret that decision, but I think at the time they probably thought they were doing what was best for their kids."

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 13: Felicity Huffman, right, and her husband, William H. Macy, walk out of the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on Sep. 13, 2019. Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison and community service for her role in the college admissions scandal. (Photo by Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy, walk out of the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston on Sep. 13, 2019. (Photo: Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In the case of Loughlin and Giannulli, the documentary pointedly mentions that neither went to college, which may have been a motivating factor behind their desire to see their daughters — Olivia Jade and Isabella Rose — admitted to USC. "It seemed that way from what we had uncovered," Smith says. “You could see people that maybe didn't go to college that would want to present that opportunity for their kids." Interestingly, the film also features footage of Olivia Jade discussing her lack of interest in pursuing higher education, due in large part to her success as a YouTube star and social media influencer, who had relationships with brands like Sephora.

"We thought that was a detail that was overlooked: Here you had someone who was very successful and quite good at what they were doing," Smith explains. "She did not want to go to college and her parents were trying to get her to go — imagine what those conversations might have been like at home. You might have a little more empathy for her knowing what her path was, what her opportunities were and what she was walking away from. We were trying to paint a slightly more complex portrait of the whole landscape as opposed to painting it with one brush."

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 14:  (L-R) Lori Loughlin, Olivia Jade Giannulli and Isabella Rose Giannulli celebrate the Olivia Jade X Sephora Collection Palette Collaboration Launching Online at Sephora.com on December 14, 2018 in West Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images for Sephora Collection)
Lori Loughlin, Olivia Jade Giannulli and Isabella Rose Giannulli celebrate the Olivia Jade x Sephora Collection Palette Collaboration on Dec. 14, 2018 in West Hollywood, Calif. (Photo: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images for Sephora Collection)

In the wake of the scandal, Olivia Jade lost millions of social media followers as well as her Sephora partnership. According to reports, she and her sister are also no longer enrolled at USC. "We're in a point in history where any sense of controversy makes people very risk-averse,” Smith says of the personal fallout she experienced due to her parents’ actions. “It doesn't surprise me, but I don't feel fully qualified to judge whether that was right or wrong. I hope the film shows that, in many cases, the kids were unaware of what was happening, so you would hope that people have a greater understanding that they had nothing to do with the actual scheme."

The director adds that he reached out to Olivia Jade — as well as her parents, and Huffman and Macy — to tell their side of the story for the film. "We reached out to everyone involved with the story that we could, including their legal representation or, in some cases, talent representatives. Oftentimes we would either get a decline or no reply, but in some cases, people would say that they would like to participate, but were worried that it would have an adverse effect on their sentencing and so didn't feel comfortable doing an interview."

Former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer agreed to be interviewed for 'Operation Varsity Blues' (Photo: Netflix)
Former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer agreed to be interviewed for Operation Varsity Blues. (Photo: Netflix)

Smith did successfully convince former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer — who was the first person to be sentenced in the case — to appear on camera. Charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, Vandemoer pled guilty and avoided a prison sentence in favor of six months of home detention and a $10,000 fine. The judge presiding over his case deemed him to be the "least culpable" out of those charged, and he maintains his lack of awareness of Singer’s scheme in the film and indicates he felt pressured by Stanford to raise funds for his program.

"It was interesting to me to see how somebody who just wanted to be a sailing coach had an expectation to become a fundraiser," Smith says. "I think that you could understand the challenges there. The one thing I could say after meeting John and looking at his case is that I don't think that he would have engaged in illicit activity if he wasn't prompted. He doesn't seem to me to have natural tendencies to be a criminal. I think that he definitely felt like someone that was brought into Rick's world and became party to his actions."

As for the man at the center of the story, Singer is only seen onscreen in Operation Varsity Blues in news reports or as portrayed by Modine. "If there was anyone we could have talked to, it one hundred percent would have been him," Smith remarks. But Singer’s impact is deeply felt in the way the film presents a college admissions system that at first glance seems broken beyond repair. Smith pushes back against that point of view, though. "I wouldn’t say that Rick Singer himself is an indication that the system is broken. He was an outlier, and I would assume anyone else operating in a gray area like that is probably having a harder time retaining clients now."

William 'Rick' Singer as seen in news footage featured in 'Operation Varsity Blues' (Photo: Netflix)
William 'Rick' Singer as seen in news footage featured in Operation Varsity Blues. (Photo: Netflix)

On the other hand, Singer’s case exposes the wealth gap that exists at the collegiate level, as more privileged families have access to resources that are often out of reach for economically-challenged applicants. "It definitely feels like a two-tiered system," Smith agrees. "We talked to independent educational consultants, and they said it’s expensive to have their kind of private help. Some of them even said they would be happy if their business was eviscerated; they actually felt conflicted about it, and wish it wasn’t that way. It's a system that needs to be overhauled or revamped"

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is currently streaming on Netflix.

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