Erin Lee Carr is ready for a nap.
On Tuesday, Netflix debuted her documentary Britney vs Spears about the life and tangled conservatorship of Britney Spears on the eve of what turned out to be a life-changing hearing for the pop star as her father was suspended from the constrictive 13-year arrangement.
Carr had been poring over the case for more than two and a half years, and the reason she’s ready for a brief respite is reflected by her filmography. It boasts back-to-back-to-back similarly investigative and intense docs: 2019’s I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter about the woman convicted of involuntary manslaughter after encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide, 2019’s At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal about Larry Nassar’s serial sexual abuse as the team doctor faced accusations from more than 150 women and girls over two decades and 2020 miniseries How to Fix a Drug Scandal that primarily centered on the life and crimes of forensic chemist turned addict Sonja Farak.
While she wasn’t in the courtroom during Wednesday’s conservatorship hearing, Carr tweeted live updates, signaling that she’s far from done with Spears’ story even as the film was among the most streamed Netflix titles in more than 20 countries following its release. On Friday, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Carr before her deep sleep for a joint interview with fellow Britney vs Spears producer Sarah Gibson, with whom Carr worked on Heart of Gold.
The duo opened up on their trusted collaboration (“We’re feminists and we stick up for women and vulnerable people”), their responses to Jamie Spears’ suspension, the range of feedback they fielded on the film — from adoration (“I cried at the end”) to personal attacks (“Why did you do your eyeliner like that”) — and a “shocking” new project about a new subject (“the American school system is about to have its comeuppance”).
First things first: What is your response to Jamie being suspended as conservator?
Carr: We had Andrew Gallery, one of the subjects in our documentary, as well as a member of our team [in the courtroom]. When it was being reported from the inside what was happening, I said, “Holy fucking shit, is this going to happen today?” Two and a half years ago, when Sarah and I started making this film, it was unthinkable that we would get to that day. So, it was one of the most surreal moments, one percent for me and 1,000 percent for Britney Spears.
I was in the courtroom as well and I saw Andrew. I noticed his badge said “Netflix” on it and I’m curious if that’s an indication that there are plans for you to do a follow-up on this with him involved or maybe a second part to the doc?
Carr: I will defer to Sarah after this, but my main answer is that I will be involved in this story for the rest of my life. It’s something that I care deeply about. I feel that way about most of my documentaries and the subjects we tackle. We are at this incredibly interesting and weird inflection point in that the court is now going to be looking at and investigating what were the practices inside the conservatorship. There’s almost a way now for the real story behind the story that was exposed in our film [to be told]. As for what happens next with me and Sarah, I would say that I personally am going to take a nap for a while.
Gibson: Erin and I have made documentary careers out of standing up to bullies and institutions and people in positions of power that exploit vulnerable people. As Erin said, every film that we make lives on in us and our activism and it just propels us to continue to keep fighting and illuminating stories of bullies keeping vulnerable people down. We’re fighting the patriarchy here, and the patriarchy is alive.
The other aspect of this is that 70 days or so after Britney hired her own attorney Mathew Rosengart — who went to work in fighting for her best interests — she has gotten rid of her father. When you think about the fact that for 13 years, she was represented by a lawyer who didn’t listen and didn’t help her, the whole time we’ve been shaking our heads asking, “How did this go on for so long?” Governor Newsom signed a bill yesterday [Sept. 30] that they are calling the Free Britney Bill, which goes into effect January 2022, and it will hopefully protect people like Britney and others who are in this situation as it will let them hire their own attorneys. It’s insane that this was never the case before.
Carr: That’s what our whole film is about. It’s about her repeatedly asking for help and being ignored. Jenny Eliscu had that moment with her in the bathroom trying to help Britney obtain a new lawyer and that was the third time she had tried to do that and was dismissed. So, the story has really evolved and changed, and now there’s a meaningful change to the Britney Spears conservatorship saga.
That Jenny Eliscu moment was one of the biggest bombshells from the film, showing how long she’s wrestled with the arrangement. Why do you think she wasn’t heard?
Carr: My initial response, and I’m interested in yours Sarah, is that it was very important to look at [the assertion] that Britney was too sick so she needed a conservatorship but was well enough to do big tours. Look at the money, the exchanges, how much money Jamie Spears made as a result; really the monthly allowance for me is the most shocking thing. Jamie Spears got an allowance of $14,000 with $2,000 for office space and Britney, at the time, was getting $8,000 despite having a tour that was generating beyond $100 million. There were a lot of people comfortable taking a paycheck. When she wanted to make her own decisions and grow and say, “Well, if I do this, maybe I can get out of the conservatorship,” I really saw it as people moving the hoop and treating her as if she were a child: “If you do this, you can do this.” They moved the goal of what she was aiming for, which felt particularly psychologically punishing.
Gibson: They controlled her with [access] to her kids. It’s been proven in a lot of our research and others’ research that her kids were used as blackmail. She, as everyone knows, will tell you that the biggest love of her life is her kids and she would have done anything to keep them in her life. They were telling her that she couldn’t petition to end the conservatorship. It was an absolute hijacking of her life. I’m so grateful that she’s finally going to find some freedom and tranquility. In the end, the #FreeBritney movement had such a role in that by not backing down and they were gaslighted repeatedly. That was the thing in court, which I’m sure you witnessed, is how much gaslighting was going on by Jamie’s lawyers in terms of what Britney’s memories were of what happened over all these years. That was so sad for me to listen to when I was in court.
Vivian Thoreen repeatedly said that Britney Spears wasn’t cross-examined in either of the testimonies she gave. Aside from hiring Mathew Rosengart, her testimonies were the most significant turning points in this case. What is your response to the subject of cross-examination?
Carr: Sarah used the operative word, which is gaslighting. We live in a system where someone can speak to the court in 2019 and say, “This is what’s happening in my life.” But because it was not said in public, and this is my own opinion, the conservatorship continued. This year, Britney was able to harness and understand how to keep what she said public and even her lawyer, Sam Ingham, didn’t know what she was going to say. Finally, everyone had to pay attention. Like [Syndicate producer] Dan Cogan has said to me multiple times about the investigation and the reveal of information, “Sunlight is a disinfectant.”
Gibson: I don’t think that it’s fair to ever say to Britney Spears, “You’re on trial here.” The conservatorship was on trial. The fact that Jamie’s lawyers were suggesting she should be cross-examined and that she is misremembering when she’s paying all of their bills, it’s enraging. I could cry thinking about that.
Carr: A lot of tears.
You mentioned Dan Cogan. With a few notable exceptions of Dan and executive producer Jon Bardin, this is a film made by women about a woman. How did that impact the production and the story you told?
Gibson: I have a son who is the same age as one of Britney’s sons. I was a new mother when Britney was a new mother, and I saw the way the media treated her. I would tear up watching her carry her babies through parking lots with the media [surrounding her]. It was like a pack of hyenas, just to take photos of her while her children were freaking out. It used to break my heart. As a mother and as a woman telling the story with Erin, I always kept Britney as a mother in my heart. She was a working mother who was paying all of these bills for everybody. She wasn’t just showing up and performing when she was in pain, emotionally and physically, she was showing up, touring and making money to provide for her family, for her mother, for her father, for her sister and for her brother. That, to me, was always the core of the story we wanted to tell. We need to remind her how powerful she is.
Carr: I think now she knows how powerful she is, which is incredible. Sarah got to represent the working mom quarter, which was really important to her, and for me, I get to be out about my sobriety, which is a real gift of mine. I brought that to the story in helping to understand the nature of addiction and how it relates to mental health and finding out who you are. So, for us, as journalists and filmmakers, we brought these truly personal things that we felt were important to the story.
On another personal note, you open the film by revealing your personal fandom and obsession with Britney Spears when you were in your youth. Why did you decide to do that so early on in the film?
Carr: It was a conscious choice to set the tone for the film. Despite the chatter otherwise, this was always going to be a film that didn’t gawk at her and what happened. It’s really rooted in [a genuine love] for Britney and how do we celebrate her being incredible, while also taking a look at this takeover that happened. I so remember putting that flower-covered CD in and playing it over and over. My twin sister was a [Christina Aguilera] person and I was a Britney person. The other day, [Britney vs Spears producer Kaley Roberts] and I were in the car and we put the top down and played “Womanizer.” Everyone talks about Britney’s Instagram but just listen to her music and think of how many hits she’s had. People say, “Well, Britney didn’t write it,” but Britney is those songs.
She is idolized as a world-famous pop superstar, and often that distinction is trailed by references to the breakdown. Those images have been seen everywhere and you made a choice not to use any, instead including a chilling image of an ambulance being swarmed by paparazzi. Tell me about your decision to use that scene and your takeaway from the paparazzi culture that profited off her and surrounded her for so many years?
Carr: If I’m speaking super honestly, that’s why the questions around exploitation have been really confusing to me and Sarah as filmmakers because we made a conscious choice not to re-victimize her by using those images. I hope people feel the empathy when they see the film. It’s important to see the cameras in that night because it’s one of the most consequential nights of this whole saga. But you’re not going to see her inside that ambulance in our film, you’re just not. We don’t need to see that again. We don’t need to see the umbrella again. We don’t need to see her shaving her head again. Those choices are an element that I feel proudest of because it really diverts from the pack.
You brought up exploitation and there have been critics who questioned the motives of another Britney Spears documentary. Her fiancé Sam Asghari said he hopes profits from the film go towards fighting injustice. What is your response?
Gibson: Documentary filmmakers are, in many ways, the lowest-paid filmmakers in any industry. We work for years with flat rates. If you break down every waking hour we spend on making these films, it would be a minimum wage job. I find it so funny that people like Jamie Spears are calling these films exploitative when he’s made millions off of his daughter and so have his lawyers. I think that it’s so important to shine a light on how the legal system has failed vulnerable people, and the fact that conservatorship reforms are happening now because of what happened to Britney is a tiny silver lining. Her case is going to bring about change for others. By us documenting this historical moment, we’re reminding everyone that this cannot happen again.
Carr: I specifically support Sam Asghari using his voice. If you look at it from the outside and see this big company [Netflix] and this [big team of ladies] making a film, it’s really understandable to feel that way, given the level of exploitation that he’s had to witness. We understand that, but it’s also important to explain where we’re coming from. I’m a kid from Montclair, New Jersey, who fell in love with Britney Spears and had an opportunity to work on this for years. Sarah is a social justice activist. While it may look like we had these big trailers, it’s really just us and our beautiful team doing the work, day by day. I hope that message is out there.
I wanted to ask about Adnan Ghalib and Sam Lutfi. You had the only interviews with them, I believe, and I read in your Vanity Fair interview that you sat with Adnan for seven interviews, amounting to 25 hours of footage. What was hardest to cut?
Carr: There was this incredible story he told about hanging out with Britney and there was a trucker hat in the back of the car. When they went out, Britney put the trucker hat on and suddenly, this company that made the hat became the hottest thing in the world. She had this Midas touch that anything she touched blew up. Those tiny moments revealed an economic reality. And we really tried to look at these intense claims of what Adnan saw, and we worked to crosscheck and verify to make sure that the information we put forward lined up with what the story was. The most powerful thing that Adnan said was how, when Jamie interceded, he said, “I am Britney Spears now.” That was one of the moments that we were able to include but there were so many more. There’s been a lot of chatter about using Sam Lutfi in the movie because he is so derisive. He’s a very small part because we really grappled with his part in the story.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. The fact that we are sitting here talking about a documentary and people have so many opinions about it is profoundly different than it was five years ago, even 10 years ago. We are in an age where conversations about ethics and storytelling are deeply important. We all have perspectives on the maker of it, but the pure fact that people have all these opinions is so teachable and it makes me learn a lot in the process.
Speaking of opinions, many hold that Britney suffered from having too many predatory men around her. After I shared coverage from this week, some people reached out to share concern that when she’s free of the conservatorship, predators will begin circling because so many know her private business including what’s in her bank account. What do you make of the future and how she may or may not be protected?
Carr: It feels like misogyny to me. It’s the [assertion] that Britney can’t handle it when she’s in charge of herself. There are people in her life who will help her, particularly Sam Asghari who she’s been dating for four-and-a-half years. I think [those comments] are another version of treating Britney like she’s a minor versus an adult. There are safeguards in place now that were not there then.
Gibson: Like every other celebrity in the world, she needs a really good security team that’s not going to be putting microphones in her bedroom. She needs a really good business manager who’s going to manage her finances. Every celebrity on the planet has that and why is Britney any different? She just needs good safety and good financial management.
What responses have you been fielding about the film?
Carr: I’ve been getting really beautiful messages like, “I cried at the end,” and “I have a role model for my daughter now.” Or, “Erin, why did you do your eyeliner like that? You look terrible. Why is your face like that?” I’m getting messages from people who are not fond of women putting themselves in movies. But we’re tough cookies. We can learn and take it.
I know you anticipated that. How are you processing it now?
Carr: It’s maybe one percent or half a percent of what Britney gets. My family keeps saying, “Don’t read the comments.” But I say, “You try not reading the comments.” I will admit that I’m a little burned when people tag me and say, “You look terrible.” But this is what a woman looks like. It’s literally what a woman looks like. I’m not a glamazon pretending to investigate a story for two years. I’m transitioning to being able to laugh about it because I’ve been studying the nature of the internet my whole life and people often don’t see people who are in documentaries as real people. They see them as characters.
I read that you spoke to Britney’s family on background. Have you fielded any phone calls from them in response to the documentary?
Carr: I can’t say. To protect people’s privacy, we can’t [comment].
I wanted to go back to Andrew Gallery, who worked on For the Record, a documentary that you pulled footage from but it doesn’t seem to be available to stream anywhere. Her comments in it are so revelatory and pertinent to what’s going on. Why do you think that film is no longer available?
Carr: That is one of the 40 mysteries that has got to be solved. I would say that there are no coincidences in this story.
What’s next for both of you?
Carr: We’re working on something that Sarah is directing for beautiful Netflix — and it is shocking.
Gibson: Yeah, get ready. Erin’s executive producing it and I’m co-directing it. And it’s wild. Let’s just say that the Catholic church had a comeuppance, the Olympics and USA gymnastics had a comeuppance, and the American school system is about to have its comeuppance.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.