When it comes to filmmaking, few components are more crucial to the finished work than editing. Think for a moment about what those individuals are actually doing; taking dozens of hours of raw footage and making frame-by-frame, often zero-sum decisions on what to present, in what order, and for how long. And we’re just talking about narrative features with footage provided by a structured screenplay and the guiding vision of a director.
Imagine the herculean task of having to edit down hundreds of hours of pre-existing interviews, archive footage, tabloid photos, music videos, news reports, and talking head interviews into just 74 minutes. That was the challenge faced by editors Geoff O’Brien and Pierre Takal in shaping Framing Britney Spears into arguably the most talked-about The New York Times Presents episode on FX and FX on Hulu, for which they have received an Outstanding Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program nomination at the 73rd Primetime Creative Arts Emmys. I had the privilege of speaking with them about what they had to work with: “Endless amounts [of footage], easily in the 100’s. In the initial outreach, we went to work reviewing the footage immediately available to us” was Geoff’s answer to my opening question about the scale of what they had to work with. Pierre noted that “Geoff did the big lift of laying it all out at first, and he thankfully had a lot of freedom in that regard.”
They were grateful to director Samantha Stark on the balance she struck between creative freedom and outlining a firm vision for this documentary – “She didn’t want to use any photos or footage that could be interpreted as gratuitous or paint her in a degrading light. But she gave us leeway in selecting which footage and quotes from her friends and associates we felt best conveyed emotions at these crucial points in her life.”
“But as we went, [the amount of footage] kept growing. Even an excerpt from an MTV special that highlighted our overall point would take an hour just to review.” So with the sheer number of individuals and quotes they had to work with, what was the key to efficiently laying out Britney’s story? To Pierre, it was all about ensuring the crucial perspectives were shared, “We had a lot more fan accounts of how she helped them than we could possibly include, and had to be cut for time. With time constraints like that, you have to make a decision on one expressing what was felt by many.” But that doesn’t mean those extra pieces of support and outreach didn’t impact their work. Geoff was especially surprised by how many of “the #FreeBritney people now were the young teens when she was first popular.” For those fans, Britney Spears is more than just a pop star. She was a part of their lives. Her music defined the art of their formative years. This activism they’re engaging in is, to them, the least they could do for someone who was there for them when they were figuring themselves out.
But it wasn’t just the fans who enlightened Geoff: “The person that comes to mind is the photographer Danny [Ramos]. It was a different culture then. There was a feeling back then that if you were a celebrity, you wanted this life, and being pursued by paparazzi just comes as an ‘occupational hazard.’ Only recently do we now acknowledge that as cruel and unfair. Danny personified that era of being consumers of that predatory mindset of celebrity culture, and how far we’ve come from it.” Pierre added, “Then you have Brittain Stone, the way he expressed himself was very innocent and unaware, and we trust you to make up your own mind about what he’s saying. We took pains to make sure that every perspective is told through these people and their miniature stories.”
After reviewing her meteoric rise to fame and public falling out, Framing Britney Spears then explains what a “conservatorship” is and summarizes the convoluted legal maneuvering that ended up with her in a permanent one. The granular details of that conservatorship and its legal justifications are mostly elided in favor of ensuring a “layman” like myself could wrap my head around Britney’s situation, and according to Geoff, this was very much intentional: “Definitely we were going for understandability and bringing a new concept to people that they may have not heard of before. We weren’t setting out to make a legal argument.” Pierre likewise worked to ensure this part of the film provided the most succinct possible context for general public comprehension, adding, “I had no idea what a conservatorship was going into this project, and starting out, the movie lays out her career. But over time, we wanted to expose how this woman was treated and, more broadly, how women in general have been treated, with conservatorships as a too-common vehicle for controlling women.”
For Geoff and Pierre, this project was an opportunity to give back some of the humanity and agency that has been stolen for her for nearly her entire life. “We got access to a lot of personal photographs … near the end of post-production. We decided to add those photos to humanize her and remind the audience of who she is outside of all this,” was how Geoff described his sense of responsibility to this project. “Our goal was to show her life in context, even the moments that may on their face appear to be personally embarrassing for her.”
Pierre has seen the unfortunate toll of fame before: “I recently cut a documentary on the boy band One Direction – those kids never had a normal adolescence. No coaching, no guidance on how to navigate the world of fame. It’s brutal in that sense. If you don’t have a chance to grow and learn and play and do the things we all do as young adults, you don’t know how to function among most people because you’ve never had an opportunity to grow and mature. There’s a great word that Wesley Morris brings up in the movie: vulturous. I think that sums it up.”