‘Framing Britney Spears’ Looks at a Pop Icon Stripped of Control

A new documentary shines a light on the conservatorship system, the Free Britney movement—and our own complicity in the pop star’s breakdown

There’s a lot of confusion about—and just as much interest in—what’s going on with Britney Spears. A new film attempts to clear the air.

On Friday, February 5, Hulu and FX present Framing Britney Spears, a New York Times documentary that takes an in-depth look at the pop star’s life and the court-ordered conservatorship she’s been under for a dozen years and counting. The documentary covers everything from Spears’s small-town roots and how she made it as a late-’90s/early-’00s icon to how the media portrayed her image and sexuality. Neither Spears nor anyone from her team responded to requests to take part in the making of the documentary, which means it heavily relies on people who once knew Spears, including Felicia Culotta, Spears’s longtime assistant and chaperone.

In recent months, Spears has requested the court to remove her father, Jamie Spears, as her conservator. A judge denied the request, but the makers of Framing Britney Spears speak to Adam Streisand, a trial lawyer who met with Spears and her family about a possible conservatorship in the Beverly Hills Hotel 12 years ago.

“The first question I had was, ‘Does Britney have the capacity to be able to hire me?'” Streisand tells the camera. “Does she have the ability to take my advice? The first thing is Britney was able to make the judgment—hey, I get what’s going on, I get that I’m not going to be able to resist this conservatorship, or avoid this conservatorship. That’s a pretty sound judgment. The second thing was she said, ‘I don’t want my father to be the conservator.’ That was her one request. She wanted a professional or somebody independent.”

Other lawyers are featured in the documentary and offer insight into how conservatorships work, while people behind the Free Britney movement, a fan-led campaign to draw attention to what adherents believe is an unfair conservatorship, explain why they’re so heavily invested in Britney Spears and her freedom.

In advance of the premiere, we chatted with the film’s director, Samantha Stark, about the research process, what she learned, and what she hopes viewers will take away from the movie. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you want to explore Britney Spears for a documentary?

[New York Times senior editor] Liz Day pitched it. Originally, it was before all these court filings started coming out, so when we originally pitched it, there hadn’t been any public record indications that Britney wanted anything changed with the conservatorship. We didn’t think there was going to be much change on that front, so we actually began looking at the media coverage that had happened about her with the post-#MeToo lens and realizing how much of the media coverage was so misogynistic in a way that feels like it wouldn’t fly today. And then it also asks these questions, like why did nobody bring up anything when these late-night hosts are making fun of her, her sexuality as a teenager, like why didn’t we as a society say don’t do that?

I was also really interested in these two images that have traveled with Britney her whole life. One is of her shaving her head and one is brandishing this umbrella, and it feels like it’s in everyone’s subconscious. I wanted to know what was outside the frame of those still images.

As we started filming, these court filings started coming out where Britney is indicating that she wants things in the conservatorship to change, which you can’t underestimate how groundbreaking that was. That really made us want to dig into conservatorship law and see what is legal and why.

You secured an interview with Felicia Culotta, her longtime assistant/chaperone. What is tough to get her to agree to appear in the film?

It was really hard to get anyone to talk at all at first. There’s been this cone of silence around Britney for so many years that it feels like no one wants to be the first person to talk. We had a spreadsheet of hundreds of people with anyone we could think of and we sent requests and called people. A lot of people talked to us off the record, but it was hard to get people to go on the record and on camera with their face. We have an all-female crew doing this. We wrote out our whole pitch, and wanted to reassess things and correct a lot of misinformation about her out there.

We wanted to find a female record executive to talk about her early career and we found Kim Kaiman, who is in the piece. She was really surprised that we reached out to her because people don’t really ask her for interviews about this. We talked to her a lot and she reached out to Felicia for us and that’s how we got it. It was several phone conversations and Felicia was impressed that we were going to go out to Mississippi to interview her in person and she showed us around her town and it gave us more of a sense of what Britney’s life was like growing up.

Speaking to a female record executive as opposed to a male, how do you think that will change people’s perception of Britney?

What [Kaiman] said and what was corroborated by several other people was how much control Britney had over the creation of her image. The point that kept being made was that teenagers have sexuality. The reason Britney was so successful was that she captured the dichotomy of what it’s like to be a teenage girl so well because she had sexuality and wanting to be an adult woman, and she also had a kid in her and that’s true about many teenagers. She got a lot of shame for that and there were a lot of people thinking she’s being sexualized, she doesn’t know what she’s doing, this is disgusting, she’s a child and I think that was older people doing that, not the millions of tweens and teens who felt like something about her really spoke to them. We discovered in the piece this kind of strength and control she has over her body and her space as a young person that I think is one of the big reasons she is successful.

Her target audience was 12- and 13-year-olds. Kim marketed her as your friend who you idolize but at the end of the day, she has the same hopes and dreams you do. It was surprising to me because when I was interviewing a lot of these Free Britney people, and the vast majority of them were in their late 20s, early 30s, almost all of them. And it’s the same people who Kim marketed Britney toward are now standing outside the courthouse protesting. That was a revelation for me because it worked so well because they really responded to seeing her as this friend they looked up to. And now years later, seeing your friend who you looked up to in a situation where it’s unclear whether she’s happy or not, they’re still, like, this is my friend I idolize.

A lot of people in the Free Britney movement are asking legitimate questions that we should all ask about the conservatorship system.

What did you think of the Free Britney fans?

A lot of people write them off as conspiracy theorists. That’s a really easy thing to do. I was surprised at how in-depth and investigative they were going, and there are some lawyers who are a part of this group and some people who have witnessed conservatorship abuse because there is abuse that happens in the conservatorship system. And a lot of them are asking legitimate questions that we should all ask about the conservatorship system. Where are there conflicts of interest? Where are there loopholes? We don’t know why Britney is in one, but for example, a lot of people think it has something to do with living with a mental illness. Should somebody living with a mental illness be subject to a conservatorship is a legitimate question to ask.

It’s important not to write them off as conspiracy theorists. Of course we’re vetting everything they say and we’re not including anything that isn’t true.

Was there anything you didn’t include that you wish made it in the documentary?

This could be a six-hour series. I heard a lot of these incredible stories from fans who were gay boys growing up with her and this idea that she was criticized for her sexuality from a young age and was rebellious throughout her career after that. A lot of the loudest voices in the Free Britney movement are gay men who were boys when she was becoming popular. I found that very moving.

What are you hoping this documentary will accomplish?

I hope it gives viewers a more accurate and clear perspective on who Britney is and who she was. I hope it makes everyone question our own complicity in the awful things that were done to her by us, by the consumers. The reason Us Weekly was able to pay these paparazzi so much money was because people were buying the magazines. At one point Wesley Morris, one of the writers in our film, says, “No one was helping her because there was too much money to be made off her suffering,” and I think we show that in a new way. I also hope people come away with a look at the conservatorship system and think about the questions that it raises as systemic issues are there.

Framing Britney Spears airs Feb. 5 on FX and streams on Hulu.

RELATED: Inside the Battle for Britney Spears

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