Let’s face it, if you came of age in the early noughties, the advent of the war in Iraq and Britney Spears attacking a paparazzo’s car with a golf umbrella are likely equally indelible as watershed moments. 24 hour celebrity coverage began to operate in a world with no real rules in place for something not yet clearly defined and unlike today’s starlets, back then, many were drawn to it, without the safety net of weeks of coaching, negotiations with photo agencies and David Copperfield sleights of hand (Taylor Swift in the suitcase. Google it). They saw the press as friends, personal photographers, allies, enemies and counselors and gave them unprecedented, unsanitized access into their lives in a way never seen, before or since. But what we rarely ever talk about is how destructive it is to have your every move followed and how, in the case of these women, most of whom had known massive fame since childhood, the coverage was so much better when their lives were falling apart.
@heidibpratt, a brilliant filmmaker and the owner of Party Like It’s 2007, dedicated to preserving and revisiting the days when socialites, singers, and DayGlo Orange soon-to-be drunk drivers roamed along the sidewalk in front of Teddy’s, smoking and chatting with the men who would later sell these moments as evidence of their debauchery) decided to talk about it. He created a series of documentaries highlighting how invasive and frightening the media circus had become and the collective dismissal about the ethics of watching someone deteriorate from mental illness. Like ‘Black Mirror’ before ‘Black Mirror’, except the footage is real and all the more fucking eerie for it. Since uploading the first to Vimeo in 2013, his films have reached almost two million views, been watched by none other than current tabloid superstar Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and Speidi (who fittingly watched the documentary about themselves) and ‘I’m Not Crazy’, a haunting look at Amanda Bynes’ sad, yet titillating fall from grace recently had its first ever public screening at BFI Southbank. Having seen it twice now, I wanted to talk about why he felt it was so easy for so many of us to jeer at and actively encourage a cry for help, why so few of us didn’t and how it keeps happening time and time again.
What made you want to do the documentary? ‘I’m Not Crazy’ and your other films, like ‘Miss American Dream’ and ‘Kylie’, all build on the same theme; the press hounding, and in many cases exacerbating the emotional toll taken on young women who grew up in the limelight. What about that phenomenon specifically interested you?
I initially decided to make ‘I’m Not Crazy’ in the summer of 2013, shortly after Amanda was charged with reckless endangerment which is when those infamous photos of her exiting the precinct with the disheveled blonde wig were taken. That moment was so devastating to witness, but I was still so surprised that the general public wasn’t fully grasping the gravity of her situation and continued to view it as a source of tabloid entertainment, like a train wreck they couldn’t turn away from. I specifically got the idea for how to produce it from a film about Lindsay Lohan called “LXHXN” by Graven Images, which was released only two months before I started putting together ‘I’m Not Crazy’. The concept in its entirety came together pretty quickly in my mind but I did not anticipate this would become a project that I would later devote 2-3 more years on and also end up creating 3 other films on the subject.
The underlying narrative of each film for me is that there was (at that time and still is) a major disconnect between how I felt these women were viewed by the public, whether it was caused by misogyny or a lack of understanding and sympathy about mental health issues, and what they were actually going through.
On a personal level, I found I identified with elements of the story and the actual process of making the films was a reflective space for me to let go of some emotional baggage, from also feeling like I was perceived in a negative, harmful way (which for me was being “the gay kid”, growing up in a Kansas high school) that I’d been holding on to. That gaslighting and sense of isolation can take such a toll on your mental health.
Back when I was making the films, it was important for me to humanize the story in any way possible, hopefully for others to realize that there needs to be a dramatic change in how we (as observers of the media) and the media itself should properly handle these situations. And not even in regards to just celebrities – but this was a good starting point. Based on what I’ve researched, I think Britney and Amanda are lucky to be alive today because the way their problems were nationally magnified could have easily resulted in them losing their lives.
My films are now a few years old but I feel like it’s only recently that the conversations we’ve had about these women have improved in the media, with Britney and Amanda both being in treatment at the moment, and the overall response from the media and the public finally being more sensitive, for the most part.
How long did it take you to find all the clips? I think seeing someone’s life unfold linearly through the media lens made it more arresting, but there’s a pointed lack of narration I think some find initially jarring in all of your movies. Was that a conscious choice or something that happened organically?
I mean, finding the clips isn’t necessarily time-consuming, as their lives have been readily accessible at every point via YouTube or whatever. What was time-consuming was deciding which footage was the most relevant, that took a few months, during the process of each film, to comb through it all in its entirety. Then I had to download the video using a converter link, edit it down. ‘Miss American Dream’ was the most time consuming out of the 4 films. I’ve probably watched almost every video I could find of Britney Spears on YouTube, even the entire X17 archive (which is now restricted). It took me 2-3 months over a summer, some days where I spent 12 hours non-stop and didn’t leave my apartment, to put everything together.
I didn’t really think there was a need to add my own commentary (through text or voice over) because I felt like that could be accomplished through the editing process. Every clip had a very specific purpose that leads the viewer in to the next point. It may appear that the film as a whole was just sort of this effortless copy and paste of clips on a timeline but it was far more involved and thought out than that. I wanted it to feel like a real movie rather than a documentary with a play by play. In some moments I did include a brief paragraph, but only if I felt slightly more clarification was needed about a particular event.
Making it more like a film and less like a documentary was an attempt to have the viewer experience the story in real time, and empathize with the ‘protagonist’, whereas to me, a documentary style would feel more analytical and has sort of been done before in articles. Like, an example would be watching the footage of Britney being hounded at Target during her child custody case – I wanted someone to watch that and think “wow, why is no one helping her or leaving her alone?” Rather than “the paparazzi culture was crazy back then”.
As someone who is heavily invested in pop culture, what do you think of the recent resurgence of ‘nostalgia’ content, and quite often, the lack of research involved when some aspect of everything that happened is suddenly relevant again, respectively?
Well, the lack of research goes to show that some publications would prefer to get clicks and utilize nostalgia as a hook. Those type of stories, unfortunately, still generate massive attention so it’s more profitable to have an article using a tone that indicates some sort of imminent “meltdown” or one that references a past crisis, without any real context, to serve their agenda. To this day, they’re still milking Britney’s “breakdown” story dry. Think of all the money that was made back in 2007 on Britney, I don’t think we can even quantify how much has been made referencing events that occurred years ago. There’s a clip that comes to mind when Adnan Ghalib spoke to Entertainment Tonight and he said: “people don’t want happy in Hollywood, whatever it takes – scandal sells.” And I think that still rings true.
You mentioned feeling like you were perceived in a negative way and I think the documentary resonated with me for the same reason, but it also reminded me, and I think many others, what an impact celebrity culture in the early ’00s had on me, both positively and negatively. In my case, the negative impact was exacerbating my horrible body image. What does that era mean to you?
The 2000s were just a hot mess overall, primarily because no one knew how to manage the increasing demand of the 24/7 news cycle. There were zero boundaries. I just remember at the height of it, checking Perez or watching E! News every day after school – it was my complete escape. I had friends in middle school but I was so insecure that my top friends on MySpace ended up being celebrities because I was too afraid to put my actual friends (who were girls) in the ranking which could be a signal of my “questionable” sexuality. Being that young and seeing the same figures like Britney, Paris or Lindsay over and over, I felt a certain closeness to them even though I had never met them before. They were almost this ideal of perfection, that I wanted to live by, even though they were constantly lambasted by the press. The fact that they seemed so carefree was something I aspired to, I could never have done it. A boy in my gym class once cackled at me in front of my classmates while we were seated against the wall for Roll Call; “Hey Will, let me guess, your iPod only has Britney Spears and Hannah Montana?”. Which, of course, he was correct, but the way he pointed it out in front of everyone was humiliating. So, I would go home and isolate myself in my room and just scroll through all the content about these ‘party girls’ having the time of their lives, to fulfill my own social needs.
What’s the main thing you’d want people to take away from ‘I’m Not Crazy’?
I wanted my original takeaway when making ‘I’m Not Crazy’ was just for people to be more understanding of what Amanda went through since the media made her into such a joke and people seeing it happen were so detached from any real concern about her. But I hope that now, it can be thought-provoking, beyond her individual story, to anyone who sees it and they won’t be as quick to judge or mock or vilify whenever this does happen to public figures in future.