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Framing Britney Spears may tell Britney Spears' story, but it does so without the involvement of Britney Spears herself. (A source tells ET she "is aware" of the documentary but has yet to see it.) According to director Samantha Stark, however, that was not by design.
"There's a big ethical conflict for me in making a film where the central person in it isn't participating," Stark tells ET's Lauren Zima. "It's really something that I've been thinking about this entire time that's really challenging. I guess I would want to say to her, 'Call me. I want to hear your side.'"
The documentary, the latest from The New York Times Presents, began as a look back at the misogynistic media coverage of Spears throughout her career through a post-Me Too lens. The scope expanded as the singer entered an ongoing legal battle with her father, Jamie Spears, over her conservatorship, which the 39-year-old has been under since she was 26.
The production did reach out to Spears for an interview but was rejected by her management team. "Most of the time as The New York Times, if I want to interview somebody who's famous, I would call up their publicist and say, 'Can you send this request to this person?' A lot of times, the person will review it and give it back to the publicist. But we're unclear whether that happened," Stark shares. "We went through those usual places, and then we also went through people who know her or know people who know her to get requests in. So, we asked in several different ways, but it is still unclear if she definitely got them."
Stark's team even tried DMing her. "We tried everything," she says. "Nothing."
"Since Britney has such a tight circle around her, in part because of the conservatorship -- or it's allowed to be that way because of the conservatorship -- journalists haven't really been able to interview her freely. We, as The New York Times, haven't interviewed her, because we want to be able to do it freely with no one trying to adjust what she says or anything," Stark continues. 'It just feels like you can't ask Britney."
With many of Spears' conservatorship files sealed, the Framing Britney Spears team also put in requests to interview Jamie Spears and members of his legal team, as well as her mother, Lynne, and former associate Sam Lutfi, among others. They either did not receive a response or were told no. "We did get a couple people yell at us and hang up," Stark says.
Stark's team connected with Spears' ex-husband, Kevin Federline, through his lawyer, though he also declined to participate. "I think Kevin is very concerned about the privacy of his kids," she says. "That's our assumption from that in his not wanting to get involved."
"We had a spreadsheet with hundreds and hundreds of people, and we had three people calling everyone. 'No, no, no, no, no,'" Stark explains. "There's so many barriers because the court documents are sealed. The doctors who are involved in those and the different court-appointed people, they're trying to protect the privacy of their client. We have those barriers of not being able to ask the actual people, and then we have the barriers of NDAs. So many people around Britney have NDAs and they would have to pay a lot of money if they said anything. People were scared. Jamie's team has sued some fans before and there's a legal threat that way. I mean, we are The New York Times so we weren't worried. We wanted to go after everybody, but we've gotten some calls from some lawyers, sure."
Instead, the documentary utilizes existing media coverage, alongside interviews with legal experts (including one lawyer that went on to join Jamie's legal team), members of the #FreeBritney movement and people closely involved with Spears' career in the early days, including a rare sit-down with her former assistant and longtime friend, Felicia Culotta.
"I think anyone close to Britney really feels the power of getting burned by the media. I think they have tried so many times to be truthful and they get misconstrued," Stark says. "I mean, the media was so mean-spirited towards Britney. Felicia hadn't spoken in many years and she just didn't want to, because she didn't know what would happen with the interview amongst other things. Now is the time that she felt like she wanted to say something."
"Felicia is one of the people who has spent the most time with Britney, who knows Britney the best," she explains, confirming that Spears and Culotta are still connected. "I remember Felicia said to me, 'Everybody's trying to know what's in Britney's heart, and there are just a handful of those who know what's in her heart.' And people keep searching for that... It was very challenging to not have people who talk about her and make assumptions. So, many people want to say their whole think piece on Britney, and they don't know. But Felicia actually knows her."
And still, there are only so many answers that Framing Britney Spears can provide, especially as Spears' case continues on in court. (Her conservatorship has been extended to September 2021, with Jamie Spears' remaining co-conservator of her estate.) Stark hopes that eventually she will be able to do a follow-up that continues to shine a light on Spears' experience, perhaps with her involvement.
"I would like to," she says. "There's a lot for us to dig into, whether it's The New York Times print reporting or on film. We'll see what happens, but it does feel like there's more to follow and more to look into."
The New York Times Presents Framing Britney Spears is streaming on Hulu. Here's how to watch the documentary.