The acclaimed documentarian joins The Spool to discuss Brooke Shields, her work, her life, and her relationship to “Brooke Shields” the image.
In 1981, Roger Ebert wrote a profile on Brooke Shields in which he—quoting a press agent—said, “She will be with us for the rest of our lives.” That turned out to be remarkably prescient, but neither the agent nor Ebert could have anticipated the myriad number of ways Shields has been with us in that time. Yes, she is extraordinarily beautiful. But many equally attractive people have come and gone, while Shields remains a consistent part of pop culture’s firmament. From her early appearances in films like Pretty Baby (1978), The Blue Lagoon (1980), and Endless Love (1981) and her controversial TV ads for Calvin Klein jeans, all of which focused on her sexuality while she was literally a child, to her shift in the later Eighties to become America’s Virgin to her reinvention as a comedic actress in the Nineties to becoming an advocate for those suffering from postpartum depression (and suffering the slings and arrows of Tom Cruise in full asshole mode as a result), Shields has been a persistently relevant figure in the American popular consciousness.
While Shields has lived much of her life in the public eye, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, a fascinating two-part documentary from Lana Wilson now streaming on Hulu, proves that she still has a great deal to say. Given access to nearly a half-century’s worth of archival material, which she presents alongside contemporary interviews with Shields, Wilson paints a fascinating, eye-opening portrait that demands a new consideration of Shields and her career. Much of her story is harrowing, be it specific to her life—her wrenching descriptions of sexual assault and her tumultuous relationship with her mother—or experiences too many young women in the spotlight share. (If you think having someone inquire about the state of your virginity sounds awful, imagine having talk show hosts do so on live television.) And yet, not only has Shields survived, she is thriving. She has found peace with herself and is able to look back on her life with a sense of control over it.
Last week, I spoke to Wilson, the director of such acclaimed documentaries as After Tiller (2013), The Departure (2017), and Miss Americana (2020), about the film and the meaning of Brooke Shields.
As your film clearly shows, Brooke Shields has represented many different things to different people over the past few decades. When you first became aware of her, long before getting to know her and doing your film, what did she represent to you personally?
I am in my 30s, so I first remember encountering Brooke in the 90s. I was a kid, and I remember Suddenly Susan. She was someone that I knew was very famous and very beautiful, but I don’t think I knew why she was very famous. I think I was a teenager when her book about postpartum depression came out, and I had a sense that this was a big deal. That was what I knew about her going into this. I hadn’t seen her early films, and there were so many things that I didn’t know about Brooke Shields going into this project.
I think a lot of the controversy and debates that have surrounded Brooke since she was a child and what she symbolized at different times—I think a lot of those debates are still happening now.Lana Wilson
I am just old enough to recall when those earlier films and the various controversies around her originally came up, and it all came back while watching your film. It was especially amazing to see those old Calvin Klein ads again and realize that I wasn’t exaggerating them in my mind and that they really were that blatant.
I didn’t know about any of that stuff before starting this project because I was coming to Brooke Shields much later in time. Looking back at all of that now, I found it incredibly resonant in a contemporary way, and that is why I was so excited about this project. I think a lot of the controversy and debates that have surrounded Brooke since she was a child and what she symbolized at different times—I think a lot of those debates are still happening now. It is a never-ending argument and conversation, and I thought that this is an incredibly relevant moment to look back at these debates through a present-tense contemporary lens.
With your previous films, you have taken on wildly different subjects. In the case of Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, it comes on the heels of Miss Americana, the documentary that you made on Taylor Swift, and while the two films are quite different in many ways, there are certain points of commonality, particularly in how they look at two incredibly famous young women who are looking to reclaim their own narratives after years in the public eye. What was it about this particular project that made you want to take it on?
Basically, the idea was from Ali Wentworth and George Stephanopoulos. They had the idea to make this documentary and reached out to me about directing it. I went to meet Brooke in person, and I had read both of her books, so I knew already that she was smart and deep. When I met her in person, I thought that even more so—she was really intelligent and really funny and a really introspective person. I was impressed by her, but I think the thing that really made me excited about it—and which also made it stylistically very different from Miss Americana—was that at that first meeting, Brooke handed me a hard drive, and it had all this footage and never-before-seen material and photos her mother took that she had collected over the decades.
I took that hard drive home and started opening random files from over a fifty-year period of time, and I was struck by the wild range of what I was seeing and all of these crazy situations that Brooke was in from childhood to the present. I was also struck by seeing 12-year-old Brooke on the hot seat during this press tour for Pretty Baby. I saw all these talk show hosts both praising her beauty and sensuality and criticizing her for being too sexual and for going too far, and for participating in what some people felt was child pornography. As I watched these clips on my computer, I got chills because I knew that experience because, in a weird way, I grew up in that too. I grew up as a girl, and so I lived that—being told that the way you look is the most important thing but that you can’t go too far or be too sexual or the punishments and judgments are severe. I thought that we hadn’t really progressed very much as a society since then. Wouldn’t it be interesting to look at Brooke’s life now through this archival material by pulling back the layers on it? That felt really new to me as a director and an experience that I wanted to create.
The other thing and it was a first for me, is that it was a project that was really about Brooke changing gradually over many decades. Miss Americana was very present tense and about a pivot point in Taylor’s life—what she was struggling with at this moment and this shift that she made between going from being someone who really cared about being liked by everyone and people being happy with her to freeing herself from the idea that you can make everyone like you. With this project with Brooke, it was more about the thread running through her whole life and how she evolved over many decades. What I saw was that she gradually gained agency and control in a way that was a really big deal, first by going to college at Princeton and then by separating and individuating from her mother and then into this place where she could speak and be heard. I loved this chance I had to work with this archival material to look at that gradual evolution over a longer period of time.
…It was a project that was really about Brooke changing gradually over many decades.Lana Wilson
How long did it take for you to go through all of the material that you had, and what were the criteria for deciding what aspects of her life you wanted to include and which ones needed to be left out?
It took a long time. We had so much material that we had a team of amazing researchers who were people of all ages and backgrounds. We had a total of four people who were looking at absolutely everything and writing up notes on everything they saw. We would meet once a week to discuss everything, and I would then fully watch the highlights. That is what the process was, basically. There was a long stretch in the beginning where it was just that happening—it was many months of doing that, engaging with the material with this group of researchers talking to me about it. All of this happened even before we started the interviews. The process was to look at all of that, and then I wrote a treatment that was almost like a narrative or a short story explaining what this documentary would be based on what I had learned after watching all of this material and from talking to Brooke.
I had this treatment, and then we thought about who we were going to interview and why. Then it was doing the interviews and beginning to edit with the interviews and the archival materials and the treatment. Then there was the process of realizing that some of the original treatment didn’t hold up and we would change things because you always learn and discover things along the way. For me, it was a back-and-forth between the initial impulse or idea and what your vision is right at the beginning to shifting that because of things that you learn and which are revealed and the exciting surprises along the way.
When you went back and looked at those early movies that were the subject of such notoriety, what did you think of them? Personally, I still think that Pretty Baby is a very good film, and she is very good in it. The others, like The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love, are pretty terrible as films, but she has an undeniably commanding presence in them. In a way, she is kind of like Elvis in that the material is lousy but she keeps you watching anyway.
I would agree with that. I think Brooke’s performance in Pretty Baby, especially, is really incredible. It is a really interesting film, and she had this maturity to her in it that I think came from her life experience of taking care of an alcoholic mother that forced her to be really mature at a young age. I think you see that in her performances. She has this depth and maturity from when she was a child, so I find that incredibly striking. In making this film, the challenge for me was telling Brooke’s personal story and experience separate from the film history part of it. It was balancing her personal story and experience with this bigger cultural context and what it was like to look back on this stuff now.
It isn’t so much about the film history aspect—that is stuff that I explored and was interested in but ultimately took out because, with the narrative of the film and the momentum, it almost felt too removed from our emotional connection to Brooke to go into that larger context of other 1970s American films that sexualized young girls. There could have been a whole section on that and that has been written about and discussed on fantastic podcasts and captured in other ways in other projects. You are having to make decisions about what the perspective and focus is for this, and for me, it was always about Brooke’s personal perspective and your connection to her and that journey and evolution that she goes on, both emotionally and in terms of the cultural context. Why was Brooke a symbol of this at that time, and what does that say about all of us? How was Brooke a mirror for society? That is what I was interested in juxtaposing with Brooke’s personal experience.
…For me, it was always about Brooke’s personal perspective and your connection to her and that journey and evolution that she goes on, both emotionally and in terms of the cultural context.Lana Wilson
At the same time, you do get into a discussion of those films in a most unexpected way towards the end with what is probably my favorite scene in the documentary—the one in which she is having dinner with her family and her two daughters start talking about those films and their acceptability in today’s world. The conversation is spirited and intelligent, and their observations—both Brooke and her daughters—are far more interesting and incisive than what you would have gotten from the usual dumb film critic talk.
I know exactly what you mean. Basically, when I was filming, I always knew that I wanted it bookended with contemporary Brooke because you want to see her now, and I also knew from the beginning that I did not want to see her daughters or family until the end of the film because once you go on this journey with Brooke throughout the film with her relationship with her mother and everything that she experienced, to see her daughters at the end would be really powerful and it would have the biggest impact. So I knew I only wanted to see Brooke’s family at the end of the film, but when we went to film that day, I think I only thought about filming a little of dinner but had no idea if it would be a little bit of visual material or what.
What happened is that we filmed at dinner, and right before we started rolling, I just casually asked her daughters if they had seen their mom’s early films, and they just started talking about it with her, and we filmed for 90 minutes. This incredible conversation unfolded entirely on its own, and it was one of those moments. Sometimes when filming verite or more observational material, the presence of the camera is always noticeable—I’m not one of those directors who thinks they truly are an invisible fly on the wall—but sometimes, the fact that a camera is there filming almost creates an opportunity for people to talk about things that they might not have talked about otherwise. I think that is what was going on here in this remarkable way. Brooke told me this was the first time that she had talked with her daughters about those early films of hers. I agree with you that they are both really intelligent and perceptive, and I was just stunned at the end of the conversation. It is my favorite scene in the film, too, because I thought that their point of view was representative of their generation in a lot of ways and what it feels like to look back at all of this now.
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields is now streaming on Hulu.