Ever since her documentary’s January premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, we’ve been in the midst of a Brooke Shieldsaissance. Shield has been on talk shows and the cover of People, and commanded headlines as the press eagerly welcomed a reassessment of an icon who was once labeled “America’s Newest Sexy Kid Star,” as the result of her salacious body of work. To hear the director of said doc tell it, Shields was eager for a proper reassessment herself.
Filmmaker Lana Wilson recently recalled to Jezebel her first meeting with Shields ahead of the filming of the two-part documentary about her life, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, which debuts Monday on Hulu. “The only concern she mentioned was that this wouldn’t be deep enough,” remembered Wilson, who previously directed the 2020 Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana and co-directed the 2013 abortion documentary After Tiller.
Wilson left that meeting with a hard drive full of archival material that Shields’ momager Terri Shields had collected, and when the director went through it, what resonated with her most were the talk-show interviews conducted around the time of Louis Malle’s 1978 film Pretty Baby, in which Shields played a sex worker whose virginity is auctioned off. (Shields was 11 when she made the movie.) “I saw this little child, Brooke, being interrogated by hosts who were, on the one hand, praising her beauty and her sensuality, but on the other hand, criticizing her for being too sexual and for participating in what some people considered to be child pornography,” recalled Wilson. The material was ripe for an in-depth interrogation.
On the road to iconography, Shields would continue to appear in more media that fixated on her appearance and supposed sexuality, like 1980's The Blue Lagoon, 1981's Endless Love, and her notorious Calvin Klein jeans campaign. Meanwhile, as she says in the doc, “The irony was, I wasn’t in touch with any of my own sexuality.” Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields runs through all this and more, including her Princeton education, her ‘90s sitcom comeback, her relationship with tennis star Andre Agassi, and her current family life. Wilson told us that she filmed Shields’ interviews over four “very long days” in addition to the more verité footage that peppers the commentary of Shields, her friends and associates, and cultural experts. She also went into the experience of interviewing Shields and her own vision for the film. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: I found the Pretty Baby section of your doc particularly fascinating, because you manage to contextualize the film in terms of both the Wild West nature of ‘70s cinema and the considerable controversy it riled up when it was released. Yes, it was a product of its time, but there was nonetheless considerable pushback. The section doesn’t end with an endorsement or a condemnation, but a nuanced examination.
LANA WILSON: Yeah. You know, it’s a really interesting and complicated film, and I wanted to present it in a kind of prismatic way, because I think there’s so many ways of looking at it. There is the context of 1970s cinema, and specifically European arthouse cinema. There’s the context of 1970s Hollywood cinema, and then there’s Brooke’s personal experience, and then there’s what we think looking at it now. I, at least, feel there’s no easy answer or take on the film. And that’s part of what makes it such an interesting thing to watch. Still, on the other hand, it’s a very uncomfortable film to watch.
You know, it’s a whole other layer to this, the idea that [Malle’s film] is a critique of the sexualization of girls in Hollywood, and on the other hand, you can say it’s perpetuating that. That’s really the question. Is it perpetuating that or is it critiquing it or is it ambiguous? Brooke was obviously 11 when it was being shot, and she, as the documentary explores, had to compartmentalize different things to make it through. She genuinely had a great experience, largely, on the set of Pretty Baby. So it was like: How to capture Brooke’s personal perspective, which is not a simple, “I was exploited,” at all? That was not her experience at all. How to have that, but then also how to have context and also look at it through contemporary perspectives?
In the doc, you use a lot of the experts to synthesize and analyze, as one often does when directing a documentary. But I wonder, how did you find Brooke as a subject? What did you think of her ability to analyze the culture, to step outside of it?
I think it changed over time, really, because Brooke started acting when she was a child and grew up inside of it. I think what’s really cool about Brooke is that she is constantly learning, and really loves learning and challenging herself. So I think her perspective has shifted over time. And in fact, it even happened while I was filming. That final dinner scene with her daughters, I didn’t know what to expect from it. We basically sat down to film it and I just threw out one question to start them off: “You guys seen any of your mom’s early films?” And then they talked for 90 minutes on their own. And what I saw even during that dinner scene was Brooke’s willingness to be challenged by her own daughters and to learn something at that moment, but also to not give up her own perspective and experience. I think that’s a really great quality to have, to be able to be willing to be challenged, especially by people who are close to you, but also say, “You know what? This is my experience and truth, and this is how it was for me.” I think that’s really rare.
It can be a bit of a balancing act to ask tough questions while keeping a subject engaged. Did you feel at all limited?
Maybe it would have been different with someone else. I think that there’s two things. One is that Brooke herself is just completely game. Nothing’s off limits. I mean, I kind of knew that from reading her books. This doc, I think, goes further than her books in a lot of ways. You know, when I first met her, our conversation was very intense and about a lot of difficult topics, almost immediately. I could see that she was really ready to talk about all this stuff. So part of it is just her courage. And also, she’s done therapy for years. She’s really processed a lot of this stuff and was ready to talk.
The other part of it is that I tried to carefully think about every single one of the days we shot with her, especially interview days or pick-ups, about some of the difficult topics. And I really tried to think about it as an experience I’m giving someone and they have to be okay at the end of it, as well as thinking of what I want and need to make this documentary. I would really carefully shape the whole day. I would think of it as Brooke relaxes for an hour or two and just says whatever is top of mind. We get through her story or narrative, and then we can go into the harder and the deeper stuff. So I often don’t get to the harder stuff until the afternoon and then kind of bring it back to something that is more of an ending or more, “Well, what is the takeaway here?” I do try to do everything carefully. I don’t want anyone to leave an interview going home really wrecked. At the end of the day, I hope you’re like a sponge that’s been completely squeezed.
I wonder how you square what I perceive to be a low-key irony that so much of what you’re critiquing is the kind of external fixation on the sexuality and romantic life of Brooke Shields, but your documentary spends a lot of time on those subjects in its own right.
Is this a part of the general media fixation on Brooke’s life and all of these very personal things? I think it would have felt different if Brooke had not been in the documentary. I had creative control and final cut. I showed the film to her when it was done. And the one area where I was like, “I want every word to feel exactly right to you,” was the section about the sexual assault [that she revealed in the doc]. I wanted her to have a say in that. That had to all feel completely comfortable to her, and it had to be something to which she was like, “Yes, this completely reflects my experience. Every word. It feels right to me.” When I showed it to her, she felt really good about it. She had one suggestion of an addition that actually she had said in the original interview, which was: “I was so trusting.” And I thought that was great and really important to add, because I also think it’s something that a lot of people connect to. Part of this experience was that this was someone she knew and trusted. And that’s the case with most people who experience sexual assault. So anyway, that’s to say that she did have that opportunity to make sure that section felt good to her.
In terms of the bigger thing, I did see the doc as very different than the talk show clips and news coverage that’s featured in it, because I see this as a long-form, two-and-a-half-hour project that can be incredibly layered and complex. I think that what was hard for Brooke about the media coverage of, for example, her love life was how reductive it was. I feel like ultimately that this is not reductive, so it’s therefore different.
To pivot to something kind of dumb, Drew Barrymore is barefoot in her interview. Why wasn’t she wearing shoes?
That was the one interview that I was not in person for because I took a covid test that morning and I had covid. I was shocked because I had no symptoms. Luckily, we have an amazing producer, Christine O’Malley, and I spent hours going through all of the Drew interview questions with her the day before. She just stepped in for me. So I was not physically there. But I believe Drew was just like, “Is it cool if I take off my shoes? I’m more comfortable,” and everyone was like, “Great!” I thought it was perfect. I was thrilled when it came back and looked like that.