Lana Wilson admits that coming off Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana in 2020, she “wasn’t sure, to be honest” about making another documentary about a celebrity. A day in conversation with Brooke Shields — and the handoff of a loaded hard drive — changed her mind.
The director of Pretty Baby — the new Hulu doc about Brooke’s life in the spotlight, starting as a baby model and going on to be the most photographed woman in the world as people obsessed over her appearance — recalls to Yahoo Entertainment that first meeting, at the home of George Stephanopoulos and Ali Wentworth, who are producers of the film.
“I’d read both of Brooke’s books before, so I knew she was really smart and funny and deep,” Wilson says. “When I met her in person, she was kind of what I expected even more so — even more smart and funny and deep than I had anticipated. And I was really struck by her thoughtfulness, her level of introspection, of self-awareness. She had watched all of my movies, including my second film [1997’s The Departure], which is about death and is entirely in Japanese, and she had watched that one twice. So I thought: She’s not joking around here.”
What “really clinched it,” however, was the Suddenly Susan star, 57, giving her a hard drive of extensive archival material, collected by Shields’s late mom and one-time manager Teri Shields, for Wilson to look at and consider.
“She handed me a hard drive — that I later learned was the only copy of this material, which is a bit frightening to think of in retrospect. I rode the subway home. It was jostling everywhere,” she says, noting she only learned it was the solo copy after the completed film screened at Sundance. “It was material her mom had collected for almost 50 years. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces of video, photographs of Brooke— over 1,000 items in total, including outtakes from a never completed documentary Teri commissioned called Look at Brooke. I got home and I started opening random files and was just astonished by what I saw. So that made me think: I’ve got to make this.”
Wilson pored over the old interviews with child star Brooke, including around her controversial role in 1978’s Pretty Baby, in which the then-11-year-old portrayed a child prostitute, including nude scenes. Some of those interviews are included in the doc, showing Brooke, and her controversial momager, being criticized for the exploitative role, with comparisons made to child pornography — and in the next breath, praised for her beauty and poise.
“I remember watching that thinking: This is a dynamic that hasn’t gone away at all,” Wilson says about the demands on girls and women, which persists today. “Nothing has really changed since then. I think girls are still in this situation, where they’re taught growing up that the way you look is the most important thing and your power comes from how you look — and from specifically being desirable to straight men. On the other hand, if you’re too sexual, if you cross some kind of invisible line — and the line is always moving, you don’t know where it is — you’ll be punished and blamed for whatever happens to you.”
So her vision became to “look at this through the lens of 2023.” And while the bigger story is “Brooke’s personal story” — the criticism, the exploitation, her complicated relationship with Teri, the public dialogue about her virginity, her romantic relationships and battle with postpartum depression — “but it’s also the story of Brooke Shields the symbol and how that was like holding a mirror up to American society in terms of what we thought about women and girls at different points in time.”
The archival footage is the key part of the film because you follow Brooke from baby to today — and watch her change along the way as she finds her voice. Wilson says it’s “a little like that Richard Linklater movie Boyhood,” from 2014, “where part of what’s so powerful is seeing this person grow up truly in front of your eyes.” There were also four days of new interviews with Brooke, Brooke in conversation with her long-time pal Wentworth as well as a day observing Shields with her husband, Chris Henchy, and daughters at home.
In one of the new interviews, Brooke revealed for the first time that she had been sexually assaulted in her 20s when trying to revive her career after graduating from Princeton. She spoke about the horrific experience, involving an unidentified film producer she met to discuss a job opportunity, and how it took her a long time to process what happened.
Wilson tells us she wasn’t sure she’d even include the traumatic experience — during which Brooke, in fear for her life, froze and disassociated — in the film and explains her reasoning.
“It’s something she brought up at our very first meeting … ‘There’s one thing I’ve never talked about publicly before, but I think I’m ready…'” she recalls. “I did think it was a really powerful story right away because Brooke speaks about her experience in a way that’s looking very much inside the experience of what it felt like then, how she’s processed it since and inside this space of not knowing what to call it at the time, blaming herself, feeling culpable, not just when it was happening, but for many, many decades afterward, beating herself up for not fighting back more. And I think that a lot of her experiences are really common ones to have and that a lot of what happens when you experience a sexual assault is you think: I’m to blame for that. I should have handled that differently…”
But while Wilson knew Brooke’s story would resonate, “I also told her, I don’t think we should make any decision now on whether it’s in the film or not, because it depends on what the movie is. I don’t think we should include this just because it’s new. I don’t want to include your experience of sexual assault as like a news item. I only think it should be in there if it’s an integral part of the focus and the story of this film. So let’s talk about it in an interview and and let me bring it into the edit and see.”
She says Brooke was fine with that and as the film started taking shape, with Brooke’s evolution “in gaining agency over her own life,” she thought it was “an important part of that story because I saw it as the ultimate violation of Brooke’s autonomy — physically, mentally, emotionally.”
Now she says, “It’s hard for me to imagine the film without it. Although, just so you know, I also don’t see it as the most important sequence or moment.”
Wilson also says that while she had creative control over the project, she told Brooke, “‘The exception to that is the sequence, if we use it, about your sexual assault. I want you to feel completely comfortable with it if it goes out into the world.'” When she showed her the finished film, she checked in on whether Brooke was OK with it and she was, feeling it was “sensitively handled.”
Another impactful part of the film was Brooke speaking today in detail about postpartum depression, which she had after the birth of her elder daughter, Rowan Henchy, in 2003. While she’s spoken of it before, including in her 2005 book Down Came the Rain and on Capitol Hill, in the film, she gives a raw, unfiltered recollection of her mindset at the time and the unsettling thoughts she was experiencing toward herself and her child.
“Interestingly, I was actually pregnant when she was retelling the experience,” says Wilson, who recently became a first-time parent. “She was like: ‘Are you sure you want to hear this in your present condition?’ I was like: ‘Yes, [I’m] actually desperate to hear this.’ I read her book, which I thought was great, but in the interview she went even further in some ways and I just thought it was a gift. This is stuff that very often people don’t even discuss within their own friends and peer groups with this level of candor. I desperately wanted to hear this because there’s so much cultural pressure on people who are pregnant becoming mothers and so many romanticized ideas about what that is like and what it means and what it’s like to go through. So I felt personally grateful to her to have heard all of this.”
Wilson thought it was “extra brave” of Brooke to share especially because the relationship she had with her mother “had been so deeply scrutinized. This idea that Teri was a bad mom. Now Brooke Shields is coming forward saying that she is not the ideal mom that she had always wanted to be made it extra courageous to me.”
Brooke’s two daughters appear at the end of the film, bringing the story full circle as the girl at the start, almost a marionette controlled by her mom, is now the mother who found her voice and her way and is having a smart and import conversation with her kids. They were filmed at home over dinner, for observational film footage, after Wilson started the conversation by asking Rowan, now 19, and Grier, 16, if they had seen their mother’s early films. In the film, Rowan called Pretty Baby “child pornography, technically” while Grier said, “The movie itself is about something that’s not OK now.”
“I always knew I only wanted to see her daughters at the very end,” Wilson says of the powerful scene. “I thought when you go through this challenging, deep, loving but painful relationship Brooke has with her mom and then [her] postpartum depression, how rewarding will it be to see her daughters in front of your eyes at the end of the film?”
She wasn’t expecting it to be more than an image of the girls with their mother, but the scene played out naturally and she knew she had to include it.
“They just started talking and I stepped back,” Wilson says. “I think that one question kind of lit a spark … and gave everyone the freedom to talk about some stuff they might not have talked about otherwise.”
She continues, “I remember thinking at the end of that night: That was something really special. Not just because of the content of what they talked about, and how incredibly resonant it was with the rest of the film, which I had mostly edited already, but because of the dynamic between Brooke and her kids … and [how] it was so different than her dynamic with her mom, where she wasn’t going to challenge her… I think we even see Brooke having a revelation in that moment, reconsidering her own point of view, but they do it in a loving and supportive way… I was really moved by it.”
Pretty Baby is out now, airing in two parts on Hulu.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available. RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline is here for survivors 24/7 with free, anonymous help. 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online.rainn.org.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.