When director Ursula Macfarlane and producer Alexandra Lacey met with interviewees for their documentary “Anna Nicole Smith: You Don’t Know Me,” they asked each participant the same question: Can you ever really know who Anna Nicole Smith truly was?
If you Google her, several images of the It Girl model turned early reality TV star pop up. There’s the ingénue who garnered media attention for her Marilyn Monroe-inspired curves and marriage to an oil tycoon several decades her senior. Later, there’s the star of “The Anna Nicole Show,” who waded in the waters of reality TV exploitation for a return to the spotlight, as well as a slimmer Smith who staged a small comeback as a spokesperson for the diet drug company Trimspa.
All of these are aspects of the woman that was Anna Nicole Smith, who died of an overdose in 2007, but none of them encompass who she was in her entirety. Trying to get a fuller picture of the star is at the heart of “You Don’t Know Me,” directed by Macfarlane, who has previously helmed documentaries such as “Untouchable,” about the Harvey Weinstein scandal, as well as “Charlie Hebdo: 3 Days That Shook Paris.”
Like previous Netflix projects “Pamela, A Love Story” and “Britney vs Spears,” “You Don’t Know Me,” which was released on the streaming service Tuesday, takes another look at a woman who was both built up and torn down by the scandal-hungry media of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Macfarlane and Lacey spoke to many people who had close relationships with Smith over the years to put her into a deeper context and reveal a portrait of a woman ahead of her time.
In life, the media confined Smith’s vastness into easily consumable boxes: blond bombshell, has-been reality star, comeback queen. With this project, Macfarlane and Lacey show that she was much more of an architect of her own image and had more agency, as well as many more secrets, than we previously knew.
HuffPost chatted with Macfarlane and Lacey about how you tell a story without your main character’s involvement, Smith’s obsession with Marilyn Monroe, and why they left a bombshell revelation about Smith to the film’s final moments.
What about Anna Nicole Smith and her life intrigued you enough to embark on this documentary project?
Ursula Macfarlane: I just felt it was an epic story. It was a story we’ve seen throughout history of women being lifted up and pulled down. We perhaps all thought we knew the story of Anna Nicole Smith, the blond bombshell who marries a billionaire: She’s a gold digger, she goes to court to fight for the money and dies a tragic death. There are all these beats of the story that I thought I knew. And then, uncovering it, and the more research we did, the more I realized what a complicated woman she was. There’s nothing simple about her story at all. That’s the perfect subject for a biography: somebody who is so much more than the cursory glance would lead us to believe. We came away feeling she was an incredible person; she was complicated, maybe didn’t do everything right all the time, but she also had incredible qualities. She was vulnerable; we wanted to bring all those things together as best we could in a feature-length film to help the audience have a more rounded and more empathetic feeling about her.
Alexandra Lacey: There’s a popular folklore that’s repeated in every TV piece about her, and I guess we took it on as a challenge to look at that, pick it apart, and figure out, “Is this the truth or is there more?” We spent months researching and talking to a lot of people, some who don’t feature in the film because they wanted to remain private, but they helped to strengthen our research and strengthen our knowledge. We wanted to humanize her. She is a human; she’s not a cartoon character from the headlines.
I lived through the cultural resurgence of Anna Nicole, but I never knew that her use of prescription pain pills began with her own breast augmentation, which is, of course, kind of a telling detail. Are there things you learned about your subject as you went along that felt like, “Oh yes, here is another piece of the Anna Nicole puzzle”?
Macfarlane: The pain is a really good point, actually. As you see, we had her pain consultant in there, Dr. Sandeep Kapoor, and he was explaining that, yes, she started taking drugs around the time of the breast implants. She had some ruptures; she had back issues. She also had some congenital pain conditions throughout her life. So she was someone who was dealing with pain on a daily basis. And I imagine having to dress up for the cameras and go out and look nice, but be suffering, you are going to take more painkillers, perhaps, than the average person. And I think that snowballed in a way. By the time it got to, particularly when [her son] Daniel died, it was pretty unstoppable.
Lacey: For me, it was the discovery that she was way ahead of the game in discovering the power of the media. Nowadays, it’s commonplace for celebrities to stage a paparazzi shoot or team up with a journalist to get an article out there, and she was doing that before anybody else was, and we were pretty impressed with her. She figured that out! She was so young, in her mid- to late 20s and figuring it out and learning how to hustle Hollywood.
You just mentioned how important it is to see her as a part of an era. We’re in a moment right now where we are revisiting a lot of treatment of female celebrities in the 2000s and looking at how they were really ripped apart and scrutinized in the media. How do you think this one is kind of speaking to other work that is out there that tackles a similar subject?
Macfarlane: Over the last five years, partly because of Me Too, we are looking back at these female stories and giving them a proper respect and seriousness, which they deserve. I hope it does make people think about what was going on then, but [also] whether things have really changed. Because in some ways, they have massively and in others, not so much. Stripping away all those tropes and seeing them as living, breathing flawed people, just as we’ve seen with Pamela and Britney, and seeing them as human beings.
When we see [Anna Nicole] on “The Arsenio Hall Show” and we see him asking her about having orgasms, I mean, I’m watching it going, “Oh, my God!” And I think, “Would someone ask that question now?” I don’t think so. We need to revisit those stories and find out why they were so misinterpreted and judged and misconceived.
With the Pamela documentary, she was a part of it and with the Britney documentaries, she was not a part of them, but Britney is still alive. How was approaching your subject different knowing that you had a finite amount of her voice to use?
Macfarlane: I think that’s about the other participants in the film and a lot of work went into verifying them and making sure they were there when they said they were and that they had a genuine relationship with her. A lot of people over the years have claimed to know her and written books about her when they actually didn’t really know her and didn’t spend time with her. That was our prime concern, that there was authenticity among the people, and that, even if they had different perspectives on her, that they all came from a place where she genuinely gave something of herself to them and they felt they knew her.
It’s never going to be perfect; no one story can tell a whole life, because nobody knows anybody that well, or perhaps even know ourselves, but just by gathering together a group of people who knew her as well as anybody, maybe, including some people who didn’t go on camera but knew her really well over decades and were able to enrich what we knew, plus interview other people.
Lacey: Every person that we spoke to, we asked the same question: “Do you think that we’re ever going to get a sense of who Anna Nicole Smith truly was?” And most of them said something along the lines of, “Well, you can try as best you can, but I don’t think she even knew who she was really.” Because a lot of folks felt she was trying to be what other people wanted her to be. She was that larger-than-life character on her reality show, making herself seem like “trailer trash,” a friend, a mother, a supermodel. She was young; she was trying to figure out who she was. And all of that in the spotlight of a 24/7 news cycle and tabloid news. But you’ll never know, right?
Let’s talk about that archival footage! There’s a moment where you see Anna Nicole talking about how they want her to be the lead actress in “The Mask,” but they’re offering her only $50,000. I was thinking about it in terms of pay parity and it was almost a “what if” scenario for me. What if she had a different film career, if she had been offered her worth early on and not been lowballed.
Macfarlane: She was typecast unfortunately, like in [the 1994 Coen brothers film] “Hudsucker Proxy,” she is the blond bombshell. I mean, who knows if she had done more, whether she would prove some kind of acting chops, but the thing about “The Mask” was, I do wonder how much Cameron Diaz got for the mask. Was it $50,000? I doubt it. What’s so funny about that story is that somebody told us that she could never hear Cameron Diaz’s name spoken ever again, because she was so furious that Cameron got it and she didn’t.
I think she had movie dreams. Her big hero in life was Marilyn Monroe and that’s who she modeled herself, literally looks-wise, after. She thought she was some reincarnated daughter of Marilyn, which is quite interesting. She would’ve loved that life. She loved the glamour, so-called glamour. And that wasn’t to be, unfortunately. She ended up in a lot of B movies and then her reality show.
With the Marilyn comparisons, it was interesting to watch you as filmmakers play with that throughout the film. You have the woman from Playboy talking about her coming alive in a photo shoot because she brought a Marilyn record with her, and her dancing and singing along to Marilyn. How did you want to incorporate the Marilyn aspect throughout?
Macfarlane: Visually it was really easy to do because of the looks. When she modeled for Guess, they decided on a sort of ’50s starlet look. But we knew anecdotally how much she loved Marilyn. That’s what she dreamed of. We wanted to put it in there in little moments and you would be reminded. We didn’t want to overdo it, because it is a sort of easy comparison to make, but we used where she showed us in archival footage, like her singing, that it always came from her. It was real and it was strongly there in her life.
She saw a lot of parallels between her and Marilyn, you know, difficult childhoods and obviously, sadly, similar trajectories in terms of drugs and their deaths, and very similar ages [when they died].
Lacey: We actually found out that she rented Marilyn Monroe’s home and lived in it for a little while.
Macfarlane: She had pictures of Marilyn all around the walls. J. Howard Marshall [her husband] rented it for her because he knew how much she loved Marilyn. She was sort of trying to live Marilyn’s dream a little bit.
I watched “The Anna Nicole Show” at the time. When you were going into making the film, how did you want to treat this thing that we know was really exploitative, but for many people, it was their primary image of her? It was almost like you had to battle against it.
Macfarlane: Yes, we did. In the edit, we felt it was a vision of her. You know, if you Google Anna Nicole Smith images, you’ll see lots of the beautiful Guess stuff and lots of stuff from when she transforms physically, and I just felt like we had seen so much of that and we wanted to understand where it came from. But we wanted the audience to know that Ashley, her dear friend, told her, you know, “They’re going to exploit you, I really don’t think you should do this,” and she goes and does it anyway.
It also led to her going on “The Howard Stern Show,” because they were filming it as part of the reality show, and there’s that scene where they’re all sitting around in the studio before she comes in and they’re all debating how heavy she is and saying she must be at least 300 pounds; it’s horrendous. We thought it was important to use the show as a springboard to talk about the other things that were going on, including her eating disorder. She was going through dramatic anorexia, bulimia; she was really struggling. Then she loses a vast, horrendous amount of weight and has a comeback because she’s slim, you know, what does that tell us?
I really want to talk about the final moments of the film, which is sort of unlike anything I’ve seen in a documentary of this style. There’s the moment where, through archival footage, we see her mother and then her brother saying that she was much more of an architect of her own image than people gave her credit for and that she knew what to say to elicit an emotional response from people, including lying about their childhood. Her mother basically said that Anna Nicole lied about having a horrible childhood to elicit sympathy. When you’re editing and giving a structure to the film, what made you want to put that at the end as opposed to putting it up front?
Macfarlane: We wrestled with that for weeks. We knew that once we dropped that bombshell, because it is a big reveal, you think, “Woah, you did that to your own mother?” We wanted to take viewers on the journey of this story that she was spinning, so that the viewers are going to buy the rags-to-riches story, which is very alluring, and enjoy that journey that she goes on. And we were careful not to be lying at the beginning of the film, because she did spend some time in Mexia, [Texas,] that’s definitely true, but we felt that once we’d learned this and we saw the interview with her mother, Virgie, where from Virgie’s own mouth, she’s saying, ”I said to my daughter, why do you tell these lies?” And she goes, ”Mama, you have to understand that sad stories sell better,” basically, and ”People don’t want to hear the good stuff,” and ”The more bad stuff that happens to me, the more money I make.” So she was very kind of brutal about it in a way.
We felt that the audience deserved to know and I didn’t want to put it earlier than her death, because I felt it might turn people off a little bit. We really wanted to keep people’s sympathies there, because what was happening toward the end to her is devastating and tragic, losing Daniel. So we held it back as a code and I hope the audience who watches it is a little shocked by it but then starts to reevaluate what they’ve seen before and understand it a little bit better.
Lacey: It mirrored our journey as filmmakers, as well. Because we genuinely went on the journey of the rags-to-riches tale and all of that. It was only when we met [Anna’s friend] Missy many months later and hearing her say this, it made us think back on that.
You know, speaking as someone who watched it, it was shocking to me. There’s two levels of shock: learning that about Anna Nicole and then there’s also the level of where we’re shocked at watching a documentary that then asks you to go back and question some of the things that you’ve just learned.
Macfarlane: That’s exactly the reaction that we had. I don’t think it was ever in our minds that we shouldn’t include it, because we felt that we had to be fair to Virgie, for one thing. And everybody, all of Anna’s friends that we met, we would ask, “What did she tell you about her childhood?” And she always told the same story, even to people who were friends of hers. Virgie beating her up, them having no money. Having a mean mom.
But the truth is that she and Virgie got along really well. They had their moments, toward the end. There was a public spat after Daniel died because her mom was worried about her. But her mom was there, she would go and visit her in the hospital and vice versa. She babysat Daniel a lot. They had a close, loving relationship. And her brother tells us that at the end. And the fact that Missy tells us this, and Donald told us this, and then obviously in Virgie’s own words, she told us this, we thought this was a solid piece of information that, as filmmakers, we needed to address.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.