Chris Moukarbel talks to Entertainment Weekly, about Lady Gaga’s recent Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two. He discusses the possibility of a docs-series, Gaga’s chronic pain, and much more. Read the fantastic interview below!
ET: I know that you met with Gaga’s manager and then went to her home to film what ended up being the first scene in the movie. Did you have a chance to ever sit down with Gaga, to hash each other out or discuss what each of you wanted out of the documentary?
Moukarbel: No. There was no real, formal preparation like that. I think it was discussed casually as we started, but she wasn’t really setting out to make a documentary. It was something that was introduced by her manager and I had a concept that he thought was worth exploring with her. She was working on her record and, if anything, she was sort of reluctant because she didn’t want cameras or anything to interfere with her writing process or studio sessions. She agreed to participate and felt intuitively that it was a good fit and that she felt safe with me, I think, but it wasn’t like she was creatively overseeing this. In fact, it was quite the opposite. She really gave it a lot of space and didn’t even really watch the film until the premiere.
Do you know what it was about you that made her feel safe?
I don’t know. When people connect, you never really know what it is, exactly, that you see eye to eye on. I mean, she said that she’d seen some of my work and she really loved it. I just think she goes with her gut. She also knew she had a lot of agency. If for some reason, she was not happy with any of it, she would have ended it. But she let it grow sort of slowly and, by the time there was really a movie there, she had to kind of come to terms with the fact that that’s what was happening. But it wasn’t until her close friends had seen a cut of the film and told her that they loved it and told her why, it wasn’t until then that she was really, like, 100 percent onboard, to be honest. [Laughs]
Gaga seems to have been so open with you — with her health, her friends and family, her creative process. Is there anything you wanted to shoot or that you hoped to have access to but didn’t, for whatever reason?
I have to say that I really didn’t have the opportunity to produce anything. I thought that I would create more of these scenarios that I had wanted to see, but I figured out early on that for me to make this movie meant really going with her flow. I had production crew that, at the beginning, I wanted to bring in — DPs, sound people — but it just wouldn’t work out like that. Either she didn’t want the disruption while she was in the studio or it was too intimate or I was just grabbing my camera and running with her from the car to the plane to her grandmother’s house. There was no time or opportunity to bring in any infrastructure, so I ended up shooting a lot of the film myself.
What were some of the more produced ideas that you had going into filming?
Like, I shot her production of the “Perfect Illusion” music video and it was shot out in the desert. They gave me unfettered access to that set, so I was able to bring a crew in for that, because there was so much production happening anyway. And I was able to shoot it in this big, splashy way that I thought would play in contrast to the more intimate scene in this film. But I did have these fantasies of having much more produced moments with her that I might cut in and out of the movie, where she’s sitting in a makeup chair and the camera’s right up on her face and then it’s a drone shot that slowly pulls out and it’s, like, up in the sky and she’s a tiny little spec in the desert. More stylized moments. But they never felt right. It was never appropriate. So, you just give in sometimes when you’re making documentaries and you realize you can’t control the set-up. You’re not writing, because it’s not a scripted film. So, it’s really just urging the universe along in the directions that you hope will lead to what you want to see in the movie.
In terms of her agency over the content of the documentary, there is a moment early on, after talking about Madonna and what fame has done to various female celebrities, that Gaga turns to the camera and says, “You can’t use any of that footage.” Do you have to go back, show her the footage and clear that with her?
Yeah. When she says it to the camera, she’s kind of laughing and sort of means it as a joke. Like, a half-serious joke. She’s basically punctuating what she said with, “I can’t believe I just said that on camera.” But yes. Because she didn’t end up watching the film and we didn’t have to negotiate scenes and I didn’t get notes from her, we did show her a few — what we thought were sensitive — scenes. Like, that one for example or her doctor’s appointment scene, and just made sure that she understood what was in it and that she felt comfortable with having that in the film.
Would she have opinions on how you presented those scenes then? Or would you show it to her and she’d be like, “Yeah, I said it. I did it. Use it.”
It was exactly like that. I didn’t get notes from her, and I always expected that I would. We got to, like, the very bitter end and I was like, Oh my god, one day the other shoe is going to drop and I’m going to get all these notes and I’m going to have to negotiate why I believe in this or that. But it never happened. She really didn’t watch the film until it was finished and then, you know, it was what it was. I think people underestimate how open she can be with an artistic project like this. She’s always down for an artistic adventure and I think, for her, that’s what this was.
Especially seeing as how much conversation there has been around the Madonna comment, I wanted to know if you went into filming with a list of topics you wanted to ask her about or if she guided most of those on the fly interviews you have with her?
I had very few conversations with her. And if you notice in that scene, that’s not me leading that conversation. She’s actually just talking to a studio musician that she’s sitting outside having a cigarette with. Obviously, it’s happening for and in front of my camera, but I didn’t ask her any questions about it, and that was sort of my approach to this whole film. That’s not to say I never asked her questions. There are times where she looks at the camera and she says something and I have a casual, on the fly conversation with her, and I realized early on that that was just going to happen, because she was not going to pretend like there wasn’t a camera there. It’s not like there was a fourth wall ever in this movie. It’s not reality TV. I’m not pretending like these are just windows into her world. It’s pretty honest that there is a camera following her around and she knows that there is a camera following her around and she doesn’t have the energy to pretend like there isn’t. Sometimes she would look at the camera and be like, “What did you think of that?” or whatever. It felt very real in that way.
Was it hard to not chime in more in the moments when she was inviting you into the conversation?
Yeah, I have to say that’s one thing that was a challenge for me when I look back, was trying to keep myself as discreet as possible. [Laughs] Because you’re hanging out with these people in the studio and they’re really cool and they’re really funny and they’re writing music and they’re having all this banter and then sometimes they would pull me in or try to engage me. And, on the one hand, I didn’t want to seem like a creep who’s just, like, spying on them and is not a real human being. So, I would give a little bit of myself, but at the same time, I didn’t want anyone to be focused on me. I didn’t want to get in her head. I didn’t want her to think too much about what I was thinking. So, as much as possible, I really kept my thoughts and opinions to myself and really kept myself as much behind the scenes as possible.
In the same vein, the movie deals extensively with Gaga’s chronic pain. What was it like for you, as a director and just as a human being, having to stay behind the camera and continue recording during those moments? How do you remain detached, maybe, knowing that you can’t step in to try to help someone you’re seeing in pain?
I think that’s exactly it, that you know that there’s nothing you can do in that moment. She had people with her that were helping as best they could. It’s something she struggles with often, so they do what they can. But it’s obviously something that she can’t cure herself of and part of why [she did the movie was] she wanted that stuff included. It’s some of the only stuff she ever had a creative opinion on was making sure that storyline is in there. Because she’s always looking for a positive message in anything she puts out, and she felt like other people who struggle with similar conditions will understand that, if in her place with all of the resources she has, she’s still struggling, that obviously they’re not alone. Yet, at the same time, she can kind of power through it and get herself up onstage. But it’s hard to watch. It was really just, on a visceral level, hard to roll on it. But I knew that she would rather that I filmed it and that was all I could really do.
Having been such an intimate audience to that pain, now that the doc is finished, have you been able to reach out to her and check in with her following news that she postponed her tour due to ongoing health issues?
Yeah, I do. And, you know, there’s nothing harder for her or someone like her than having to postpone shows. This is what she wants to do. It’s what she lives and breathes. Obviously, she must have hit a wall in a certain way for her to have to do this at this point.
One of the most intimate and moving scenes in the movie is when Gaga plays the song “Joanne” for her grandmother for the first time. [The track pays homage to Gaga’s late aunt, Joanne, who died due to lupus at the age of 19.] What was it like to be in the room for that?
It was really sweet. I wasn’t expecting it. We were driving to the airport, her father was in the car and she just thought it would be a great time to visit her grandmother, because they were together and it was not far from the airport. So, they pulled over and got some flowers and sort of surprised her at her nursing home. And [Gaga] had this song that she had just finished recording, and it’s about her aunt, Joanne, the daughter of this grandmother and she wanted to play it for her. It was the first time she played it for her. It was one of the first times her father heard it. It was just a very emotional family moment, because they’re still — to a certain extent — dealing with this loss. If you think about it, when Gaga was born, it was a fresh family trauma and it was something that was overshadowing a lot of her childhood. So, she was very aware of the loss of this young woman and I think it really shaped her in a lot of ways.
Another scene I want to ask about is coming out of the building to the paparazzi and fans screaming. It’s just pandemonium. Even with a camera between you, what was it like to experience that?
It’s indescribable, and that’s really why I wanted to include that scene and made it like a hall of mirrors moment, where you start flashing to all of the other times she’s walked out into a crowd of paparazzis. Despite however many times she’s done it and experiences it, on just a human level, there is a fight-or-flight trigger that goes off in your brain. I think it’s really scary for her, having people clawing at her and having people scream at her. At a young age, it was probably more fun, but even then I think it was sort of traumatic. Now, I don’t think it ever stops being scary for her.
How did you land on the title? You use Guy Lombardo’s record, “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue,” in the scene where Gaga’s goddaughter is baptized, but what was the process like of choosing it to title the movie?
It was tough. I really struggled with figuring out what the title would be, and it was really near the end when I finally landed on that. It’s a couple of things. It’s her height, obviously. Then, even after I wanted to call it that, I found out there was this song from the ’20s. We used the Guy Lombardo recording of it, but there are so many recordings of it. It just felt very serendipitous. But for me, it’s like, so much of the film and the story circles around her body. It’s about the limitations of her body and the expectations placed on her body. She’s an athlete in a lot of ways and has to perform the way an athlete does. Her physical form is really the limitation of how far she can take it, and yet, she’s able to be so much bigger than that, so much more than that. So, thinking about her persona and her achievements and her legacy, and then also imagining that this is really, like, a human being that takes up that much space.
You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that Gaga didn’t see the movie before the premiere and, at TIFF, she told us that that screening would be her first time watching it. What reaction did she have when she’d finally seen it?
It was really sweet afterward. She looked at me in the eyes, she was crying a little. She just thanked me. She knew that it would be emotional for her. She knew what was in the film. I mean, she was there as it was being made. [Laughs] So, she knew what I captured, but I don’t think she had any idea of what the overall effect would be, and I think it really moved her. It was just a sweet moment.
You followed Gaga for eight months filming this. Do you know how many hours of footage you have in total?
I really don’t. I mean, definitely hundreds and hundreds of hours, and to distill that into 100 minutes is tough. There’s a lot that you lose, but at the same time, I don’t feel like there was any real important moment or scene that I wasn’t able to include. A lot of times, you’re cutting repeats of things. Like, you’re getting at the same thing in a lot of different ways and you realize, “OK, I can communicate this or I can capture this through a shorter, more focused scene, rather than all these others ways.”
There’s a lot of studio stuff that I wasn’t able to use. I shot a lot — I would say half of the film was shot during her time in the studio and it only makes up maybe 15-20 percent of the film, if that. So, it starts to become redundant, even though I think it’s fascinating and I think other people would find it really interesting, too, watching her work. At some point, you kind of see that side of her life and there are so many other facets of her life that you want to leave the real-estate in the movie to get to that other stuff.
There’s a great bit in the end credits where Gaga jokes about the “night she gave Beyoncé a panic attack,” which I wanted to know everythingabout. Seeing how you had so much footage and especially because you were working with Netflix, was there ever discussion about turning this into a docu-series?
Not for me, at least. I felt really strongly that there was a very focused film here. And, again, not going into her past or going outside of the frame, really just looking at what was going on in her life for that specific period of time. It felt like there was a story to tell. So, I really wanted to keep it within the film format.
Having spent all this time with Gaga, what is one way in which she is exactly like everybody else, just any ordinary person? And the opposite of that: what is one way she is, as an internationally beloved pop star, so completely different than the rest of us?
I’d say the one thing that makes her, to me, very familiar and very human is just her way of interacting with the people around her after she does something like perform or does an interview. She looks for approval from her family and her friends, and you’d be surprised that she still would, after everything that she’s done. But there’s something really innocent and sweet about it. Like, she’s asking, “How was that? How was I? How did I sound?” That was surprising. I thought it was charming.
And then her work ethic is like nothing I’ve ever seen. She’s obviously incredibly creative, she’s brilliant, she’s super talented in all these different ways, but where I differ from her and what cured me of any fantasy that I could ever become a pop star is when you realize how hard she’s working every second of the day and how little personal downtime she’s able to have for herself. She’s taking in and putting out so much energy all the time and has been for decades. I think that’s what kind of separates her out. It’s like being a star athlete.