Liz Garbus on Making the Harry and Meghan Netflix Series ‘Personal and Raw’

Liz Garbus was skeptical.

The documentarian behind films like “Becoming Cousteau” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” was not an avid royal watcher. She knew the broad strokes of the decision by Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, to leave the British royal family. She had seen their interview with Oprah Winfrey. But she assumed that the stiff upper lip emblematic of elite British society would not make for a compelling documentary — too guarded, too interested in hagiography, too much of an all-around royal pain.

Then she saw the footage.

Encouraged by friends to document their dramatic decision to “step back” as senior members of the British royal family and assert their financial independence, Harry and Meghan shot more than 15 hours of personal video in the early months of 2020 as they finalized their plans to exit Buckingham Palace for good. Then they shared it all with Ms. Garbus and her husband, the producer Dan Cogan.

Suddenly Ms. Garbus found herself watching Harry in the Windsor Suite at Heathrow Airport, addressing the camera directly. The video is dated March 11, and Harry has just finished his final two weeks of royal engagements and is headed to Vancouver to meet Meghan.

“You’re right there with Harry in the Windsor Suite processing the fact that he’s leaving the royal family for the first time in his life,” Ms. Garbus said. “Then there was another clip with Meghan at home, alone, fresh out of the shower, her hair in a towel, no makeup, processing on her end what their life might actually be like.

“It’s very personal and raw and powerful, and it made me appreciate the incredible weight that went into their decision,” she said. “It also affirmed the choice I had made about wanting to unravel how this historic break came to be.”

On Thursday, selections from those personal archives were made available to the world when Netflix released the first three hourlong episodes of “Harry and Meghan,” a six-part documentary series. (The final three episodes are scheduled to debut on the streaming service on Dec. 15.)

Given the rabid, often polarizing opinions that seem to arise whenever Harry and Meghan are mentioned, the series will almost assuredly result in social media memes, tabloid gossip and — Netflix hopes, given that it signed a very rich deal with the couple in 2020 — a global streaming event.

“You don’t always expect folks at their level of celebrity to speak with emotional honesty and intensity about things that are upsetting to them or complex in their lives,” Mr. Cogan said. “They were willing to do that, and that was so refreshing to us as storytellers.”

Their story is also being framed within “the history of British colonialism and race and its relationship to the monarchy,” Mr. Cogan added. In other words, issues that are sure to make the monarchy stammer.

In the series, Ms. Garbus puts the couple’s personal archive into context, interspersing the self-shot video diaries with formal interviews and archival footage of the royal family. Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, is heavily featured, as are Harry’s boarding school buddies, Meghan’s security team in Canada, her college friends and co-stars from the TV show “Suits.”

Filming began in November 2021 and ended in July, months before the death of Queen Elizabeth II. When asked if Harry and Meghan had control over the final product, Ms. Garbus said it was a collaboration. When pressed as to whether the couple had final approval over the series, she responded: “It was a collaboration. You can keep asking me, but that’s what I’ll say.”

The project is something of a culmination of the issues Ms. Garbus has chronicled for the past two decades. Whether it’s social justice seen through the lens of the prison system (“The Farm: Angola, USA” and “Girlhood”) or uncovering the troubled personal stories of famous yet enigmatic figures — Bobby Fischer, Marilyn Monroe and Nina Simone — mental health and righting systemic wrongs are topics she returns to time and again. (Ms. Garbus also directed a documentary series about The New York Times called “The Fourth Estate.”)

In the case of Harry and Meghan, Ms. Garbus said that the story was already in place when she became involved, a first for a filmmaker who prefers to determine how best to approach her subjects. The documentarian Garrett Bradley was previously attached to the project, but the two sides parted ways because Ms. Bradley’s vérité style did not mesh with the couple’s interests. Representatives for Ms. Bradley declined to comment.

Ms. Garbus said that Harry and Meghan were interested in telling their love story within the historical context of the British monarchy. Ms. Garbus wanted to expand on that and explore how their personal pasts affected their present.

“I’m always really interested in psychology and how someone’s childhood determines their future and what impact they will have on the world,” she said. “In this story with both of them, I was able to look at that.”

Some have questioned why Harry and Meghan chose to make a documentary, suggesting that the couple’s decision to give up their royal duties meant they wanted to lead a more private life. In a statement to The New York Times, the couple’s global press secretary, Ashley Hansen, disputes this narrative. “Their statement announcing their decision to step back mentions nothing of privacy and reiterates their desire to continue their roles and public duties,” she said. “Any suggestion otherwise speaks to a key point of this series. They are choosing to share their story, on their terms, and yet the tabloid media has created an entirely untrue narrative that permeates press coverage and public opinion. The facts are right in front of them.”

The series also speaks to the expanded ambitions of Ms. Garbus, a two-time Academy Award nominee, and Mr. Cogan, an Academy Award winner (“Icarus”). The duo formed their production company, Story Syndicate, three years ago, combining Ms. Garbus’s directing background with Mr. Cogan’s production and financial expertise. (He previously ran the documentary finance company Impact Partners.) The aim was to serve the streaming companies’ insatiable appetite for documentary projects by overseeing the work of a host of up-and-coming filmmakers. The company now has 37 full-time employees and it works with some 200 freelancers, enabling it to produce projects at a steady pace.

Last month, the documentary “I Am Vanessa Guillen,” about a U.S. Army soldier killed at Fort Hood, became available on Netflix. In February, “Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence” from the director Zachary Heinzerling will debut on Hulu. And Story Syndicate just announced that it will produce a project about Halyna Hutchins, the cinematographer killed on the set of the Alec Baldwin film “Rust,” with Rachel Mason directing and with the cooperation of Ms. Hutchins’s widower, Matthew.

“We have built a machine to create handmade work,” said Mr. Cogan, adding that though entertainment companies have been tightening their belts recently because of the overall economy, documentaries remain a very strong business. “There’s so much noise in the world and so much content, we want to break through by doing the most elevated, the most intense, the most extraordinary work.”

For Mr. Heinzerling, that meant aiding him in his efforts to turn his voluminous research and access to the survivors of a cult into a suspenseful, three-episode series.

“We started at this place of how do we create something that the survivors can stand behind that really cuts against that salacious, true crime material that a lot of people are attracted to right now,” Mr. Heinzerling said. “Story Syndicate was integral in focusing the project and really helping me find a narrative thread that would be clear enough so that we could translate the story in a way that would be what I wanted and also interesting for a wider audience.”

Even with a number of films and series in production, the Harry and Meghan series remains by far Story Syndicate’s marquee project. The teaser alone has amassed some 40.8 million impressions since its release last week.

That kind of scale is not something the filmmakers had imagined when they began working in the field.

“When we both started in this, it was like joining a priesthood,” Mr. Cogan said. “You decided to become a documentary storyteller because you really believed in it, and you knew you were going to lead a certain kind of life and that was totally satisfying because that’s what you wanted to do.

“But the world has changed around us, and now a whole world of people can make a living in nonfiction storytelling.”

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