Chris Moukarbel spent eight months following Lady Gaga as she recorded her latest album Joanne. In the new Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, Moukarbel opens unique insight into her world. There are no sit down interviews, no family members recalling memories. Moukarbel instead gives us a fly on the wall glimpse as she goes from the recording studio to conceiving her halftime show performance at the Super Bowl, to the couch where Gaga lay suffering from excruciating pain caused by an old injury. He gives us a raw, no holds barred look at one of the biggest recording artists of recent times.
The documentary is now one of 170 documentary features submitted for Oscar consideration. I caught up with Moukarbel to discuss his approach and what he learned from months of filming Stephani Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga.
You chose not to do one-on-one interviews with this film, but used a rather fly-on-the-wall style instead. Talk about that choice.
Coming into it, I knew there was a long tradition of concert documentaries and music documentaries and it was important for me to find ways to strike in a different direction. In the recent history of music documentaries, you’d typically have the sit-down interview with the artist, the manager, and the parents. You’ll get lines about how hard they work and how dedicated they are, and for me it was important to just see that rather than have someone say it. I wanted to keep the focus on her and create that portrait and let people take from it what they will.
With an artist like Lady Gaga, there’s always something going on for her whether it’s a tour, an album, a TV show. So how did you know where your entry and endpoint would be?
Halfway through shooting she found out she was getting the Super Bowl halftime show. She understood that as a career-marking event for herself and in that way, it became the perfect way to end the story because she’s working towards this thing and she got it over the course of filming.
How much time did you spend with her?
I shot for eight months but in total I spent twelve months from beginning to end with editing. I also edit as soon as I start shooting. I go home with footage, sit with my editor and we cut it. It’s important to know the story and find it really early so that when I’m back out shooting, I know where the story is and what I’m looking for.
You gave us the studio sessions that capture her passion, her creative genius and her talent as an artist. What was it like for you to see that come together?
It’s a really humbling experience because you realize that certain people are just gifted and have the ability to write music, to perform. Everything that she does that comes innately from her dedication and her hard work, it cures you of any fantasy you have of becoming a pop star. Anything I ever thought about growing up to become that, I saw her and thought it wasn’t possible. It’s a very specific type of person and she is one of those people.
From that, you see she is determined and driven and how in control she is. What was it like for you as a filmmaker to work with someone who is hands on?
She completely gave up creative control on this project. She didn’t watch it until the film premiered at Toronto. I was really in a rare position to tell the story I wanted to tell. I expected her to watch cuts and to negotiate scenes but in the end, she felt she couldn’t be objective about herself so every time I sent her a cut, she wouldn’t do it. It freaked me out because I was thinking what if the other shoe drops and she suddenly decides to watch it, but she never did. Aside from a few short scenes that were really sensitive. I wanted to make sure she could sign off on those moments.
You gave us an insight into her chronic pain. What conversations did you have with her about documenting that?
When it comes to those sensitive scenes, it was difficult to shoot and you want to help someone when they’re in a situation like that even though you know there’s nothing you can do and there are other people who are trying to help her. We talked about it and she told me she wanted me to roll. She’s aware of her platform and she wanted people who suffer from similar things to have a reference and understand that she is suffering from this and they’re not alone. It was one of the few things she felt was important to have in the film. I felt I had consent to roll through those situations.
When you’re filming how did you know when to stop?
My agreement was that I was going to roll and shoot everything I see. I told her that if she wanted me to stop or leave to just say so. That was our understanding. There were a few times when she asked, like if people were talking about someone who wasn’t there. Or if it was a conversation about her relationship which she was very private about because they were in the process of separating and because Taylor wasn’t there to represent himself she didn’t want to talk about that side of her life. It comes up and is in the background but she wasn’t comfortable going too deeply into and that would be where we would turn the camera off if it got sensitive about him. Otherwise, I’d just shoot.
How did you film her world? Did you go in with a crew or was it just you?
I had an incredible team but most of the time I couldn’t bring them in. In my office, I had my producer, DP, and editor, and I could bring them in for events like the Super Bowl or the video shoot but on the daily basis, she preferred not to have anyone around. She was working and writing and didn’t want the distraction and she said I could come by myself if I wanted to. She would open the door enough for me to slip through. I’m happy because it made for a much more intimate look into her life.
Everyone has this perception of Lady Gaga, how did your perception change after spending eight months with her?
It changed a lot. I had a formed idea about who she was and what she was like, which is common with a celebrity at her level of fame. It shifted quickly. Almost right away you realize how much more down to earth, how much more engaged she is. I’ve met a lot of celebrities and they don’t make eye contact or they look right past you. I think it’s almost a self-preservationist mechanism that kicks in that you need to protect yourself, but with her, she’s still looking outwards. She’s looking for approval from the people around her. She has her family with her at all times and she’s very close with them. She has this network of family and friends that she’s constantly checking in with and it’s constantly grounding her.