Lady Gaga’s fifth studio album “Joanne,” released in October of 2016, showed a more stripped-back, undone version of the performer who is known for anything but subtlety. To document the journey, filmmaker Chris Moukarbel spent a year with Gaga to create new documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” out today on Netflix. The film — which Gaga didn’t see until the premiere — tracks the singer as she creates “Joanne” with Mark Ronson and prepares for her Super Bowl halftime performance, earlier this year.
We chatted with Moukarbel, known for the documentary “Banksy Does New York,” about creating such an intimate look at one of the most famous people on the planet.
WWD: How did you come to connect with Lady Gaga?
Chris Moukarbel: I had been talking to her manager about the idea of maybe doing a film, but he actually had wanted to do something like this for a while, showing how multidimensional she is. But there wasn’t any urgency around it, and she wasn’t really trying to have a documentary made, to be perfectly honest. Her biggest kind of concern was that nothing disrupted her studio sessions so we met and she was really open to the idea of a really small frame of her life, which is so big and even in a narrow frame you get kind of a lot.
WWD: Did you know from the start that this would be a more intimate, never-before-seen look at her?
C.M.: Yeah…I felt like with her, we’ve seen her in so many different ways and we’ve seen her produced in so many different ways and under all these different, amazing, beautiful cameras. For it to be worth it, for me to make it interesting, I felt like I had to go in a completely different direction.
WWD: How did you go about determining what storyline the film would tell?
C.M.: When I started with her she was just writing music — the album didn’t even have a title. There was a sense of wanting it to be a record, but none of it was on a timeline. All of these things kind of fell into place the year that I was shooting, which was great for the movie. And it was also great for her — I was happy to see her build herself back into Lady Gaga. In the beginning at one point she says, “I know we want to elevate everything but I can’t elevate it to the point where I become Lady Gaga again.” She was really trying to do something different with this, and on the one hand I admire that, and I also know that Gaga is this kind of superhero character that sometimes she just has to embody. And I think the world is better for it.
WWD: In the very beginning of the film she and her family are looking right into the camera, making you aware you’re watching a film, but as it goes on she seems to completely forget you’re there filming. Was that a creative choice?
C.M.: She just started doing that [talking to the camera] and I couldn’t direct her not to. I just had to embrace it and at some point I was like “Wait, this is actually more real.”
WWD: The film also shows the strains that fame places on her life, even after so many years of being in the spotlight. Why was that important to include?
C.M.: Even though she can obviously handle herself in those spaces, just the visceral crush of having all of those people on you…you don’t really get used to it. I just think it’s an animal instinct — it’s fight or flight. And she still has the same chemical reaction. She gets really stressed out, she has anxiety attacks. When all of these people are clawing at you and all these people are calling your name…when she was younger I think it was more fun, maybe, and more glamorous. I don’t think she would take any of it back, but I don’t think it changes any of the daily physical response that she can have to something like that.
WWD: Why the title “Five Foot Two?”
C.M.: It’s her height, but strangely there is also a song called “Five Foot Two” from the Twenties, but I didn’t know that. I came across the song later and I was like this is perfect. It’s a Guy Lombardo song and it’s a cute, old-timey song that we put into one of the scenes.
For me, I felt that the title brings the audience to this idea that it’s about her body in a lot of ways. It’s about the limitations of her body and the expectations placed on her body; there’s so much that she’s accomplished, and at the same time she’s a human being and she occupies this physical space, and that’s the same for everybody.
WWD: What surprised you the most about her?
C.M.: Right away when you’re with her, you’re struck by how familiar she is — and it’s not because she’s been famous for a long time, because you haven’t really seen this side of her. There’s just something about her that is very familiar — she’s very generous with the people around her.
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