Liz Garbus was skeptical.
The documentary filmmaker behind films like “Becoming Cousteau” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” was not an avid royal observer. She knew the outline of Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex’s decision to leave the British royal family. She had seen their interview with Oprah Winfrey. But she assumed that the stiff upper lip that symbolizes elite British society wouldn’t make for a compelling documentary—too wary, too interested in hagiography, too much all-encompassing royal agony.
Then she saw the images.
Encouraged by friends to document their dramatic decision to “step back” as senior members of the British Royal Family and affirm their financial independence, Harry and Meghan shot more than 15 hours of personal video in the early months of 2020 when they make their plans to leave Buckingham Palace for good. Then they shared it all with Mrs. Garbus and her husband, the producer Dan Cogan.
Suddenly Mrs. Garbus found herself watching Harry in the Windsor Suite at Heathrow Airport, looking directly at the camera. The video is dated March 11 and Harry has just finished his last two weeks of royal engagements and is on his way to Vancouver to meet Meghan.
“You’re 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 what their lives could actually be like.
“It’s very personal and raw and powerful, and it made me realize how much weight their decision carried,” she said. “It also confirmed the choice I had made to unravel how this historic break came about.”
On Thursday, selections from those personal archives were made available to the world when Netflix released the first three hour-long episodes of “Harry and Meghan,” a six-part documentary series. (The final three episodes are scheduled to debut on the streaming service on December 15.)
Given the rabid, often polarizing opinions that seem to emerge whenever Harry and Meghan are mentioned, the series will almost certainly result in social media memes, tabloid gossip and — Netflix hopes, as it strikes a very rich deal with it in 2020. couple signed — a global streaming event.
“You don’t always expect people of their celebrity level to speak with emotional honesty and intensity about things that are upsetting or complicated in their lives,” said Mr. Cogan. “They were willing to do that, and that was so refreshing for us as storytellers.”
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Their story is also framed within “the history of British colonialism and race and its relationship to the monarchy,” Cogan added. In other words, issues that are sure to make the monarchy stutter.
In the series, Ms. Garbus puts the couple’s personal archive into context, interspersing the self-recorded video diaries with formal interviews and archival footage of the royal family. Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, is a common sight, as are Harry’s boarding school friends, Meghan’s security team in Canada, her college friends, and co-stars of the TV show “Suits.”
Filming began in November 2021 and ended in July, months before Queen Elizabeth II’s death. When asked if Harry and Meghan had control over the final product, Ms Garbus said it was a collaboration. When asked if the pair had final approval for the series, she replied, “It was a collaboration. You can keep asking me, but that’s what I’ll say.
The project is sort of the culmination of the problems Ms. Garbus has chronicled over 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 difficult 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 time again. (Ms. Garbus also directed a documentary series on The New York Times called “The Fourth Estate”.)
In the case of Harry and Meghan, Ms Garbus said the story already existed when she got involved, a first for a filmmaker who prefers to determine how best to approach her subjects. Documentary filmmaker Garrett Bradley was previously associated with the project, but the two parties parted ways because Ms. Bradley’s vérité style did not match the couple’s interests. Representatives for Ms Bradley declined to comment.
Ms Garbus said 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 past influenced their present.
“I’ve always been very interested in psychology and how a person’s childhood determines their future and what impact that person will have on the world,” she said. “In this story with both of them, I could look at that.”
Some have questioned why Harry and Meghan chose to make a documentary, suggesting the couple’s decision to give up their royal duties meant they wanted to live more private lives. In a statement to The New York Times, the couple’s global press secretary, Ashley Hansen, disputes this story. “Their statement announcing their decision to step down makes no mention of privacy and reiterates their desire to continue their role and public duties,” she said. “Any other suggestion speaks to an important point of this series. They choose to share their story, on their terms, and yet the tabloid media has created a wholly untrue narrative that permeates press coverage and public opinion. The facts are right in front of them.”
The series also speaks of Mrs. Garbus and Mr. Cogan’s expanded aspirations. The duo formed their production company, Story Syndicate, three years ago, combining Ms. Garbus’ directing background with Mr. Cogan’s production and finance expertise. (He previously ran the documentary finance company Impact Partners.) The goal was to serve the streaming companies’ insatiable appetite for documentary projects by overseeing the work of a host of emerging filmmakers. The company now employs 37 full-time employees and works with around 200 freelancers, enabling it to realize projects at a steady pace.
Last month, the documentary “I Am Vanessa Guillen,” about a US Army soldier killed at Fort Hood, became available on Netflix. In February, director Zachary Heinzerling’s “Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence” debuts on Hulu. And Story Syndicate has just announced that it will be producing a project about Halyna Hutchins, the cinematographer who was murdered on the set of the Alec Baldwin film ‘Rust’, with Rachel Mason directing and with the participation of Ms. Hutchins’ widower, Matthew.
“We built a machine to make handmade work,” said Mr. Cogan, adding that while entertainment companies have been tightening their belts recently due to 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 exalted, the most intense, the most extraordinary work.”
For Mr. Heinzerling, that meant helping him in his efforts to turn his extensive research and access to cult survivors into a thrilling three-episode series.
“We started in this place of how do we create something that the survivors can get behind that really cuts to that salacious, true crime stuff that a lot of people are currently drawn to,” said Mr Heinzerling. “Story Syndicate was integral to focusing the project and really helped me find a storyline that would be clear enough that we could translate the story in a way that would be what I wanted and would also be interesting to a wider audience.”
Even with a number of movies and series in production, the Harry and Megan series remains by far Story Syndicate’s big project. The teaser alone has garnered some 40.8 million impressions since its release last week.
That kind of scale was not envisioned by the filmmakers when they started working in the field.
“When we both started doing this, it was like becoming a priest,” said Mr. Cogan. “You decided to be a documentary storyteller because you really believed in it, and you knew you were going to live a certain kind of life and that was very satisfying because that’s what you wanted to do.
“But the world around us has changed, and now a whole world of people can make a living telling non-fiction stories.”