How ‘Pretty Baby’ Director Lana Wilson Tapped Into Brooke Shields’ Story After Years of Exploitation
19th August 2023

The last time filmmaker Lana Wilson chronicled the life of a global superstar, she followed Taylor Swift in “Miss Americana,” which opened Sundance in 2020. Three years later, Wilson was back at the Park City festival with another documentary that debuted to a packed theater and rave reviews: “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields.” 

Wilson — who was nominated for an Emmy for directing the Hulu and ABC News documentary about Brooke Shields — has showcased her ability to tap into great emotional depths, rarely publicly seen, of two of the most famous women on the planet. But by sharing their stories, she hopes to tell a much larger story.

“With Taylor, it was a verité, present-day look at her life at this really specific transformational moment in her life,” Wilson says. “She was going from being a person who is focused more on what other people want from her and how to make other people happy, and then going into, ‘What do I really want? What do I really believe?’”

“With Brooke,” Wilson adds, “it was how she evolved over decades.”

The filmmaker looks for aspects of a star’s life that isn’t about being famous, focusing on “something that’s deeper that’s relatable to anyone anywhere.” In “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” Wilson crafts a culturally relevant narrative about a young girl who was overly sexualized by the media, commodified and exploited in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s presented as a cautionary tale for women of all ages in modern society. 

The viewer is taken through years of archival footage in the two-part doc, reminded of the level of fame Shields attracted as a little girl, before the days of social media when the tabloids created the narrative for female stars. Working in the industry from infancy as a child model, Shields shot to stardom when she cast as a prostitute in “Pretty Baby” at the age of 12. Her celebrity catapulted to Kardashian levels when she starred in “The Blue Lagoon” as a teen and then became the face of Calvin Klein jeans. On screen, she was playing characters, but in real life, she was judged — and blamed — for her perceived impact on women around the world. 

“I’m amazed that I survived any of it,” Shields says in the doc. Through raw interviews, she explains how she did not feel protected on set as a young actress in an industry dominated by men. 

“Behind the scenes was the real issue,” Shields said at Variety’s Television Fest in June, prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike. “But with all these interviews, it was so interesting that people were so much more obsessed with the topic of the movie — how can I play a prostitute? — but no one had a problem with how I was being addressed with regards to the press or the director’s treatment of a young girl.” 

The arc presented throughout the film is one of a young woman going from thinking she was an object to a human being, and then finding her voice — and using it. 

Wilson first met Shields at the home of Ali Wentworth and George Stephanopoulos, who executive produced the project and are close friends of Shields. “The thing that really sealed the deal for me was when Brooke handed me this hard drive at our first meeting,” Wilson recalls. Shields told her, “This is footage that my mother collected over decades.” 

Wilson watched every commercial, TV show, movie and appearance that Shields had done throughout her career. What struck her the most were talk show interviews conducted by male hosts where Shields, at the age of 11 or 12, was bombarded with questions about her appearance.

“At first, she was complimented for being sensual and mature for her age. But then, she’s also criticized: ‘Aren’t you going too far? Isn’t this too sexual? Do you think you’re participating in child pornography?’” Wilson says. “I had the experience that a lot of girls have, which is being praised for your appearance and being taught through direct and indirect means that being a desirable female to heterosexual men is the most important thing, where all your worth comes from. But then on the other hand, if you do any- thing too sexual, if you go too far, if you cross this invisible line, it’s like a minefield experience where something is going to blow up and you don’t know what or when, and you’ll get punished and condemned for going too far.” 

She continues, “When I saw this archival material of Brooke, I thought, this feels incredibly contemporary.” 

Shields did not serve as a producer on the documentary, and trusted Wilson, Wentworth and Stephanopoulos with telling her story. The only footage Shields watched back was an interview about being sexually assaulted, something she had never openly discussed before. 

“I insisted on an exception to that because I thought it was so important that she feel OK about every single word in that sequence,” Wilson says, sharing that in their very first meeting, Shields shared her experience and asked if it should be included. “I said, ‘Let’s see if it fits into the themes and the story of this particular film.’ Because I don’t think we should include something just because it’s a news item. Over time, as I was editing, it did feel really clear to me and to the editors that in this story of a woman gaining agency over her life and her identity that the sexual assault was the ultimate violation of her autonomy — mentally, physically, emotionally. It did feel like an essential part of her story.” 

Nothing was off limits for Shields. Her only concern was that her mother, Teri Shields, might be vilified in the final product. 

“Her mom is so complicated. Brooke knew this. But I also do feel there was deep love in her relationship with her mom,” Wilson says. 

In researching archival footage, the director noted the way Shields’ mother was also treated by the media. “Our entire image-making culture is what was then responsible — and is still responsible — for the sexualization of girls and women. It’s not Teri Shields. I did find it really interesting and telling that the male auteurs of several of these films were completely let off the hook or praised for their genius, while Teri was criticized and castigated. I saw that as also fitting into the themes of the film that Teri is like a scapegoat for these misogynistic attacks from the bigger culture.” 

As Shields grew older, she began to write her own playbook. In the ’80s, she took a professional hiatus and enrolled in Princeton. After a four-year marriage to Andre Agassi, she divorced the tennis star in 1999 due to his behavior and substance abuse. In the early 2000s, Shields famously stood up against Tom Cruise, who attacked her for speaking out about antidepressants and postpartum depression. 

Today, all of these life experiences influence Shields as a mother. Toward the end of the documentary, she’s filmed at home without makeup and with her husband and two teenage daughters. 

“I knew that I didn’t want to see her daughters until the very end because I thought It would be incredible to go through this understanding the really deep, complicated relationship between Brooke and her mom, and go through her experience of postpartum depression,” Wilson says. 

She also liked the juxtaposition of women from different generations, in addition to showing the megastar in her seemingly normal life today. 

“I asked, ‘Have you seen any of your mom’s early films before?’ And they just started talking,” she says. “It was like it lit a match that lit a newspaper and a fire.” 

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