The victory lap of Lady Gaga’s career hasn’t been as breezy as a pop star of her magnitude is typically afforded. For every achievement, there’s been an asterisk: She landed the lead role in Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, then called off her engagement and relationship with Taylor Kinney; she headlined Coachella for the first time, then lost her best friend, Sonja Durham, to cancer a month later; she performed at the Super Bowl halftime show while suffering from the worst effects of fibromyalgia she’s ever experienced. (She recently postponed her world tour because of it.)
Director Chris Moukarbel (Me at the Zoo, Banksy Does New York) spent eight months embedded in Gaga’s life — from recording Joanne with Mark Ronson to lying half-paralyzed on her couch in a fit of tears — where he witnessed the pressure cooker of what he calls the “Gaga bubble” approach combustion. “I did at some point realize that she was going through it,” he tells Vulture. The resulting Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, premieres Friday. We talked to Moukarbel about getting Lady Gaga to trust him, being unable to avoid the film’s sad tone, and how Gaga gave him total creative freedom.
I think of Lady Gaga as an artist first, meaning her creative direction is always manicured and intentional. But she seems much more present and liberated in this documentary. Was she hands-off to work with?
In her life, she’s very much in control of her project. But this did require her to be a lot more hands-off and she really did relinquish that control in this case, which is rare for her. She didn’t even actually watch the film until the premiere. It’s crazy. I didn’t expect that. I expected to be negotiating about creative stuff throughout, but I hoped for a situation like this. Other than watching a few clips of things we felt were sensitive and wanted to make sure she could sign off on, for the most part she hadn’t seen the movie and really just let me create this film.
What did you have her approve?
Scenes where she was having chronic pain episodes and doctors appointments. The scene where she’s talking about Madonna and women in the record industry, a couple things like that just felt very sensitive.
How did you get her to trust you with capturing her life? Also, how did you land such a big job?
I’d been talking to her manager and he had an idea about wanting to do a film about her for a long time, wanting to show how multidimensional she is. It wasn’t something they felt real urgency around, so they weren’t out there shopping for directors. But when I met with him and told him about my approach and how I make films, he felt like I would be a good fit with her. Eventually he got us together and I similarly talked to her about my vision for this — that there wouldn’t be any background or interviews. It would be a narrow focus on a moment of time and I would put a small frame around her life. They thought that was cool, but she was reluctant. She didn’t really feel like having a documentary made, and one of the main conditions was that it didn’t interfere with her studio sessions and songwriting. As much as I wanted to bring in a crew, sound people, and DPs, I wasn’t really able to. Most of the time, the conditions for me to be able to film was that I come by myself with a camera. I ended up shooting a lot of the film myself. Aside from big shoots like the behind the scenes of the [“Perfect Illusion”] video shoot or the Super Bowl, because those are such big productions happening, a lot of it was pretty intimate. I think that comes across. But I think she intuitively felt comfortable with me and if she didn’t, we wouldn’t have gone forward with anything. But she surprisingly had very little to do with the creative side of the movie.
How much time did you actually get to spend with her during filming?
I think I have hundreds of hours of footage which had to become 100 minutes. It’s tough. A lot of it was her in the studio writing, but once I began to establish the early scenes, I knew I didn’t want to dwell on that too much. Keep it diverse. A lot of studio stuff never made it into the movie, but I spent quite a bit of time with her in there. You have such a weird bond with someone when you’re making a movie like this because it’s so one-sided. All of your focus is on them and she’s trying to not pay attention to me. It was about eight months and I was editing as I was shooting.
I thought the film might follow her through to headlining Coachella, but it stops short at the Super Bowl.
For me, it’s like, where do you end? She has all these different milestones and something new and incredible is always about to happen, so I had to decide when I needed to stop. The Super Bowl felt right. I shot a little bit after that, but she built the Super Bowl up in her mind as this career-defining moment, so it felt like a good place to end the film.
Were there certain moments you debated keeping in the film that ultimately didn’t make it?
It’s not what couldn’t make it in, but there were just so many different versions of the same thing. There’s one great scene of her filming American Horror Story, and I shot a lot of [her on the AHS set] but it’s not necessarily what the film’s about. So you have to decide that it’s just gonna be what you see in her trailer and it lets you understand what that part of her life is like.
Pop stars who care about their image don’t typically like to present themselves in an unflattering light, and I think some people might view that AHS scene as Gaga acting like a diva for demanding to be kept in the loop on set. What was your read on her work ethic?
I’ve seen real divas and she’s definitely not one. I’ve seen people who are being really unreasonable or whose expectations are outside what their contributions are. With her, she’s giving so much and working so hard that when she occasionally has a moment like that, it never feels unprofessional or undeserved. She’s not demanding all the red M&Ms be removed from the bowl, you know? It’s something artistic [in the script] that she’s trying to work out and if somebody isn’t doing their job the way she needs them to, and it’s inhibiting her job, she needs to correct it. But it feels in step with the amount of work she’s doing, at least from my perspective.
My favorite scene in the film happens when Gaga’s speaking to her team about wanting a no-frills album rollout, and she’s in her bikini poolside. Then suddenly the camera cuts back to her and she’s topless. There’s no set up. Her breasts are out and it’s just like, deal with it. There’s an understood sense of trust communicated in that shot. It felt like the real Gaga.
And I didn’t edit it that way. I literally just turned the camera back and realized that while I was focusing on her creative director, Gaga had pulled her bikini top off. And that’s just the way she feels comfortable sitting at her pool at her own house. She wasn’t doing that for me. I think she probably had her top on for me and at some point was like, “Fuck it.” She was just being normal. Everyone kind of laughed for a second, but then carried on because they’re not phased by it so I just had to keep rolling. And she knew she was on camera. She’s very comfortable with her body and she’s been nude before in photo shoots. It didn’t feel like a taboo place to go.
Watching Lady Gaga in such intense physical pain is far more uncomfortable. What was it like being in the room when she’s screaming into a pillow during therapy for her fibromyalgia and having to film that? She mentions feeling embarrassed. Did you ever have to stop rolling?
It’s hard. On a human level, it’s a very visceral experience to be near somebody who’s suffering like that and you can’t do anything to help them. She has ways of coping and people around her that are helping. And this was one of the only themes in the movie that she felt needed to be included. A lot of people will suffer from chronic pain and have no way of alleviating it. For her to show that she, at her level with all her resources, is still unable to fix herself, she felt she needed to let people see that side of things. She’s an athlete in her own right — she performs at a 10 all the time and is incredibly physical — so for her to not be able to perform or to be debilitated is difficult. She wanted to keep [all the the footage in the film]. But it was hard to watch and be there for.
We see Gaga campaign for Hillary Clinton in the film and later ask to watch Trump’s RNC speech so she can focus on a different trauma, but we don’t see her reaction to the election. Were you with her on election night or the day after?
I actually wasn’t. But it was a question of how do we represent something like that? For the most part, I was representing things that happened while we were shooting and there’s no flashing to something outside of the frame. We all understood that the film straddled the election. There’s something really eerie about that when I watch it back now, especially the scenes when she’s performing at the DNC and campaigning for Hillary. You know where that ended up and it’s got its own life now. Any film that’s made during that time is always gonna be somewhat representative of that experience. But if I was with her, it definitely would’ve been in the film.
Were you ever concerned that the film might be too sad? It feels like she spends 70 percent of the film in tears.
[Laughs.] I thought about that. But you don’t know what you’re gonna get or make because you’re not scripting it. We didn’t have any control over what the story is gonna be. But I did at some point realize that she was going through it and she’s an emotionally raw person and that there is a sadness to the film. I decided to embrace it. I couldn’t make her be different. There’s a lot of things about being in her position, despite what people might assume, that are challenging. It really wears you down, especially over the years. You become so famous so young and end up having to live a certain way for the rest of your life. I don’t think she’d take any of that back, but as we’ve seen with artists, it takes a toll and some people don’t make it. She’s very aware of that reality.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time with her?
The Super Bowl is kind of the obvious one, but it was big for me, too. At that point, I’d been shooting with her for eight or nine months and I’d seen her whole journey. But that wasn’t even on the horizon when I first started out with her, so I watched that form as an idea, then her get it, start rehearsing for it, and then do it. She felt like it was a retrospective opportunity to appreciate her own work and career and celebrate it. It was intense. It’s 12 minutes, it’s live, hundreds of millions of people are watching it. She killed it. I was stressed out for her and to see her pull it off so beautifully was pretty cool.
What was your perception of her before you both embarked on this journey and how did being let into her life change that perception?
A lot of people think that she’s a much more over-the-top personality. She obviously is in her work, but behind closed doors, she’s really pretty modest. She’s constantly checking in with the people around her. She’s surrounded by her family because they travel with her, so she’s asking them and her friends, “How was that? Does that sound good? Is that okay?” Sometimes they’re sort of surprised, like, does she even know who she is? She’ll ask things like, “Do you think they would want me to do that?” Yes, you’re Lady Gaga, of course they would! She’s been in this Gaga bubble for so long that it’s hard sometimes for her to see herself.
This interview has been edited and condensed.