A documentary filmmaker known for works including Banksy Does New York, director Chris Moukarbel is very familiar with the portrait of an artist as a form.
Skilled at honing—and fascinated by—the “story behind the story”—Moukarbel was ultimately the perfect fit to helm Gaga: Five Foot Two, a TIFF-premering documentary that takes viewers into the life of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, and her performative alter ego, Lady Gaga.
Speaking with Live Nation execs about potential for a project, the director was linked up with Gaga’s manager, who felt he and the pop superstar would be a good fit with one another and sent him over to her house to roll cameras. When Moukarbel appeared, Gaga was initially reluctant. “She wasn’t trying to have a documentary made, and she allowed me in,” the director told me at Deadline’s Toronto Studio. “She said that she was just going to be doing her thing—cooking and going to the studio, and basically not having expectations, because she wasn’t doing anything interesting. But it’s all interesting, right?”
It would seem difficult to gain the confidence of a world-class performer like Lady Gaga, a private individual performing under an assumed title who headlined the Super Bowl last year. For Moukarbel, though, trust between himself and Gaga came fairly easy.”For me, it was about establishing in the beginning that she had agency, obviously, for me to turn the camera off if she needed me to. I told her right away, ‘I’m just going to shoot everything that I see, and if you ask me not to shoot something, I’ll shut it off,'” he explains. “We kind of established that trust right away, but she’s also very intuitive. I feel like we just kind of got each other and she felt comfortable with me, and she realized if she didn’t trust me, if she didn’t feel safe, she wouldn’t have done it at all.”
With the power to shut things down at any moment, Gaga chose to give the director the space to do his job and produce a film of substance—a film that was ultimately picked up by Netflix and will subsequently reach a global audience. “She really didn’t even watch the movie until the premiere. I think she understood that for this to be good, for it to work, she had to let the process have its space,” Moukarbel reflects. “So she gave a lot.”
Before taking on the project, the director had the same relationship to the artist as her millions of fans across the world, admiring her music and finding her a fascinating figure. In the end, Moukarbel was able to witness the line between Lady Gaga and the woman playing her, finding Gaga to be a superhero in her own right—in her larger-than-life presence, her philanthropy and the positive, progressive message she promotes.
“It’s funny, I think my expectations were similar to a lot of people’s, where you think she’s going to be this off-the-wall character,” he says. “[Lady Gaga] really is a sort of superhero character that she’s created for herself. It’s not a character because it is a part of her to a certain extent, but there is a real distinction that you feel between what she can keep private, and what can allow her to be a real human being, and what she gives to the world.”
To view Deadline’s TIFF conversation with the Gaga: Five Foot Two helmer in full, click above.
Deadline Studio at TIFF 2017 is presented by Calii Love, Watford Group, Philosophy Canada, and Equinox. Special thanks to Dan Gunam at Calii Love for location and production assistance; and Ontario Camera for equipment assistance. Video producer: Meaghan Gable; lighting and camera: Neil Hansen; design: Dialla Kawar; sound recording: Ida Jokinen.