Audiences are filing out of the world premiere screening of Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney at the Cannes Film Festival tonight, a new documentary that sheds fresh light on iconic singer Whitney Houston’s tragic and puzzling rise-and-fall story. Interviewing Houston’s closest family and friends, Macdonald made two illuminating new discoveries that appear in the film: one, that the singer had been abused as a child, and, two, that the abuser was a woman, Houston’s cousin Dee-Dee Warwick, the late sister of soul icon Dionne. Dee-Dee Warwick died in 2008.
It has been six years now since Houston’s death put the final full stop on a long and turbulent life that had seen her make newspaper headlines for a quarter of a century, first for the gift of a soulful voice that made her a singing star around the world, and later as a drug-ravaged shadow of her former self.
From the 1940s heyday of jazz legend Billie Holliday, whose battle with heroin similarly sabotaged a once promising career, through Janis Joplin and up to the tragic death of Britain’s Amy Winehouse in 2011, the clichéd narrative of the self-destructive female has been a familiar trope in popular culture. Macdonald’s documentary, which Miramax and Roadside Attractions release in the U.S. on July 6, seeks to upset that sexist interpretation in more ways than one.
Macdonald spoke to Deadline at our Cannes Studio to discuss the film’s startling revelations and the ethics of handling such sensitive material.
When did it occur to you to make a film about Whitney Houston?
It didn’t occur to me—somebody came to me. Simon Chinn, who produced Man On Wire and Searching for Sugar Man, came to me and said, “I want to make a film about Whitney Houston.” And I said initially, “I’m not really interested in Whitney Houston.” Or rather, “I’m not sure there’s anything interesting to say about Whitney Houston.” But then I met with Nicole David, who’s kind of co-producer on the film, who was Whitney’s longtime film agent at William Morris. And she was the person who really intrigued me, and made me think, “Oh, maybe there is a really interesting film here.” Which is kind of a mystery story, I suppose, because what Nicole said to me was, “I knew her probably as well as anybody for 25 years. I was her agent, I helped her in her down times, I was there celebrating the great times, but I never really understood her, and I never understood why what happened to her happened to her—why she ended up dying this tragic death.” And that intrigued me; I thought, “Hey, how could somebody who, on the surface, you would think knew her so well still think there was a mystery there?” So that was kind of the origins of the movie for me.
You go into it with a very investigative attitude. It’s almost like a detective story, in a way.
Yes, that’s exactly what it is for me. For me, it is a kind of a detective story, and so I deliberately left my questions in, to give you the sense that I’m looking for something, trying to understand, and maybe a little bit puzzled by some of it. Because it’s quite an extraordinary bunch of characters that you meet along the way—her family and her friends, her musicians. You feel like you’re stepping into quite a dysfunctional and odd and sometimes surreal world.
Was everybody open to being interviewed about the subject?
I wouldn’t say everyone was open, no. I’ve never interviewed as many people for a film as I have on this. I think I interviewed about 70 people, and I would say a good 30 or so of them didn’t make it into the cut. Which is a lot higher percentage than you would normally think, but a lot of people just gave me the flannel. They just gave me the same old sort of, “Oh she was wonderful, she was troubled, she was the voice of the generation,” kind of stuff. Which surprised me, because, you know, she died six years ago. And I feel like, now is the time. There’s enough distance for you to be honest, and to look at yourself, as well as at her. And I think that is the key to why people find it hard to talk about her honestly—so many people around her feel guilty, and they’re not prepared yet, in their own lives, to kind of acknowledge that or admit that. That’s the feeling that comes off from them; there’s a lot of guilt.
So I would say, there were a lot of lies. A lot of lies, and that just, of course, makes you more intrigued. And you get people contradicting each other, and you think, “Why? What are they hiding? What’s going on?” Now, how can you ever understand anybody fully? But I felt that by the end of the kind of investigation, if I can call it that, I did sort of feel like we’d uncovered a couple of key things that unlocked really important elements of her, and that made you sympathize with her a bit more, which I guess was the aim—to understand this extraordinary behavior, understand this self-destruction, and understand what she did to her daughter. Because I understand these two or three things, which have to do with her family and her childhood.
How did you find Cissy Houston? Because she appears in the film in the beginning, then her presence becomes a bit less frequent.
Yeah. Well, you can’t help but feel tremendous compassion towards Cissy when you meet her. She seems like a woman in real pain. She’s 85 now, I think, and she’s quite frail, and she’s lost her daughter and her granddaughter in the space of two years and had to see their lives play out tragically, in public and in the press. So, she agreed to be part of the film. I did an interview with her, which matched all the other interviews I did, and she…just wasn’t really all there, I would say. Her memory seemed to be poor, she really obviously was uncomfortable. She didn’t really want to talk about it but felt she ought to, so the interview was not very successful. And then, I took her down to the church, the New Hope Baptist Church, which is where Whitney had been in the choir and where Cissy was the choir mistress. I was just wanting her to do a couple of visual elements. And then she started talking, and she suddenly became much more focused and…coherent I guess, because I think being in that place brought everything into sharp focus for her. And so I used those little bits of her in the church as her presence in the film. But I kind of always felt like, what else do you need her to say, really? She is a woman who is a mother, who is in pain, who you don’t really want to prod because you feel like she’s been through enough.
Whitney’s brothers are a bit more open. Was that a question of getting their confidence, or are they just very open?
I interviewed each of the brothers at least three times—one three times and one four times—so it took quite a long time to gain their trust. And they’re very troubled individuals themselves. They both [feel] quite guilty, they both have had really terrible addiction problems, and I think that’s sort of evident in the way that they are. You feel, again, this sense of pain. And they slowly began to trust me, and I think by the third interview, one of them, Michael, said to me, “Y’know, maybe we should do this every month; I’m finding it like therapy. You know, it’s kind of interesting exploring my past, and talking about her.” So I think they were open. How open everyone was in the end, I don’t know. I did feel like, on this film, you could keep going for another five years, interviewing and re-interviewing and going deeper, and deeper, and deeper. Which is a strange feeling, actually.
It’s one of Whitney’s brothers who brings up the abuse allegations. How did you feel when you uncovered that piece of information?
I first began to suspect that there might be some kind of abuse involved before anyone had actually told me. I just had a sense, having sat watching interviews about her, watching footage of her. I had a feeling that there was something wrong with her. There was something preventing her, in some way, from expressing her real self. She felt uncomfortable in her own skin in almost every interview there was with her. And I thought that was a very strange thing, and it kind of reminded me of people I’d seen who had suffered from abuse, just in their body language and their sense of holding something back. That was just an intuition, and then somebody mentioned it off-camera to me. They wouldn’t talk about it on camera, but they said Whitney had said to her that something had happened.
And for a long time, that was where it lay. I didn’t know whether that was true. And then I interviewed Pat Houston and Gary Houston, who’s Whitney’s brother. He told me that he was abused by a woman in the family, and Pat Houston told me that, yes, Whitney had said to her, “This is what happened.” So at that stage, I’d had the confirmation that something had happened, but I didn’t know who it was. And then, on the next interview, Gary did tell me who it was. This was at the very end of filming, two weeks before we locked the cut. Then I [interviewed] Mary Jones, who was Whitney’s longtime assistant [throughout] the last 10 years of her life, and who knew her better probably better in that period than anybody else. And she told me Whitney’s point of view on this, and what Whitney had told her in detail, and how important she felt it was for understanding Whitney, but how scared everyone was to talk about it. So, yeah, the film changed radically in the last weeks of editing it, which I guess, as a detective, is the result you want.
But, obviously it’s such a disturbing allegation, and we did have a lot of debate about it. How do you present material like this, and how do you do it in a way that’s going to be fair to the family and to somebody who’s accused who is also deceased?
What was the answer to that question?
In the end, we felt that we had three different people saying this. One of them, Gary, was also abused by [the same woman]. So, we felt that having direct testimony of somebody saying, “This happened to me” meant that even if by some incredible stretch of the imagination, Whitney had been lying to everybody else about it, that there was no reason not to go public about it. All the experts I spoke to about this area and this issue told me that it’s best to talk about these things and best for them to be out. That is the current thinking: it may prevent other people being abused in the future, it may give people the courage to come forward and say, “This happened to me, and this was the person who did it.” So there was some nervousness about it to begin with because I didn’t expect to be making a film about somebody who was an entertainer to lead to such a dark place. But once we got there, I felt like we had an obligation to use this.
Bobby Brown, on the other hand, isn’t very forthcoming. How did that interview go down?
Well, I think Bobby just isn’t really ready to be honest, in some way. And again, there’s the perfect example of somebody who is, I think, [feeling] just very guilty. I’m surmising that, I don’t know that, but it feels like there’s a lot of guilt, and a kind of posturing, and a self-protectiveness that’s still going on there. And he felt, to me, just unwilling—or unable–to really be honest about himself, let alone to be honest about Whitney. Although, as often happens in these kinds of documentaries, the person being interviewed doesn’t necessarily need to say things that are that revealing in order to be revealing. Seeing him, and the kind of squirming answers that he gives to things—that, in itself, tells you oceans.
Was there anyone you wanted to speak to but couldn’t get?
Yeah, the one person I think who’s obvious in the film, that is absent here—very obviously absent—is Robyn Crawford, who was Whitney’s longtime best friend and assistant, and who famously had an affair with her for some time, when they were young. She talked about maybe doing the interview. It went backward and forward for several months, but in the end, she decided she didn’t want to do it. Which was a shame, and to begin with, I thought that was a devastating blow because I thought we would get her to talk. But in the end, where the film ends up, it’s not about her and it’s not about that relationship, although people have a lot of fascination with that relationship. This is a film about family, I think, and about what your upbringing does to you. The consequences of it. So, she would have been an interesting witness, but she’s not key to the film that we’ve made.
Did you ever feel that you got an understanding of what drove Whitney to be so self-destructive—with drugs, in particular?
Well, I think it’s a very complicated thing, what drove her to be self-destructive. I think she started off taking drugs because it was fun and she liked to have a lot of fun. And her brothers took it, and everybody around her took it. There was that period; it was the early ’80s in New York. One of the stories I left out of the film is Michael, her brother, talking about when he was a teenage boy—he first started to earn money as a drug mule, on his bicycle. Taking drugs, running them in from New Jersey into Manhattan. He’d get, like, 300 bucks a time. And so they grew up in that world. But [regarding the addiction], I think that what you see in the film is somebody who can’t find themselves. Doesn’t know who they are and who is in pain because they can’t talk about the central problem in their life, which I think came from the abuse. So I hope that when you get to that part in the film it does unlock an awful lot of stuff. It makes you understand why she stayed married to Bobby Brown. It makes you understand what she’s running away from, why her relationship with her mother is so difficult. All sorts of things, I hope, will click into place. Now, I don’t think [the abuse] holds the answer to everything, but I think that looking at almost every aspect of her life through that prism makes you understand it better.