New HBO Princess Diana documentary aims to 'explore our complicity' in her tragic life, death

Princess Diana was the world's most photographed woman of her time.

So when Ed Perkins had the idea to make a documentary about her life using solely archival footage, the British filmmaker had plenty to work with.

"The Princess," which opened the virtual Sundance Film Festival in January, premieres on HBO Saturday (8 EDT/PDT) and will also be available to stream on HBO Max. The film examines the beguiling royal's life from her 1981 engagement to Prince Charles of Wales to her tragic 1997 death in a car accident at 36. Instead of the usual documentary conventions of talking head interviews and narration, the doc tells Diana and Charles' story entirely through pictures, news clips, audio recordings and interviews from that period.

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"I felt a documentary that eschewed the traditional retrospective analysis and went for something more immersive might offer something to the conversation that we're still having about Diana 25 years later," Perkins tells USA TODAY.

"Princess" arrives on the heels of multiple stage and screen retellings of Diana's life, including Kristen Stewart's Oscar-nominated turn in "Spencer." Diana's younger son, Prince Harry, and wife Meghan Markle have also been subjected to similar levels of scrutiny and invasive media coverage, which played a large part in their decision to step back from the royal family in 2020.

"I hope (this film) gives a more complex understanding of both Diana and the relationship we still have with the royal family, as mediated by the press," Perkins says. "In many ways, some of the tensions and fault lines that still exist in that relationship can be traced back to Diana."

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Question: What was your relationship to Diana's story before "The Princess?" And what fresh lens did you hope to bring to it? 

Ed Perkins: The day Diana died, I was 11 years old and I remember being woken up by my parents, who were really emotional about it in a way I found surprising. There was this national wave of grief and mourning I had never seen up to that point and I don't think I've ever seen since. Adults were grieving this person as if she was their own mother or daughter.

"The Princess" revisits the life of Princess Diana entirely through archival footage and media coverage.
"The Princess" revisits the life of Princess Diana entirely through archival footage and media coverage.

There have been lots of documentary films about Diana, but I genuinely felt we had a different perspective to tell it from. A lot of films have been quite interior in their focus: They were trying to get inside Diana's head, and explore her psychology and the breakdown of the marriage. All that is interesting, but I think it probably involves a certain degree of speculation.

What I found more interesting was what the Diana story might say about all of us. Using that archive-only form and not any present-day interviews, my aim was to try to turn the camera back on all of us and ask, "What's our relationship to the monarchy? To celebrity?" The constant hounding of Diana (by paparazzi) was very difficult to watch endlessly and I wanted to explore our complicity. We create the demand for those photos and those (tabloid) articles to be written.

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Q: How long did it take to cull all of this archival footage? 

Perkins: It's safe to say thousands of hours. We had an amazing team of co-producers and researchers scouring the globe for months and months trying to find everything and anything on Diana. We tried really hard not to just use the same famous moments from this story, and instead tried to find those "needle in the haystack" moments that hadn't really been seen before. Making a film that is archive-only is a mammoth task that took the better part of two years.

Q: There's one clip that really struck me of Diana shielding her face from photographers with a tennis racket, but she still stops briefly to greet a young girl who gives her flowers. Do you feel that's pretty emblematic of how Diana carried herself? 

Perkins: It does seem to encapsulate one of the many paradoxes that's come to define Diana. She did at times hate the press attention, for good reason. And yet, we know she sometimes sought it and used it for good causes. In the aftermath of her death, because she died at such a young age, we went through a process of almost canonizing Diana. Part of that felt like an airbrushing of what made her and her life so interesting. She had a willingness to be honest and make mistakes, and also this extraordinary combination of beauty and vulnerability that was very disarming to people. Our challenge with this film was to find those rough edges.

Q: There are so many other haunting moments in this film: Journalists proclaiming Diana's wedding just the "beginning" of her fairy tale, or that she has at least "20, 30, 40 years" of public life ahead of her after divorcing Charles. One reporter even says, "When you put a modern person in an old institution, they will be destroyed." How did it feel finding these news clips that became almost sadly prophetic? 

Perkins: It was eerie watching that and hearing people make predictions about what's going to happen. There were times throughout Diana's life where the press didn't always say nice things about her and a lot of that's been forgotten. Part of the process of making this film was re-exploring some of those difficult emotions that we felt when we were accusing her of being manipulative, or whatever it might be. It felt important to bring those back up – that's the truth of how we experienced the story at the time.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Princess': Diana HBO documentary is the 'most immersive' one yet