In her first interview since the release of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s Netflix documentary, director Liz Garbus has spoken about her experience of working with the Sussexes, struggling with their separate visions for the project and how she believes Buckingham Palace tried to ‘discredit’ her work.
Speaking to Vanity Fair, Garbus explains how Harry and Meghan wanted the documentary to be about their “love story”, but she was interested in something deeper. “They certainly did see this documentary, and do see it, as very much their love story,” she says. “Their interest was very much in telling their love story from their point of view, as opposed to the love story as told by others, and to share their personal archive in order to have that look behind the curtain.”
She also claims that Buckingham Palace pretended they had not been approached for comment about the allegations made in the documentary before its release, when they had. “[...] Buckingham Palace said that we didn’t reach out for comment [on the docuseries] when we did,” Garbus says in the interview. “They did that to discredit us…and by discrediting us, they can discredit the content of the show.… We lived through some of those moments that were a little bit like Alice Through the Looking Glass.”
But Garbus wasn’t afraid to hold the Palace to account then, and isn’t now. “I don’t feel that [questioning] the monarchy is sacrilege, in the way that I don’t feel [questioning] the American government is sacrilege,” she says. “It’s our role as storytellers and critical thinkers to raise these questions.”
The 52-year-old director, writer and producer runs her own production company and has over 25 directing credits to her name, including non-fiction works like the finale of The Handmaid’s Tale. She was a natural choice for Harry and Meghan’s documentary for many reasons, with Meghan already a fan long before the two were considering working together. “It’s nice to be able to trust someone with our story — a seasoned director whose work I’ve long admired,” she said in an interview with Variety back in October 2022.
Meghan apparently gave Garbus a substantial amount of control over the documentary’s narrative during production. “[...] It may not be the way we would have told it,” shee said in a separate Variety interview, “but that’s not why we’re telling it. We’re trusting our story to someone else, and that means it will go through their lens.”
Other reports suggest that Garbus was brought onto the production last-minute after the original director Garrett Bradley left citing “creative differences.”
So what made Harry and Meghan rely on this Brooklyn-based director so intimately, and exactly what “lens” did she lend to the documentary? From her parallels as a fighter for social justice, to her history of sympathising with “divas”, here’s how the Harry & Meghan doc came to be helmed by Liz Garbus.
The daughter of a civil rights lawyer
Liz Garbus has a thirst for social justice in her blood. Her father, Martin Garbus, is an eminent American attorney who has appeared before the US Supreme Court as well as numerous other trial and appeal courts throughout the United States, hailed by The Guardian in 1992 as “one of the world’s finest trial lawyers”. He is described by his own wife, Liz’s mother Ruth, as “a lefty all his life”.
You could say his client list has a few notable names, too. There’s Nelson Mandela, Al Pacino, Nancy Regan, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford, Cesar Chavez, Sean Connery, The Metropolitan Opera and Penguin Books, to name just a few.
Liz’s mother, Ruth Meitin Garbus, was a writer and therapist as well as a social worker - which, as it happens, is the same profession as Doria Ragland, Meghan Markle’s mother.
Raised in New York, Garbus went to school with a friend whose father was “a very well known documentary filmmaker”. According to an interview with Garbus and Hollywood Reporter journalist Scott Feinberg, when the friend’s father saw an early documentary attempt of Garbus’ in high school, he apparently said to her, “You’ve just made a documentary - that was really great,” and it stuck with her ever since. She began taking film classes alongside her History and Semiotics degree at Brown University, and cut herself a path into the documentary industry.
A documentary maker with a thirst for the ‘grey areas’
Garbus interned at Miramax after university, eventually scoring a fulltime job with fellow documentary maker Johnathan Stack. Working with Stack, Garbus made her directorial debut in 1998 with a documentary called “The Farm: Angola USA”, focused around Louisiana State Penitentiary, America’s notorious and largest maximum-security prison.
“We made it on a shoestring,” Garbus said in an interview about her work, “and it went to Sundance, and getting the call that you’re going to Sundance as a young filmmaker is the most exciting thing ever.” The film was well recieved, to say the least - it won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury prize, two Emmys and was nominated for an Academy Award.
From then on, Garbus’ work varied. A documentary about the life and work of Marilyn Monroe here, an MTV series there, then the finale of the critically acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale in 2022. But Garbus has maintained throughout her career that there is one singular thread which connects it all: “A commitment to social justice, a desire to tell stories of humanity in all its grey areas.”
She also seems drawn to the careers of prominent women, as well as their treatment in society. Garbus has directed and produced documentaries on Nina Simone, Britney Spears, Ariana Grande and Marilyn Monroe. Listeners of the Mariah Carey episode of Meghan Markle’s podcast, Archetypes, will know well how partial Markle is to a “diva” - and to breaking down the stigma of that label.
Living in Brooklyn and running her own production company
Garbus was born and raised in New York and still lives there to this day, currently residing in a Brooklyn townhouse with her husband of 19 years, fellow filmmaker Dan Cogan, and their two kids, who are 15 and 17.
Cogan is well known in his own right, having produced the Oscar-winning documentary Icarus, which revealed the Russian Olympic doping scandal to the world.
In 2020, Garbus and Cogan decided to combine their business efforts and forge a joint production company called The Story Syndicate, producing documentaries for the likes of Netflix, HBO and Apple TV+, largely because it just made sense for the pair to work together. “When Liz and I started talking about it together,” Cogan told The Hollywood Reporter in 2020, “the idea of having two separate production entities in the same household just seemed bananas. It made much more sense for us to actually just do it together.”
Then the pandemic hit, threatening to ruin everything the couple had worked for. But as anyone who has logged onto Netflix since March 2020 will know that documentaries weathered the pandemic pretty well, and even grew in its wake.
When Harry and Meghan came knocking
As pandemic fears simmered and Garbus’ career only continued to grow, her relationship with Netflix strengthened. Garbus has already produced numerous documentaries for the streaming service, including “Ariana Grande: Excuse Me, I Love You”, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and “Britney vs Spears” - all surrounding hugely influential women and their fame. These credits are sure to have placed her as a frontrunner for Netflix’s directorial suggestions when it came to their talks with Harry and Meghan.
But it’s might have been her non-Netflix documentaries which drew the duke and duchess in most. Garbus is currently producing two documentaries about black actors’ achievements in Hollywood for Apple TV+, entitled “Number One On The Call Sheet”, which may have inspired some spirited conversations between her and Markle, who has previously spoken of her struggles as a mixed race woman in the entertainment industry. In a piece for Elle in 2015, Markle wrote: “I wasn't black enough for the black roles and I wasn't white enough for the white ones, leaving me somewhere in the middle as the ethnic chameleon who couldn't book a job.”
Garbus has also directed a documentary about the media, called “The Fourth Estate” - a name which denotes the media’s implicit influence, and ability to shape public perceptions and political opinions. The insider knowledge that Garbus gleaned from making this documentary could have been a quality which Harry and Meghan found appealing, given their struggles with the press, and how much the media abuse appears to feature in their documentary.
Liz Garbus’ filmography is essentially a tick box list for all of the issues the Sussexes care about, and it provides proof that she will be sympathetic and understanding of their experiences. But, she is still a documentary maker, and it is her duty to tell it how it is - not how the royals want it to be seen. So as Meghan told Variety, it may not be the way they would have told it, but it’s guaranteed essential viewing.