Laura Fairrie is a British documentary director. Her notable credits include “Spiral,” a feature documentary about the human cost of rising anti-Semitism and intolerance in Europe that premiered at Doc NYC and “The Battle for Barking,” an observational feature documentary telling the story of Margaret Hodge MP’s fight against the far-right BNP in the 2010 British election. This film screened at the Hot Docs Film Festival and went on to be nominated for awards at the Edinburgh TV Festival and the prestigious Grierson Awards. She also directed “Taking on the Tabloids,” the story of Hugh Grant’s personal campaign for justice against the British tabloid press. She previously worked as a current affairs journalist and producer in the UK, Northern Ireland, China and America, making special reports and documentaries for BBC Newsnight, BBC2, Channel 4 News and Channel 4.
Tara Karajica talks to Laura Fairrie about her latest documentary, “Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story,” a touching, insightful, personal and raw portrait of Jackie Collins that pieces together hidden treasures from the writer’s personal archives with candid interviews and excerpts from her work and reveals the determined, guarded person she was to her family and friends. The film has just premiered in the Spotlight Documentary section of this year’s Tribeca Festival.
What prompted you to make this film about Jackie Collins?
Laura Fairrie: I was looking to make a film about a fabulous woman. I decided I wanted to make an inspiring film about a woman and I didn’t know who that was, but I just had this idea in my mind. And so, I talked to John Battsek, the producer I’ve worked with in my last film, about this and he said: “Well, that’s so strange because I’ve just been asked if I’m interested in a film about Jackie Collins,” and I was immediately thrilled and excited about the idea because, of course, I’d read her books as a teenager, hidden under the desk in Maths lessons. And, I was thrilled about the opportunity to find out more about her story and it would seem like a really exciting project creatively.
How did you get access to the material and to the people? How did you know who to choose to talk to? And, how difficult was it getting all those people to talk to you, open up and tell her story?
L.F.: Well, Jackie’s three daughters wanted a film made about their mother. When she died, she left behind all this archive – they hadn’t realized that she’d kept everything. They opened the cupboards and there were her diaries, her letters, photographs, video footage spanning their whole life. And so, they felt strongly that they wanted a film made about her, but they weren’t quite sure who to do that with or how to go about it. So, when I met them and we discussed the film and my vision for the film, it was just a beautiful connection that we had, and they signed up to it and were absolutely amazing, giving me this privileged access to everything and trusting me to tell their mother’s story. So, that was the beginning of the process. And, through Jackie’s daughters, I was introduced to their mother’s closest friends and work colleagues and, obviously, spoke to so many different people and from that, cast my film really in terms of who I thought were the most interesting and insightful people in Jackie’s life. But also, I was looking for wonderful characters that really brought the Jackie Collins fabulous bonkers story to life, so it was a combination of looking for great insightful storytellers, but also wonderful characters.
Can you talk about the research process? Apart from having (re)read her books, how did you go through the whole material and pick and choose from what you wanted to have in the film? How did you reconstruct her life from the archive you had access to?
L.F.: It was a huge task because this is essentially a sort of biopic; it’s a film spanning someone’s whole life and there was a huge amount of personal material, but also the interviews that she did through her life – the television appearances, the radio appearances, the fictional books… At the beginning, it did feel slightly overwhelming but, from the start, I had a very strong vision for the film, which was that we had Jackie’s public persona – the Jackie Collins that we all know, with the big hair, the leopard print, the shoulder pads, that all-powerful women… And, I wanted to flip that on its head and tell the private story. So, I was always looking for those two extremes and how to explore and find the vulnerable, complex, messy story about Jackie Collins. It was the human story that stood in opposition to the public persona, the façade that she created. That was a very clear end for me, and that was really helpful in terms of me getting on top of all the material and making choices. And then, also, I sat down with Jackie’s daughters to begin with and just went through her life step by step and from that wrote a sort of very detailed story beats document, which is almost a bit like a script and that really helped me tackle the interviews and structure the film and make creative choices about what I want to focus on and how I wanted to tell her story.
Can you delve a bit more into wanting to present that hidden, private persona with your understanding of the woman whose story you’re telling in comparison with the Jackie everybody knew?
L.F.: Well, I always felt very strongly that I didn’t want to make the film that people were expecting about Jackie Collins. I could have made a superficial glossy Jackie Collins film and that just wouldn’t have been interesting. What really interested me as a woman was what was the story behind this façade and what drove this woman to write the books that she wrote, but also to live the life that she did and to work as hard as she did. I was really interested in that, but also I loved the idea of humanizing this woman that appears to be so strong and all-powerful and who wrote these female characters that are sort of untouchable, and telling a universal story about a woman that had real lows in her life and had to keep picking yourself up and dusting yourself off and to show the vulnerable woman behind the façade so that we could really connect with that story emotionally and love her even more for the things that she survived in her life.
The fact that the film is premiering now is interesting in the sense that it is sort of joining the conversation on the resurgence of the (female) romance novels and adaptations thereof, that Bridgerton ushered in at the beginning of the year. Do you think that riding on the wave of this newly found interest in the genre, your film will spark an interest in Jackie’s books among a new generation of female readers?
L.F.: I hope so! I mean, that would be wonderful! And, her daughters are definitely hoping for Jackie to be read by a whole new generation of women, and to be celebrated again and I think that is a wonderful time to enjoy Jackie Collins’ novels because I think, as women, we’re at a time where there’s a real sense of freedom, about how we can live our lives and the choices that we can make. And, I think that Jackie was so much a part of that; not only was she a complete trailblazer and incredibly brave in her life in terms of the books that she wrote and the female characters that she imagined, but also her brand of feminism was very personal to her. And, I just love the idea of feminism being about freedom and about us being able to define feminism for ourselves right now as women and not be told what it is we should be doing, thinking, wearing and how we live our lives and Jackie was so much a part of that and that’s how she lived her life. And so, I think it’s a wonderful idea that you can enjoy her books again now and celebrate her.
Can you talk about Jackie’s feminism and how it resonates today with the new generations of women (who read her books)?
L.F.: I think the books were all about turning the tables on men, and she hated the double standard and she wrote female characters who were often like Lucky Santangelo and lived their lives like a man and didn’t want to be judged for it, who were just totally free. And so, I love that idea about today’s women being able to read those books, and really connect with that and connect with those characters because they do feel really relevant and timely.
I thought the music and editing in the film were truly spectacular and play an immense part in making it upbeat and yet personal. Can you comment on your choices of music for the film and the editing?
L.F.: The editor Joe Carey was absolutely brilliant and instrumental in making this film the film that it is. He brought so much to it. It’s just beautifully edited. I couldn’t have made it without him. And, for me, it was so important to have a soundtrack that felt like a big movie. I listened to music throughout the making of this film just to connect with Jackie and the tone and the vibe that I wanted to create. So, we used music that allows you to move through her life, in that it is related to the time that we were in and you either have tracks from the 1950s or the 1960s or the 1980s, so it really allows you to place yourself in that period, but there are also certain tracks that I felt that really allow you to connect with Jackie and her spirit and to emotionally connect with the kind of feeling that I was trying to allow people to access when they watched the film. And, it’s just really fun. I wanted us to have a soundtrack that you could always buy if you wanted listen to the Jackie Collins Lady Boss soundtrack and I think that we did achieve that. It’s really cool music.
Can you talk about the title?
L.F.: Lady Boss is the title of one of Jackie’s books, one of the lucky Santangelo books, but we felt really strongly that the idea of having “Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story” really fed into this idea of the public persona, “Lady Boss,” that Jackie Collins’ story was and the private story, the untold story that you didn’t know about, but that we are going to reveal to you during the course of the film. So, that’s why we chose that title and I just think “Lady Boss” is just so much fun and so fabulous and so Jackie Collins. We just couldn’t really call it anything else!
What do you think Jackie’s hardcore fans will learn about her from your film that they didn’t know about her?
L.F.: So much! I think most people who’ve seen the film are huge Jackie Collins fans and they are just so moved by it and so blown away by the vulnerability. And, they just didn’t know about some of Jackie’s tough relationships with men, her father, her own insecurities, which are all very surprising and moving, but also really make you love her so much more because you connect with her on an emotional level.
This interview was conducted (remotely) at the 2021 Tribeca Festival.