A bunch of red, silver, and black star-shaped balloons float over the staircase of Lady Gaga’s home in Malibu, California, in the opening scenes of Netflix’s Gaga: Five Foot Two. The documentary is an earnest and unprecedented glimpse into eight transitional months of the performer’s life (beginning when she was still writing her fifth studio album, 2016’s Joanne, and ending with her 2017 Super Bowl halftime show performance). The balloons were drooping a little, not quite as taut as they should be; a strange centerpiece for the spacious home of one of the world’s biggest pop stars.
Director Chris Moukarbel filmed the balloons before he knew who they were from (Warner Bros.) or what they were for (Gaga had agreed to star in Bradley Cooper’s upcoming remake of A Star Is Born). The director would find the narrative later, if this whole documentary idea even panned out. That was the first day of shooting, just a trial run, a chemistry test between filmmaker and subject.
That first day almost didn’t happen at all. It took a series of cancellations and a lot of rescheduling for Gaga’s team to finally find a day for Moukarbel — whose previous work includes his documentary about internet celebrity Chris Crocker, Me @ the Zoo, and chronicling enigmatic artist Banksy’s Better Out Than In 2013 residency in Banksy Does New York — to come over and meet the global icon. She didn’t really want to have a documentary made, and she wasn’t shopping around for directors, but her manager felt she might connect with Moukarbel.
That day, he filmed Lady Gaga in a series of captivatingly casual moments: sautéing chicken in her sweatpants, feeding her dogs, venting to the camera about a fight she was having with then-significant-other Taylor Kinney (“I just feel like my threshold for bullshit with men is…I don't have one anymore”), dancing in front of the fridge with her friends, then self-consciously noticing the camera and and jokingly waving it away. He had no idea the footage would end up serving as the first scenes of his film.
“In retrospect, it was the best way for us to open the movie,” Moukarbel told BuzzFeed News in Los Angeles a week after the documentary premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. “The way she’s presenting herself to me as a person is the way she presents herself to the audience.”
Beyond the sweatpants and kitchen-dancing, Five Foot Two grants the viewer unparalleled access to Gaga’s private life. There are glimpses into her alleged celebrity feuds (“I just want Madonna to fucking push me up against the wall and kiss me and tell me I’m a piece of shit,” she says as she inhales a joint); her personal relationships (“This is the third time I’ve had my heart broken like this,” she cries in an emotional voiceover after her engagement to Kinney crumbles); her family history (we learn all about the subject of her album Joanne, her aunt of the same name who died unexpectedly at age 19); and her struggle with chronic pain — a topic that drives some of the film’s most emotional and harrowing scenes.
But even in the midst of the film’s most emotionally (and physically) exposed scenes, Moukarbel consciously tried to avoid crossing the line into exploitation. “I’m not in the business of trying to humiliate people,” the director emphasized. Ideally, viewers shouldn’t feel Gaga is being objectified, but they should be reminded that the star is a human being with a vulnerable human body. Moukarbel fooled around with different title ideas — something with “monster” in the title, maybe a line about her reputation — but in the end settled on Gaga’s physical dimensions: Five Foot Two (singer Guy Lombardo croons the old song of the same name over a christening party as Gaga orders a drink at the bar: “Five foot two / Eyes of blue / Has anybody seen my gal?”). “So much of the film is about the expectations placed on her body, the limitations of her body,” he explained. “I needed [the title] to point to something more intimate.”
That theme of intimacy carries throughout the documentary. Moukarbel said he shot each scene to either draw the viewer closer to its subject, beckoning you in to whisper a secret, or emphasize the sudden space between you. During his year of editing hundreds of hours of footage, he discovered his story arc: Lady Gaga moving away from her private life and back into the spotlight. “She’s almost never alone, and I’m never alone with her again the way I was in the very beginning,” he said, referencing that first day in Malibu. By the film’s end, she’s just this little speck in the sky, flying high over the Super Bowl stadium. “I felt like that really represented how she traveled away from the camera and away from me and belongs to the world at the end.”
To translate the storyline visually, Moukarbel shot mostly by himself or with a tiny crew (rarely exceeding three people), to respect the star’s privacy and keep the atmosphere casual. He opted not to film any talking-head interviews with Gaga’s family or friends in favor of directly showcasing her life. Sometimes he held his C300 camera; sometimes he strapped it to his chest to avoid it coming off as “some omniscient eye.” He filmed everything with vintage camera lenses from the 1960s that gave everything “that kind of cinematic, old-school look.” The lenses prevented him from automatically zooming in or out, so every time he needed to get a closer shot of Gaga, he’d have to physically move toward her. “I think it creates a different effect for the viewer where you’re physically moving up to her or away from her. And if you’re close to her, it’s because I’m close to her. It creates the effect of really being in that space and sharing the air with her.”
Documenting such vulnerable moments, and in such close proximity, meant the director had to maintain a certain amount of emotional distance from his subject. He would always turn the camera off when asked (which was not often, and usually only when someone was being discussed who hadn’t agreed to be included in the film). But he also made sure the camera formed the crux of his relationship with the star. “I don’t really know him very closely as a friend,” Gaga said at the film’s TIFF press conference. “I know him as a filmmaker that was on our team for a period of time.”
Moukarbel described the pair’s dynamic as “a dance.” He and Gaga did become friends, but they didn’t form, as he put it, “a real, regular friendship.” He focused, instead, on trying to remain a neutral presence. “When you’re spending that much time with somebody, you have a more equal exchange of energy. I was really withholding in my energy. I just wanted to make sure she wasn’t overly focused on me or what I thought, or who I was.”
From that first day of filming in Malibu, he made sure the dynamic was defined: He had his camera out and rolling by the time Gaga came in to introduce herself. “If she [was] uncomfortable with me having a camera right away, then it was never gonna work anyway. She kinda just laughed when she saw it and was like, ‘Okaaay, here we go.’”
The professional dynamic worked, and Moukarbel insists that he had near-complete creative control of the film — something he’s found people don’t always allow. He sought Gaga’s approval for scenes he felt might be too sensitive (especially those that dealt with her chronic pain and treatment), but she didn’t even see the film prior to its premiere at TIFF — something Moukarbel found both harrowing and exciting. Gaga relied on her best friend Bo O’Connor and her sister Natali Germanotta, who saw the film ahead of the premiere and loved it.
“I always expected to get all these notes or for the other shoe to drop, and it never did,” Moukarbel said. “It’s rare, I think, to have the opportunity to make a film about someone like her and have them be so hands-off.” Gaga was at times a reluctant participant, but was open to the director’s negotiations when she’d deny a request for access. “She kept opening the door just enough for me to get in. She just trusted intuitively that it was worth allowing me to shoot.”
That trust seemed to pay off when Gaga finally saw the film, sitting across from Moukarbel at the premiere in Toronto. He watched her watch the whole movie for the first time. “She had tears in her eyes and she was thanking me after,” he recalled. “She thought it was a very compassionate portrait.” When the film ended and they took the stage together, Gaga applauded the director, signaling for the audience to do the same.
“Every one of my documentaries are about people who I find inspiring and interesting,” he said. “In a way, it makes people love them even more, because you see their flaws and you see how complex they are.”