“In my mind, she [Pamela Anderson] is a Kardashian. She is as famous as you get,” director Ryan White told TheWrap.
The comparison makes sense. In the 1990s, Pamela Anderson seemed to be famous for being famous. This in spite of the fact that she was an extremely popular actress on the TV show “Baywatch.” But the leaking of a stolen sex tape in 1996 ended up stopping Anderson’s career in its tracks, leaving her a punchline. Things seemed to stay that way until last year’s release of the Hulu limited series “Pam & Tommy” attempted to rehab Anderson’s image – without the real subject’s consent.
But White hopes to give the power back to the actual Pamela Anderson with his new Netflix documentary, “Pamela, A Love Story.” “Our documentary is the real Pamela,” White said. “I don’t think that series knew the real Pamela.”
In embarking on telling Anderson’s story, set to coincide with the release of her autobiography this Friday, White wanted to break down the story of a woman whose very life has been crafted without her permission.
It certainly took White a minute, though, to enter into the project, tending to eschew celebrity documentaries. “I’m very wary of even meeting with celebrities about documentaries, because you just end up in these awkward situations, if you don’t want to make it that you feel like you’re evaluating someone’s life worth,” he said. It wasn’t until White had lunch with Anderson’s eldest son, Brandon, and came to realize how little he, himself, knew about one of the most famous women of the 1990s. “I didn’t even know she was Canadian,” White said. “Because she’s the symbol of American sexuality.”
It might be surprising that the director of the space-set crowd-pleaser from last year, “Good Night Oppy” would tell this story. He was actually finishing up the former while working on the latter. But White said he enjoys telling multiple stories at once, especially those that feel so opposed to each other.
“They [his films] are often diametrically on opposite sides of various spectrums, whatever those spectrums are,” he said. “Usually I’m working on something dark and something light at the same time.”
In terms of the filmmaking, “Oppy” was a feature White cut in his kitchen, living only 10 minutes away from where most of the film’s events take place. “‘Pamela’ felt like a return to my roots, getting to go out into the world and film a totally unpredictable story,” he said.
White knew he didn’t want to make something slick and overproduced, not just because it was a directorial preference but because Anderson herself wasn’t that way. “Pamela said, ‘I hate watching celeb docs, so if you want to make the anti-celeb doc, sign me up! Let’s make something really raw and bare bones,’” White recalled Anderson saying. That might turn off those looking for the salacious.
There is no discussion, for instance, of Tim Allen’s alleged exposing of himself to her, or her interactions with Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin. The director understood those would be “clickable” gets, but he wanted to focus purely on Anderson’s life, and not the outsiders that have come into it. White admitted that the release of Anderson’s memoir, “Love, Pamela” acted liked the documentary’s bonus features.
The filmmaker said he ended up facing a point within the production where he cared about Anderson, and thus became protective of her. It’s easy to do, he said, because of how effortlessly trusting Anderson herself is.
“I would love to prop up this huge story of how long I had to win Pamela’s trust and how hard I worked, but it would be so melodramatic,” he said. “The truth is Pamela is an incredibly open and trusting person.” Her openness surprised White, especially considering how often that trust has been betrayed.
“She is not guarded. She doesn’t have publicists, and agents, and managers around her saying ‘Don’t say that’ or ‘protect yourself,’” White said. “I knew I could be trusted, but … in my head [I would] be like ‘Why is she giving me every diary that she’s ever written? Has she not learned that people burn you?’”
In a way, it’s a reason why watching “Pam & Tommy” felt like an ethical dilemma for White. “I was really torn about watching it because I was watching what she was going through,” he said. “Permission matters. And people being a part of telling their own story matters. And if someone see something as the most traumatic moment in their life, and we are forcing them to relive it in the public sphere again, and they feel like they have no control over it, and it’s kind of a comedy. I don’t know. Is that worth it to tell a great story, or to make a great TV series?”
“Pamela, A Love Story” streams on Netflix Jan. 31.