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Interview with THIS IS PARIS director Alexandra Dean

September 15, 2020


With her latest documentary “This is Paris”, and her last one, “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”, director Alexandra Dean has now made two films that take a look at popular albeit overlooked women, individuals who couldn’t possibly be considered intelligent due to their beauty and public persona. These films prove such perceptions are not only wrong, they’re also damaging. No one likes to be pigeonholed or stereotyped, but it happens all the time, especially to women in the spotlight. If they’re not disregarded, they’re mansplained or they get a label that sticks with them for a while, unfortunately.

I certainly looked at Paris Hilton one way and that’s it. I thought nothing more of her and haven’t thought of her for years…and then this doc came along.

Dean knows there’s more to a person than what is seen on the exterior and her documentaries set out to offer an honest portrayal of her subjects, managing to glean enough truth to challenge the audiences own prejudices and judgements. I can say that from experience.

When I spoke with Dean recently, it became quite clear why she was the best person to bring the kind of truths seen in this documentary. She touches on that in our discussion, as well as how important it was to get Paris’ sister Nicky and mother Kathy involved, and especially how she tackled covering the childhood trauma Paris endured at a boarding school as a young teen.

You can read my full review of “This is Paris” here, but before you read that or even before you read my interview with Dean below, I recommend checking out the doc itself here. You’ll get more out of what follows if you view the doc first.





DAVID J. FOWLIE: I have to give you credit for getting me to watch a documentary on Paris Hilton. I watched mainly because you directed it, since it had me wondering how the director of “Bombshell”, a documentary I really appreciated and enjoyed, could go from Hedy Lamarr to Paris Hilton. I was curious what could be done here. I must say I was quite impressed, so congrats.

ALEXANDRA DEAN: Thank you. Do you feel like you know a bit more now or are you still wondering?

DJF: Well, I have to say I was never really a huge fan. I’m a guy who’s nine years older than she is and I just never got into the whole “famous for being famous” or the reality star thing. But, at the same time, what I do realize is that there is usually more to a person than what is presented to us – and that goes for someone who is covered nonstop by the media or paparazzi or someone who lives next door to you. Was that kind of the draw here for you, that you knew there was more going on here and you wanted to shine a light on that?

AD: Yeah. Definitely. I think I’m always trying to make people look beyond their prejudices. I think that’s the whole goal for me. The more I can surprise them, the better. And I definitely had my own prejudices about Paris Hilton.And I thought that was interesting, you know? Because I always challenge myself to see whatever prejudices I’ve accumulated over the years when I’m looking at someone. And wonder why I feel that way. And with Paris, it was really interesting because I couldn’t really pinpoint why I felt the way I did. I wanted to look at that. And when I met her on Zoom, for the first time, she was like, “Bombshell. I really resonated with Hedy Lamarr”, I thought well, why? Why are do you resonate so much with Hedy? Is it because you feel misunderstood? So, I started to wonder what has happened to her and if there was another person inside that we weren’t seeing.

My older sister is a very beautiful girl who looked a lot like Paris growing up and now she’s similar in age, and I saw her go through this really terrible episode where she was put in a mental institution and it nearly broke her. And she had this very difficult relationship with my parents, very rebellious, and I think it shaped me into who I became because I was horrified and terrified by what happened to her. And I think I was always haunted by this idea that maybe, in some way, really powerful and beautiful young women get broken by our culture sometimes. And when I met Paris, I had the same echoing thought. And when I started to talk to her and unpack what has happened to her, I started to wonder if these schools in some way were systemically doing that to young girls. And it turned out they were doing that to young girls and boys alike.

DJF: Yeah, that part of the documentary was quite a twist, a gut-wrencher, and we’ll get to that in a moment. I’m curious, Paris reached out to you then?

AD: Well, IPC, the production company that did the “Leah Remini: Scientology” series, by producers Aaron Saidman and Eli Holzman, wanted to make it and they reached out to me and they reached out to Paris. They put us together. Actually, they reached out to me on LinkedIn and I ignored them because I thought they were going to ask me for royalties on some archival from “Bombshell”. And I kept dodging them because they’re called the Intellectual Property Corporation (both laugh) and then finally they caught me one day and got me pinned down and said, “No no, we want to talk to you about Paris Hilton,” and I was so taken aback and kind of tickled that I engaged with them and I’m really glad that I did.



DJF: So am I. That’s actually quite funny. (laughs) I’m sure you were relieved once you found out why they were trying to contact you. So, Paris strikes me as someone who doesn’t just let anybody into her life. It takes a lot for someone to get involved in her life and behind-the-scenes, if you will. How long did it take for the two of you to build this symbiotic working relationship that would develop into such a documentary?

AD: It took several months to get there. At first, you know, I was definitely just filming what you see is the outer shell and I was wondering, “Is there another story here? Do you think we can get past this?” What I did develop with her very early on was the same relationship dynamic that I have with my sister, where I’ve always been the person she invited in. And because, I think, I remind Paris of Nicky Hilton, her little sister, who’s also quite straight and definitely the person that she can rely on. I think the dynamic gets replicated for us, so I think we were lucky in that way. I think Paris started naturally kind of confiding in me. So, I think we were lucky in that way and I think I responded in the way that I did because I had a sister who had gone through similar trauma. So, I just knew how to respond and make her feel safe.

DJF: Wow. So, it wound up being a real good match because of the experiences you had in common.

AD: Yeah, it was still familiar to me, because my sister went through something so similar and it was something I wanted to talk about because I wanted to work on it myself…to work on that thing that’s been bugging me since my childhood.

DJF: I’m wondering though, you’re taking footage, of life with Paris and a lot of it is somewhat familiar to you and others, but I was wondering…at what point did you realize there is something to delve into as far as childhood trauma.

AD: I realized it early on because I was recognizing the signs of traumatic scarring. And I asked her early on some pretty probing questions just to see if I was right, because I wanted to know I was right before continuing. And in one of our earliest interviews she did talk to me about Provo and she just told me a couple of memories and started to cry and she’s never really talked about it before. And as soon as that happened, I knew that there was just a ton to unpack there and it would take time, but that we were totally in sync. That what I thought was happening had happened to her.

DJF: I do appreciate how your film handles time and how you don’t just drop this Provo Canyon bomb right away. You begin to hint at it in a creative way through animation and we learn more here and there as the film continues. Was that always on your mind, that we would gradually learn about what happened in her past?

AD: Yes. I wanted the viewer to have the experience I was having, which is an investigation. Even though it was a psychological portrait, the information wasn’t there at the beginning. So, I had to uncover it layer by layer and I wanted to viewers to have that experience too, even if that didn’t happen chronologically for them. For the viewer it happens a little later than it happened for me, but it’s the same sensation of lifting up layer after layer.

DJF: I definitely liked that approach. As I was watching, I wondered what did you feel needed to fall into place in order to for this documentary to work the way you wanted it to work?

AD: You know, so much did fall into place and I’m still astonished that it did. It wasn’t like “Bombshell”, which I was making with my own production company and kind of had as much time as I wanted – this was on a tight schedule and I was making it in concert with production executives and everything like that. So, what I needed to do in order to make it work was actually say to the whole team at a certain point, “I don’t really want to bring in two camera people. I don’t want to big lights or the whole bells and whistles. It just needs to be me and Paris and my little camera a lot of the time…and maybe one of the other girls who I’ve worked with many times who is great with audio. So that we can just hang and let this thing organically develop. And when they let me do that, the thing took off. And then we needed to be in enough situations together in which I would witness Paris reacting to different things, like getting to the end of her career and feeling like she was questioning her life choices and seeing her after she’s had her nightmares. Things like that. I needed to be there for all of that.

And then you get to Tomorrowland, where everything exploded.



DJF: Right. That was in Antwerp, right?

AD: Yeah, that music festival. So, I think you don’t get that unless you put in the time.

DJF: I specifically liked the editing in that sequence. Can you talk about putting together that whole trajectory of arriving at Tomorrowland, going behind-the-scenes, arguing with the boyfriend and then going back and forth from what’s happening with him post argument and Paris onstage performing?

AD: That was a really exciting sequence. I couldn’t have done that scene without our incredible editor, Aaron McAdams, who was a partner in this. And before him actually, Melanie Levy, two really talented and amazing editors who helped me out with that amazing scene in Tomorrowland and help bring all the energy in, who really saw art where it was. When you find a good editor, it’s like rocket fuel, you just soar and you get to places you didn’t think you can get to.

I felt really strongly that we needed to go back and forth, because the intensity of the emotion of Paris going out on stage in front of 80,000 people kind of mimics the intensity of the emotion she had when she had the fight with her boyfriend beforehand. She doesn’t like to talk about him as a boyfriend, he was a fling. But, I think that standoff that she had with him before going on stage, for me, it cut in perfectly with the intensity of being on stage. And I think that she was also building up to a moment where she sort of like flings her head up and down at the end, which is a victory gesture at the end, for me. Because what she’s done is she’s putting down a boundary finally and she stripped away the mask and she’s shown herself and she’s stepped away from something that was abusive. That was really exciting for me to see, so I wanted people to see the excitement of that by intercutting the two scenes together. And then landing with her in her closet, kind of revealing the aftermath.

DJF: It felt like it paralleled with the overall draw of the film, like what I mentioned earlier, how you never truly know everyone’s story or what’s going on behind the scenes. The thousands of people in the audience have no idea what’s going on internally with her, but you provide helps viewers, like you said, get rid of their prejudices and attach themselves to some form of empathy. Just like you did in “Bombshell”, here you are providing opportunities for viewers to tap into that empathy. At this point in the doc, we know a lot more about what happened at Provo, and I think even the way I watch her respond to the pressure, the stress, and the argument, that comes from her traumatic childhood.

AD: Yeah, absolutely. 100%. Exactly. You start to reframe everything you’re seeing and that’s the goal.

DJF: Oh yes. I think that’s the beauty of the narrative you’re putting out there as you walk us through what you experience. One of the reasons why I asked what needed to fall into place is because I wondered what would’ve happened if Paris’ mother and her sister Nicky declined to participate?

AD: Hmmm, well, I think the film would’ve been a much poorer version of itself. Nicky is such an important character in this. Nicky is the person that Paris is most really with and she sat down and called me the moment Paris told her that she was doing this film and she basically grilled me. She wanted to make sure that I wanted to make a film that was going to tell the truth and not another puff piece or something ridiculous. Once she had satisfied herself that I was doing that, she said she’d considering doing this and it’s the first thing she’s agreed to being part of – which is why I included that first bite that she said when she sat down. But, I wanted to include that because I thought it was important that people realize that Nicky’s really serious and she doesn’t usually play around for the limelight.

DJF: Yeah, when she said that I kind of leaned in a little closer and rolled up my sleeves, like “Okay!”

AD: Yeah, and you see that she does. She doesn’t take any bullshit and she also really grills Paris in the film. So, she’s a really good foil for Paris. She allows you to see things you wouldn’t have seen. And then Kathy, Kathy is the one who Paris has been having the psychological drama with. So, if Kathy hadn’t done it, I don’t think we would’ve seen the end of Paris’ arc, which was that she needed to in some way bring it to her mother. And you also see the moment when her mother learns about what she’s been through where I told her something I didn’t know she didn’t know.

DJF: And that was happening right there and then, right? I mean, she did not know until the camera was rolling.

AD: Yeah, you can really see, right?

DJF: Yes!

AD: She did not know. Kathy did not know. I struggled to include that, but again I really wanted to include the viewer on the journey I went on. That was the moment I realized how little Paris had told her family. She told me she didn’t tell them, but you kind of assume that means, “I told them a little bit and they didn’t really believe me,” but in this case, it meant, “I didn’t tell them.”



DJF: Yeah, wow. That’s got to be hard. The documentary is bookended around October 2019, which is when Paris reunited with some former Provo classmates. At what point did you realize that that huge emotional get together with those women could be filmed as part of the documentary?

AD: Well, Paris had reached out to some people from Provo a couple years before we started the filming. And then she had gotten scared and stopped talking to them. She wasn’t ready. So, thay reaching out had existed already and she wanted to reach out to them again. And she was aware that that was part of what she was doing, that some part of her wanted to reach out and do something about what happened to her and see if she could do something for other people. And you can see in the film she’s sort of starting to realize throughout the course of the film that if she does something for other people she might be able to get rid of these nightmares that are so terrible.

And she challenges me at some point – and I don’t think this made the final cut – but, she does challenge me to go and find Jess, who is the very tall, blond short-haired woman. And she said, “Jess and I came up with a character together”, they called her Fifi, actually. And then Paris becomes Fifi, but she said to me, “I made her up with this other girl. You have to find her.” So, that was my quest…to find Jess. But, she couldn’t remember Jess’ last name. So, it was a really long hunt. Along the way, we discovered Katie, who had the Provo Canyon website and when we were looking for Jess, Katie said, “Do you want me to talk to Paris? I’m used to dealing with all the survivors.” And I said, “Well, can I turn around and ask Paris if she wants to talk to you?”, which is what I did. And you see the scene where Paris connects with Katie and they kind of take it off from there and everybody got involved.

DJF: Before we started talking here today, I looked up the website for Provo Canyon School and it does mention your documentary right at the top of the main page. Are you aware of that?

AD: No.

DJF: Yeah, it basically states that they’re aware that there’s a documentary out there and that they’ve been under new management since August 2000.

AD: We did try to reach out to them at the end of 2019, but they didn’t want to talk to us.

DJF: I saw that in the end credits and I was like, “Hmmm”. There’s no way they’ve seen the film, right?

AD: No. They haven’t seen it. We did reach out to them and tell them it was coming and asked for a statement, but they declined. We also wanted to film there, of course.

DJF: Oh, sure.

AD: We wanted to film there, but they didn’t want to do that either. I think also what we report in the film is just scratching the surface of the allegations.

DJF: Oh, no doubt. So, this is on YouTube. Is this your first time working with them and releasing with them?

AD: Yeah. It’s actually Google and they’ve been great. I think they’re kind of figuring out what the platform is going to be, but they started out with the Bieber doc series and millions of people tuned in for that. So, I’m really hoping that this is going to be a similar success, because I think a lot of people are watching original content now. And it’s happening globally, so you have this kind of amazing distribution. I think for people interested in Paris Hilton, this is the right venue.

DJF: Well, you definitely had my interest with this doc and it reaffirmed my appreciation for your work. I wish you well with release and with everything else.

AD: Thank you, David. I really appreciate that. Thank you very much.



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