Through his production company Triod Media, co-cofounded with producer Jessica Hargrave, Emmy-nominated filmmaker Ryan White has spent the last decade making an eclectic range of impactful documentaries. From LGBTQ+ topics, such as The Case Against 8 exploring the case to overturn California’s same-sex marriage ban and the road the Supreme Court, the evolution of representation in Visible: Out on Television, and the work of illustrator J.C. Leyendecker in 2021’s stunning Tribeca Festival award-winning short, Coded, narrated by Jari Jones. White’s hit real life crime series, The Keepers, gripped viewers on Netflix with its investigation of the unsolved murder of a young nun in Baltimore and its legacy. His other subjects have included tennis champion Serena Williams, nonagenarian sex therapist and Holocaust survivor Dr Ruth, and a rover sent to Mars on a 90-day mission that lasted for 15 years, in last year’s remarkable Good Night Oppy, nominated for Documentary of the Year by The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics in the 2023 Dorian Awards.
Most recently, White turned his lens to one of the defining figures of the 1990s, Playboy model and international television star, Pamela Anderson, who hit the headlines again last year when a painful and very public time in her life was serialized as the comedy drama, Pam and Tommy. 2021 also saw Anderson make her unexpected Broadway debut in Chicago. White’s film, Pamela, a love story, which launches globally today on Netflix allows the icon to speak for herself, reclaiming her own narrative as reflects back on her life so far, and looks forward to the next chapter.
Ahead of the film’s premiere, Ryan White spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about getting to know Pamela, what surprised him the most about one of the world’s most famous women, her status as a gay icon, and his own favourite LGBTQ+ culture.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: watching the film brought back memories of having Pamela Anderson posters on my bedroom room walls as a young teen, partly as an unconvincing cover to look straight to my friends, but I was also a fan, I loved her on watched Baywatch, and appreciated her beauty, but not in quite the same way that I was into Marky Mark at the time! What was your own relationship with Pamela before embarking on this?
Ryan White: “I didn’t have posters of her in my bedroom, but I was a fan as a kid. I’m 41 now, so from when I was around 10 years old up until I was about 20, Pamela Anderson was the most famous person in the world to me. She was like our Marilyn Monroe, right? She was an icon, especially to young gay men at that time. I had a perception of her being almost like a drag queen in a way because she was so larger than life. I was very compelled by her. As gay men we tend to be drawn to any diva in the tabloids, especially a beautiful one or an over the top one. But she wasn’t someone who I’d thought about for the last 20 years, until I got a phone call from our executive producer, Josh Braun saying that he access to her. I often think that we’re going to run out of celebrities to make documentaries about, so when Josh mentioned Pamela, I thought it was proof that we hadn’t run out yet!”
“My initial reaction was that it was a great idea for documentary for someone to make, but I wasn’t sure that it was for me. He asked if I’d meet with her son, Brandon, who was putting the film together and looking for a director. So I had lunch with him in Los Angeles and it was then that I discovered so much about Pamela. I didn’t even know that she was Canadian. That was actually a real shocker. To me, she was the ultimate symbol of American sexuality in the 90s; big blonde hair, big smile, big boobs. I thought she was all-American. Brandon told me that she had moved back to Ladysmith, the small town on an Island where she grew up, and had married a local who he hadn’t met yet, and she was spending a lot of time with her parents. I’m always looking for an arc, and I was really interested to find out that at only 53 she was back living in that small Canadian town having left fame and fortune behind.”
“Brandon said, ‘you and my mom are going to get along really well, she’s different from what you’d expect’, but I’m always wary about meeting a celebrity before I’ve done my own research and know that there’s a good chance I’ll want to do the project. But Brandon really sold me on talking to her, so a couple days later Pamela popped up on a Zoom chat. She was in her little farmhouse and I could see the water behind her. We had a two and a half hour conversation; 20 minutes of which was about my mom. Pamela wanted to know all about her because I’d told her that I’d polled some people in my life about their thoughts on her. That’s generally my litmus test when I’m thinking about doing a documentary. I’ll throw out the idea to my mom, my aunt, and a cousin who’s 12 or 13 years old. Any older woman who I mentioned her name to was like, ‘I always liked Pamela Anderson’. There’s something about her that appeals to almost all demographics. The people I spoke to looked back at her with a fondness, even if she was a punchline or remembered for her big boobs, they didn’t look at her derisively. Pamela said that she’d heard that a lot.”
“During that initial conversation I thought, man, this woman is so relatable. I knew that I could put my mom on a zoom with her right then and they could have a two and a half hour zoom. She wasn’t talking about the things I would’ve expected her to be talking about. She was there without any makeup on and I said, ‘If we’re going to shoot this, how do we do hair and makeup in Ladysmith Canada, on an island?’ She laughed, and was like, ‘I do my own hair and makeup, we don’t need anyone’. During Chicago she was doing her own makeup, even for major photoshoots. She’s very individualistic and she likes to be in control of her image. After that call I thought, this woman is going to surprise the hell out of people because she surprised the hell out of me. I knew that if we could translate that to film we’d have something special.”
What surprised you the most about her in the time that you spent with her, and how long was the filmmaking process?
“It’s been about two years since that Zoom. So much surprised me, but the thing that surprised me the most is Pamela’s sense of humor. I’m someone who prides myself on my sense of humor and I like to banter with people. At that first lunch with Brandon, he was like, “you and my mom are going to find each other very funny’. I’ll admit that there was part of me that was like, ‘am I going to find Pamela Anderson that funny?’ But I have trouble keeping up with Pamela Anderson; the way her mind works so quickly, especially in a funny way. You have to be on your feet because she’s always one step ahead, the way her synapses are firing. Funny people are smart people. To have that type of sophisticated humor you have to have a high amount of intelligence and Pamela has that type of wit.”
“How much she’s in on the joke, but doesn’t care surprised me too. She didn’t try to create that caricature, it was created around her and unfortunately the stolen tape solidified that in a lot of ways. Frankly, her financial situation surprised me too; the fact that she isn’t this mega wealthy celebrity given how famous she is in our minds. Sometimes she’d try to pay for lunch because she’s a mom and I’d say ‘no, we’re making a film, it’s on the film’s budget’. Then she’d insist, and be like, ‘please just let me pay today’, but then when she’d hand over her credit card she’d look nervous and be like, ‘sometimes it doesn’t work, so if we get declined, run!’
“Another thing that surprised me about Pam is how great a mother she is. I imagined that kids of Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson that grew up in Hollywood might be trainwrecks, but Brandon and Dylan could not have it more together. In a lot of ways that’s a testament to their parents and how they raised them. She’s a wonderful mother and that’s what she cares about most in life. In a lot of ways, Pamela sacrificed her career for her kids, to raise them in a healthy way, and she’s fine with that. There’s a whole series of surprises with Pamela, which is hopefully why people will watch on Netflix.”
I loved seeing the bond between Pamela and her sons. They come across as sweet and together guys and it was nice to getting to know both of them a bit through the film. They haven’t been in the media spotlight themselves, which is fairly unusual given who their parents are and probably says a lot about them too.
“They’re both sober. Brandon got sober when he was about 18 or 19, and Dylan chose never to drink. They’re incredibly mature in that way, in recognizing the genes that they were born with and making sure that they have their shit together early. My mom and I are very close, and in a lot of ways when I see them together I’m like, ‘oh my god, it’s just like how my mom is with me’. Things like her asking them to put on a clean shirt or them not wanting her to stay with them in LA because she’ll complain the entire time about how the kitchen is dirty. It’s very a stereotypical mother/son relationship in a lot ways, but then they’ll talk about being raised by Kid Rock or being on Bob Seger’s private plane, so in other ways it’s this completely warped way of being raised.”
You mentioned the stolen tape earlier, what was your approach to telling that aspect of Pamela’s story?
“From the beginning Pamela said, ‘I’ll talk about anything, ask whatever you like, I’m an open book’. Almost everyone says that when you’re beginning to make a documentary about them, but with Pamela it proved itself to be true. There was never one question I asked where she said, ‘next question’ or ‘I don’t want to talk about that’. So the stolen tape was fair game from the beginning, but whenever we would get to it you could see it physically overtake her in her mannerisms, in how fidgety she became, and how she couldn’t finish her sentences. She would say, ‘I’m not feeling well, can we can we take a break?’ I knew from the beginning that this pivotal moment in her life was completely traumatizing for her. That surprised me in a way because it was 30 years ago and we now tend to think of sex tapes as a career maker that people do deliberately. We definitely don’t think of them as traumatizing for the participants. We think that they played a part in making them.”
“It was he most traumatizing moment of her life and when the Hulu show came out it just compounded that trauma. I could feel her spinning, and to her credit, she spun on camera. There’s a scene in the film where she finds out that the show’s already streaming, she didn’t know that it was going to be available the night before. That’s real. She’s that disconnected from the world and especially when the Hulu show was coming out, she was deliberately disconnected. She wasn’t using her cellphone and she wasn’t going on the Internet. Friends of hers would innocuously send her the trailer and say, ‘Oh, this looks so cool’, because they thought that she was involved in it. She would be pounding on her phone trying to get to get rid of the video. To watch her go through all that was pretty awful, I really felt for her.”
There’s a poignant moment in the film when she compares the intrusion of the stolen tapes being released with being raped when she was 12. Did the scale of the trauma that she experienced over the tapes take you aback?
“Yes, and it’s made me a much more sensitive person to people who have been through things like that, especially sex symbols and sex icons, which Pamela is. As a society we have completely sexualized Pamela over the last 30-something years and in a lot of ways Pamela has sexualized herself. But in Pamela’s mind, she sexualized herself on her own terms, taking her sexuality back from ways that it was yanked away from her in the child abuse and rape that happened when she was young. As a figure, Pamela ia a really wonderful way of complicating these questions, of making us second guess ourselves. We might think, ‘she was a Playboy model and she’s famous for being on Baywatch because of her body, why would a sex tape upset her? Why would a show being made about that sex tape upset her?’ I’m sure the makers of that show thought that too. That she’s famous for being a sex symbol and that was about a moment of sex in her life.”
“In our film, Pamela eloquently breaks down why it was one of the worst sexual traumas of her entire life. She had worked her whole career to take her sexuality back from people who had harmed her and then to have that stolen away from her again, and done in such a publicly humiliating way, ruined her life in a lot of ways. Having finally left that career and that life behind, thinking she’d moved on and retired in Canada, to then have it all bubble up again in a comedy about it, that focuses on people she didn’t even know about was retraumatizing. She doesn’t know how that all went down. She hasn’t watched the Hulu show or read the Rolling Stone article that it was based on, so she has no idea about the electrician and the porn star. All she knows is that the tape was stolen from the safe. She doesn’t care about the criminals who stole that from her, so to then have a show be focused on them was sad to watch.”
The film is essentially from one person’s perspective and with some documentaries that might become a bit one-note, but Pamela, a love story does a really good job of exploring those layers of complexity that you mention. For instance, I thought it was interesting to hear Pamela describe how empowering doing Playboy was for her, helping her to reclaim something that had been taken from her in some ways.
“That’s why this is a first person film, because Pamela is such an incredibly complicated person in the best of ways. She challenges your notions about a lot of things and Pamela only speaks for herself. She’s totally willing to say that Playboy was empowering for her, but she understands if modeling naked has been disempowering for other people. She understands if other people use a sex tape to get famous, and she doesn’t judge that, but that isn’t what she did and it violated her sexual privacy. Her entire life is a series of moments that challenge, because especially today’s partisan, binary world where you’re either this or that, Pamela often lives in the middle of those worlds and floats between a lot of things. I didn’t want this to be a film about how people look at Pamela Anderson, I wanted it to be a film about how Pamela Anderson sees the world and how she sees her life, which is this series of beautiful disasters.”
What were your thoughts as you were assembling archive press coverage of Pamela, all the questions about her body from interviewers like Matt Lauer, and the misogyny in the contrast between how the stolen tape impacted her and Tommy? In putting all that together it tells its own story in some ways, like that montage of Jay Leno making jokes about her and the tape.
“I don’t remember that humiliation of her. We’re doing this a lot right now in culture, looking back at when we maybe didn’t treat people in the way they deserved to be treated. We’ve seen it with Britney Spears over the past few years. It’s important as a society to put the microscopic lens back on these cultural moments and to challenge our own notions. I loved Pamela Anderson growing up, but I was probably laughing at those jokes myself as a 12 or 13 year old. In some ways we are all party to what we did to those people. The interesting thing about Pamela is that she’s not bitter because of it. She doesn’t even know that that stuff is in my film. I don’t even know how she would react to those montages about her body or being a punchline. She may laugh, because Pamela has become really good at laughing along, at being in on the joke. But I do think there’s something to be learned from looking back and as a society we’re definitely learning as we progress.”
“That Matt Lauer interview is cringeworthy these days because we’re looking back at a lot in hindsight. We’re looking back at Matt Lauer, what happened to Pamela, and at what’s supposed to be a journalistic interview that’s completely focused on sex and her body. It’s important that we hold a mirror up to ourselves, we show those things, and reflect back on them.”
Pamela gave you access to her journals and she mentions arriving in LA for the first time on Pride day and is excited to see so many gay men and says she told her mom about it. When she’s preparing for Broadway, her dance instructor Gregory Butler tells her that the gay boy in him is screaming that he’s working with her. As we touched on at the beginning, she’s beloved by many gay men isn’t she? And it seems like the feeling is mutual.
“Absolutely, she’s a gay icon and she’s a huge ally and has been for her entire life. Pamela loves an outsider. She loves a wounded bird—literally—that’s why she works with PETA. Most of her best friends throughout her have been gay men. Photographers David LaChapelle and Luke Guilford are among her best friends, and as is Dan Matthews who was VP at PETA, and she was she was maid of dishonor at Vegas wedding.”
“To go back to very the beginning, I think the subtext of that first lunch with Brandon—which you can’t say out loud these days because we can’t tokenize people—was essentially, ‘we are looking for a gay man who will connect with my mom to direct this film and you are perfect’. I’m not surprised, now that I know her, that her life is full of gay best friends because she loves being over the top and she’s very playful. I think that’s probably why she and I were a good match because she’s always had that rapport with with gay men.”
One final question for you: what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“Since I’m a doc director, I’m going to go in the doc direction. Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk was a formative film for me and made me want to be a documentary filmmaker. Also, I was at the world premiere of David France’s How to Survive a Plague at Sundance in 2012. You and I are of that same generation, born in the late 1970s or early 80s, who know that the generation of gay men before us were lost to history. I remember seeing that turning moment in the film and how it was edited. That was one of the most powerful film viewing experiences of my life.”
By James Kleinmann
Ryan White’s Pamela, a love story, launches globally on Netflix on Tuesday, January 31st, 2023.