Wendy Williams Documentary EPs on Why They Filmed It

The four-part documentary Where Is Wendy Williams? finally premiered on Lifetime this past weekend, following months of speculation about Williams’s whereabouts. The documentary begins as a fly-on-the-wall depiction of Williams’s attempted comeback but quickly turns into something darker and sadder as Williams seems to experience cognitive impairment, struggling to understand the loss of her talk show or even to adhere to social norms, snapping at her staff and family. Ahead of the documentary, Williams announced through a spokesperson that she has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia and aphasia. It has also been revealed that she’s living under a legal guardianship, and her family members don’t know her exact whereabouts and aren’t able to get in touch with her. (Just before the documentary came out, her guardian sued to prevent the release of the project, but a judge ruled that it could proceed.)

The series’ unrelenting gaze has prompted questions about the ethics of filming and releasing such work when it’s unclear whether Williams could really consent. But executive producer Mark Ford, who worked with Williams on her 2021 documentary, Wendy Williams: What a Mess!, and fellow producer Erica Hanson insist they were following Williams’s lead.

Where did the idea for the documentary come from? Was this part of that Lifetime deal that Williams signed when she did Wendy Williams: What a Mess!?
Mark Ford: It wasn’t part of the deal, but it was designed to be a continuation of the Wendy Williams: What a Mess! documentary and to pick up the story where that one left off and capture Wendy’s life after leaving the show and answer a lot of questions about that. And then also document her journey, hopefully back toward a new career and a podcast. So that’s where it all started.

There are moments in the documentary when someone on your crew says, “We should end shooting for the day.” How did you all decide, in terms of consent and ethics, “Okay, we should stop filming now” or “We should keep filming.” How was that negotiated?
Erica Hanson: Well, we were a small team and a very intimate team. At times, it was very challenging and heartbreaking to watch. We felt that in the field, too. And it was really just trusting my instinct that Okay, now is not an appropriate time to continue.

For example, the scene when we went with Wendy to buy vapes, we literally just were documenting we’re going off to buy vapes. And that obviously turned into a very different experience. And I just felt that it was time to stop because I was concerned for her, and I felt that she needed to go home. Some days were great — Wendy was in great spirits. And some days, then, she wasn’t.

And we obviously didn’t know at all that she had been diagnosed with dementia when we started this project; we wouldn’t have done it. We were really in a process of discovery along the way. And this is for the team — all of us cared so deeply about telling this story sensitively and with compassion. A lot of us had been touched by dementia or addiction in our own families. So it deeply resonated with us, and we really wanted to respect Wendy.

But Wendy, you know, she had an opinion. We shared with her what we were doing all the time. We were documenting; it was really fly on the wall. It wasn’t produced.

Wendy’s son, Kevin Hunter Jr., and her family are executive producers. Do you think that the documentary can be objective, even as the family was so involved? Did they have final cut? How did that work?
M.F.: No, they didn’t have final cut at all. Even though Kevin Jr. is an EP on it, they had no editorial control. They could consult with us and talk to us and have conversations about what they wanted to get across. So it was an open conversation, but they didn’t get final say over the piece. They did see it, and they’ve been very supportive of it and didn’t really ask for any changes.

There are a lot of allusions to the fact that many of Wendy’s problems were brought on by her divorce. And I was surprised because I remember that before all this happened, Wendy had claimed her husband had been misappropriating funds. And the documentary didn’t get into any of that. And I just wondered because toward the end of the doc, the legal guardianship comes up, and there were all these allusions to shadowy people who might be doing something improper. Is there a reason why you didn’t mention her claims about the husband?
M.F.: That just preceded our story. Kevin Sr. was a big focal point of the previous documentary, and we started filming after her divorce was final. She had moved on, and so it wasn’t really at the forefront of something Wendy was focusing on. We wanted to respect her wishes that this is her story, you know? She did want her family members to be a part of it and expressed, as you could see in the film, happiness when Wanda [her sister] finally agreed to be a part of it. And truthfully, the story just evolved naturally into us witnessing Wendy in isolation in New York, where she’s not doing well and she’s under a legal guardianship.

She had limited contact with her family, so it just became imperative to us that her family be informed about her story. And then once they were able to see for themselves that Wendy was not doing well and had declined quite a bit since the last time they saw her, when Wendy was staying with them in Florida, it became a question of Okay, what’s going on here, and why aren’t you guys involved in her care?

That became a focal point of the documentary because we felt like that’s the universal story here, right? Here’s a family in distress, worried about their loved one who’s completely under the care of someone that they can’t speak to or engage with who doesn’t really want them involved. And they literally can’t even call her and have a conversation with her about what’s going on. The film naturally found its way once the family got involved because it is so relatable.

There’s a bill in the New York Legislature right now that’s designed to curb guardian abuse and prevent guardians from restricting access to family members. I’m not sure where that bill stands, but this is a perfect illustration of a family that wants to be in touch, wants to be involved, but for whatever reason can’t. But also, we can’t access the reasons behind that because the court proceedings are all completely secret.

You didn’t know the diagnosis. You guys were thinking that you were filming a show about the podcast. Is that right?
M.F.: Yeah, we thought we were gonna be talking about her life and her recovery from her divorce and moving on to the next thing — like all these things, a woman who’s 58 years old moving on into a new chapter in her life. And that was the expectation and hope: We all wanted to see Wendy’s comeback, Lifetime included. But it became gradually apparent, and hopefully you can see this in the film. The filmmakers are asking questions and not getting answers, and people are being a little bit evasive and then finally we’re able to turn the page and get some real answers. People are watching it over four hours, but this was a year or more in our lives.

And so you can imagine all the constant conversations we were having with her management, with her behind the scenes, trying to figure out what’s going on here.

Given that the docuseries was filmed before the diagnosis became public, even the fact that it’s the son who reveals the diagnosis in the documentary and not Wendy, did you have any concerns about that?
E.H.: Kevin shared that diagnosis in April, and we finished in April. And that was when she came back to New York from Miami and it became quickly apparent that we were not gonna continue filming. And that’s when you saw that we kept asking [her manager] Will Selby, and sharing our concerns, about how she can be in a safe place and get the treatment she needs.

M.F.: We’re filmmakers, and we’re dedicated to capturing the truth, but we’re also human beings and we all consider Wendy our friend. So it was a very complex emotional process for everyone involved, you know, all through the edit. What should we show? What should we not show? Is this important to illustrate, or is it not? There are many things that we filmed that we didn’t include in the documentary. But we also felt like it would be a disservice to Wendy and her truth to sanitize it and not show the difficult moments, because that’s the truth of what Wendy was going through over the course of this year while she was under a legal guardianship. They were supposed to be enlisted in her care. And what we documented in the film is the reality of that level of care. You be the judge on it. So while it’s painful for many people to watch it, it is the truth.

So when she was with Will Selby and we were seeing the attempts to sell the podcast, that was already under the guardianship?
M.F.: Every single frame of this documentary was under the guardianship.

So she entered the contract with Lifetime under the guardianship?
E.H.: Yes.

Family members make all these comments about people who are enabling Wendy in the documentary, but you never see Kevin or her sister, Wanda, or anyone explicitly talk about, say, Will Selby or the people who are doing the podcast. Is there a reason why we never see those interactions between her team and her family?
M.F.: We don’t wanna put words in anyone’s mouth, right? They say what they’re comfortable saying, and that’s really all we can depict. But, of course, this is a very complicated legal situation, and you’re also sensing in those comments the frustration of the family members who were cut out of her life and not allowed to visit and be a part of those decisions during this period of time in her life. The film captures their frustration and also just their questions: What is going on? They were very much in the dark.

E.H.: We really focused on her relationship with Kevin and some of the challenges he has in dealing with a mother he is not able to contact.

Is there anything that surprised you about people’s reaction to the film or the fact that her guardian sued?
M.F.: No one was expecting to be sued the day before the release. But we all knew that this was going to be a polarizing project that would raise a lot of questions, and we understand all those questions because we had them ourselves all the way through. We’re not just filmmakers; we really care about Wendy. We’ve now known her for many years. To me, it’s like, How would I want a member of my family treated?

And I do feel we had her best interests at heart every step along the way, up until with this last frame we filmed with her. Without the film, it concerns me what would’ve happened to Wendy, because I do believe that we were a big part of getting her the care that she is now in and that she needs.

E.H.: If we hadn’t been there at times, I really worried what would’ve happened to her in that apartment by herself, dealing with the loneliness, the addiction — all of it.

One final question: With the Britney Spears situation, there has been so much talk about gender and how gender impacts the way that these legal or financial institutions can relate to the idea that a woman might know what she wants, right? And I was thinking about the intersections of gender and race and misogynoir and how that might impact the relationships between the family and the bank. Was there any discussion about how race and gender impact the relationship between a Black family and a white institution like Wells Fargo?
M.F.: I don’t think that came up. That’s obviously a very interesting topic to explore. The family answered the best way they could as to why they thought they were removed from the guardianship. But again, this is a much bigger question for the courts and the guardians and, you know, Wells Fargo, if they care to get involved, and other people as well. We were not able to, in the time that we filmed, get to the bottom of why Wendy was placed in this guardianship specifically, what were the specific reasons, and what were the specific reasons why the family was excluded both from her financial and medical governance.

These are all things that have been sealed. It would be up to the guardian and the courts to unseal that. They now released Wendy’s diagnosis, so I would imagine that was one of the main reasons why they wanted to preserve that secrecy. There’s a lot of questions here that should be answered. We as filmmakers don’t understand why these are under cloak and dagger. This is now a matter of public interest, and if there’s more to be seen here, I hope there’s more reporting.

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