Odds are good that — even 20 years later — you recall exactly where you were when you found out Diana, Princess of Wales, had died of injuries sustained in a horrific car crash on August 31, 1997. Whether you considered Diana the very picture of a modern monarchy, an example of unimaginable grace in the face of infidelity, a fearless humanitarian or just another obsession of the tabloid press, the 36-year-old beauty made an impression. An impression that keeps her memory alive decades after her death.
While this month is rife with Diana specials and documentaries, only one tells the real story of Diana’s triumphs and sorrows via the words of the utmost authority — Diana herself. National Geographic’s Diana: In Her Own Words — which premieres Monday, Aug. 14 at 9/8c — is the work of award-winning filmmaker Tom Jennings, whose signature style skips the usual narrator/interviews/actor-voiceover formula and lets the documentaries’ subjects speak for themselves. In Diana’s case, that’s via rare recordings of the 1991 interviews she gave to her close friend Dr. James Colthurst for use in celebrity biographer Andrew Morton’s explosive Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words (the 1992 book was rereleased this summer).
The result is a film by turns rending and reassuring, as Jennings blends familiar and previously unseen photos and footage with the princess’ own ruminations to create a fresh, at times haunting, perspective on a strong, fun-loving and deeply introspective woman. A woman who refused to let an encroaching world and difficult marriage spoil her and her children’s lives.
Jennings is a former journalist who admits he knew little about Diana before Nat Geo approached him to do a film similar in style and impact to the Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes documentary he’d made for the net. Here, he tells us more about the woman, the documentary and the power of the princess’ words.
The remarkable recordings are, obviously, central to this film. Tell me about the process of acquiring and then sifting through them to frame and tell your story.
Tom Jennings: I was aware of the book written by Andrew Morton and knew that he had used audiotapes recorded by Diana with a friend of hers — a mutual friend of Morton and Diana. Long story short, I called his publisher, a guy named Michael O’Mara, and told him what I wanted to do — which was to make an entire film with no narrator and no interviews with anyone from today, and that the narrator would be Diana herself. He was very surprised. He had never been approached with that kind of idea before. So, we were able to license the tapes from him.
I sat down in Michael’s office about 18 months ago on a rainy day — very, very appropriate in its own way — and I listened to seven hours of Princess Diana tell her life story. It’s a day I’ll never forget. And that’s how it started.
Tell me more about letting Diana tell her own story. Because I found myself by turns choked up and proud of her and exhilarated and horrified and charmed in ways that I might not have been had it not been her speaking. How profound was it for you to know that you had her voice, her inflections, her opinions to work with?
Because I have a journalism background, I always strive to be accurate and fair in what we do as documentary filmmakers. Once I had the tapes and realized how significant they were — significant in as part of the historical record — I knew that we had something extraordinarily special. When the network and I agreed that my company would make this film, the first thing I had to do is watch all the other Diana documentaries that have ever been made. [Laughs] And the reason is, I didn’t want to copy anybody. I wanted to see what had been done to make sure that whatever approach we took was going to be at least somewhat new. So I watched them all.
There are documentaries from the past that use quotations from the Morton book with actresses reading them. But by the time I heard the tapes, I realized that most of the interpretations of what she said are wrong. Her tone. How she says it. Once we realized what we had and we started laying down our first draft of what this turned into, I made it very clear to my wonderful staff that this is a once-in-a-lifetime film. I said, “This is not coming again. No one has a shot like this, to have someone who’s so iconic have their words.”
Combining these touching conversations with familiar — and unfamiliar — images makes for such an emotional story. Especially her own expressive, haunting face. Tell me about that process.
Other filmmakers could’ve used these tapes and then just interviewed 20 people to comment on them — which is what most of these Diana documentaries have done and are doing. That’s fine, if you want to have a quick history lesson about her.
Because we knew we had something really special, everything in there is accurate to the time. We’re not pulling photographs from five years later just because she looks prettier than she did at a certain moment in time. Everything is highly researched. To try and make it even more special, in going through the story that she tells in the tapes, we tried to find as many events as possible that she describes. Her trip to Wales, for example, early on when she’s pregnant with William but hasn’t told the world. She describes that trip, so we tried to go out and find images that would correlate to the story she was telling. Also, very early on in the film, when she talks about her black dress and Charles didn’t like the fact that it was black — the night that she met Princess Grace.
I want to make sure that people don’t think this is some “voice from the grave” or something, but in a sense, she sat down and narrated her own story for us — but she did it in 1991. We were able to assemble that narration in a way that was as if she was looking at the footage we had assembled and was explaining what’s going on. Our goal was to be true and accurate to her, to allow her to tell her side of the story. And we tried to be as fair to Charles as we possibly could by finding moments where he’s defending her early on. We wanted viewers to experience this as if they’re living through it and not having someone else tell you what it was like.
I was so struck by how aware Diana was of her own introspective, private, sometimes detached nature — combined with the realization that she was somehow destined for public life. Tell me about capturing that, because it really is central to understanding her lifelong struggle.
I found her to be incredibly self-reflective or almost introspective. You just don’t think about Princess Diana sitting by a river trying to figure it out. You just don’t think of her in those terms. It makes her so much more human and accessible. By doing that, she, in a sense, comes down from the palace and she sits down next to you by a river and tells you a story.
To that end, tell me a bit more about spending time on her childhood and her youth? To note that the royals were always a part of her life, but not a comfortable one — and that she understood from a very young age that she would live in the public eye, whether she wanted to or not.
It’s fun to hear her tell that little part that’s her premonition about the future.
It certainly is sad to hear that people think, “Oh, well, she came from a royal background and she lived in a castle,” but she talks about how she felt very detached as a very young child. She felt separate from other people in her youth. Alone. She also talks about — and this is part of the Diana story I didn’t know — her parents’ divorce and how her parents, were always trying to sort themselves out. She saw her father slap her mother one time when she was hiding behind a door. These are all really traumatic things for a child. I wanted to make sure that was included in the film, so that you would get a better understanding of from where, from whence, she came, what she had gone through, and how that helped shape who she was later on.
We’re still fascinated by her, because her story represents something in all of us — that we’re taken with this idea of the prince and princess living happily ever after. It’s a childhood fairytale, in our DNA, and she was the person that was actually making it happen for so many people. What we don’t realize is that — and I didn’t think of this until actually just now in trying to figure it out for you — is that she was looking for her own fairytale. She thought she had it. She was coming out of this broken home and an unpleasant upbringing, but she had this innate sense that something big was going to happen. She, too, thought she had found her fairytale — and then it turned out not to be what she wanted it to be.
To that end, you also give fresh context to Prince Charles infamously saying “whatever ‘in love’ means” — because he says it repeatedly, in private and in public, and we finally get to hear what Diana privately felt about that.
People who follow the story, who have seen Diana documentaries, are familiar with his infamous line, “Whatever in love means,” on the day that they announce their engagement. What I didn’t know, and what I think most viewers didn’t know, is that he also said it when he proposed. When she talks about the proposal at Windsor Castle, she says, “OK, I’m going to go for it!” — much like a girl of 19. “Well, I guess I’ll go for it. I love you so much, I love you so much.” Then you hear her say, “And he said, ‘Whatever in love means.’”
People key in on lines. Another line in the film that most people have not heard and that’s shocking is when on her wedding day — we placed it when the carriage is rolling up in front of the cathedral — she says, “I think it was the worst day of my life.” When you read it in print, it’s such a damning sentence, so you think it must have been said in a way that was like a declarative statement, out of anger. Because that’s how people would say something like that. When you hear her, when I heard it, it took me aback — because she says it the complete opposite way. She says it with this deep, heavy sigh. She says it very slowly. She says it with regret — but a regret that’s not necessarily that she got married. My interpretation of it was with regret that she wished it would’ve been different.
We know that she was not at all naïve about Camilla, but to hear it in her own words is equal parts heartbreaking, and — I found — somewhat reassuring in that she wasn’t entirely powerless to this. Can you tell me a little bit more about your own discoveries in that regard and what you’re conveying to your audience?
Well, again, because I didn’t know the story before, I did not know how much Camilla was around even before the engagement was announced. I didn’t know that part of the story, that they were that close prior and during the engagement process. Diana reveals things about her feelings toward Camilla and being young. She’s recounting how her 19-year-old self felt. Being young, of course you would feel threatened if someone else was around, someone who had been very close to her now fiancé.
One of the big moments for me goes by fairly fast, but it’s when Charles is going to go on a five-week trip to New Zealand and Australia after they announce their engagement. Diana, again, describes a scene that we could show, that scene where she says, “You’ll recall me crying, sobbing, in a red coat. People thought I was upset because Charles was going away — and it wasn’t.” Then she describes how she had heard him on the telephone the night before saying to Camilla, “Whatever happens I’ll always love you.”
That scene is an example of getting the real story of what the images were portraying. At the time, people thought, “Oh, isn’t she sweet? She’s so upset that her fiancé is going away for five weeks that she’s so fragile.” The real story is she just heard him say to another woman that “I’m always going to love you no matter what.” She doesn’t know what to do with it. The public images, the footage, the stills, take on a completely different meaning when you have the person who’s in them, and living through those moments, explain to you what was really going on.
And provide a fresh understanding of Diana as a woman and a mother and someone taking charge of her own life as the years go by.
Absolutely. Reuters did an interview with her in Angola — which we used very much toward the end — where she’s giving an interview about whether or not she’s a public figure, a political figure or a humanitarian figure. We purposely let that play, where she tells the journalist, “Would you mind if we do that again?” She’s become in complete control of her own persona with the press.
Everything in this film is on purpose. Everything has a place. That moment was to compare and contrast who the person you saw very early on in the film, when the reporters are chasing her down the street, and she says to the camera guy, “Oh, careful.” One hundred minutes later in our film — but years later in her life — she’s saying, “Look, ask me that question again — because I want to make the point that I’m a humanitarian figure and I’m not a political figure.” She’s completely evolved.
Her story pretty much follows the motif that’s been around for a long, long time called the “hero’s journey.” It’s like what George Lucas used in Star Wars. The hero ventures out, has adventures and eventually returns home. Diana’s story is the hero’s journey. She does return home to a grand welcome. Unfortunately, she died, but here we are 20 years later still talking about her.
I am grateful to her that she made those tapes — that she entrusted her friend James and Andrew Morton. I’m grateful to his publisher for trusting us. They didn’t want to get caught up. They knew this was coming, that Andrew was going to republish his book — but they didn’t want to do anything with the tapes. I sent him a copy of what we had done with Challenger and said, “Look, this is how we do these things. This is how it’s going to look.” It was only then that they said, “So, no one else is going to be talking?” I said, “No, none. Just the reporters.” It was so surprising to them that that’s why they agreed to license the tapes to National Geographic. They said, “This is the way it should be told. She gets to tell her story.”
Everyone else has had a chance over the years to tell her story — now she gets to tell it as best we can.