The executive producers behind “Surviving R. Kelly” might have released their record-breaking game-changing documentary, but they’re still incredibly busy. This is because of the mammoth reaction to the six-part series which premiered on Lifetime less than two weeks ago, which has since triggered a massive outcry against the titular singer, one well beyond their expectations.
“No one expected this sort of reaction,” Brie Miranda Bryant told IndieWire. “I think everybody is just trying to keep up with the momentum and thinking about what the future looks like, from both the creative standpoint and network standpoint.”
The making of “Surviving R. Kelly” began in the early summer of 2017, executive producer Jesse Daniels said, after he and fellow E.P. Tamra Simmons read several reported stories about the R&B singer’s alleged abuse of young women. (R. Kelly has denied all charges.)
While rumors about his behavior had been around for literal decades, and the #MeToo movement was gaining steam, Daniels observed that while “a lot of people were being named and talked about during that time, for some reason R. Kelly wasn’t being talked about at that same level.”
Thus, the producers, including executive producer dream hampton, began to dig deeper, and as Daniels said, “we realized just how certainly sad, and compelling, and complex these victims’ stories were… It took several months of development, of gaining these survivors’ trust, but also trying to understand this really complex world and put all kinds of puzzle pieces together.”
Bryant noted that the original pitch, which brought Lifetime on board, “was extremely thorough, putting about two to three survivors together, along with two sets of parents.” But it was only the beginning, because as she noted, the more they researched, the more they realized “how many countless stories had been told previously around this subject, and how many women had just been screaming in the wind. No one was really listening.”
Thus, from that original pitch, a documentary that initially felt like it might last an hour to 90 minutes expanded to six hour-long episodes, with 54 participants in total being interviewed, from survivors of Kelly’s abuse to members of his inner circle to EGOT-winning performer John Legend.
“The truth about how much involvement there was and how many participants really ended up being in the documentary is a result of us just starting to ask, at the end of every interview, ‘Is there someone else you think we should talk to?'” Bryant said. “This isn’t one person’s story. We only sat down with 54 people, but there are many, many more people through the last couple of decades that have their own piece of the puzzle with this.”
Below, the producers get into the details of the production, including why the show found its home at Lifetime and what they hope happens next — not to R. Kelly, but to the women who survived their experiences with him.
What was essential to getting the subjects to trust you?
Simmons: Mainly, you had to let them know that you’re not just a producer. You’re a person. You want to hear their story, gain their confidence and their trust. Once we were able to gain their confidence and trust, then they were there to say, “Hey, I met someone else who went through this same situation.” Then, introduce us to other survivors. But the main key was letting them know that we’re not just doing this for like a documentary. We’re actually here for you. We want to be able to help you. I think that was the main point that they realized that, okay, they’re not just doing this for TV, that they really needed to shield themselves and not keep it in any more.
Why was Lifetime the right home for this?
Bryant: From Lifetime’s perspective, Lifetime has a public affairs campaign called Stop Violence Against Women. It’s also been a platform for many women’s stories from Elizabeth Smart to … We did a movie around Flint. For us, we have always tried to be a platform for women’s voices and their heroic actions and celebrate those whenever possible. I’ll let Jesse and Tamra answer why they were comfortable with us.
Daniels: Yeah. When we started speaking to networks, we immediately felt like we were having a different conversation with Lifetime, specifically with Brie as well. They felt like certainly the network itself has been for women. They certainly have a track record with the campaigns they’ve done in the past. When we spoke specific to the project, it was Brie and Lifetime. We said, “We have something really big to tell.” They certainly proposed doing a bigger timeline, so that we could map out the pattern that’s gone back 30 years. We felt like they just went all in with us and trusted us. We trusted them. It just immediately, after the first even phone call, we felt like we had a very strong, strong partnership.
That seems really essential, given how complicated legally putting this together was.
Daniels: Yeah. We had a very robust legal team that weighed in with every single step that we made. Certainly, with anything that we put on the air, they had to corroborate. A lot of it was Lifetime’s team, our team here at the production, and a third party team. There were a lot of people that were involved in this production that allowed us to tell this story.
A third party was also vetting everything?
Daniels: Yeah. We hired another firm. We just wanted to be careful with everything that we put out there, naturally. We knew that this was a very sensitive subject matter. A very high profile documentary series and that we had to treat, most importantly, our survivors’ stories with care. We felt very proud that we were given this platform, but then we also had a sense of responsibility to them to make sure that anything we put out there is the truth, is corroborated, and so on.
In editing the episodes, you managed to completely avoid voice-over. Was there ever a part of the development process where you were considering using it?
Bryant: If I can recall correctly, I think we just went over all options. Once we began sitting down and interviewing, we realized how powerful each person’s voice was and how it was a tapestry that started to weave itself. When you heard one story that was similar to the next person to the next person — the decision not to use voice over just ended up working out that way creatively.
Of all the subjects you got to speak on the record, who were you most surprised by?
Simmons: Overall, I think when we heard everyone’s story, we were just surprised at how similar each person’s story was. That person may have not known the other person. That family may not have known that survivor. I think that overall to me, I was shocked at every single story that I was told. Then, you can see the systematic process in each story, as well.
With the way people are reacting to the show — what is so far the biggest thing you think has come out of the show’s release?
Bryant: I think it’s now transcended the doc. I mean, we had always said that the survivors’ stories never started or stopped with the documentary, by any means. But now I think that this documentary has become a catalyst for a larger conversation that this country needed to have around sexual violence. Because of this documentary, we are seeing men and women, white and black — it doesn’t matter, gender or race — having a conversation that seemed to be a much-needed conversation. I think what else is very surprising is that not only this become a national conversation, but it’s now a global conversation. That I don’t think we could have ever expected. It’s been, I think I speak for all of us, the biggest privilege to be a part of that.
As you said, R. Kelly stories have been out there forever in some way or another. Why is the documentary really getting people talking now versus say, last year, when those first reported pieces came out?
Bryant: The one thing in the very beginning, when we only had a couple of people, we realized that we needed to bring more and more into the fold to help us tell this story. I do believe that there’s power in numbers. I think that is what we’re starting to see now, in terms of how many people are starting to talk about it. It was the same for the doc, that I think is true with what we’re seeing with this national conversation, is that it takes more than one person to have a conversation, which has been the benefit of what “Surviving R. Kelly” has done.
Daniels: I think it also should be said that it’s one thing to read an article. It’s another to see our survivors tell their stories. You see the emotion on their face and the pain that they’re reliving. It’s powerful. I think that that’s something that’s really struck a cord with a lot of the people that watched the documentary.
It seems like getting [Kelly’s ex-wife] Andrea Kelly involved, in particular, has such an impact on the overall story.
Daniels: Yeah. We were extremely grateful to have her come out and tell her story. Previously, she’s been more or less, somewhat quiet about it. When she told us she was ready to speak with us, we felt we had someone important who was involved in this documentary, to help continue to highlight the patterns that every other survivor has talked about as well. Her story was very, very compelling.
What was the collaborative experience like for all of you?
Bryant: I think it was fantastic, a sort of meeting of the minds. Everybody brought something different to the table.
Daniels: Yeah, dream has been a cultural critic of sorts for years. When she came on, she helped in every area really, from continuing to learn the tales of our survivors and helping us to really pinpoint the specific stories we want to tell throughout the documentary series. Also, bringing on the psychologists and the music critics, to really add the necessary layers. You don’t just have our survivors telling stories, but you have people who are interpreting it up for the viewers, so we understand the complexity. We understand what these women were up against over the course of 30 years. dream certainly brought a lot to the table. Then, we had a lot of other producers and people who each had a point of view that we wanted, that we heard and talked about. It was truly a collaborative effort all around.
If this series does end up leading to, for lack of a better way of describing it, the end of R. Kelly’s career, how will you feel about that?
Bryant: I think the intention and where this team always has come from, from the beginning, was not so much as R. Kelly being the focus, but the focus being these women and allowing them to have the platform that they needed to be heard. I think during their process of being heard, there was some healing in that. I think all of them at some point had said that they still have their own work to do for their own well being. That’s always been the driver of this ship is providing that platform, more than anything else. I think we feel that we did accomplish that.
Daniels: Yeah, our focus has always been the survivors. I’d say whatever happens going forward, we’ll see. I think we’re all just very proud that people are talking. Families are talking. Journalists are coming out to speak about it, such as yourself. There’s just a national … There’s a worldwide conversation, certainly about our survivors, but then also just about abuse in general, about the industries and so on, and how we can all better ourselves.
John Legend commented on Twitter that he wasn’t brave when he chose to participate in the documentary. Did you guys have a sense that he was going to say something to that effect when the show premiered?
Bryant: I did not. I didn’t. He was just so great. I feel like he got the call and sort of said, “Yes,” immediately. I mean that, that was not expected.
Daniels: I would argue that he was brave at the time to come out and do interviews. It was something that … We felt like having him by our sides made this very powerful.
Bryant: We do feel like everybody that did sit down, from John Legend to our first survivor, there is an act of bravery in that. And an appreciation from us for trusting us to tell a story that everyone would be comfortable with. For those reasons, I do think he was very brave.
What’s been your reaction to seeing some of the people who didn’t appear in the documentary, but have since come forward and apologized for working with R. Kelly, including Lady Gaga?
Bryant: I think it’s all in trust. We’re just happy that people are having the conversation now. We do feel like everyone that was supposed to be in the doc is in the doc. It’s great that this conversation is happening now. It feels like it’s a much-needed conversation to have.
“Surviving R. Kelly” can be watched on mylifetime.com.