Photo Courtesy of Don Holtz

Hollywood Hill

In 2022, Buzz, February 2022 by Melissa HowsamLeave a Comment

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Local director Cynthia Hill gives us a behind-the-scenes look at her latest docu, What Happened, Brittany Murphy?

You may know her as the director of the Chef’s Life. What you may not know are the opening credits—or the more recent plot twists—of her life. Durham-based mother-of-two Cynthia Hill is a self-made homegrown pharmacist-turned-filmmaker from Pink Hill bred from humble beginnings and grit. After looking up to a pharmacist in her small rural hometown in high school and seeing it as a way up, she aspired to pharmacy school, making her way to UNC for a B.S. in pharmacy—and on her path to prescribe elixirs to ward off bugs, she caught the film bug. From there, she chose Auburn University for her master’s because it had a film studio attached to it (think public health videos), then moved to New York—naturally—and worked at a post-production house to learn the ins and outs/backends of the film biz before eventually returning home. Now, after racking up a slew of wildly popular credits (Chef’s Life, Somewhere South, Road to Race Day, Private Violence, to name a few), the Emmy- and Sundance award-winning director’s latest credit—and first foray into Hollywood—is the buzzy Brittany Murphy HBO Max docu tell-all What Happened, Brittany Murphy?, which Hill directed alongside two members of her local Markay Media team. (Raleigh’s Andrea Weigl served as associate producer and Pittsboro’s Tom Vickers as editor—both of whom also worked on Chef’s Life and Somewhere South, among others.) Here, we tap Hill for the behind-the-scenes scoop.

Photo Courtesy of HBO Max

Your career spans amazing breadth. … How do you go from food (Chef’s Life, Somewhere South) and such human rights topics as Latino migrant farming into crime and domestic violence? I’m always looking for a good story and interesting characters—stories that may seem ordinary but have a lot of depth below the surface, stories that help me better understand the human experience. I also tend to explore stories that have ties to my own narrative, even though I don’t always realize it at first.

BM is not your first foray into true-crime/domestic violence. Private Violenceshatters the brutality of our logic ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’” Would you say this is a topical thread emerging in your work? It’s one of those subjects that I don’t necessarily think that I’m pursuing, but it frequently shows up in the stories that I tell—unfortunately. 

What drew you to the Brittany Murphy story? There was a story there that no one really knew: how this young girl got lost in this Hollywood machine, how she was subjected to the misogyny of the gossip era. I thought that she deserved to have her career revisited because she was a very talented actress and a very kind and generous person. 

How did it come about for you to do this film? There was a former executive at Blumhouse, Mary Lisio, who was a fan of my film Private Violence. We had talked for years about working together. Given that many of my films have been about women, she thought I would bring a different perspective to the Brittany Murphy project—although I don’t believe either of us realized at the start how much my Private Violence experience would inform this project.

This is your first experience in work for hire. Was that something you aspired to? What was the draw—and what was that experience like compared to independent filmwork? Working for a production company like Blumhouse was appealing. I don’t have any formal training in this work. My team and I went by instinct as to how we should make content. But I was just curious about how the bigger production companies in Los Angeles did this work. I got a crash course on how to complete a two-part documentary in eight months.  

Photo Courtesy of Don Holtz

So many people are involved—how did you zero in on who you wanted to interview? It was really difficult because the people we wanted to talk to initially did not say yes. That’s understandable because they are grieving a loved one whose death overshadowed her life and who has been the subject of much tabloid fodder. We had to figure out who else could tell this story. And so that’s how we ended up talking to a lot of directors that she worked with, journalists who covered her story, and those from the gossip industry. We had to adapt to the story we were able to tell.  

Obviously, Ashton Kutcher was noticeably absent from the film, was that purposeful? (notably Kathy Najimy said on camera that she didn’t want to talk about their breakup…) Ashton declined to be interviewed. 

A handful of social media influencers were “cast” to narrate the speculation surrounding her murder. How did you zero in on those specific people? I would call them a subgenre of YouTubers, many of whom do their makeup while talking about true crime and unsolved mysteries. For us, they represent a Greek chorus. They give voice to the conspiracy theories around Brittany Murphy’s death. It enabled us to show that this chatter exists, which was fascinating and sometimes horrifying. It allowed us to present the conspiracy theories before having others in the film challenge their validity. 

What dead ends or limitations in the work-for-hire documentary model and schedule did you run into, if any? Any takeaways? When we operate on our own as the Markay Media team, we are the ones that manage the budgets, the crews and the content. We can pivot easily. Whatever we run into or whenever there’s a roadblock, we can adapt. We can redistribute the budget. We can throw more assets to research or whatever is needed. We’re able to be in service of the story in a way that a larger operation cannot do. In this work-for-hire situation, we were unable to do that. To me, that was the biggest eye-opener. The beauty of documentaries is that something unexpected always happens. But in that kind of work-for-hire model, you’re not able to embrace the unexpected. 

As a Southern female filmmaker, what do you hope the very important work you do says about the film industry? And how or where films are made? I think it’s important for there to be place-based storytellers. The power to tell stories should not only be in these media hubs of New York and Los Angeles. They don’t represent the whole of us. It’s important for regional filmmakers to be able to stay regional and tell their own stories. 

What’s next? Any project sneaks… ? We are finishing up a project with HBO that revisits a 1987 cold case. We’ve been working on it for six years, and it has required a significant amount of research and investigation. We’ve had the luxury of patience with HBO believing in this story and our team. 

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