From Prince William severing ties with his brother to Prince Harry blaming a tabloid for his wife’s miscarriage, there’s been no shortage of headlines coasting on the popularity of Netflix’s Harry & Meghan.
But one headline stood out for what it says about the state of documentary filmmaking.
On Saturday, the Daily Mail (which has been sued multiple times by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle) published an article claiming that the mansion featured in the slickly produced docuseries is not actually the couple’s home. The news came after Redditors zeroed in on the home and found that it’s actually a bigger, more expensive property in Montecito, California, the celebrity enclave where Harry and Meghan moved in 2020.
Whether the couple’s “fake” home calls documentary ethics into question is up for debate. As a general rule, documentaries are supposed to portray real people in real settings. At the same time, it’s an ever-evolving genre with no written guidebook and no one to enforce it. Anyone can call anything a documentary as long as it’s not obviously scripted.
“There are no field-wide documentary ethics to consult,” says Patricia Aufderheide, a communications professor at American University who specializes in documentary filmmaking.
In Harry & Meghan, the couple don’t claim that the spacious living room they’re sitting in is theirs, but they don’t also explicitly say it’s not. In the first batch of episodes, released on Dec. 8, Meghan is shown feeding chickens in a coup in the backyard, a scene that would lead most viewers to assume they’re being filmed at home.
Netflix did not respond to multiple requests for comment about where Harry & Meghan was filmed and how location decisions were made. A rep for the couple also did not respond to a request for comment.
“Transparency with the viewer would typically mean acknowledging that this isn’t their home,” Aufderheide insists.
“Transparency with the viewer would typically mean acknowledging that this isn’t their home.”
— Patricia Aufderheide
Still, scouting for interview locations is a common practice for unscripted series; take reality television, for instance, where the lines between fact and fiction are blurred to sometimes comical effects.
“For me, I think it depends on the context of the story,” says Tami Tacklind, a producer who has worked as a location manager on shows like Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. “Is the setting important to the story or is the setting simply a background to look nice? It’s all about style.”
Filming a show like Harry & Meghan could take as many as 30 to 40 people in the room at once, Tacklind says. That many crew members scurrying in and out of a private home could present its own security challenges, especially for a couple like the Sussexes, who often complain about the intrusion of the paparazzi into their private lives.
“If you’re a high-profile celebrity talking about how you’re worried about your safety and the safety of your children, it would make sense that they would hire out a house and provide a safe place for them to tell their story,” she says.
There are also practical considerations.
“You have to have a half-an-acre parking lot for production support,” says Jason Hollander, whose company The Cabo Agency helps reality TV shows find filming locations across Mexico and Latin America. “There might be low ceilings, but we might need a lot of light.”
He adds: “For us, we’re finding real locations, but the alternative is that they build sets on a soundstage. If people thought about how often that happens, it would make them more comfortable with finding a real location.”
Harry & Meghan is labeled as an “unprecedented and in-depth documentary series,” according to Netflix press materials, but the possible use of a fake home suggests something closer to Selling Sunset than Harlan County, USA.
“My own living room was misrepresented as my friend’s home for a real estate reality TV show because it was cheaper for the production company than filming in their original city,” Aufderheide recalls in an email to The Daily Beast. “Obviously, they didn’t care about the open misrepresentation, and the producer explained to me that [the] show does this kind of thing all the time, and ‘people know it’s fiction.’ I don’t know if they do or not, but I think it’s pretty well established that reality TV producers aren’t worrying about ethics.”
Documentaries, however, historically “skew closer to traditional journalistic standards” than other types of programming, according to Emmet McDermott, the journalist-turned-producer behind this year’s White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch. But in recent years, the genre has begun granting more creative freedom to its higher-profile subjects, as people like Billie Eilish and Selena Gomez—two celebrities who produced their recent documentaries—want to tell their stories with their own production companies and record labels at the helm.
“When you’re working with celebrity subjects, they have a lot of influence now over the final product, which traditionally is not what you want over the documentary,” McDermott says.
The Sussexes have no official producer credit on Harry & Meghan, which was directed by Liz Garbus (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib; What Happened, Miss Simone?). In fact, Meghan tried to distance the couple from the final product in an interview with Variety back in October, when Queen Elizabeth II’s death threatened to cast a pall on the revelations about the royal family included in Harry and Meghan’s upcoming projects.
“It’s nice to be able to trust someone with our story—a seasoned director whose work I’ve long admired—even if it means it may not be the way we would have told it. But that’s not why we’re telling it,” Markle told the magazine. “We’re trusting our story to someone else, and that means it will go through their lens.”
Still, it’s worth noting that the docuseries comes after the couple signed a deal with Netflix worth a reported $100 million. With such a costly agreement in place, those in the documentary field who spoke with The Daily Beast agree that the duo probably had some influence about how they were portrayed. In a way, Harry & Meghan may be better viewed as a work of self-promotion for the Sussexes than a traditional documentary. As The Daily Beast’s Tom Sykes pointed out this week in his analysis of the Netflix doc, “Harry and Meghan showed us only what they wanted. … Tough questions, which would have added credibility to the series, simply went unasked and unanswered.”
“Documentaries that not only center around celebrities, but in which those celebrities have financial and other stakes, have become a genre unto itself,” says Srđan Keča, a director and assistant professor at Stanford University who teaches courses for the MFA program in documentary filmmaking. “These films rely on the language of documentary and on its claims to veracity. Behind this veneer, however, they are vehicles for their protagonists to project an image of themselves—an image that they have editorial control over, and stand to profit from.”
Keča added: “We should understand that, in this simulacrum, something like substituting the couple’s real home with a different one is simply an extension of the series’ very nature. There is nothing to see there.”
In the end, Netflix had to make something out of its expensive deal with the royal couple, whose living arrangements or cupboard organization skills are, after all, not the focus of the series. And some documentarians don’t see the harm in establishing a setting where their subject feels comfortable, particularly if there’s no other way to get them to open up.
“The interview trumps being able to capture their living situation, which may or may not be relevant,” McDermott says. “If you’re sitting with Diane Sawyer, it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s about the interview.”