Liz Garbus: the director behind Netflix’s Harry & Meghan documentary

Oscar-nominated filmmaker is known for documenting the lives of troubled public figures

Liz Garbus has twice been nominated for an Academy Award
Liz Garbus has twice been nominated for an Academy Award
(Image credit: Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

The first three episodes of Netflix documentary Harry & Meghan may only have aired last week, but it has already created waves on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.

While the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are no strangers to the media spotlight, the release of the highly anticipated series has brought global attention to the woman behind it: Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus.

Initially hesitant to take on the task of documenting the couple’s break from the royal family, the project is in fact “something of a culmination of the issues Garbus has chronicled for the past two decades”, said The New York Times.

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What is her background?

Born in New York in 1970, Garbus’s father Martin was a prominent civil rights attorney hailed by The Guardian in 1992 as “one of the world’s finest trial lawyers”. His clients included Nelson Mandela, actors Al Pacino, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford and Sean Connery, First Lady Nancy Reagan and Vietnam-era whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Her mother Ruth was a writer, therapist and social worker.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history and semiotics from Brown University, Garbus interned at Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax production company. It was there she met fellow documentary maker Jonathan Stack, with whom she made her directorial debut in 1998 with a documentary called The Farm: Angola, USA, which focused on America’s most notorious and largest maximum-security prison, Louisiana State Penitentiary.

The film won Garbus the first of her two Oscar nominations, followed in 2016 for What Happened, Miss Simone?, about the life of troubled jazz singer Nina Simone.

Over her 25-year career Garbus has become known for her “critically acclaimed exposés and documenting the stories of survivors”, said Hello magazine. She has also been hailed for her handling of “complicated stories, ranging from systemic injustices to the lives of troubled public figures”, CNN added.

Whether it’s “social justice seen through the lens of the prison system” – The Farm: Angola, USA and Girlhood – or “uncovering the troubled personal stories” of famous yet enigmatic figures – Bobby Fischer, Marilyn Monroe and Nina Simone – mental health and righting systemic wrongs are “topics she returns to time and again”, said The New York Times.

In 2019, Garbus and her husband, producer Dan Cogan who previously ran documentary finance company Impact Partners which won an Oscar for Icarus, formed their own production company, Story Syndicate. The couple have a daughter, Amelia, and a son, Theodore.

Why did she want to direct Harry & Meghan?

With Meghan Markle “already a fan long before the two were considering working together”, she has been described by the London Evening Standard as a “natural choice” for the Netflix documentary “for many reasons”. However, Garbus was not in fact originally slated to direct the series.

According to Page Six, the Duke and Duchess initially turned to Garrett Bradley, director of Netflix’s documentary miniseries about tennis star Naomi Osaka. But they “reportedly clashed over the direction of the show” with both sides disagreeing on the tone of the series, said the Daily Mail.

It meant the Sussex’s own production company, Archewell Productions, captured as much footage as they could before Garbus was hired. Even then it was “not all smooth sailing” for Netflix bosses and Garbus who also “clashed” with Meghan and Harry over the “content of the series, which the couple wanted to heavily edit”, Page Six claimed.

At first Garbus was “sceptical”, said The New York Times. Far from an avid royal watcher, she knew the broad strokes of the decision by the couple to leave the British royal family and had seen their interview with Oprah Winfrey, but she assumed that the “stiff upper lip emblematic of elite British society would not make for a compelling documentary – too guarded, too interested in hagiography, too much of an all-around royal pain”, said the paper. “Then she saw the footage.”

“It’s very personal and raw and powerful, and it made me appreciate the incredible weight that went into their decision,” she said. “It also affirmed the choice I had made about wanting to unravel how this historic break came to be.”

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