Ryan White’s new Netflix documentary, Pamela, a love story, captures the rise and re-rise of one of the ’90s most famous women, Pamela Anderson.
The film spans her early years growing up on Vancouver Island, where she experienced sexual abuse, to her recent decade-in-the-making Broadway debut as Roxie in Chicago, with the Good Night Oppy and Ask Dr. Ruth director showing one of the world’s biggest mega-stars in a humanizing character portrait. Arriving the same day as her memoir Love, Pamela and following the , the film ultimately doubles as a re-examination of her cultural impact, career, sexuality and personhood.
Conducted with her consent — something that Anderson has not always gotten in her personal or professional life — White’s film helps cast a new light on the actress, author, model, activist and mother. It also raises questions about how an entertainment and media industry that derided women for decades —and profited from Anderson’s stolen honeymoon tape —could meaningfully re-evaluate its exploitation of her through projects like Pam & Tommy (once again, without her consent).
“As adocumentary filmmaker, I think it’s very important we’re able to tell stories about real people — and sometimes that is without their consent, especially when we’re speaking truth to power,” White tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But we also have to ask ourselves the ethical questions around the nature of the story. If it’s a story about a victim who has been through something traumatic and they don’t want to relive it, is it ethical to retell that story without their involvement if it causes them more pain? I don’t have the answers, but if nothing else, I think Pam & Tommy will spur more of those important conversations in the future.”
Ahead of the release of Pamela, a love story, THR spoke with White about how he got Anderson on board with the doc and how he worked to differentiate it from her memoir (both release Jan. 31). He also discusses filming her response to Pam & Tommy, how he featured men like Tommy Lee and Julian Assange, and following her unexpected latest chapter as a Broadway actress.
More people are reflecting on the historical treatment of high-profile women by the media and their industries. How much did that inform what you were trying to do with Pamela, a love story?
Pamela was the most famous person in the world while I was growing up. She was our Marilyn Monroe. As a gay boy, she was an icon — our tabloid star. She was our diva. She was so larger than life in the ’90s. So I always looked to her in that way. Then a couple of years ago, Josh Braun —our executive producer who I’ve worked with on a lot of docs —called me and my producing partner [Jessica Hargrave] and said, “I’ve got a great one: Pamela Anderson.”
Right away, I said, “That’s a great documentary, but it’s probably not for me knowing nothing about her.” I thought, she’s a larger-than-life celebrity, probably with a huge machine around her. That’s not the type of filmmaking that I like to do. I get pitched a lot of celeb docs, and I usually say no to them because it doesn’t give the type of access that I like, which is me with my camera on a couch or in a truck. I knew very little about Pamela’s life story, including the stolen tape. It was a thing when I was in high school, but I didn’t know anything about the conversation around it. And Pam & Tommy, the Hulu show, wasn’t even a thing yet — I’m talking three years ago, when we began this film. So that wasn’t even a glimmer in our eyes yet that that conversation was about to re-emerge. [Editor’s note: Pam & Tommy aired early 2022.]
What happened is I had lunch with her son, Brandon, in Los Angeles because Pamela was living back in Canada. And I didn’t even know Pamela was Canadian. That’s how little I knew about her. To me, she was the symbol of American sexuality. So the idea that she was from a small town on an island — that blew my mind right away. Then everything Brandon told me about his mom surprised me, which is always a good sign when you’re doing the calculations of whether you want to make a documentary. Your mom left fame and fortune behind and is living on her grandma’s farm on the water in Canada? That’s not where I expected Pamela Anderson being at 53 years old.
Then the conversation ended and I think Brandon could tell I was still a little suspicious of celeb docs, and he said, “Just get on a Zoom with my mom. I have a feeling you guys are going to really like each other.” So the next day —I mean, why not? — I popped on Zoom with Pamela Anderson. She was at her farmhouse and we just began chit-chatting. Three hours later, I was so compelled by her and by the idea of the whole conversation. She never asked about the documentary or why I wanted to make it, or how we were going to make it. She was so uninterested in the process and the product. She was only interested in the connection. So it was just a personal conversation about her life, about my life. We laughed a lot. She’s incredibly funny.
I left that conversation thinking, “Wow, she is very surprising and relatable and down to earth,” in a way I was not expecting about this pop culture icon. So if we could somehow translate that into a very personal doc, this could be something special. That’s how it began. Then she sent me a version of her memoir. It was her first draft, which she wrote all herself and that’s where I really learned her life story — through her words. That’s when I learned probably the main arc of my documentary, which is Pamela’s sexuality and owning her sexuality and it being robbed from her so many times throughout her life and having to re-own it, which she’s still going through at 55 years old. I knew none of those peaks and valleys until I read her memoir and thought, “This is an important story to tell.” Then having no idea that the Pam & Tommy thing was about to happen over the next year and a half, and that the importance was going to be compounded exponentially over the years that we were making the film.
Your documentary is releasing alongside Love, Pamela. How did you think about your film in relation to what she writes in her memoir?
We were doing both at the same time and really, the book was her baby, and the documentary was my baby. She was never very interested in the documentary. Her sons wanted it, she loved making it. We had a blast. She’s very present when you’re with her, and she’s a free spirit, so she loves experiences. She loves filming for four days and doing all this crazy shit, and coming up with ideas. But then when you’re gone, she’s not your typical doc subject, especially a celebrity doc subject that’s saying, “How’s it going? When are you coming back?” Pamela lives in the present and her present was writing her book in her farmhouse.
I wanted my story to be cinematic and she liked that idea. They were going to be complimentary, but mine was going to be a visual story of her life. We had this amazing archive that she was giving us. The other thing was, she did not want to use her personal diaries and journals to write her memoir. She had already made that decision by the time I got there. She has thousands of journals or pads of paper from her life, going back to when she was a little girl that she was like, “I thought about re-reading them to write the memoir, but I decided not to. Do you want them?” We actually drove a cargo van back from her Island in Canada to Los Angeles. First of all, you don’t want to FedEx Pamela Anderson’s personal journals, but second of all, we didn’t have space to FedEx them. It would have cost us tens of thousands of dollars. So we rented a van and stacked them up to the top.
I felt like we had two very complementary projects where mine could be very personal, but it was going to be through her voice at the time because we had all of the diaries. Whereas her memoir is a real reflection looking back. Her memoir, it’s so good. Her storytelling is so amazing. But there’s so much more you can fit in a memoir than you can in a documentary film when you’re limited to maybe 100 minutes. There’s a lot in the memoir that’s not included in the doc just because we didn’t have the space. We had to be very focused in the film, and that meant sacrificing a lot of really great content or really sensational stories that are going to grab headlines — because they’re a little moment with Tim Allen or Hugh Hefner. I knew they were going be in the memoir, so they weren’t interesting. With the doc, let’s make something really beautiful and cinematic that’s a character portrait of a woman who’s been looking for love and trying to own her sexuality her entire life.
Can you talk about how you used things like the film’s color palette and music to capture Anderson’s personality and creative essence?
Pamela loves fairy tales. She has since she was a little girl. Her relatives are Scandinavian and they used to read her Scandinavian fairy tales. Where she’s from, Lady Smith, it couldn’t be more picturesque. It feels like you’re in a fairy tale there —Pamela Anderson walking down a beach of oyster and clam shells every day. She’s not doing that for the cameras. That’s what she does every morning. She goes and sings to the orcas that swim in her sea right out there. Her whole life has had that accidental Cinderella story but on steroids. But with the color palettes, I wasn’t styling Pamela. You don’t tell Pamela Anderson what to wear. But her life is so light and airy. Everything that she ever wore on the island was white and drapey. She had the farmhouse at the top of the hill, we always filmed at the beach house at the bottom of the hill that was on the water.
She would shuffle down in her little slippers every day, and I would say, “Hey, can you wear the same thing?” She never would because she never wanted to wear the same thing. She would come in some sort of white flowy negligee or dress or nightgown or sweater, and she would sit on this white couch in her beach house and we would just start chatting. Normally in a doc, you do warm-up interviews to start making people feel comfortable and it often takes months. From the very first moment Pamela sat on that white couch, in her white dress, she was just in it and ready to open up. I would love to take credit and say I had to spend months winning her trust. No. Pamela is a very trusting person. She was a very open book and she was ready to do this. There wasn’t one time that Pamela ever said, “Cut the cameras,” or “I don’t want to talk about that,” or “How are you going to use that in the documentary?” She was very opened in that way. You couldn’t ask for a better documentary subject.
How you capture Anderson’s treatment by the media, the industry and her partners is mostly through archival footage. You also don’t feature many talking heads outside of four family members. Why did you make that decision and did you go out to anyone else for comment?
We didn’t go out to anyone else. I’m always sussing out celebs, if I meet with them, on what kind of doc they want. I was very drawn to Pamela magnetically in the waythat she didn’t have questions about the doc. The only conversations we would ever have, and I would remind her a lot while we were making it, were: let’s make the anti-celebrity documentary.
To me, she’s this larger-than-life icon, so it felt like she would want the slickest, most overproduced celebrity doc that it could be — tons of hair and makeup, lighted interviews and journalists, pundits and experts weighing in on all these things. She’s like, “I hate that shit,” and I’m like, “I hate making that shit, so can we make something really raw, kind of bootleg, just me with my camera, almost like the films I got to make in college?” She’s like, “I love stuff like that.”
I remember asking her how we deal with hair and makeup. She laughed and was like, “I don’t get hair and makeup done on my island. I do it myself.” At that point, I didn’t know she also dyed her own hair from a box at the drugstore, which she has her entire life. She’s also done her makeup her entire career. She would get nervous if this was going to be one of those things, like she said, “I saw so-and-so’s documentary and it was so cringe-worthy, it felt so contrived and messaged.” And I would always say, “No Pamela, perhaps to a fault, this documentary is gonna be raw. It’s not gonna feel overproduced.” I’m lucky that Netflix supported that too because this was a big doc for all of us. They were willing to let me do that really running-and-gun, hands-on style. And Pamela, she loves that.
Two of the people you feature are her parents, the other two are her sons, Brandon and Dylan, who are the only ones who weigh in on whether Anderson should have profited off of the sale of her stolen tape. Why those four voices and why did you want to include her sons weighing in on her response to the tape?
That’s why the only four people in the film are the parents and the sons. The ex-husbands, sure, they’re all fascinating. They’re all famous. But they’re all in the archival, and I felt like they could shine through. From the very beginning, even before I knew anything about Pamela, I remember being fascinated with, who are Pamela Anderson’s parents? Who birthed her and what are they like? Likewise, I remember thinking, what is it like for Pamela Anderson to be your mom? Both of those questions were super interesting to me from both sides of her life.
That’s why we use the parents to begin it, and the sons to end it. Anyone on my crew, or even anyone that I would see meet Pamela, would be like, “That woman is so relatable.” My office was all women. I was the only dude. They were all ages, from their 20s to their 60s. And everyone would watch the footage and relate to Pamela in some way that they never would expect to relate to a mega-celebrity. Her life is just like all of our lives. It’s rooted in the relationship of her parents and how they raised her, and it has had ripple effects throughout her life.
And her progeny, her sons, are dealing with that now. You see the impact on them. Again, it’s a Cinderella story on steroids. So these are parents having to watch their daughter in Playboy and then on Baywatch. These are sons who have two of the most famous parents in the world and the first viral sex tape. But it really is a story of family and how family affects the next generation in a lot of ways.
So the generation that predated Pamela and then the generation that she birthed were the two most fascinating and the four most fascinating people to me. Also, Brandon and Dylan are very different. I know them both very well, and I love the part that you’ve referenced because Dylan’s basically saying, “I’m so glad she never made money off of that and she chose me instead,” because she was pregnant with Dylan at the time. And Brandon’s saying, “I wish she would have made money off that. She wouldn’t be in the position that she is now. Everybody else got rich off of her. Why didn’t she?” Those are both valid points of view. Those can both coexist. One is not right, one is not wrong. I found it so fascinating that the two sons were diametrically opposed on how they saw the profitability of this product that had taken advantage of their parents.
When you’re making a film, you try to pay for your subjects all the time, like if you’re going out to eat. Pamela’s a mom; she’s constantly giving you mints out of her purse if you’re coughing. When you’re going to the salad place in Vegas, Pamela’s like, “Let me pay,” and I’m saying, “No, let’s put on the film budget.” One time, she convinced me. She said, “Ryan, seriously, I haven’t paid for anything yet. Let me buy our salads.” I remember her handing the credit card to the cashier, and she looked at me and goes, “Sometimes it doesn’t work.” And I remember laughing so hard, but Pamela Anderson is in this position that shocked me. She said many times throughout her career, her credit cards have been declined. It was sad because she is one of the most famous people of my lifetime — a legend —and she’s worried about money. But, that’s by her own virtue. She chose not to take that dirty money and she chose to give up on a lawsuit where she probably could have won a lot of money. So, I understand what both of her sons are saying. A mom can birth two very different sons.
You touch on other things she’s been talked about for: her animal rights activism and her relationships with people like Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin. Can you talk about why you didn’t dig into them the same way as the tape, her romantic relationships or her family?
There’s always a version of your film where you dig into everything because you have three-and-a-half-hours. We had a whole longer Assange scene. We had a whole longer Putin scene at some point. We tried these different segments, where I’d have my editor do a 15-minute piece about Assange. Then you look at your story and you have to make the tough decisions in the end. What is this about? I had the luxury of knowing Pamela was writing the memoir, and it was going to have a lot of that other stuff that I saw as fringe to my story that people were interested in. Because I agree that whenever I said I was making a Pamela Anderson film to people outside of the entertainment industry, the things they would say were sex tape, Assange —because people had found out she had a working relationship with Assange when it came to her environmental activism — and Putin, mainly because of the war in Ukraine. But the more we edited — the more we asked “what is this film about?” — we realized this film is about sexuality and romanticism. It’s about a woman who sees the world through the most rose-tinted colored glasses, no matter what she goes through.
Her activism is a big part of that. I didn’t want to shortchange that, but in any doc, especially a celeb doc, you can’t spend 30 minutes on the philanthropy, no matter how important or interesting it is. That is not what people want. Pamela’s philanthropy, though, is a byproduct of the stolen tape. She had to pivot at some point. She got spit up and chewed out by us, by society, but she still was getting the attention, so she figured out how to pivot that in a way where she could speak about the things that were important to her. That’s not just lip service. Pamela Anderson is the most passionate animal advocate you could imagine. When you see her interact with animals, you lose her. You know it’s going to be a couple of hours. So that felt like it was an extension of the true Pamela, who was this person who sees the world really romantically. And Assange is the most extreme example of that. So, we don’t go into: Was there a romantic relationship? The press can ask Pamela. She’ll go more into it in her memoir.
What I was really interested in is that Pamela lives in gray areas. She’s never really lived in the binary, which makes her very complicated and very nuanced. It can also make her very controversial at times. I thought that made for a great doc subject and a very challenging one, because she doesn’t subscribe to any sort of ideology that you would expect. But what she always subscribes to is romance and the truth. Everyone has strong feelings about Assange from every different angle, but Pamela is so drawn to Julian Assange because she sees him as the most extreme example of transparency and the truth. That runs the throughline of Pamela’s entire life. You can draw that back to her parents and honesty and relationships. Pamela is just desperate for direct honesty and romanticism in every way. She sees Assange and WikiLeaks as the extreme version of speaking truth to power. So it felt important to show that as an extension of that, but not necessarily go into: Was that another boyfriend of yours? I asked, of course, but it’s not in the cut because it didn’t feel important to the story we were telling.
You close the film with her run as Roxie in Chicago on Broadway. Did you plan to end your doc that way, with her opening a new chapter in her personal and professional life?
I could have made an entire film about Pamela Anderson training for Chicago. We shot so much of that, and it actually was one of the most gutting parts of the editorial process. We just lost so much of it because it was the end of the film and people know when you’re gearing for the end. If you feel like you’re restarting too much, almost with a shortdoc, you risk alienating not Broadway folks, but a lot of the general audience. So we filmed the hell out of that and it was such an amazing arc, and so much of it ended up on the cutting room floor. But no, at the beginning of making this film, I had no idea that Chicago was going to be the ending because that wasn’t even a glimmer in our eyes or her eye. It wasn’t in the realm of imagination. She actually had gotten cast in Chicago as Roxie in like 2012. She had started training, I even had the footage of it, and then she got cold feet — she used the expression “cold feet,” so I can say it. Her sons were still in high school, she was told she can’t miss a show if her kids get sick, she can’t fly back to the west coast. She just got nervous, so she said she backed out. I think it was one of her huge professional regrets — that she never had followed through with that.
But when this opportunity popped up, it was chaotic. Even though we were in peaceful Canada, she was getting a divorce from Dan, the Hulu show was being announced and the media was starting to talk. Then she got offered the role in Chicago, and I thought she was insane. She said yes right away. I remember saying to her in that scene where she’s packing — because she had to fly to L.A. in a few daysand by that point, I’d known Pamela for a couple of years and I’ve watched her go through a lot of shit — basically what we’ve all done to her: Are you capable? Do you sing? Do you dance? I didn’t know the answers to that and she’s like, “No, no, no. I don’t do any of this,” but she said, “I have to do this.” She’s so fearless in a way that’s really inspirational. I remember thinking she was crazy for taking this on, thinking she could train in seven weeks to play a lead role on Broadway. She worked so hard, working morning until night to train.
We saw her getting better and better, but opening night might have been the most nerve-wracking day of my entire filmmaking career. I thought I was going to throw up all day, waiting for her to go up on stage. Then, she nailed it. There were no mistakes. The crowd was ready to root for her; she felt that in the room. It really was a beautiful capstone for the end of the film. All the career stuff aside, Pamela’s not ambitious. She’s never wanted to be that famous or never really wanted to be a famous actress. She poo-poos her own acting. She’s never been one of those people that’s like, “I just never had my moment in the sun.” To her, this was less about the performance and more about the moment in life to try something so challenging, so new as a 55-year-old woman whose kids are grown and the country’s starting to look back at the worst moment of her life, and she’s punchlines again. It was an empowering moment —even though it was acting, singing, dancing. It was an opportunity for her to grasp and say, “I’m scared shitless, but I’m going to dive off this cliff.” And I loved watching it and her nail it.
You address the in your doc, but as you noted, it wasn’t something you were anticipating. How did you decide how much of her reaction to that to put on the screen?
Because she was not interested in making the documentary, I would have never gone to her and said, “We’re going to include the Hulu show in this way or that way.” That’s too much pulling back the curtain for Pamela. She would have freaked out. She would not have wanted it, and I knew that. We tried a lot. We experimented in the edit room. We wanted to do the minimal amount of time. We only have a certain amount of real estate to tell the Pamela Anderson life story. We don’t want to spend time showing the Hulu show. But it was such an integral part of the third act of my film, and everything that she was going through. I thought I was making a film about a woman who’d grown up on an island, gone through all this crazy shit, returned to that island, married a local, and is living out her final years there. Suddenly, the third act of my film was this hurricane because she was going through a divorce, she was the center of the public conversation again and Chicago. We had to include it because it was a huge part of her emotional core at the time.
The making of my movie also stirred something up in her emotionally that she could not unsettle — watching all of this archive with Tommy, reflecting on all these things, and having to talk about the stolen tape over and over with me. All of this stirred something up in her that said, “What am I doing here? I’m not ready to die in Canada. I’m not here to take care of my parents for the rest of their life. I’m a young woman. I can still have a whole other chapter in my life, other relationships and have more career and tell the narrative on my own terms.” The Hulu show was a huge part of that and saying, “I have been spit up and chewed out so much by our society and by pop culture. Fuck this, I’m taking this on my own terms.” I think Chicago was a big part of that. I think being single is a big part of that. She wasn’t saying anything publicly. She was hiding out. In fact, she was hiding from the media circus around Pam & Tommy. But she was willing in these private rooms to say, “Enough is enough. Fuck this. I’m taking my story back.” And I think the doc and the memoir are finally doing that.
Interview edited for clarity.