Entertainment

Where Is Wendy Williams? Doc Wouldn’t Have Happened With Dementia Diagnosis

“At a certain point,” says Where is Wendy Williams? producer Mark Ford, “we were more worried about what would happen if we stopped filming than if we continued.”

So, for the better part of a year, his cameras kept rolling, documenting the increasingly fragile state that the former talk show host had found herself in, as she alternately craved family, her former TV platform and an excessive amount of alcohol, all while struggling to remain coherent. What ultimately came of that footage is a raw, devastating, four-plus hour documentary, which aired on Lifetime over two nights this past weekend. Williams, her son, Kevin Hunter Jr., and her jeweler-turned-manager, William Selby, are all credited as executive producers.

Nevertheless, the eOne and Creature Films project asks more questions than it answers, including what, exactly, was going on with Williams, and why a court-ordered guardian has largely cut her off from her family. Though the latter remains a mystery to the project’s producers to this day, a press release on behalf of Williams and her current care team was sent out just ahead of the documentary, revealing that the former shock jock and TV host of 12 years had been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia, which impacts language, communication behavior and cognitive function.

Then, two days before Where is Wendy Williams? was set to debut, Williams’ guardian, whose identity is redacted throughout the doc, filed a lawsuit against Lifetime’s parent company trying to block the network from airing the two-night documentary event. A judge dismissed the request, however, citing the First Amendment. So, it aired as planned, with Selby and key members of Williams’ family screening all four hours with producers beforehand. To their knowledge, Williams, who’s said to be in an undisclosed facility where her cognitive issues are allegedly being treated, has yet to see it herself.

Now that the doc has aired in its entirety, Ford along with executive producer Erica Hanson and Lifetime’s Brie Miranda Bryant agreed to hop on a Zoom to discuss its rocky road to completion, including the times they felt were neither appropriate nor safe to keep filming, and the larger purpose they hope that the film serves, even if it wasn’t their intention going in.

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Take me back to the beginning of how, exactly, this documentary came to be.

MARK FORD It really began as a conversation between Wendy’s manager, Will Selby, and our head of development, Pat Lambert. I think Pat reached out to Will about doing another documentary with Wendy — because we were the producers of [Lifetime’s 2021 doc] Wendy Williams: What a Mess!, along with Brie and Lifetime. It was supposed to be a documentary that would follow her journey back into her career doing a podcast. We thought it was a great idea, and we were hopeful that Wendy’s story would be redeeming and we’d be able to document this journey. But as we filmed, it became evident that this wasn’t really going to be a career comeback story, that this was going to be a deeper story, and that there was something ultimately disturbing going on in Wendy’s life.

Were you questioning whether she was ready for this?

FORD 100 percent. I mean, you can hear my voice in the first 10 minutes of the film asking every question that you would ask about this situation. The beginning of the film was really the development shoot, where we went out and just wanted to sit with Wendy and see how she was doing. Basically the story that was given to us after that day is that it was a bad day for Wendy and that alcohol had been involved, and now she was going away [to a treatment facility] and she was going to get that under control. But this should in no way inhibit us from moving forward. And when we did come back, she was better. She was sober and on a better trajectory. And there were conversations and plans for the podcast, and there were people being put in place to produce that podcast, and that was a storyline that we were following. But it was derailed because of what we now know was the state of Wendy’s dementia.

Brie, at what point did Lifetime get involved and what did those early conversations entail?

BRIE MIRANDA BRYANT At Lifetime, we’ve been involved with Wendy for a long time. I don’t want to say that Wendy was a mentor to me, but I was one of her biggest fans growing up, listening to her on the radio as a little girl. So, I’d reached out to her with her first management team, which was [her now ex-husband] Kevin [Hunter] Sr. on many occasions, to do things for NBCUniversal, when I was there, and then at Lifetime. And I’d said, “I want to be the one to do your docu,” and they laughed at the time. Then, when she was going through the divorce and it became very public, I went and sat with her and her manager at the time [Bernie Young], and I said, “We want to do your biopic. We want to do your documentary. We want to make it a big Wendy Williams weekend.” So, we struck a deal and we reached out to Mark, and we started the journey with Wendy. And she’s the one who insisted on the title of that documentary being, What a Mess!, which is just so her. So, for us, we’ve always wanted to be in business with Wendy. And so we were talking to Mark, like, “Do we think we’ll ever do this again?” And with her management team, too.

I keep reading that this was the third and final installment of a development deal she had with Lifetime. Is that accurate?

BRYANT This was not part of that, no.

Your cameras began rolling in August, 2022. Earlier that spring, Wendy had given a series of erratic interviews teasing her next act — there was one with TMZ, and another with Fat Joe on Instagram Live. Presumably you watched those? I guess I’m just trying to determine the calculation you make that this woman could be ready for a comeback.

FORD It was tough every single day, and there were conversations that we had, all of us, throughout the documentary. And there was no guarantee we would air this documentary if we weren’t happy with the content that we ultimately got and the editorial direction that we landed upon, which was the family’s point of view and illustrating what can happen when one of your family members is put into a guardianship outside of your control. We just happened to be there every day seeing the reality of this situation, and we just put the camera on it and captured it. There was no intention. And Brie was very supportive throughout, because we needed to just let this documentary unfold and see where it went. And you literally see that in the film.

I think we’re very transparent about our producers’ confusion. We’re asking all of these questions that everyone has all the way through. We don’t know this manager. It’s a new manager. We don’t know this publicist. It’s a new publicist. The guardian won’t speak to us. And so we’re constantly just trying to push forward and get the information as filmmakers. Like, what is actually going on here? And by the way, Wendy loved it when the cameras came to the door, it gave her a reason to get up in the morning. I think you see that.

You do see that.

FORD She loves the camera, and she became very close with our producers. There was a real emotional connection that the project gave her, and honestly, it got to a point where we were more worried about what would happen to Wendy if we stopped filming then if we continued. Because we ultimately knew that we have the control and we can just not air this if it can’t be moved into a positive, redeeming direction for her where we can help Wendy and hopefully other people. And that discovery came much later in the process, how universal this story is and how many thousands of families in America are going through this exact same thing, except they’re not related to Wendy Williams, who has this massive platform.

So, of course, we’re human beings. There were incredibly bad days, and there’s a lot of footage we shot that no one will ever see. But we felt like it was important to illustrate the difficult process that Wendy and her family were going through, and frankly what can happen to someone if they’re under the care of a guardian. I think the family thought, and we all thought, shouldn’t there be somebody here more often? Shouldn’t there be somebody filling a refrigerator and checking in on her on a daily basis? None of those things were happening.

Did you ever meet the court-appointed guardian?

ERICA HANSON No, no, no. She wouldn’t take my calls.

FORD Pat tried to call her many times, too. There were many attempts before and during. Honestly, we either got a terse hangup or a very brief, unpleasant exchange. That’s what happened.

Presumably, the guardian had to give her permission for Wendy to spend time with you though, no?

FORD Yes. I mean, it was all signed off on. She [the guardian] was communicating with Will Selby, Wendy’s manager. Will was the point contact with the guardian throughout the process and he would have to go to her to get documents signed, to get location agreements, to book her travel out of state. All of these things were things that had to be signed off on by the guardian throughout. So, it’s our understanding that she was very aware of everything throughout the process.

Wendy is an executive producer on the project…

FORD Because that was the precedent with all of her projects at Lifetime.

BRYANT And it’s her story. It’s her name.

What did that entail, and did she see a finished product before it aired?

FORD We simply have had no way to get it to her to see it. No way to screen it with her, because she’s locked down in a facility and we haven’t been able to speak to her since we wrapped filming. The last day that you see us filming with her is the last time we spoke to Wendy. But we had many conversations behind the scenes with Wendy and Will about what they wanted to film, and what they wouldn’t want to capture. For instance, Wendy wanted to go to Miami to see her family. That wasn’t our idea. Or you see the chapter where she goes to L.A., we didn’t even know she was going to L.A.. But we got a camera crew together and, again, just pointed the camera at what was actually happening in her life. So, the doc is very observational in its nature and just captured the truth of what was happening to Wendy and what the people around her were doing or not doing.

HANSON And some days were better than others. But we always talked to Wendy about what we were doing, and she definitely had opinions and she weighed in.

There were points where you’d get to her apartment and you wouldn’t be able to film that day, or there is a scene in the car where you decide to stop filming. How do you make that judgment call? Or, put another way, where is that line for you?

FORD We’ve never done something like this, so it’s a kind of an unprecedented territory. And we also understand that it’s a polarizing project, and people have wildly different opinions about it. We were constantly having conversations about whether this is worthwhile, whether this serves Wendy’s story and helps her move forward. But at a certain point, the story was also about the reality of the situation that this woman finds herself in. And it’s not a pretty reality. It’s not a nice thing to watch. And so we were very careful in how we depicted it and when we depicted it. And believe me, as I said, there were many things that we filmed that will never see the light of day. But Erica, you should answer on how you made those judgement calls on the daily.

HANSON You just follow your instinct, and it was a sensitive, complex situation of what felt right and what felt wrong. And then there were times where Wendy made it clear when she was done for the day. For example, this situation in the car, we literally thought we were just going to go document Wendy and [her publicist] Shawn [Zanotti] going to buy vapes. That’s what we set out to do, and then as you saw it completely spiraled and there became a clear point where it was, okay, we need to stop and make sure that she’s okay and that she goes home, and it wasn’t appropriate to continue filming. But we were constantly struggling with that, because there were moments that were painful and very emotional. And I’d also point out that a lot of people on our little team had been touched in their own worlds by dementia and addiction, so everyone from the field to post had this deep sense of caring and a great sense of moral responsibility. And there were times where we really felt like if we stopped, what would happen? Would she just continue? And would she fall down the stairs?

The day before the series released, Wendy’s guardian (who has now been identified as Sabrina Morrissey) sued Lifetime’s parent company to try to stop this doc from airing. How concerned you were that she’d be successful and that you wouldn’t be able to air?

BRYANT It was a lot of drama at the end! All I can say is, it took us all by surprise. But we were relieved that our legal teams were able to come to terms and just grateful that we made it to air.

FORD Ultimately, it’s a First Amendment issue. Nobody should have the power to quash Wendy’s voice, and her family’s voice. And thankfully the courts understood that that was the most important thing, and the free press won out here.

The family is very vocal about their frustration with the guardianship. Do you have a sense for why the family hasn’t formally contested it?

FORD That’s a good question and we just don’t know. We did ask it. What I do know is that it’s difficult to contest a guardianship. All of the proceedings are masked, so they can’t even pull the paperwork to see why they were excluded or not allowed to be the guardians to begin with. So, because of the shadowy way in which the courts protect these guardianships, it’s very difficult for them to gather the information. Also, this is not a rich family that has a ton of resources. They’re like everyone else, trying to get through the day, with people to take care of and things that they’re dealing with, and so it’s like, how do we even start the process to know how to do this? Honestly, I think the film was their first step in telling this story, and getting it out there. I hope the people that instituted this guardianship will watch the film and see for themselves what Wendy’s situation was and perhaps this is a cautionary tale moving forward about how to prevent this from happening to other people.

When it came to interview subjects, what was the process of getting people comfortable with sitting down with you? I believe her sister, Wanda, took a year or so to be convinced. Candidly, it took me a while, too. I was very nervous that it would be exploitative… [Editor’s note: Rose was a participant in the doc, having covered the final days inside the Wendy Williams Show.]

HANSON I think we really gradually built trust with the family. And it started with Alex [Finnie, Wendy’s niece] and then with Wendy’s son [Kevin Hunter Jr.]. With Wanda, it did take a while, but I think she finally felt that she did know information that was important. And she felt that it was important for her to fill in some blanks and for the family to be united. They all acknowledged that they’re not the perfect family, and that they have been fractured. But I feel like they realized they needed to come together and to figure this out with Wendy. And listen, I knew very little about guardianships but, how is it possible that a child can’t call their mother? How is it possible that she can call him, but then what if the call gets missed? I just don’t understand. And how is it possible that the family doesn’t know her healthcare situation or where she is?

Who did you not get but wanted?

HANSON We did reach out to the [producers at the Wendy Williams] show. That’s one of the reasons why we talked to you, because you could tell that part of the story because the producers of the show did not want to participate. And obviously, the guardian did not want to do an interview. Those were the two main ones.

What about her ex-husband and former manager, Kevin Hunter Sr.?

FORD It was never a conversation to have her ex-husband be a part of it, and that was on Wendy’s behalf. It wasn’t really his story to tell.

Her niece, Alex, who plays a big role in the doc, was supposed to be part of today’s interview. Do you know why she isn’t here?

FORD We don’t know, but you can imagine how overwhelmed this family is right now being at the center of all of this. And Alex had been doing a lot of press last week. So, I don’t know why she’s not here today, but I can understand why because it’s very overwhelming

HANSON I’d just add that we watched the film with the family, and in subsequent conversations after it’s aired, they’ve been very supportive. They really had no notes at all. They all are very supportive of it.

FORD I think we can say that we also screened the film for Wendy’s manager, Will, too.

Is Shawn Zanotti, the publicist, still part of the team? It was hard to watch the doc and not wonder whether she had Wendy’s best interests in mind…

FORD No, it’s our understanding that she is no longer part of the team and hasn’t been for quite some time. [THR has reached out to Zanotti for comment.]

The film is titled, Where is Wendy Williams? At this point, do the three of you know where she is?

FORD We don’t.

BRYANT I wish I did.

HANSON As far as we know, she’s in a facility being treated but no, we don’t know.

When’s the last you’ve spoken to her?

HANSON It would’ve been in April, when we finished filming.

FORD What you see in the documentary is the last time we ever spoke with Wendy. The team did go back and check on her a couple times after filming stopped, but we couldn’t get into the apartment. And then we’ve been checking in with her through her manager Will, who has spoken to her many times in the ensuing months. And he echoes what you see in the documentary that she is sounding and doing better, and she is getting the right care. So that’s one thing that we’re very relieved about, that we left her in a better place than we found her. And although we documented a very difficult chapter in Wendy’s life, illustrating how difficult that was in the most respectful way was important to share with her public. It also illustrates, honestly, what the family’s predicament is here. They’re able now to see what was going on with their mother/aunt/sister, and their suspicions about her care were well founded and the footage speaks its own story. Would you want your family member who is under the care of a guardian in this kind of a situation?

Just prior to air, a press release revealed that Wendy had primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal dementia. Did the diagnosis come as a surprise to you? I don’t know if that was a team of people you were even in touch with or familiar with.

FORD We were not familiar with any of the people on those press releases other than the guardian herself. Did it surprise us? I don’t think it surprised us. Of course, we’re not medical professionals. But anyone watching the film can see that there are signs that were there and then progressed rapidly.

The family’s efforts and concerns over Wendy’s guardianship play a bigger role in night two. But if you only watch night one, you might come away wondering if it’s too unsettling or exploitative. Were these discussions or concerns for you going in?

FORD Of course, we had many, many conversations about what to keep in the film, what to leave out, how to tell the story, how to flash back into the past and answer questions, when to reveal certain information. But ultimately, we stuck to the truth of our journey as filmmakers. And when you watch the film, it’s almost like you’re on the journey of discovery with us. And look, our responsibility as filmmakers, one, is to make sure our subject is safe and ends up in a safe place. But beyond that, it’s the truth. We have to show the truth, even when that truth is painful to watch. Because, what if we didn’t show it? What if Wendy was still in that apartment? What would’ve happened if the film didn’t come along when it did, to be a little bit of a spark plug and an engine to push those people around her to get her to significant care?

And also, dementia is an insidious disease, right? It’s tricky. You’re not really sure what’s going on. So, you’re able to see this journey of discovery across these four hours and I do hope people stick with it to the end, because then you’ll see what the intention ultimately became, which was that Wendy’s suffering and the family’s suffering is not in vain. That there’s a message here that is universal, and it’s important for people to hear, and, again, that echoes the experience of thousands of other families under this guardianship system. And documentary filmmaking is always a tricky thing. Like, if you look back at Grey Gardens, was that exploitive? This project never would’ve aired if we couldn’t steer it towards the hopeful ending or the ending that we have here with the family engaging and telling their story. I don’t want to speak for Brie, but we never would’ve aired something that didn’t have Wendy’s best interests and her family’s best interests at heart.

BRYANT No, and just to piggyback on what Mark just said, once Wendy went away, we were cameras down. There were some check-ins to see how she was doing, but it was cameras down. And I think the hope is that it would be a similar situation to what we all experienced early on, which is she went to go get help, she goes to get help, she comes back and we can complete the project. But it was months that went by, and my bosses were very patient with me because we were supposed to air this a lot earlier than we did, but we were in the business of doing it right. So we just gave these guys [the producers] the space that they needed to figure it out. And the diagnosis that was announced was not the information that any of us had going into it. So, people were watching the journey with information that we didn’t have in those first two hours, and I think that’s part of the confusion and the upset and outrage.

FORD We tried to be as transparent as possible, and the making of the film is as much a story in some ways as Wendy’s story itself. And that’s why we intentionally left a lot of the questions in — we wanted people to understand the journey of the filmmakers and how upsetting it was for all of us in certain instances and also how outrageous in some ways the situations were. Like, Wendy would be left alone without food, completely on her own in that apartment with stairs that she could easily fall down. There was no one there 24/7. So, these are just all the questions we had throughout. But, of course, if we had known that Wendy had dementia going into it, no one would’ve rolled a camera.


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