Rachel Fleit on Getting Underneath the Surface with “Introducing Selma Blair”

When Rachel Fleit began working on “Introducing Selma Blair,” the actress’ manager Troy Nankin sent along a Dropbox Folder full of iPhone videos that Blair had been recording in the days and months after she started experiencing symptoms of multiple sclerosis. There was a practical purpose for keeping the video diaries when Blair could track her health, but for someone who rarely had control over her own image since she rose to stardom in her teens, Fleit recognized there was real insight in having her continue to film herself, even after the documentarian brought in more professional gear.

“I made a decision with Selma that when I wasn’t going to be available to be with her, [I asked] if she could continue to make those iPhone diaries,” says Fleit, who went one step further in asking Blair to hold her phone in the portrait mode as opposed to landscape, “so it would be clearer to denote while you were watching the film what was hers and what was ours.”

Which isn’t to say that there’s any distance between them in the intimate doc that Fleit has crafted around Blair’s experience with MS, yet “Introducing Selma Blair” considers how the exterior and interior have rarely lined up for Blair, who it’s revealed initially imagined herself as a writer before a teacher she revered insisted that she should be an actress instead. Having receded from the public spotlight after receiving her diagnosis in 2019, the filmmaker joins Blair on a path towards treatment, seeking out a stem cell transplant at Northwestern to reverse her fortunes, but finding her in a naturally ruminative mood, the film explores all the roles that she didn’t see herself as the right fit for, whether it was being positioned as an ingenue after turning heads in “Legally Blonde” and “Cruel Intentions” or being wounded mightily by her mother’s suggestion that she wouldn’t be a good mom herself after her son Arthur was born.

Believing MS to be an exacerbation of “a bunch of other elements of being unwell,” Blair is shown to embrace her condition rather than run from it, using the period of reflection to recalibrate her life around the things that are truly important to her and is even excited by the prospect of picking out a fancy cane to help her walk. Although for Blair, it undoubtedly feels like a solitary journey, Fleit not gives an understanding of what she’s going through benefitting from her star’s considerable generosity of spirit, but seizes the opportunity to have an audience to look at things differently when someone such as Blair, so firmly part of the pop culture we have all shared for years, can be seen projecting an entirely different kind of strength when her health is so fragile.

Tremendously moving — and funny when Blair is given to breaking out the cane for “Cabaret”-esque dances and has hardly lost her sense of humor in the face of devastating circumstances — “Introducing Selma Blair” was a worthy winner of a Special Jury Award at SXSW where it premiered earlier this year and now on the eve of its release on Discovery+, Fleit spoke about how she defied the general conventions around celebrity biographies and was able to find the personal connections that could open up Blair’s experience to the world.

How did this come about?

I had been directing some short documentaries and my dear friend and our executive producer Cass Bird had just shot Selma for Vanity Fair and introduced me to Selma and her manager Troy [Nankin] because they were thinking what she’s going through could actually be something that might be worthy of documentation. Like with any of my subjects, I was a little bit trepidatious, “Are we going to hit it off? Are we going to connect? Is it going to work?” And since we have this immediate connection and we built a trust very quickly. My first meeting with [Selma] was amazing — we met on FaceTime and it was like an instant connection. I have Alopecia, so I’m bald and she was like, “You’re bald and I have MS. What are we going to do about it?” [laughs] She was immediately disarming and charming and I also had made a film recently about a family she grew up with, so we had this weird destiny to meet each other.

Even though there are interviews with friends and family, you see what a solitary journey this is for her and I wondered whether it was a conscious choice or the circumstances of filming that you really are often filming her alone.

It really was just her life at this moment. Selma’s MS really kept her from being around too many people. She knows everyone and her reach is far and wide, but she had been spending a lot of time very close to home, so her world was highly curated and we often joked while making the film that we were making “Room,” [because of] how so much of the film took place with her in bed, but that really is her experience. She had a really close-knit group of people around her and that’s what we filmed because that’s what was happening in real life. I’m also committed to verite documentary filmmaking, so a bunch of seated interviews with other people, we tried some of that with some of her friends and L.A./Hollywood colleagues and it just didn’t really work for the style of film that I wanted to make.

That opening scene has everything in it. Did you know when you shot it that it would make for a strong introduction?

I have this incredible relationship with my editor Sloane Klevin, she really understands my style and when she saw that footage, she said, “I think this is the opening,” and she was right. But I will tell you that the opening scene was filmed on June 1st, 2019, which goes down in my record books as the greatest day of filmmaking in my life. The reason for that is that Selma was so generous and that day was so special. It was the day her son was going to stay with his dad because she was going to Chicago the next day, so they play that game of dodgeball then he leaves with [his father] Jason and she jumps into the pool in her nightgown and tells me the story of the airplane. Then from there, still wet from her swim, she gets dressed into this outfit because I told her I wanted to interview her about her career and it turned into some other stuff. I learned very quickly what was most important with filming Selma was not to have a plan, to just let the day unfold organically and that it did.

Did this take you in any directions you could get excited about that you really didn’t expect?

Act III is always a big question mark when you go out and make a documentary because you learn what our subject is going through in act one, and Act II was already in place in my mind [because] I was going to film the stem cell transplant. But I didn’t know how I was going to end the film, and honestly COVID really helped us get to the ethos of what we were trying to get to in the end, which is just this is a story about the human spirit. It is, of course, a story of a woman with MS and becoming disabled — a valiant, remarkable human being — but it really is about the human spirit and what we do in order just to show up for our lives.

One of aspects that was particularly moving is the way the film is able to address this disconnection between the internal and external well before the MS where Selma talks about wanting to be a writer, but an influential teacher tells her she’s going to be an actress. Was that something that was foundational or gradually came to the fore?

It definitely was the latter. Really learning who Selma was was a process and seeing myself in her, it’s all personal on some level. There are things that Selma says that I feel I would’ve said and there are things that I say that I feel Selma would say now. We’ve become intertwined in this way, making a film like this. But so much of the thing I kept returning to is when Selma says, “I was always a supporting actress. I never was the star.” And the great irony of this documentary is that her great starring role has arrived and all she needed to do was be herself.

Another great section in the film involves going through old photographs and magazine shoots with her. How did that come about?

I’m obsessed with old photographs. It’s one of the archival tools I always go to because I feel like truly a picture can tell a thousand words, so with my subjects, I always say, “Show me the photos and tell me the stories behind these images,” especially the old magazines. We went through a bunch of her old magazine covers and I think we got some cinematic gold. The line I will never forget is “No one is going to print Nicole [Kidman] too small” [looking at an Interview Magazine cover both were featured on].

The film shares a great sense of humor with Selma and you get a lot of mileage out of a Burlesque-inspired score. How did that come in?

We thought a lot about our audience in editing this and a lot about Selma and how she would perform for me and the cameras every once in a while. She has this incredibly chic, graceful, but Borscht Belt sense of humor, so we thought her levity and her comedy could really create these moments of respite for the audience because there’s a lot of really intense stuff that happens in between that, just to just keep things light and underscore things when she was joking.

Was she actually involved in the edit at all, given the sensitivity of the subject?

I’m so happy to tell you that Selma Blair did not step foot into the edit. [laughs] She was incredible in that way. I love watching celebrity documentaries, and I have my favorites, but you can tell when something is censored, or at least I can, so I was surprised that for Selma, nothing was off-limits. Her manager Troy was often around because he was a producer on the film, but absolutely nothing was off-limits and then Selma was not in our edit. We did show Selma the film [before its SXSW premiere] out of respect. I was so charmed and admired her so much, but at at distance because I want to show objectivity here and I was very nervous to have her watch the film. Our investors were like, “You’re going to have to show Selma the film” and I was like, “Okay, when should I do it? I’m scared.” And it was so lovely. I was armed with my notebook and she actually only had one note for me. She’s like, “Yeah, there’s just one photo at the end, which is not actually my mom, it’s my aunt, so you’re going to want to switch that out.” And I was like, “Oh my God, is that everything?” And she said, “Yeah, that’s everything.

What’s it been like getting this out into the world?

It’s surreal. I’m so happy that the response has been so positive. We’re completely embraced right now and what people are really responding to is its honesty. It’s really true and real and raw and that I think is really impactful for people, especially after the couple years that we’ve had.

“Introducing Selma Blair” is playing theatrically in New York at the IFC Center and will begin streaming on Discovery+ beginning October 22nd.