Riveting Riffs Logo One This is Paris - An Interview with Director Alexandra Dean
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Where to begin? One hears that there is a documentary film about to be released concerning the life of Paris Hilton and one does not know quite what to expect, because yes, it is that Paris Hilton! If you were a teenager or perhaps a bit older twenty-some odd years ago you were probably living in a pretty insulated life if you did not know who Paris Hilton was. Her picture was in front of you everywhere, tabloids, television programs, and more often in one way or the other on the internet, where she became an icon. Those images were not always her best moments. Just prior to the September 14 (2020) release of This Is Paris, director, writer and executive producer Alexandra Dean, a trusted friend of Riveting Riffs Magazine sat down with us to talk about when she was asked to do a documentary about Paris Hilton, why she decided to say yes and how it affected her deeply.

The documentary film This Is Paris is not the story most of us were anticipating and while it begins with some of what we already know about her life, it does so not for shock value, but to provide context for the side of Paris Hilton’s life that has never been told before. For those of you would quickly conclude, before watching the film that is merely a publicity stunt by Paris Hilton or an attempt to capture notoriety in 1:45:12 seconds consider this, Alexandra Dean is an Emmy Award winner, as well as being the recipient of numerous other awards and accolades for her documentary work. Make know mistake about it, people already know who she is.

She also has a message for those who are quick to judge Paris Hilton’s motives, “Anybody who wants to judge her for doing this film and thinking she was doing it for publicity or for another stab at fame, I would ask them to question themselves, would you let someone come into your life and film you when you have no editorial control? Paris had enormous trust in me, and I am not surprised that the first couple of times she watched the film that it was difficult for her to watch. She did come around and she has been extremely brave. She does like the film now. I think it was hard, but I think it paid off for her.”

This is a story of a survivor, a damaged survivor of abuse as a teenager and then as happens with many victims of abuse, as an adult through relationships that often become violent. While much of the focus in this film is on one particular girls boarding school where the abuse occurred for Paris Hilton, other teenage girls and in some cases girls much younger than she was at the time, it should not be lost on the viewer that she was also abused in adult relationships.

This Is Paris Photo TwoOne of our readers wrote to us after seeing our social media post about this interview and on the day the film made its debut on YouTube Originals, she watched it. Paraphrasing the email, she said this about Paris Hilton, I never knew that part of her life. She has been so misunderstood. It took a lot for Paris to do that (tell her story).

“I was approached about a year and one-half ago now by Aaron Saidman (producer) at ICP the production company for the film (executive producers are Eli Holzman and Alexandra Dean). It was his idea to do the film about Paris Hilton’s life. He read some articles that had popped up that said Paris Hilton had invented our modern moment and instant fame, as well as the way she marketed herself on Instagram. She had become this multimillion-dollar businesswoman, but nobody really knew anything about her. He wanted to uncover that story. He had seen my last film, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. He thought there was some resonance between how misunderstood Hedy was and how misunderstood Paris Hilton is. When he pitched that to me, I was intrigued.

I met Paris on Zoom and I felt indeed there was a person there who had been completely unseen by the public.

I knew that she had been to some troubled teen boarding schools, but I did not know what that meant in her life and I didn’t ask her about it (at that time). I did sense something in her that was very much like my sister who had been through a very traumatic childhood and I would say in some ways felt broken by it. I wondered if there was something in Paris that was traumatized or broken and I wondered if she knew what it was,” says Alexandra Dean.

Alexandra Dean spent eleven months following Paris Hilton all over the world, to glamour events for her various product lines, to music festivals at which Paris served as the DJ and she is very much in demand at large festivals. There were quiet conversations following long travel and publicity days with little sleep in between and those types of moments were captured on camera. There were not any big camera crews. It was just Alexandra Dean and her associate producer Katie Paul.

“It was pretty light weight gear that didn’t get in the way. I could just hang with Paris and be with her for a while. I would notice things and I would ask her about them in a quieter moment. That is how it began (gaining Paris’ trust).

Then you see that (time) in Korea where we both had been up for two days and we were filming. She would get to bed about 2 am and those are the moments when you sometimes confront your life and you say what am I doing here? She had one of those moments and because we had been filming on and off it happened on camera,” she says.

When asked if she even had a notion of how This Is Paris would turn out when she signed on to do the film, Alexandra Dean laughs and says, “Not at all. I had a sense that we could forge this relationship, because she is so like my sister. She told me I remind her of her sister Nicky Hilton who is one of the closest people to her in the world. Because we felt we fit into that relationship, we fell into a pattern very easily. I think I felt if there was a story there, I would be able to create the kind of trust between us that she would tell (me) the story.”

Paris Hilton’s story reveals itself gradually through the course of this film and in a way not intended to shock the audience, but more to inform and to create an awareness of the abusive situation that exists at boarding school in Utah. There are references to and illustrations concerning flashbacks that occur through recurring nightmares.

“I tried to edit it very much in the way that it felt for me, as to how Paris’ various dramas came out in dribs, drabs and glimpses and had to be figured out by me over time,” reveals Alexandra Dean.  

She shares her thoughts concerning how she feels the film affected both Paris Hilton and herself, “I thought the film was acting as therapy for Paris, but I think it may have been acting as therapy for me, because I had been through this traumatic experience of seeing my sister broken and end up in a psychiatric institution for many years, where terrible things happened to her. I kept flashing back to my own experiences and thinking about them in tandem with Paris. I felt like we were on this journey together and we were unpacking things that had really scarred us. You have to do that as an adult and move on. You have to leave things on the side of the road, or those things will weigh you down. 

I think people will be really surprised about the trauma that Paris went through. It is not what you expect, and it doesn’t fit into a neat little box. I am hoping that the film will spur a much bigger investigation into these schools. The abuse that we hear about in Paris’ case is widespread. It is happening today and to children younger than she was and Paris says that in the film. I am going to be giving my investigative research to a team that I hope will do that. I really think it is important that they do that, so this stops happening. I think it is crucial.”

We wondered if at the time the film was being made if Paris Hilton was experiencing the effects of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Alexandra Dean says, “I do think so without a doubt. I saw her change over the course of the year that I was with her. When we were standing on the podium doing the early press for This Is Paris in January of this year, before COVID hit and there were a bunch of reporters gathered around. One of them asked her about the recurring nightmares and wanted to know if she was still having them now. She said since we finished filming that she gets them very rarely. To me that was proof that something psychologically had shifted in her during the course of the filming.

Do I think she is magically cured by making a documentary? Absolutely not. That is not how it works. Do I think that there was an element of therapy in her telling this story to me? Yes, I think there was. I think there is value in that. I really hope this is the beginning of the work for her and that she ends up continuing to look into it and maybe even feeling comfortable, finally in seeing a therapist.”

Our opinion is This Is Paris is a film that should be shared with women who have suffered abuse as a teenager or as an adult or both and perhaps that is why it was made available to watch for free on YouTube Originals. Just type in the title in the YouTube search box. We would suggest however if you are a survivor of abuse that you do not watch this film alone and that you instead watch it with someone you trust and with whom you feel comfortable talking. The film may also be of benefit to men who have suffered abuse in their lives.

Alexandra Dean says, “This film has surprised me so far, because I thought I was making it for my generation. I am forty-one. I thought older millennial and the younger generation Z would be interested, because we grew up with Paris Hilton being such an enormous figure. She was everywhere and we have a natural interest in her, because of that. It turns out she has a broader appeal than that, because my parents who have no interest in Paris Hilton, beyond a vague curiosity were really, really moved by the film and they keep telling all of their friends to watch. That is really cool. I think it has an appeal, because it is a psychological portrait of somebody who has created this character for themselves and now is struggling to find who they were before that and to escape. I think that has universal appeal.

I think one reason it possibly resonated with my parents so much is they went through this with my sister and I love the idea that you should watch it with someone else. I don’t think it is traumatizing to watch, but I do think it will make you think about what you have been through and for that reason you may want someone whose hand you can hold and with whom you can talk afterwards.” This Is Paris Photo Three

Four other women appear near the end of This Is Paris, all of whom were in the Utah boarding school at the same time that Paris Hilton was there. All of them share their stories of being abused while in that school that hid behind the pretense of helping troubled teens when in fact it was an environment that was a hellish nightmare.

“In one of our early interviews Paris said to me the character I created for myself (while at the school) had a name and she was called Fifi. She was not sure of the name of the other girl who had the same experiences as her. Fifi was their escape, this girl made of butterflies and unicorns. Paris suddenly looked me in the eye, and she said you should find her (the other girl). I thought okay, challenge accepted. (She starts to laugh) I am going to find this girl even though I have no idea what she is called or if the name she gave me was wrong. It became a hunt for her and then Katie who was a ringleader type for the group was the first person that I reached out to, because she had a Facebook page. She had gone to school with Paris and she helped me to find Jess. Along the way we found Paris’ ex roommate Reina and her therapy group mate Elizabeth. It was a very organic thing and something that Paris asked me to do,” she says.

As for Paris’ family being aware of the abuse that she endured, Alexandra Dean says, “Paris had tried in her own way to tell them over the years, but she has such a hard time communicating it that it never landed. I think it can be very typical for families and for mine as well that the person who was the black sheep and who underwent trauma, that it can be hard for the rest of the family to accept. It means we all have to take on some obligation and that we all feel guilty that this person was made into a black sheep in the first place. Anybody who has a family where a person has been traumatized knows what I am talking about. With the guilt involved and the pain involved you don’t want to hear it and that is what was happening.

I definitely know that Paris had the experience of her family not wanting to know about it and I saw my parents do that with my sister. I am hesitant to condemn anyone in these situations because these things are so painful. Everyone has their own demons. Everyone is just trying to muddle through. I would say that children who suffer trauma get shut down by their families more often than they are heard unfortunately. Maybe in part I wanted to make this film to challenge those families to listen to their children.

For me it was only hard, as it reopened old wounds and make me look at them. Otherwise in many ways it was a joyful experience because I had not been able to film Hedy Lamarr, because she was dead. I had to reconstruct her from what remained. It was a frustrating experience. Even though I had many conversations with her in my dreams, I had never been able to talk to her face to face. With Paris there was a person I could talk to, as I went through her story with her. It was much more of a dialogue and I really loved that. I love that kind of storytelling and I loved seeing how the conversations that we were having affected the scenes we were filming. It was really magical. I only wish I had more time, because we made the whole film from beginning to end in eleven months and that is extremely fast.

This Is Paris felt like it was the result of women getting the opportunity to tell films. I don’t think that films like This Is Paris were being made in the past, because female filmmakers were not given many opportunities and they certainly weren’t given the opportunity to tell a story like this, a psychodrama, which is really what happened to Paris Hilton. This film felt like all of the result of that hard work. It felt like being given wings to try something new. That was really exciting for me. It made me really grateful to everyone who stood up and said you have to give women the chance to tell these stories.

I think the interesting thing for people who watch the film is This Is Paris is married to experiences that I have had and that I have never been able to bring together, the documentarian experience, where I have been more of an archival documentarian and where for many years I was a reporter. I did Sixty Minutes style documentaries for Now, which was the news magazine run by Bill Moyers. For news magazine documentaries you do follow people and you do get close to them, but you have twenty-two minutes and you have three months to do it in.

I had done that for many people and portrayed them in the middle of being evicted from their houses or someone under house arrest. I had never been able to marry that with the documentarian experience where you follow somebody for a year, and you live with them. When you get to unlock some deeper questions for them. That was the great privilege of This Is Paris to be able to do the two together. That was wonderful. I was able to bring my investigative skills to bear at the same time as portraiture. How often do you get to do that?”

Why should people watch This Is Paris ?

Alexandra Dean says, “I know that there is a lot of prejudice out there about Paris Hilton. People already have their opinions about her, and they think it is silly to spend all of this time talking about her. It is those people more than anyone that I want to watch this film, because I want them to understand what you are doing when you write people off in that way. Especially, when it comes to somebody who has created a shell and who is living in it. You can’t just judge people on that outward appearance. People go through an awful lot and what they do in order to survive it may not be something that you understand right away, but that doesn’t mean it is not worth understanding. Maybe we should just pause all of these judgements about people and especially women and give people a chance.”

You can watch This Is Paris on YouTube Originals for free here. As we have said previously in this interview if you are a survivor of trauma, violence, and abuse, we would encourage you to watch it with a trusted friend. There are no depictions of violence in this film, but in the event that it triggers memories within you, please make sure you have someone to talk to by your side.

Riveting Riffs Magazine would like to take time to thank our friend Alexandra Dean for once again setting aside the time during a busy schedule to talk with us. We would also thank Jennifer Cruz from Rogers and Cowan PMK and Emily Beekman for facilitating the advance screening of This Is Paris and for their assistance with arranging the interview. Most of all we would like to thank Paris Hilton and the four women who joined her in this film for having the courage to tell your stories.   Return to Our Front Page

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This interview by Joe Montague  published September 15h, 2020 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos are the the property of  Paris Hilton unless otherwise noted and all  are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine.