Geoff Pugh - WPA Pool/Getty; Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty Meghan Markle, Prince Harry and Princess Diana
The intense reaction to Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's decision to step back from their royal roles in 2020 echoes the public perception and media treatment of Harry's late mother, according to the filmmaker behind a new Princess Diana documentary.
Ed Perkins, the director of HBO's The Princess, tells PEOPLE that he felt those parallels as he delved into the archives of Princess Diana's life for his documentary just as Duke and Duchess of Sussex relocated from London to California.
"For a space of about a month or two, it seemed like [Harry and Meghan] were the only thing people were talking about," Perkins says. "Very few people were apathetic and it reminded me of the response I was seeing in the archive from 25, 30 years previously, where, for the entirety of Diana's public life, we were dissecting everything."
"People had strong polarized opinions all the way throughout her life and after her death, and it did feel interesting that there was a sort of similar national conversation happening 25 years later," he continues.
Princess Diana Archive/Getty Princess Diana and Prince Charles
In The Princess, which airs Aug. 13 on HBO and HBO Max, Diana's story is told exclusively through archive footage and commentary. The producers watched an astonishing 1,000 hours of film to pull together the narrative, which explores Princess Diana's complex relationship with the media, from the early days of her romance with Prince Charles to their headline-making breakup and her tragic death 25 years ago at age 36.
Diana's story is told as if it were the present day, which provides a unique viewpoint for the viewer as events unfold almost in real-time.
"Our intention was to create a film that first and foremost felt kind of emotionally-driven and immersive and that we would give audiences the space to kind of come to their own conclusions and bring their own hindsight to bear on this story," Perkins tells PEOPLE.
Princess Diana Archive/Getty Princess Diana
The film's format makes for emotional viewing, as it highlights the intense media intrusion into every aspect of Diana's life. Early interview footage with Diana and Charles also offers a unique glimpse into their relationship and marriage.
"We've really tried to, in good faith, make the film that we found in the archive and that we feel is fair and balanced," Perkins says. "It would be wrong to tell this story without talking about press excesses, the paparazzi that you see following Diana. It's right that we talk about that — it was a big part of the story."
"But this film isn't about assigning blame," he adds. "And the story is more complicated than that. The truth is that we, the people, create demand for newspaper articles or for photos. Yes, this film is ostensibly about Diana, but actually, the really interesting thing for me is what does Diana's story say about all of us? What does it say about our relationship to the monarchy more widely? What does it say about our relationship to celebrity? I think it's important to have a kind of adult conversation about our role in the story."
Ian Tyas/Getty Princess Diana
The story is both a "sensitive" and "complicated one," Perkins admits and concedes it's "probably not a story that the royal family is desperate to continually revisit for obvious reasons."
"I come out the other end of it actually feeling a lot more sympathetic towards the specific characters involved and the challenges that those roles that they are born into put upon them," the filmmaker says.
Diana Archive/Getty Princess Diana, Prince William and Prince Charles
They are "human beings with all the same flaws and fallibilities as you and I, but living in this very complicated and sensitive position in society. They're trying to do a very difficult job well, and, like all of us, don't always get it right."
Ultimately, it's the story of a woman who spent half her life "as the most famous person in the world," he says. "That's an extraordinary thing to even comprehend."
Princess Diana Archive/Getty Princess Diana
"She had this sort of extraordinary ability to disarm people, " Perkins tells PEOPLE. "It's not just because she was a princess and she was famous, but she had this intrinsic ability to put people at ease and effect change in their life at that moment and really make people feel like they're the most important person — that they're being listened to."
Anwar Hussein/Getty Princess Diana
"In the last 20, 25 years, we have kind of consumed the analysis and re-analysis of this story by osmosis — whether it's from watching The Crown or the endless newspaper front covers that are still about Diana, and we've all created our own views and perspectives, we all kind of bring our own baggage to this story," he says.
"And so our hope is to try to tell the story with the lightness of touch and give audiences the respect and the space to come to their own conclusions and bring that hindsight to bear."