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The sixth and final season of The Crown tells the story of how a photograph of Princess Diana vacationing with her new boyfriend helped spark a media frenzy that ended in a car chase and fatal crash in Paris.
But the Italian paparazzi photographer who took the photo of the famous couple embracing on a yacht says the Netflix show got a crucial fact wrong, and no one asked him for his side of the story, according to his first English-language interview, which was published in The New York Times.
Episode two of the series depicts Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and Egyptian film producer Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla) enjoying a Mediterranean cruise and a summer of love on the Jonikal yacht while, unbeknownst to them, Italian photographer Mario Brenna (Enzo Cilenti) snaps their photo.
Brenna sold a photo of the couple embracing in swimwear to Paris Match Magazine and it appeared on the front page of U.K. tabloid the Sunday Mirror on Aug. 10. Brenna said he sold his photos worldwide and made about 1.7 million pounds over eight months. As the images spread across the world, they sparked a frenzy of paparazzi photographers eager to get their own lucrative shot of the couple who had only been dating for a few weeks.
An estimated 2,000 photographers descended on the Mediterranean.
“I felt the whole thing was spinning out of control,” Brenna told The New York Times.
Just a few weeks later, the couple’s car crashed in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel after it was chased by photographers on Aug. 31, 1997. Diana and Fayed both died.
In the show, business tycoon Mohamed al-Fayed — Fayed’s father — appears to hire Brenna to stalk and photograph the couple in an attempt to convince them to marry. The show portrays al-Fayed, who died this year, as eager to get closer to the Royal family.
Annie Sulzberger, the show’s head of research told The New York Times that “there are a few theories about how Brenna managed to find the Jonikal moored somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea,” and The Crown team decided that it was most likely that one of al-Fayed’s employees leaked the location.
But this moment was completely fabricated, according to Brenna, who also told The New York Times about the mental toll the photograph and its aftermath took on him.
The accusation against al-Fayed is “absurd and completely invented,” he said. Stumbling upon the couple was a “great stroke of luck” for Brenna, who spent every summer in the area trying to get paparazzi photos of prominent people.
Brenna reportedly approached Diana’s yacht on Aug. 1, 1997, on an inflatable boat, after mistaking her for an acquaintance. He was surprised to realize she was the princess and he subsequently followed the couple for the next few days.
From a nearby cliff, Brenna discreetly captured several images of the couple, including the famous one of the pair embracing. He hid his film in the ground to protect it from the sun and competitors, according to The New York Times, as he was worried someone would see him and try to steal his camera.
Brenna told The New York Times that despite the photos being blurry from heat haze, he knew immediately that he had captured an “historic” image that “solved my personal and family problems.”
After news broke that Diana and Fayed had died, Brenna was distraught and “couldn’t believe it.”
In The Crown, Brenna, played by Cilenti, justifies his work, saying that he is catching celebrities misbehaving and paparazzi must be “hunters … killers.”
Brenna said the The Crown never reached out to him to find out how he got the famous photo or to get his perspective on his work. He told The New York Times that he disagrees strongly with how he is portrayed and he does not identify with the term “killer.”
While he said he is saddened by the thought that his images may have contributed to the circumstances leading up to Diana’s death, he thinks there was already a media frenzy around the princess.
“If it hadn’t been me,” he added, “someone else would certainly have captured those images.”
The Crown has been criticized in the past for how it toys with the line between history and fiction, especially as the Netflix series approaches the present day. The show, which covered Queen Elizabeth’s 1947 wedding to Prince Philip in its first season, is expected to conclude with the Prince William’s 2010 engagement to Kate Middleton.
Last year, the streaming service came under intense pressure to clarify that the show is a “fictional dramatization” inspired by real events. The streaming service added a disclaimer to the trailer for season five after actress Dame Judi Dench, and others, called for clarification.
The first half of the sixth and final season of The Crown was released on Nov. 16 and the last six episodes will be available on Netflix on Dec. 14.
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