Clashing With Harvey Weinstein On Two Docus Gives Barry Avrich Deja Vu Watching Aggressive Courtroom Cross-Examination Tactics: Guest ColumnDeadline — Barry Avrich
Editors Note: Barry Avrich is a filmmaker who has made dozens of high-profile documentaries including The Last Mogul, Blurred Lines, Prosecuting Evil and is currently in production on Made You Look, a film about the largest art fraud in U.S. history.
As Harvey Weinstein finds himself cast in the most anticipated production of the year — his own trial — I watched in horror as actress Annabella Sciorra told her story in technicolor. I don’t know how and from where she pulled the level of strength to endure not only the alleged abuse and rape, but also the attempts to discredit her through grilling on the stand. I can’t say I am surprised, though. It is a page from Harvey’s take no prisoners playbook that I got to see up close when I made two documentary films about him. Nothing compares to the alleged abuse that these victims are describing in the courtroom, but the fear, manipulation and abuse of power coming across in testimony sure sounds familiar.
I have known Harvey since the early ’90s when I had a front row seat watching him shape marketing campaigns and brilliant distribution strategies for his early indie films like sex, lies and videotape and The Crying Game to blockbusters like The English Patient and Shakespeare In Love. I ran an ad agency that handled the marketing for his Canadian distribution and I witnessed his steady demands and wild temper. He had his hands in everything from the box office to media buying, and you did not dare deviate from his vision. He could jump through the phone and tear your throat out in a split second. I recall several marketing meetings in the offices of the Canadian distributor where Harvey would call in and surgically tear an executive apart if the film did not deliver over the weekend. He would scream about the media buy being f*cked up or the screen selection not being accurate. It was not for the fainthearted, and some people in the room were shaken to the core. The only residual benefits if you could work your way through that was that you did get an MBA in filmmaking, to go with the PhD in inflicting torture.
So after 15 years of watching Harvey from inside, I decided to make my first documentary film about him — Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project — in 2010. I found the timing was interesting, as Harvey and The Weinstein Company were on the ropes from a financial and a reputational standpoint. His hit pipeline was dry, and he was courting new cash infusions from Saudi Arabia and Asia and banking the future of his company and his personal comeback on the box office and the Oscar potential of The King’s Speech in 2011, hoping to recapture the success of Inglourious Basterds a year earlier. His initial reaction to my plan to shoot the film was courteous. He begged me to wait until he was on top again and said he promised he would give me exclusive access once that happens. I knew it was his tactic to control the film and have final cut. Not a chance, I decided.
I began shooting and when the New York Times wrote about the movie and that it was underway, Harvey brought out the heavy artillery. A former employee, Jim Sherry, a tough guy who worked for Harvey in the mid ’90s as a sales manager responsible for box office, warned me about poking the bear. He said Harvey would first attempt to seduce you by flattering your filmmaking and offering you production deals. And if that did not work, he would beat you with a baseball bat, figuratively.
I never allowed myself to be intimidated, but Jim was dead right. Once the Times story ran, Harvey began a relentless campaign to both get me to stop or prevent others from speaking. He knew that I asked Quentin Tarantino, Gwyneth Paltrow and many others to be interviewed, and he forbade them to speak to me. Many would cancel minutes before a scheduled interview, after receiving a call from Harvey. Tarantino called me and apologized, saying he was told to say he was commissioned by Harvey to do his own documentary on the mogul. Why was he so desperate and what was he afraid of me uncovering? We now know about all the skeletons in his closet, but at the time I was told by his lawyers that Harvey did not like how I connected the dots with Lew Wasserman’s alleged mob connections in my earlier film, The Last Mogul.
The day before the 2011 Oscars, Harvey was now very angry at me. Word had gotten back to him that I was in post-production with plans to release the film in the fall. In the previous months, his flood of threatening phone calls and abuse did not work. During one phone call, he threatened to have me followed and have my life turned upside down, as I was allegedly doing to him by making this film. He even had Rolling Stones concert promoter and former business partner Michael Cohl intervene and ask me to dump the project. Cohl asked me to sit down with him and hear him out, and he brokered a summit with Harvey at The Montage Hotel on the day before the Oscars in 2011.
He had the entire restaurant emptied and Harvey walked in wearing a casual black T-shirt and black pants. He sat across from me, in a tempestuous mood, and for the first time I was nervous. I had not been this close to him since I was first introduced to him at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival at the famed Hotel du Cap, where he came over to our table from the buffet, with – swear I’m telling the truth — an entire shrimp that had dropped onto his lapel. Now, there was no levity in the air. He was in a no-nonsense mood. Harvey said he had his kids to protect and a new baby, and he didn’t want his reputation tarnished. He then said, point blank, that I had to stop making the film. He offered me lucrative productions deals to make documentaries on Martin Scorsese, his own lawyer David Boies, or Orion founder Arthur Krim. I was not buying it. He concluded the meeting by saying we had made great progress and the film would not be released. I had no idea what he was talking about. I certainly had not agreed to stop making the film.
He invited me to his private Oscar party at the Chateau Marmont. It was a heady bash and I made my way over to make a last-ditch effort to get Tarantino to be in the film. He laughed and said no. I introduced myself to Harvey’s late mother Miriam, who was aware of my plans and gave me a lecture on how no good would come from this. Harvey suddenly burst into the room, poised to celebrate the Oscar gold he had just won for The King’s Speech. I thanked him for giving me an ending for my film and left.
I was also left wondering what Harvey was so afraid of, and why was he so confident that my film would never see the light of day. During filming, many people, from well-known journalists to studio executives and a few directors, whispered about Harvey’s aggressive behavior with women. One journalist, insisted on being off the record, told me he had pressured Harvey into admitting that he made various payoffs to women over the years. He even instructed a reluctant former Miramax employee to show up for an interview with a tape recorder to gauge my questions. I also had to beg director James Ivory to show up when he called me from the subway threatening to cancel, claiming Harvey was the last resort where he could pitch his films. Ivory recounted nearly being decapitated after Harvey hurled a briefcase at him and smashed a glass window in his office.
When Martin Scorsese agreed to be interviewed, he seemed to be in a hypnotic state, comparing Harvey to Cecil B. DeMille. That seemed generous, given their legendary battles over Gangs of New York, where apparently Harvey would smash phones after a screaming matches with Marty. What Harvey was most worried about was what he couldn’t control. Ultimately, the coup de grace: I believe Harvey had his friends at IFC Films screen the film during TIFF, report back to him and ultimately buy the film. Was I paranoid? IFC was owned by James Dolan, not only a close friend of Harvey, but a Weinstein Company board member. I didn’t put any of this together before I agreed to the deal. After they bought it, IFC disappeared. I had to relentlessly harass them to get a meeting, much less a release date. When they finally scheduled a meeting, I was warned they had issues with the film. There was one scene where the late director George Hickenlooper graphically described how Harvey had demanded and bullied him into reshooting sex scenes in his film Factory Girl, adding way more aggressive simulated sex.
The IFC executive sat at his desk with a legal pad full of changes that he admitted were notes that came from Harvey. He demanded that scene be cut or the film would not be released, and asked for other changes. In the scene, Hickenlooper recounts how Harvey screamed at him, telling him that his sex scene was shot wrong. Hickenlooper said Harvey told him that the actor played by Hayden Christensen had to take actress Sienna Miller and “flip her over and hump her and hump her.” He threatened to ruin Hickenlooper’s career, and take pages out in the trades destroying him. Given the number of artists who begged out of the film and said they had been asked by Harvey not to appear, Hickenlooper’s interview provided a triumphant moment in the film. Regardless, IFC wanted it out and we wound up compromising, after negotiating how many “humps” we could leave in. It was ridiculous. I appreciated that IFC would have legal concerns, but taking notes from Harvey was another thing. IFC would not allow me to enter the film in festivals, and would not give it a theatrical release even in its own theatre. After begging and pleading, IFC would quietly release it on a defunct platform called Sundance Now. That was crushing to me, and I didn’t feel any better when told by insider that Harvey allegedly even reimbursed IFC for the large advance they paid me. Even today, after repeatedly asking IFC for a detailed report on where the film can be seen, they don’t respond beyond a financial statement. I am told it is on iTunes, with trims that IFC made without informing me as a courtesy.
Editors Note; Watch the two trailers cut for Avrich’s Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project, the first cut by Avrich, and the second edited by IFC, to a much more flattering depiction of Weinstein:
Round one to Harvey. There is much to regret, but my biggest is that I was unable to out his alleged behavior towards women. Not one celebrity or alleged victim I approached would go on the record. I envied Ronan Farrow and how he would later become a victim whisper, a man that abuse victims felt comfortable telling their stories to at a time when it became far less legally perilous. Without that, my hands were tied.
Some five years later, I published the book Moguls, Monsters and Madmen where I detailed my battle with Harvey. He was enraged. He called, demanding to read the book and insisting the Hickenlooper story be removed before it was published. He even got both Sienna Miller and Hayden Christensen to release a statement that they never witnessed his demands that they film an aggressive sex act. This was preposterous; neither actor was on the phone when Harvey called Hickenlooper to make his demands.
I did not know that at the time, various media outlets were starting to ask questions and that Harvey was using powerful private investigators to insulate himself and potentially destroy others. He knew then he was under attack and felt my book could further damage him. Again, he waged battle against me and suddenly, major coverage lined up for the book was canceled. Serious editors at various outlets were still supporting him, and my publicists were shocked that a wall was being put up.
He even had fake journalists call me, claiming they were with Vanity Fair to do interviews, to see what I was going to say. This time I called him, accused him of sabotaging my book and told him I would take this to the next level. He laughed and hung up. I struck back by getting a major excerpt from the book published in the Cannes issue of a major trade magazine. He was furious, but again he outsmarted me. He called me waving a white flag and said he was wrong and that he wanted to throw a huge book launch event in New York to help get the book out there and show we could work together.
I was intrigued and naïve. He hired PR party organizer Peggy Siegal to produce a lavish party at The Gramercy Hotel, and even had his press team show me a fictitious list of media and celebrities that were invited. It looked impressive. Not one important player in the media showed up, beyond my own guests and Dick Cavett, whom I personally invited to host. Was Harvey just being cruel? He had beaten me again, as I believe he managed to prevent major coverage for the book with his vast connections in the media, with some of them in book deals with him, or who owed him favors. Round two to Harvey.
When the scandal broke in 2017 and Harvey became a global headline, I decided it was time to make another film and tell the real story. The Reckoning: Hollywood’s Worst Kept Secret captured this extraordinary scandal. Now, employees, alleged victims and journalists came forward without the fear of being legally crushed. They were clearly empowered by solid reporting from both the New York Times and the New Yorker. The film premiered to emotionally moved audiences at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto. I heard that, even in exile, Harvey pressured various journalists to not cover the film, and it was not an easy sale to Hollywood buyers. Although everyone screened, I began to wonder if being the first out with a film was not the coup I hoped it would be. Who knew Harvey was not an isolated case, but rather the tip of an iceberg of horrible behavior by powerful men toward women shamed or paid off to stay silent? Our distributor, Vertical, convinced Hulu to bravely give us a home for the film and there was nothing Harvey could do about that.
As the trial unfolds, I will be watching closely as the man who spent a career knocking down anyone in his way directs his lawyers to use every ruthless tactic possible from his playbook, to bully and manipulate anyone whose testimony might send him to prison. Now, though, he looks to me like the lion in winter, with no teeth.