On January 25th, Ursula Macfarlane premiered her new documentary, Untouchable, at the Sundance Film Festival. She was a little anxious. On the one hand, it was fitting that she would unveil the movie at a festival that was once ruled by her subject, Harvey Weinstein. But on the other, she realized at that first screening that the crowd was filled with a very specific kind of audience member. “God, look out there,” she remembers one of her colleagues saying. “There’s at least a hundred people who’ve worked with Harvey, know Harvey, were friends with Harvey or came into contact with Harvey.”
But any trepidation she might have felt was mitigated by the fact that she was confident a lot of them were nervous, too. “I’m sure there were people sweating,” she tells me. “We spoke to so many people — many, many hundreds of people we contacted. Many were really in touch with what we were trying to do, but ultimately didn’t want to go on the record because people are still frightened, and they fear for their jobs and their reputations.”
No surprise, then, that Untouchable feels like a reckoning — and it’s delivered by the women at the film’s center. In October 2017, Weinstein, the one-time king of Hollywood, whose films he championed at Miramax and the Weinstein Company won tons of Oscars and set the agenda for independent cinema for decades, had at last been laid low by myriad accusations of sexual misconduct. Exposés in the New York Times and New Yorker were damning, containing on-the-record accounts from women he had allegedly assaulted or raped. But reading such harrowing accounts is one thing: What Untouchable provides is the chance to see and hear from some of his alleged victims, as Macfarlane talks to everyone from Rosanna Arquette to Paz de la Huerta, each of them speaking pointedly about what they endured. It’s difficult viewing but essential as we witness the pained, sometimes angry, sometimes teary looks on these women’s faces as they recount horror stories that remain fresh in their minds.
But Untouchable isn’t simply about these survivors. Macfarlane goes back to Weinstein’s early career as a concert promoter in Buffalo, where, according to one interview subject, he was already showing signs of the predatory behavior that would soon become rampant. We learn about Weinstein’s rise to power, alongside his brother Bob, as Miramax became the premier art-house distributor for acclaimed films such as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Cinema Paradiso, Pulp Fiction, The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love. As one former employee says frankly, “We were the shit.”
Just as importantly, though, Untouchable interviews several of the men who worked at Miramax, and what comes across most profoundly is a sense of shame — these executives swear they didn’t know what their boss was doing, and yet, they wonder if they should have asked more questions. One employee, John Schmidt, Miramax’s chief financial officer, recalls bringing a female friend into the company, only to later learn that Weinstein had assaulted her. Inexplicably, Schmidt never considered quitting. Ashen, he says now, “I live with that.”
If Untouchable doesn’t offer many new revelations about Weinstein’s abhorrent behavior, the film remains a meaningful addition to our growing understanding of how some powerful men abuse their power — in this case, preying on young, inexperienced actresses to take advantage of their naivety. (We hear more than one account of an aspiring star who went along with Weinstein’s advances, which included masturbating in front of these her, because she thought this was the way things worked in Hollywood.)
The film, which premiered on Hulu yesterday, is upsetting, but Macfarlane argues that we ought to be upset. After all, she has made a career out of probing wrenching subject matter: Her film One Deadly Weekend in America chronicled the nation’s penchant for gun violence, while Charlie Hebdo: Three Days That Shook Paris examined the 2015 Paris killings through the perspective of those who were there. (“I’ve made a lot of films where I’ve interviewed people who have gone through really difficult things,” she tells me. “So I’m quite used to that.”) During our phone conversation, she talks about how to make a movie that will leave audiences uncomfortable, whether Weinstein can ever actually be rehabilitated and what the consequences would be for society if he isn’t convicted of his crimes. Also, she told me why she doesn’t buy that Weinstein has a sex addiction.
When I first saw the film, it was at Sundance, and beforehand you could sense that the audience was tense: They didn’t know if they could endure hearing all these women’s terrible stories of being assaulted by Weinstein.
It’s interesting, because it was [recently] released in France, and we were slightly joking with the distributor, saying, “God, it’s not exactly a holiday movie.” But at the same time, people seem to really appreciate it and find it very meaningful. I mean, it’s an incredibly serious subject, and you want to grip people and bring them in — but we always had in the back of our minds, “How can we make this accessible and keep people watching?” You don’t want them to be so horrified that they’re just going to switch off.
But at the end of the day, I thought, “Well, you know, if you’re going to watch this film, then you need to hear this.” You sit in those interviews, and you kind of can’t get away. It’s very uncomfortable, but I think that’s a good thing. If you’re going to sit and commit to the film, it’s a good thing to feel troubled and uncomfortable, because it’s a very, very troubling subject. And we should be troubled.
I think one of the smartest things you do in Untouchable is really lay out the case for why he was such a major figure in Hollywood. We need to understand why he mattered in his industry to appreciate the power he was able to wield.
We wanted to get a wide audience — we wanted to make this film relatable. And 99 percent of the audience in the world doesn’t know much about Hollywood. They certainly don’t know about the film business, maybe didn’t really know who Harvey Weinstein was. We were very keen not to get too inside baseball because we didn’t want to put people off who felt that it was a world that they didn’t know about or perhaps didn’t care about.
But at the same time, within the context of the portrait of this man, his power and his abuse of power, we felt it was important to show how he gained that power and why he was so powerful. The answer is, he was really good at what he did — he did disrupt an industry. He changed an industry — some say for worse, some say for better, but he undoubtedly changed that industry. And as he grew in stature, his power became much more profound and far-reaching. That, in turn, enabled him to do the things that he did in terms of abusing people. So they’re all kind of interlinked.
I don’t believe that anybody’s an out-and-out monster. I’m sure people have their views about what his pathology is, but he’s also a brilliant man — and that’s the problem, because he drew people in. He was charismatic and drew people into his circle. People wanted to be around him, people wanted to work with him, and that’s where the problem lay — he had the power, he always had the upper hand and people wanted something from him. And that’s what he preyed on.
The people you speak to in Untouchable create the impression that Weinstein was a guy who considered himself unattractive — he liked to portray himself as an underdog. It almost seems like his mentality was, “I can’t obtain these beautiful women in normal life, but if I gain enough power, then I can possess them.”
I’m glad you picked up on that, actually — that was very much my subtext and very much part of how I approached the film.
I think somebody [in the documentary] says he was a fat kid from Queens [from a modest] family. He didn’t have the advantages that some have, but he was talented and he loved film. His predation started earlier than [his time in] Hollywood, but that was the ultimate place, with all the beautiful girls and the dreams. Something we really wanted to explore in the film is the idea that Hollywood is a kind of quintessential American Dream: You go to Hollywood and you make it and you’re rich and beautiful.
I never met him, but I imagine that maybe he was someone who was fat and ugly and bullied at school — not that that in any way is an excuse, but people use their shortcomings in different ways. I feel that [Hollywood] was [his] way to get the girls. As people say [in the film], he was very charming — he knew what he was talking about. And that, in itself, is attractive when you’re around someone who seems passionate about what they do, so he could pull in beautiful girls.
But, you know, there’s a lot of just extremely fat, ugly men who’ve got beautiful girlfriends. It’s something you see a lot in powerful milieus. That is kind of a classic trope. But I always say that you can be fat and lovely and charming and funny — you don’t have to be an abuser.
You have several men who worked at Miramax talk about Weinstein. Did you get a sense that they wanted to clear their conscience? Or maybe try to distance themselves from him? I guess I’m wondering what their motivations were.
Well, I think the guys that are in the film are courageous, and I think they’re pretty straight. Perhaps there was some kind of expiation of guilt — they talk about a kind of survivor’s guilt, knowing that they had a good time working for Harvey, generally, even though it was a kind of boot camp, but that they learned a lot. Many of those people went on to brilliant careers. So I think, yeah, they do feel conflicted.
John Schmidt talks about his friend, a woman he brought into the company, being allegedly [assaulted] by Harvey. That, I think, is very painful for him. But, you know, good for him [for speaking out], because there are many people with stories like that that we spoke to, but he actually sat down in front of the camera and went on the record. Whatever his motivation, that’s really bold and a good thing to do because he talks about the fact that, looking back, he really questions himself and feels he should have behaved differently, but he didn’t at the time. I imagine there’s a lot of people out there who feel like that.
At the Q&A [after the Sundance premiere], some guy in the front row said [to the Miramax interview subjects in attendance], “Oh, look at all you guys, you’re all guilty.” And I just thought, “Well, that’s a little bit unfair since these are the ones who are actually speaking out and being honest.” But it’s very, very complicated, because then you get into a whole question about who knew what and how much did people know? It’s very, very nuanced.
Do you think that the men you interviewed were more ashamed and penitent because you’re a woman? I just wonder if they might have felt somehow less guilty if they were speaking to a man. Maybe saying these things to a woman made them even more aware of how blind they’d been?
I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of male directors who would make it feel similarly complicated and conflicted. But what’s interesting is that, when we originally started [the project], there was discussion about having an all-female crew. But I felt in the end, “No, I don’t want to do that, because I don’t want this to be ghettoized — I don’t want this to be the talking point of ‘Just made by women.’” In fact, my editor was a man, and that was deliberate, because (a) he’s great editor; and (b) I wanted there to be a male perspective in the cutting room. My producer’s female, a lot of us are women, but the [cinematographers] were male. We had female sound recorders, all female PAs and camera assistants.
But there was one particular day when we had a lot of men behind the camera. We’d always curtain-off [the interview] so the interviewee couldn’t really see too much other than me sitting opposite them in a chair. We were interviewing [actress] Nannette [Klatt], and she was saying how she had really been frightened of men after this incident and almost become a nun and couldn’t talk to men and felt scared around men. While I was sitting there listening to this, I was thinking, “Oh my God, I hope she’s feeling okay with these people behind the camera.”
Afterward I said to her, “I hope that was okay, you know, all these men around. They’re lovely guys.” And she said, “No, no, that’s fine — it’s years ago and I’m really fine. I’m married, it’s all fine.” Then afterward, the sound recording [guy] came up to me and said, “I just want to thank you, because we [men] never get to hear this stuff. I can’t think of any time I’ve been in a room hearing women talking that way. So I just want to thank you.” I thought, “Oh, that’s amazing.” I know there were certain days when my [cinematographer] — who, again, is a lovely, lovely man — was incredibly upset because often men don’t get to hear this kind of thing.
Did you have to prepare in a specific way to interview these women? Maybe seek some sort of training about how to speak to survivors of sexual assault?
I’ve made a lot of films where I’ve interviewed people who have gone through really difficult things — gun violence or losing people in a terrorist attack — so I’m quite used to that. The way I interview people, I take a lot of time and I try and make it as relaxed as possible for them. But, you know, you can’t get away from the fact that it’s hugely exposing and potentially traumatic to go through that — I’m very, very aware of that.
We spent time with the accusers beforehand, making sure that they really wanted to do this and that we felt comfortable with them doing this. And, of course, it’s a gray area, because who’s going to be totally 100-percent comfortable with doing that? But you’ve got to sort of work out… you know, they talk about [the importance of] doing this for other women, and for [more] voices to come out, and the empowering nature of speaking out, [but] you’ve got to get to a place together where you [can] judge, “Is it the right thing?”
Obviously everyone that was on camera, we did make that judgment, but we went to see them [beforehand], or we Skyped with them, and spent quite a bit of time. We also consulted a former specialist, like a therapist, to talk us through some practical things that we might need to think about — like the environment [for the interview] and giving them breaks and just making sure there’d be someone there later if they wanted somebody. I also have done a foundation course in psychotherapy — I’m not a practitioner, but I’ve been trained in skills of listening and keeping people safe as much as possible.
That said, it’s such a complex, dramatic thing that they’re recounting. It can never be 100-percent comfortable for everybody. But the important thing is that they felt they did a good thing, and I think, hand on heart, they did. We’ve kept in touch with people, and some like to talk to us quite regularly. A few have done panels with us at film festivals. I can’t claim to be perfect at doing it, but we tried our best. And I think it would be true to say that, having done it, certainly a couple of them said to me what an empowering experience it was for them. They now want to talk more — they’ve gone into therapy, or they’ve changed things in their lives. And that makes you feel good.
Journalist and author Rebecca Traister says in the movie that one of the dangers of focusing just on Weinstein is thinking that, if he goes down for his crimes, that will take care of the whole problem — like there’s not an entire system in place that enables dozens of guys like him.
I mean, look at Jeffrey Epstein. I know he’s not Hollywood, but it’ll take years, decades, maybe centuries for this stuff to stop happening. Look at child abuse — all these awful things that have come out.
Also, will Harvey go to jail? There’s a very big question mark over that — he’s constantly trying to get the trial delayed. [Editor’s Note: Since this interview was conducted, Weinstein’s trial has been postponed to January 6, 2020.] There’s that sense of anxiety around him as an individual, whether justice will be done. And I have to say: If Harvey doesn’t get convicted, it’s going to be a real blow for [the #MeToo movement]. People will be feeling, “Well, what’s the point of putting ourselves on the line like this?” It’s not easy to speak out — none of these women have done it gladly. They’ve done it because they felt they should.
Because you’re British, I was curious about your perspective on men like Weinstein and Donald Trump. Is there something quintessentially “American” about this kind of brazen sexual abuse?
Look at Italy, look at the Pope. Look at Ireland, the sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, sexual abuse in Ireland. I mean, the BBC — they’ve had some massive [sexual abuse] scandals. So I don’t think it’s particularly an American problem. But in Europe, we often look to America, and everything is kind of writ large — Trump is the president of the United States, and he’s the most powerful person in the world, and we know that he’s a misogynist. It’s just a more evil or lurid version of perhaps what goes on in Europe. A lot of the Catholic priests in Ireland, they’re kind of little, dweeby men — they’re not like Harvey Weinstein, but they’re just as bad.
I remember, after the New York Times and New Yorker pieces on Weinstein were published, there were some knee-jerk reactions from observers: “Of course he’s a creep — just look at him!” This also seems like part of the problem, society creating an image of what an alleged sexual predator looks like — this ugly, overweight guy.
I mean, there are a lot of these predators who are very handsome. But you’re absolutely right — there’s that whole mythology of Beauty and the Beast. We’re supposed to feel sorry for the beast in Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps it goes back to the pathology of what he wanted.
Weinstein vowed he would get help and seek counseling. Do you think he can get “better”?
Well, first of all, this idea of sex addiction, or “I’ve got an alcohol addiction or a drug addiction”… I don’t know Harvey personally, so I couldn’t possibly say, but I don’t believe that. I don’t think it’s about sex — I don’t think it’s about wanting loads of sex. I think it’s about dominating. And in his case, from the stories I’ve heard, I think it’s about humiliating women. For me, that’s the big thing about those stories — it’s the humiliation, it’s the degradation that’s compelling him. That’s not sex. You know, half the time it wasn’t even having sex — he was masturbating, just needed someone to do it in front of, so what’s that about? So I just think all of that is a cop-out.
[This idea of] “Oh, you know, I’ll go to some really expensive clinic and everything will be fine,” I think it would be great. And maybe he has, I don’t know. It would be great for him to really, really get some help. But I think it goes much deeper than that. And I think with all of these cases, it’s about power. It’s not about the act of sex like some kind of addiction is — I think it’s about power and abusing your power. That’s what they’re addicted to: power.
He seems part of a larger tradition of great artists, like Michael Jackson, for whom we’re “supposed” to separate their monstrous acts from their genius. The thought process seems to be, “Well, you see, they’re very complicated individuals.”
I think people don’t think that [way] anymore. But the Michael Jackson thing is interesting, because it’s so shocking. And what do you do with that? Do you never listen to his music again? It’s very hard, because personally I love Michael Jackson — I can’t imagine never hearing his songs again. But with Harvey, you know, he didn’t make those films. I think it’s okay to watch Cinema Paradiso. He marketed them — he didn’t make them. I mean, sometimes he initiated them, but he’s not the artist. It would be terrible if people sort of [decided] that he was the films, and therefore, we couldn’t love the films anymore, because that’s clearly not true.
One of the small shocking tidbits in Untouchable comes from Zelda Perkins, a former Weinstein assistant, who says she was made to sign an NDA that stipulated that if she ever told a therapist about what she experienced working for him, the therapist would also have to sign an NDA — and that if the therapist revealed the information, Weinstein could sue. That sounds insane.
In the U.K. — and I’m sure in the U.S. as well — if you’re a therapist and your client tells you something, a criminal act, either they’ve done or somebody has done to them, they have to report it. They’re bound by professional rules.
Zelda — god bless her, amazing woman — has spent the last two years campaigning in the British Parliament to get these kinds of NDAs outlawed. You cannot get someone to sign an NDA to cover up their criminal act — that blew my mind as well. And that’s why I was very glad to actually get a copy of that NDA that she gave me, because it’s there in black-and-white, and it’s shocking. How could they get away with it? She said she was 23, and you’ve got all these guys in New York and lawyers in London and they’re all telling you to sign — you know, you’re just terrified.
Traister and fellow journalist Andrew Goldman recount the incredible story of questioning Weinstein at an event in 2000, which led to him calling her “a cunt” and attacking Goldman, trying to wrest his tape recorder away from him. For me, what’s most alarming is that no pictures from that altercation ever went public. What an indication of Weinstein’s power: He could just get stories buried like that.
There are many examples of that, which we didn’t [mention] in the film, that people told me. Somebody once said to me — and I can’t prove it — that there was a Miramax vault where they’d hide that kind of stuff. In those days they could pay people to give them the film [of Weinstein acting badly in public], whereas now that would have definitely got out, because people would have filmed it on their phones. And he would’ve been arrested — I mean, you can’t go around punching people like that out on the street.
You’ve been promoting Untouchable for several months now. Has anything about the reaction to the movie surprised you?
In a way, I’m surprised that people haven’t criticized us more. A lot of the reviews, even the really good ones, will say, “There’s not much new information in here, but the testimonies of the women are amazing. That’s what really shines through.” I’m obviously very glad about that, because you go where the access takes you — you tell the stories that you can get on the record. You can’t have unnamed sources, and you can imagine there were so many stories that we couldn’t tell, and that’s disappointing to me.
But the biggest disappointment is that it’s a real shame that we couldn’t learn more about his childhood, because there must be keys there. His parents are dead — normally in a film like this, I’d try to interview the parents. Obviously his brother, Bob, wasn’t going to take part, although we did actually meet him and talk to him.
If you were to ask me personally what was the real difficult challenge, that would be one of them, because [learning about his childhood] would have shed a lot of light on his psyche. Again, not to justify [his behavior], but to understand where this was all coming from. We all know that childhood is so important. Maybe one day he’ll give an interview. Who knows?