In making a documentary about disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, PBS' Frontline wanted to focus less on what he did than on how the alleged sexual misconduct went on for so long.
Weinstein airs Friday on most PBS stations, two nights before the Academy Awards. Its richness comes in detailing the combination of fear, intimidation and self-interested passivity that papered over allegations of harassment and assault dating back nearly 40 years, involving the famous and obscure alike.
More than 100 women have come forward since stories about the influential film producer's behaviour were first published in The New York Times and New Yorker magazine last fall. Mr Weinstein has denied some of the allegations. Several women speak to Frontline, their stories unfolding with numbing similarity, usually starting with an unwanted request for a massage.
To illustrate how long this has been going on, PBS interviews two women who worked on Weinstein’s first film in the early 1980s, back when he ran a concert promotion business in Buffalo, New York. Suza Maher-Wilson and Paula Wachowiak kept their stories to themselves because they figured no one else would care, or that it typified how young women were treated in the entertainment industry.
Actress Sean Young said she rebuffed the producer when he exposed himself. “I upset a few important men and the trajectory of my career...” she said, her hand motioning downward.
Frontline also speaks with two former Weinstein employees, Paul Webster and Tom Prince, who illustrated with their own inaction how things continued. Mr Webster said he knew Weinstein was a dangerous character when he took a job there in 1995. "But I knew he was in the epicentre of where I wanted to be," he said.
Mr Webster seems to wrestle on camera with his conscience. He said he knew Weinstein was a philanderer and bully, so it should not have been a reach to think those traits could lead to predatory behaviour. Looking back, he said, “I did know and I chose to suppress it. I chose to hide from that fact.”
Mr Prince said he had heard innuendos, and he became suspicious of why the company was spending a lot of money to fly young women around the world. But he didn’t give it much thought, primarily because he was focused on his day-to-day job.
For people not motivated to keep quiet, Weinstein had many tools at his disposal. Alleged victims signed non-disclosure agreements. Investigative companies were used; one lawyer who told Weinstein he heard that he assaulted women was told that the lawyer’s own behaviour had been investigated. New York authorities, despite convincing an Italian model who alleged she was groped by Weinstein to wear a wire when she met with him again, dropped their case after a sophisticated tabloid campaign to disparage her.
"I felt if you could understand that more deeply, it could have consequences beyond the Harvey Weinstein story, that it's important and appropriate to speak out when you're observing something that isn't quite right," said Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of Frontline.
Several people are still reluctant to talk. Filmmakers interviewed Zelda Perkins, a former Weinstein assistant who broke a non-disclosure agreement after advocating for a friend who alleged that Weinstein assaulted her. Her friend still hasn’t spoken publicly.
In an illustration of how difficult the story was to crack, PBS talks to two well-regarded journalists — Ken Auletta of the New Yorker and Kim Masters of the Hollywood Reporter — who tried and failed. Mr Auletta even confronted Weinstein about accusations made by Mr Perkins.
“I wish I could have nailed the guy in 2002,” Mr Auletta says in the film. “The problem was that I couldn’t prove it.”
With the self-imposed Oscars deadline, Weinstein came together quickly for a documentary. Some important interviews, including Webster and New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, were conducted within the past two weeks, Mr Aronson-Rath said.
PBS did not get an interview with Weinstein, but his camp specifically discusses some of the accusations discussed in the film. The documentary’s final scene was of reporters recently cornering Weinstein. “We all make mistakes. Second chance, I hope,” Weinstein said, before getting into an SUV.
It was also the first Frontline collaboration with the BBC, which was airing Weinstein on Thursday. The organisations merged investigative teams to work faster, and the combination of the PBS and BBC names helped convince some interview subjects to talk, she said.
“We felt that the stakes were so high in this investigation that we wanted to make sure that we were working together on all levels,” she said.