For months, it seemed like the Harvey Weinstein scandal was a permanent fixture in news headlines: another day, another story of abuse. Now that the alleged sex offender has been arrested, though, the accusations have seemingly slowed. After all, with such high-quality reporting on the issue already out there, what else is there to say?

Ursula Macfarlane argues there is merit in hearing from Weinstein's victim's on camera. Her documentary Untouchable, which premiered at Sundance this year, puts a handful of Weinstein's accusers center stage in the story of his meteoric rise and fall. As the survivors recount their harrowing assaults, many of them fail to find the words to describe how Weinstein, as one of them said, "took a piece" of them, and how they struggled to put themselves back together. The pained silences, the trauma writ large on a face—these are powerful experiences that written journalism cannot deliver.

The interviewees establish a long pattern of abuse that dates back to Weinstein's days as a music promoter in Buffalo in the '70s. Aside from revealing testimonies from Rosanna Arquette and Paz de la Huerta, many of the women interviewed in Untouchable are not Hollywood elite. They are one-time actresses whose careers never quite took off, or assistants who worked for Weistein over the years. Guilt-ridden ex-employees of Miramax and The Weinstein Company also weigh in, thereby illustrating the systemic mechanisms that enabled the Hollywood mogul to severely abuse his power, and get away with it for so long.

No Film School sat down with Macfarlane to discuss the difficult project of getting access to her interview subjects, how she scrambled to finish the film until three days prior to its Sundance premiere, and more.

"We actually just finished the film. We made the file two days before Sundance. So it was quite stressful."

No Film School: As far as I know, you're the first documentarian to at least finish a film about Harvey Weinstein and his victims. You must have mobilized pretty quickly after the scandal broke.

Ursula Macfarlane: We actually just finished the film. We made the file two days before Sundance. So it was quite stressful. 

There was actually another film—more of a news, current affairs film that PBS Frontline did about Weinstein. And that was quite early on, I think. We decided to make this film quite soon after that. My producer, Simon Chin, who did Searching for Sugarman and Man on Wire, was in conversation with the BBC. They sort of all agreed that it would be a good thing to try and make this film. He contacted me. I said yes immediately. The BBC took a stake in it. And then Simon went ahead raising the other finance, and they pre-sold it at Cannes. So it came together actually quite quickly. I think that's probably because Weinstein was such a hot topic. 

"Our big challenge was that this is an unfolding story. It's also a story that everyone sort of thinks they know by now."

But then, our big challenge was that this is an unfolding story. It's also a story that everyone sort of thinks they know by now. So many women had gone on the record, and obviously there's all this amazing journalism on the subject. So what can we do that's different? 

We tried to make this a more universal story about the abuse of power, and to put the allegations in that context. We wanted to give us this arc of the rise and fall of Harvey Weinstein—almost like a lightning rod for many other powerful people. I wanted to try and understand how he came to acquire this power, and why so many people fell under his spell, which is what enabled him to do the things that he allegedly did.

We wanted to submit it to Sundance because we felt it was so poignant and relevant. But there was a point during the summer where we thought, “We just want to make the best film, and maybe we shouldn't rush it just to get it ready for Sundance, when we maybe could have made a better film.” And then we sort of just realized that it was quite good already. So my producer Simon came in, saw the cut, and said, “Come on, let's send it to Sundance. We've got nothing to lose." [The festival] very kindly extended their deadline a bit for us. I was really actually quite surprised because, even though I thought it was good, it was still quite rough. But they took it. So then it was really intense to get it done in time. But you know, it's wonderful when you all have a purpose in mind, and you've got a wonderful team, and everyone's working long hours, but with this amazing goal in sight.

NFS: What were the things that you were tweaking up to the final hours?

Macfarlane: We had a very late contributor, Lauren O'Connor—the former Weinstein employee who wrote the memo. She's amazing. She's a very wonderful, impressive young woman. And you know, it was a very hard decision for Lauren to take part. So we'd been talking to her for a very long time, but she did agree eventually. She came in quite late. So obviously we had to craft the end of the story around that. 

And there were a couple other things. I mean, you're always finessing: Is the story being told right? We wanted to work up to the wire so that we had the maximum amount of time. And then there's all the post-production, making it look amazing, the sound….all that takes time.

NFS: Like it was with Lauren, I’m sure it was kind of a process in terms of getting subjects to participate in the film, and the establishment of trust that is necessary for this kind of thing. So how did that process unfold?

Macfarlane: Well, Poppy [a producer on the film] had started a couple of months before me. So she was already talking to lots of people. We had another assistant producer. And they just reached out to everybody in the story, effectively. All the people you can imagine, plus lots of people who've never been heard of—family members, ex-colleagues, industry insiders, as well as, obviously, the women. 

I have to say, the access was very difficult at the beginning. We had nothing signed on the table. But we felt confident, because we knew, particularly with the women, that some were still keen to talk. Some weren't. The access came through slowly, but we felt we were building up a really good sense of the patterns of behavior. And also the span of the decades of behavior. 

"Lots of people were very helpful off the record. But actually going on camera, it's really tough, because…people feel guilt."

I felt very strongly that I didn't want to interview people and then leave them on the cutting room floor. We did actually do one interview that we couldn't use, but that was for complex factual reasons. I wanted all those women to have their part in the film. 

The industry insiders were probably the hardest [to get access to] because lots of people were very helpful off the record. But actually going on camera, you know, it's really tough, because…people feel guilt. Maybe that they should have known more, or maybe they did suspect something and they didn't do anything. So I am very proud of the people who took part in the film—who do make themselves quite vulnerable and admit to perhaps not standing up for people when they should have. That’s an act of courage. Some of these people came on board quite quickly. But, we certainly had many people that we talked to for a long time who ultimately decided they had too much to lose. Or maybe it was personal reasons. Maybe they're just fed up with talking about it, or it was a traumatic part of their lives. They wanted to put it behind them and not keep on digging it up. 

So, you respect all of that. And then you thank God for the people who do want to take part, because then you have your film. So that's how it kind of worked. But it was quite nerve-wracking because there were times in the summer where I was wondering if we’d got enough people.


NFS: Obviously you experienced this on a much larger scale than most documentarians, but access is a common obstacle. What kind of conversations did you have with people who seemed initially a little reticent about participating? How did you frame your objectives to them?

Macfarlane: It depended completely on who they were. It wasn't easy for anybody to talk. But I think there was more of a sense of purpose for the women, because the #MeToo movement had grown, there was a collective power in speaking out. I think a lot of those women were feeling it. And even though they knew that telling their story would be traumatic, other women had come out, so I think there was a sense of, "Okay, this is the right time."

With Hope, the woman in Buffalo, I think that was probably very, very difficult. But very courageous. And we were so grateful for that story because we felt that it was important to know that that pattern of behavior started a long time ago. I think people didn't know that.

The challenge was was to make [the subjects] feel looked after, and safe, and to gain their trust, so that they'd know we weren't just looking for a quick quote. We were really trying to sensitively unpack their stories, and really give them the space and the time on screen. 

"'Monster' is such an easy thing to say. But I don't really believe in monsters. I think that's an easy way of distancing ourselves from people who seem to do terrible things in our society."

And then with the industry people, I suppose our approach was, you know, without understanding who he was in the industry, it's impossible for us to understand the power that he was able to acquire. "Monster" is such an easy thing to say. But I don't really believe in monsters. I think that's an easy way of distancing ourselves from people who seem to do terrible things in our society. And it's kind of saying, "They are different. They're the problem. No one else is like them. So let's just lock them up." That stops you from looking at the structures and the systems that keep those people in place. And the thing about Weinstein was, he was really good at what he did. So we wanted to build a portrait of a man, and say, despite all of this, he was a disruptor in the industry. Films like Cinema Paradiso... would I have seen those films without Harvey Weinstein? Quite possibly not. He had good taste and he worked with good people. I felt it was very important to show that, as well as his other sides.

We said to people, "Look, we are not exonerating Harvey Weinstein at all. But we want to understand who he is. We want to understand how he acquired his power. We want to understand the networks around him. We do want to understand how he became protected." Then obviously with the journalists, we wanted them to talk about the years that they spent trying to break this story and the obstacles that they came across. So there were different motivations for different people taking part in the film. 

NFS: I love the inclusion of the journalists and their stories. I thought that was a really interesting perspective. It illustrated just how difficult it was to wrest Weinstein's power from him. That was something new that I felt your doc brought to the table. Did anything surprise you from the interviews you conducted?

Macfarlane: With the journalists Andrew and Rebecca's story [about Weinstein attacking Andrew at a premiere party]...just the fact that there were hundreds of photographs of the assault, and they had gone missing...believe me, we tried to track them down. They're not there. I hadn't heard that story, and I was so pleased that Andrew and Rebecca agreed to tell it. I don't want to be glib about it, but it is very funny, and I think in terms of the watching experience, it's good to have a moment of light relief so the audience can kind of just have a bit of a laugh. But having said that, it's such a dark story as well. I mean, you know, to pummel and put a young journalist in a headlock is just absolutely terrifying. And you have to remember what a big man [Weinstein] is. When Andrew says that Weinstein told him he was "the fucking sheriff of this town," he was. He was untouchable. He could do anything. So, I didn't know those stories personally. I obviously had read a lot about the survivors. 

I also didn't know, in detail, the stories of the NDAs. That shocked me. Zelda Perkins, the London assistant, showed us her NDA, which she didn't break until after the story was exposed. She broke it in The Financial Times, the British newspaper. And she was terrified of doing so. And now she's campaigning against NDAs being used to cover up crimes. She's taken it to the U.K. Houses of Parliament. Kudos to her. It was crazy to see the shocking, Draconian aspects of that NDA that even forbade her to talk to a therapist...I found that jaw-dropping. 

NFS: A lot of what the interviewees talk about are memories. How did you think about making the visuals cinematic, when what you’re dealing with is largely spoken-word testimony? 

Macfarlane: Well, it's very hard. I decided early on that I did not want to do any kind of reconstruction. So we shot with two cameras, which enabled us to cut between shots, so we didn't have to cut away to something else, or jump cut, or whatever. So that was helpful. We decided that, aesthetically, we wanted to evoke the Hollywood Golden Age, so that the women would be very beautifully, softly lit, like those old studio portraits.

Do you know Annie Leibovitz's Vanity Fair? I got quite inspired by that. I love those "distressed" Hollywood setups that she does, where you get a sense of the debris of a studio—the backdrops and the lighting setups. The only kind of vaguely atmospheric things we did were the hotel corridors, just so you get a sense of entering the place [of the assaults], and then the door closes. You're imagining what is going on behind those closed doors. 

"Throughout editing, I was asking myself: Are we going to get the story right? Are we going to do justice to these women's stories?"

And then I was thinking, what could I have as a motif? And everybody told me that Harvey had this black Escalade, and he spent his life there, sort of barking on the phone, and driving around, whether it be LA or Manhattan. I liked that "black beast" idea, prowling around Manhattan. That became sort of a device for us to move around the city, and just be generally atmospheric.

In the very first short of the film, you see the upside-down palm trees. So you immediately know that this is not Pretty Woman. It's not fairytale Hollywood. It's something a bit more disturbing. This is an alluring world. There's the gloss. But underneath it, there's something going on which is so much darker. 

NFS: What were some major challenges that you confronted in the editing process, whether it was a challenge of ethics or a challenge of narrative storytelling? 

Macfarlane: U there were some things we had to excise for legal reasons, which is a shame. I suppose there were certain areas where we could have gone in a bit harder, which is inevitable in a film like this. So, you get those frustrating things. But in terms of the structure, I was pretty clear that from the start. I wanted it to be three acts, a Greek tragedy format. 

And then there was the question of timeliness. As the case became very, very complex, we all agreed that we had to make this film evergreen. We had to make it self-contained, so it's something you could look back on as a story of what happened. Maybe, in ten years' time, someone will make the sort of OJ-style film, where you can get into a lot more detail. And maybe more people would want to speak at that point, when it's not so raw. 

We decided that we would tell the Buffalo story first. It is quite unusual to begin a film with a very long, quite slow, very shocking story, and say to the audience, "You've got to sit here and listen to this." I think once we made that decision, then it was quite logical from there on in. We jump forward in time to the early days of Miramax. And then we follow it chronologically. We wanted the last act to be a bit more exciting as the journalists get onto the case: Are they going to be able to break it?

Andy, my editor, came up with the idea of intercutting the women as they tell their story of these alleged abuses. I have to say that word...alleged. But you put them together and you start to see these patterns. 

Throughout editing, I was asking myself: Are we going to get the story right? Are we going to do justice to these women's stories, and the employees' stories? And be subtle, and complex about Harvey, but not let him off the hook? It's that balance that we really worked hard to get right.

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.


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