'Good People Could Have Done Something Earlier, Absolutely.' 'Untouchable' Director Ursula Macfarlane on Harvey Weinstein and Why He Wasn't Stopped Sooner
As her documentary streams on Hulu, filmmaker talks Weinstein's alleged abuses and his upcoming trial: 'It is going to be very difficult for the female accusers'
For decades Harvey Weinstein exerted a malevolent force on the entertainment industry, deploying intimidation and bullying to get his way. As the world now knows, he allegedly used that "skillset" to not only broker movie deals, but to pressure a long list of women to submit to his unwanted sexual advances.
A number of those women come forward to describe their awful encounters with Weinstein in the new documentary Untouchable, now streaming on Hulu. The film directed by Ursula Macfarlane premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where Weinstein once held such sway (and where he allegedly raped actress Rose McGowan more than 20 years ago).
Macfarlane spoke with Nonfictionfilm.com in LA after traveling last week from her native Britain. Untouchable premiered there on the BBC earlier in September, earning an audience of 1 million.
What's been the reaction to Untouchable since it started streaming on Hulu and aired on the BBC?
Ursula Macfarlane: I have to say incredible, actually. I've been in the UK -- I've sort of seen it more from a European point of view and it's also being released in some European countries... I think in Europe people are kind of less interested in the film business side of it, if you see what I mean. People who know/knew who Harvey Weinstein is are fascinated, but it's not their main focus. I think their main focus is... the women, but also the system - the complicity, enabling, the whole kind of structure of society.
Have you received any response to the film from Harvey Weinstein or his legal team?
No, we haven't. There was a blog I saw that claimed they got a comment from him, online -- some quite obscure blog. It just didn't seem right. The quote was a bit weird and said they'd been trying to contact me, which is absolute bullshit. It felt to me like the journalist had made it up.
Obviously, during production we contacted [Weinstein] via his lawyers several times because we wanted to get an interview with him. That would have been, obviously, fantastic. But, clearly, that was declined. Obviously, with any journalism we wrote to him at the end of the process with a list of all of the allegations and we heard nothing and we've heard nothing since. I don't know if he's seen the film. In a funny kind of way I hope he looked at it and thought, 'Oh, it's quite a well made film.' [laughs]
There was a piece somewhere a couple of months ago where [Harvey] claimed that he'd 'outwitted... the execs at Hulu' - or somebody from his team claimed he'd 'outwitted... the execs at Hulu' and managed to sneak somebody into the screening at Sundance to see the film. And I just thought, 'All they needed to do was just buy a ticket.' So I don't think that was a particularly clever bit of sleuthing.
Editor's note: Weinstein's lawyers have denied the allegations of sexual misconduct and maintain any sexual contact he engaged in was consensual.
Ursula Macfarlane and Rosanna Arquette at world premiere of Untouchable
It certainly seemed appropriate to premiere Untouchable at Sundance, because Harvey Weinstein held court there for years.
It did... Harvey's influence changed that whole festival and turned it into a much more commercial entity. So to be there was bittersweet and then to think about Rose McGowan and her allegations, it felt quite sad in a way. Everywhere I went in Sundance I kept bumping into people - people who worked there, who worked in the shops, who'd had a Harvey moment, which everybody wanted to tell me about, of rage or temper or not getting his way or not getting into a screening when there were no seats. He definitely left his mark.
The title of the documentary is Untouchable, which Weinstein was for a long time. Could he have been stopped earlier?
I think there were a lot of [film company] executives who clearly knew quite a lot. It was an open secret in Hollywood. I think good people could have done something earlier, absolutely, because it seems there were many people who knew about the [legal] settlements and that's effectively what stopped it getting out is because people were silenced. And there must have been a certain cadre of people - obviously lawyers - but people around who knew about these settlements. And I know often the line is, 'Well, we thought that it was extra-marital affairs and he wanted to pay these women off in order to save his marriage.' You heard that time and time again. The more I talked to people - and even since making the film - it seems to me it was such an open secret in Hollywood and not just about the affairs and the lechery but allegedly he was hurting people as well. His company could have fired him. His brother [Bob] could have - I guess there are so many people who had so much to lose and at the end of the day that's the issue of these sort of stories - it's the money and the power...
And obviously we've seen many more stories since the Harvey Weinstein story came out with similar kinds of allegations [about] powerful men - Jeffrey Epstein, to name but one. I think that really is the story of our time... when there is a kind of network of people in whose interest it is to be silent, who are benefitting from the jobs, the influence, the power, the fame, the riches - all those things that he and his orbit might bring you. Yes, maybe it was hard to speak out, but I definitely think more people could have done things, for sure.
In the new book "She Said," the New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (who broke the Weinstein story, along with the New Yorker's Ronan Farro) detail a memo sent to Harvey by Lisa Bloom, who was his attorney for a time after the scandal erupted. She outlined a strategy to discredit Weinstein's accusers, including Rose McGowan, and to turn Weinstein into a "hero instead of a villain."
Has there been sufficient accountability for people like Lisa Bloom and Quentin Tarantino, for instance, who has made a bit of a mea culpa about working with Weinstein for years?
Lisa Bloom wasn't in our film and we didn't tell that story. In fact, I just read it ["She Said"] on the plane and it's completely chilling and shocking. I think more of this kind of thing will come out over the next month. I think more people were embroiled than we know. Yes, there are little mea culpas along the way, but I think, like in many industries, people just want to get on with their lives. Obviously, everybody's waiting to see what's going to happen with trial [scheduled to begin in January] and we just don't know. Having worked on this film, you just sort of think it's impossible to say. I think it's going to be very difficult for those women. It's going to be very tough for them. Harvey's lawyers - he's got another female lawyer now, who has boasted of her success in grilling women on the stand. I don't want to be negative or pessimistic, but these kind of cases, it is going to be very difficult for the female accusers.
Actress Rosanna Arquette (center) and Lauren O'Connor (right), a former employee at The Weinstein Company, speak after the world premiere of "Untouchable" at Sundance. While working at TWC, O'Connor wrote a memo to company executives outlining Harvey Weinstein's alleged misconduct and abusive behavior. Park City, Utah, January 25, 2019. Photo by Matt Carey
This is probably an unanswerable question, but how do you explain the psychopathology of Harvey Weinstein? His actions seem to be more about power than lust.
Like you said, it's an unanswerable question. I think clearly there must be a lack of empathy... I'm not a psychologist; I couldn't define what he is. But obviously there is a very sort of basic disconnect somewhere along the line, anybody who could behave in the way that is alleged to have [happened]. But I think it is about power. It's not actually about sex. We've read in the book ["She Said"] where he goes off to have therapy for sex addiction and Bob [Weinstein] asks him, begs him, to go into therapy for his addiction. Again, I'm not an expert, but I don't see it as that. I see it as an abuse of power, this absolute lust for power and also - in many of the cases that are also in our film and in other accounts - it doesn't really seem to be about sex, it seems to be about humiliation and degradation. The stories of women, forcing them to look at him in the mirror and things like that - impossible to understand, really.
I still really want to understand what life is like for him as a young boy, being in that family, what went on. We did talk with Bob [Weinstein] - we had conversations with him about taking part [in the film]; in the end he decided not to - but that is a sort of regret of mine or sorrow that I have about the film because I do feel that Bob could have unlocked perhaps a bit of what made Harvey Harvey.
Why did you decide to go with Hulu as the U.S. platform for the film?
Hulu seemed like a really great place for us because they do The Handmaid's Tale... They're great partners. They're quite young, female-skewed and I think that's exactly the audience that we wanted to reach... It's very exciting to be with people who are very [keyed] into the meaning behind - the point of the film, the issues of the film... We very much felt with them that they really believe in the film and what the film's about and it's important to them. They were not just, 'We're doing this because it's a good story and it's in the ether at the moment.' I genuinely feel that they feel it's important to talk about this stuff.
I hope [the film] has a life and people watch it for months and maybe years to come and sort of look at different aspects of it. Perhaps when [Weinstein] goes to trial in January, watch it again.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.