On The Record became the center of a media storm before it ever screened for audiences. The documentary, from directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (whose previous collaborations include Outrage, The Hunting Ground, and the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War), delves into allegations of sexual assault made against music mogul Russell Simmons in late 2017 and early 2018. It presents the accounts of three women — activist and writer Sil Lai Abrams, former A&R executive Drew Dixon, and musical artist Sherri Hines — with a focus on Dixon as she contemplates telling her story to reporters at the New York Times. The film was two weeks away from its world premiere at Sundance in January when Oprah Winfrey, its high-profile executive producer, abruptly cut ties with the project. It was a decision that reportedly came as a shock to both the directors and subjects, and the reasoning behind it remains difficult to parse.
Winfrey described the parting as one over creative differences, emphasizing that she believed the women while also saying that she felt the film was being rushed to the festival when there was “more work to be done” on it “to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured.” Reporting suggested that at least some of Winfrey’s hesitation, about which she’d sought counsel from Ava DuVernay, stemmed from concerns about the ability of two white filmmakers to do justice to a story that wasn’t just about sexual assault but about hip-hop and misogynoir. But Winfrey acknowledged that Simmons, who’s denied all allegations, had aggressively pressured her, privately as well as publicly, to drop her involvement, while also attempting to discredit his accusers. And responses like 50 Cent’s, who tweeted about Winfrey “only going after her own,” served as a reminder of the ferocious backlash she faced after her interview last year with Leaving Neverland subjects Wade Robson and James Safechuck.
This withdrawal left On the Record without its most powerful collaborator and without a distributor — the doc had been set to be released through Winfrey’s deal with Apple TV+. But it also provided the film with a real-world coda that resonated with many of the points made by its interviewees, which include an array of activists, journalists, and academics in addition to the survivors. As Me Too founder Tarana Burke, who’s one of them, puts it, “Black women’s need and, really, duty that we feel to protect black men is definitely a hindrance to protecting ourselves. There’s this added layer in the black community that we have to contend with, oh, you’re going to put this before the race? Because you let this thing happen to you, now we have to pay for it as a race?” With On the Record now being released as part of the first round of original offerings on the newly launched HBO Max series, Vulture spoke to Dick and Ziering about their documentary and its turbulent road to a release.
The Invisible War, which was about sexual assault in the military, came out in 2012. The Hunting Ground, which was about sexual assault on college campuses, came out in 2015. Was there a moment, when the Harvey Weinstein stories started breaking and Me Too picked up momentum, when making a follow-up seemed like a natural thing for you to do?
Amy Ziering: It’s an even crazier story than that. In 2016, I was asked to be on the jury at Sundance. It was two years before the Me Too movement. I happen to be at the Women at Sundance dinner, and they seat me next to Rose McGowan. We introduce ourselves, and she says, “Oh my God, you made The Hunting Ground. Have I got a story for you.” She tells me her whole Harvey story. I call Kirby. We were like, yeah, there’s been rumors about him, but who knew? I said to Rose, “Will other people speak?” I flew somewhere and met Ashley Judd. There was one other person I can’t name — she still hasn’t publicly come forward.
So we went around and started pitching that we were going to do something on sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood. We’ve done The Invisible War, we’ve done The Hunting Ground, now we’re going to do the entertainment business. We could never get any traction. Nothing. Everyone was like, “No, we’re not interested.” “No platforms will play it.” “Too close to home.” It was insane. So we said, okay, we’ll keep collecting information, but it’s sort of put on hold.
Then Me Too happens, our cell phones exploding, and all of these people that we pitched to are like, “Hey, what happened to that project?” Likewise, women who’d been dying to talk started calling us and saying, “I’ll talk to you, are you guys doing anything?” We looked at each other and said, “Well, here we go.” We just started filming stories. We said, “We’ll talk to anybody in any industry.” That’s how we ended up finding Drew.
The film begins when Me Too is underway, and you start with Dixon weighing whether she wants to step forward, and whether she would want to be on the record if she does. How did you catch her at that point of starting to have a conversation with the New York Times? The Times reporters are aware that you guys are filming — we see that acknowledged on camera.
Ziering: A filmmaker who knew we would cast a wide net — she and Drew both had kids in school together. Drew ends up sitting on a bench with her at lunchtime, Me Too is going on, and Drew just starts saying, “I’ve got to tell someone this,” and tells her her story. She says, “I’ve never talked about it, I’m so rattled by everything going on.” The mom says, “I have these filmmaker friends, do you want to talk to them?”
We ended up talking to Drew on the phone. She told us her story, and then she said, “I don’t know what I’m doing or who I am or where any of this will lead.” And I said, “Look, we don’t want to add any pressure or burden. You’re struggling with a lot. We’re coming out to New York to do some interviews. How about if we just do an on-camera interview with you? You don’t sign a release. And we all just see how we feel after that?” We always have that deal with survivors. If you change your mind after talking to us, we will not move forward. Your emotional health comes first.
We did the interview with her. We thought it was spectacular. And we talked among ourselves and said, wouldn’t it be amazing — no one’s ever seen anyone grapple in real time with whether to take this momentous leap and become a public figure in this way. So we called her up and said, “What do you think of us following you on your journey? Again, the same deal applies, because we know that you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t have to sign a release. There’s no pressure on our end, we’re collecting stories from a million different places.” We don’t want to hurt people in the course of our filmmaking. We don’t want to add to their trauma in any way.
So she said that sounds fine. We really stuck to it, and she really stuck to it. All of the indecision and angst is 100 percent authentic — we had no idea how this would turn out, as much as she didn’t. We’re grateful that ultimately, it worked out where she felt like she wanted to go to the Times and we were able to capture that.
The film deals with hip-hop history — its shifting gender dynamics, and who held power. Was there ever talk of interviewing any musical artists in addition to people who worked behind the scenes?
Ziering: We thought about that, and then we thought it’s much better to have this be a very singular portrait, rather than open it up. We felt it played most powerfully as that, but yes, everything is on the table when we make stuff. We had lists and lists — a whole list of artists to potentially interview.
Beyond just being about the world of hip-hop, the film’s also about a black experience — specifically, the experience of being a black woman. As filmmakers coming from outside of that, what kind of discussions did you have about your approach? Was there ever talk of bringing in a black filmmaker as a collaborator?
Ziering: Yeah, from the get-go, we were never going to make the film without that. Oprah Winfrey was a very active and close collaborator for over a year with us on the project. It was Apple and [Winfrey’s production company] Harpo that submitted an application to Sundance for the film. So that’s how close a relationship there was. We never imagined that we would have the wherewithal or necessary sensitivity to make this project without that type of alliance. And we forged it and it was very successful, because I don’t think the film would be what it is today without all of their insights and contributions and empowerment.
Kirby Dick: And we let the women in the film guide us into the subject matter. They have the experience — Drew, Sil Lai, and Sherri — and of course the other women in the film — Dr. [Joan] Morgan, Dr. [Kimberlé] Crenshaw, and the others — have been working in this space for many, many years, [and] in fact pioneering a lot of the thought around this. There was a continual, ongoing conversation around these issues with all the women in the film. It’s really their perspective, their insights, their voices that we wanted to platform and showcase.
Abrams, Dixon, and screenwriter Jenny Lumet [who wrote about her own encounter with Simmons in The Hollywood Reporter] meet up toward the end of the film, and Abrams says something that addresses an ongoing thread in Me Too while also being specific to their experiences. “How do you tell your story in front of a national forum, but at the same time realize the privilege? Like, looking at us, we’re all light-skinned, we’re all conventionally attractive. The fact that our story has been told is a privilege. It shouldn’t be a privilege — every woman’s story deserves to be told.” How did you go about contending with the fact that the people who’ve felt able to speak out first on these topics tend to come from a place of privilege, whether it’s background or attractiveness or being light-skinned?
Ziering: The way we dealt with that was by having it foregrounded in the film as something to be examined. There was an intentional choice to highlight the clips that reference light-skinned privilege. That’s not an accident. We felt that was important. We can’t change the fact that that’s how our society works. The film’s a reflection of that symptom. We wanted to report on that and highlight that and not obfuscate or elide it.
Dick: Right at the beginning of the film, these themes and these questions are raised, and the reason we want to do that is we wanted those people, as they watch the film, to be thinking about those issues all the way through.
With regard to what happened with the film before the premiere — with Winfrey and with Apple, and their decision to distance themselves from the film — it seemed to come out of the blue, at least per reporting. What are your feelings about what happened now that we’re months out and the film has a new distributor?
Ziering: We’re thrilled and elated and super grateful to the courage and leadership at HBO Max. Their track record’s formidable, they’ve done exceptional work, and they saw the film at Sundance and said, “Oh my God, this has to be seen. How can we help you? Let’s get it out there.” We honestly cannot imagine a better outcome.
Dick: We felt that it was so important that these women’s voices, and their perspectives, and their analyses be heard and put out to a national audience. We’re just really pleased that this is the platform their voices will be heard on.
When the Tara Reade allegations entered the news cycle, I was struck by how many of the quickest responses, unrelated to the details of the testimony and everything that’s followed, were the same ones that have always been brought up: Why didn’t she go to the police at the time? Where’s the evidence? Etc. Do you think the past few years have made the public any better at having discussions about sexual assault allegations?
Ziering: I think we’ve come a very long way. I mean, compare the way that Tara Reade’s allegations have been received to the way that Anita Hill’s were received, or all the Bill Clinton accusers. It’s night and day, right? [Reade] would have been completely eviscerated and torn apart before Me Too — there wouldn’t even be a hesitation. At least now there are qualified critiques, there’s meditation, there’s hand-wringing, there are thoughtful and nuanced debates within the feminist community. That is incredible progress, to go from categorical annihilation of anyone who accuses a public figure that you might have political sympathies for to, How do we deal with this? Why should we have to deal with this? What does it say about patriarchy?
Dick: Yeah, and the public, as you said, does better understand the experiences of survivors — why they can take so long to report, issues around memory, issues around maintaining a relationship with one’s perpetrator. I think there is more of an understanding of that. But I still think there’s a real deep-seated misogyny and distrust of survivors that exists, and it can very quickly be amplified. Me Too didn’t change everything. It’s a very dynamic situation that could fly back.
The initial wave of Me Too was driven by print reporting. In the past year, we’ve started getting more fiction and nonfiction films dealing with the topic. What are you aiming for in terms of bringing these stories to screen? What can a documentary do that, say, a reported article can’t?
Dick: Obviously, you see the people who have gone through these experiences. You hear their voices. You’re with them in very intense ways in a documentary, so you get this kind of emotional, real internal experience. At the same time, you have the opportunity to address the larger issues and look at it more analytically. A documentary, I think, is uniquely suited to fuse those two points of view — the emotional and the analytical. If it’s a powerful documentary, when people think back to that issue, they will think back to a documentary, often, before they think back to anything else.
The film is, rightfully, focused on those survivors, but did you ever have conversations with them about what they would want to see happen next, especially in the case of someone like Simmons, who seems unlikely, at least at this point, to face legal repercussions?
Ziering: No, I don’t think that’s our place. That’s their journey, and that’s their process. We’re here to raise understanding and awareness, and if that ignites people to act in certain ways, great. And if it doesn’t, you know, great. Our film mostly focused on the journeys of the people who experience horrific, violent crime. That’s what we’re about. It’s almost irrelevant, who the predator is, because we really need to address how these crimes happen — how they’re not just one-offs, how they are systemically supported and endorsed by a cadre of social mores and people who want to protect their interests and so they protect the predators. There has to be a systemic cultural awakening and shift. If you just knock off one predator with one film — that’s not what progress or, ultimately, what justice would look like for everyone.
You are dealing with these incredibly painful moments in people’s lives, and you’ve made three films now in this particular arena. Has your approach to interviews or your thoughts on how to present them changed over the course of making these films?
Ziering: I don’t know how other documentary filmmakers work, but we work in a way where it’s radically uncertain. We don’t have a script. We are part of the journey. Things change all the time because there’s no script. [On the Record] was an entirely different project from The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War. Each project is radically different. But of course, due to our wealth of knowledge and expertise, each project grows in a certain way. You have certain thought processes that are just more readily available from your experience. So, in that way, there’s a repetition and a continuation.