How Allen v. Farrow Obtained Never-Before-Seen Home Videotapes and Lost Documents

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

The case of Woody Allen’s alleged abuse of his 7-year-old daughter Dylan has been known and debated about for years, but the Allen v. Farrow proves that the public’s understanding has always been missing some key puzzle pieces. Thanks to the storytelling of Oscar-nominated documentarians Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering, (The Invisible War, On the Record) and especially that of their producer–investigative journalist Amy Herdy, the in-depth four-part HBO documentary series provides a closer look at the private experiences that were happening parallel to the 1992 media circus. In episode two, it was the home video of young Dylan talking to her mother Mia Farrow about the alleged abuse after it happened, a piece of harrowing evidence that had never been seen by the public. Episode three, which tells of the New York and Connecticut investigations into the alleged crime, is inspired by a trove of information uncovered during the film’s three-year production — tens of thousands of court documents, police files, sworn testimonies, and private audio and video recordings, including 60 boxes that had been stored away in an attorney’s office since the 1990s.

The uncovered material opens a larger narrative of silenced voices in the investigation process, among them a celebrated caseworker named Paul Williams who interviewed Dylan and believed her story, only to be suppressed by higher-ups representing the State of New York. Using new information from the documents, the series reexamines how the notion that Dylan was coached by her mother Mia was reinforced to vindicate Allen in the media without his being cleared by investigators. Allen v. Farrow reveals a large cover-up, with findings that deeply challenge the public narrative.

Vulture spoke with Dick, Herdy, and Ziering about getting ahold of these documents, the cover-up that they brought to light, their attempts to get Woody Allen involved in the project, and more.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

When during the making of Allen v. Farrow did the cache of documents enter the picture?

Kirby Dick: About 14 months before we completed the film, but we were getting information all the way throughout. Obviously, we had initially thought that this was extensively covered. But as Amy Herdy dove into this, it became apparent that there was so much information that wasn’t out there. She was continually, from really early on, starting to get more information that people were really not aware of.

Amy Herdy: The stork of journalistic gold nuggets dropped several gifts our way. There are a few of those documents online; if you dig around, you can find them. My question was, “Where is the rest of it?” And I started digging, and we got our hands on the first trove of court documents around the end of 2018.

Why do we get to see these documents now? 

Amy Ziering: Because Amy is amazing. Amy is a superpower. I’m serious! Like, who else, really? No one did their homework?

Kirby Dick: Well, they were going up against a machine, that was part of it. I think Woody Allen very effectively controlled the narrative. But Amy is incredibly persistent. It’s both skill and persistence.

Amy Herdy: That was one of the challenges. But we got tens of thousands of pages of documents.

How do you sift through them?

Amy Herdy: You just start reading, page by page. I knew who the major players were, and I had a fairly good grasp of the story and what we should ask about and what we needed to know. And whose testimony would have been relevant. But I can honestly say I went through every single box.

When I first had the boxes, I was in a little Airbnb, and I had shuttled all the boxes from my rental car to my room. It looked like something out of a movie, it was me surrounded by boxes and boxes of documents, and they were spread all over the bed. And pretty soon there were pizza boxes, because I was getting takeout, because I wasn’t leaving the room — I was just holed up in this room, going through all these files, noting where things were, taking pictures of what I felt was an incredibly relevant document.

There must have been an immense amount of pressure, looking at so much new material for such a controversial case. Does that raise the stakes in comparison to your previous work? 

Amy Herdy: Absolutely, and I was very protective of this material. I was paranoid that something was going to happen to it, that we would lose it. I’m carrying my boxes out from the room and I’m looking around to see who is watching me!

Kirby Dick: To add to that, there was a real sense of responsibility, of going through and getting all the information and all the facts and getting the story right. We have a really rigorous process of fact-checking, and we want to get everything as absolutely right as we possibly can. We try to make sure that it’s completely accurate even before it goes to the attorneys, our attorneys and HBO’s attorneys. This is really important to us that we get this story right.

Amy Ziering: We had no reason or investment or agenda going in. I’m late 50s, and I’m not gonna say I wasn’t a feminist, but I was not the most involved, informed feminist in the ’90s. So I was very much influenced by the common knowledge about the case. If anything, when people say, “You went in with an agenda,” I was expecting to find the opposite of what we did. So I’m not interested in peddling myths or stories; I’m interested in revealing the truth and helping us correct misinformation that we’ve all believed for too long. So that’s what this is — an honest, open, unbiased investigation, and we followed the facts, and you’re seeing where it led us.

How did the 60 boxes of documents help affirm what research for the cases that you were already working on? 

Amy Herdy: It affirmed that this was relevant, it affirmed that it was worth pursuing, it affirmed that it was indeed a helluva story here because there was so much more to it than anyone knew.

Kirby Dick: And what I would also say is that when we got the Paul Williams, New York CWA story, we were aware of it — Amy had gotten information on it — but once we saw the documents, it was astonishing. You could make an entire episode on just that because when you read his writing about it, it’s not only the fact that he completely believed Dylan, but it was also how extensive and how repeated the attempt at the cover-up was of that. This is really not just the story of an investigation, it’s the story of a cover-up at multiple levels, all the way up through the New York City administration.

Along with Williams’s experience, there’s the sense from the documents that there were other investigators who came to the same conclusions as him and believed Dylan. Were you able to reach out to them? 

Amy Herdy: Some of them are dead now, unfortunately. And others we did reach out to — one of the main police detectives on the case did not respond to us despite multiple requests. I think they wanted to let the documents speak for themselves, and they do. That’s the beauty of what we have; it’s all laid out in very thorough, fastidious records. And when you look at these records, and then you look at what’s been put out through a PR machine for many years, and the two directly contradict each other — it says to you that there was a cover-up of mass proportion.

Kirby Dick: The other thing that’s interesting is that because Woody Allen had been so aggressive at the time of this investigation — hiring PIs to look into investigators and things like that — that I think many of the people that Amy Herdy initially contacted were very afraid to speak. And it took, in a number of cases, a long time for them to decide to speak. There was an incredible amount of fear here.

How do you eventually get them to speak now? Does being in the age of Me Too help get them to speak? 

Kirby Dick: That definitely helps, but I think that if you want to call it “trauma” for all the people who have been involved, it had been established so long ago that I think in some ways Me Too didn’t open the door for them.

Amy Ziering: I think what’s astonishing about episode three is that you see the worst of the repercussions for speaking for many people that none of us knew about. We think it’s just a family tragedy, a personal tragedy for a handful of people. But what was astonishing to us is that there was so much fallout in the wake of this. People lost jobs; people left careers. You see that in episode three. And that Amy managed to find [Paul Williams’s supervisor] Sheryl Harden, and she gave that interview — many people have said they cried listening to her.

Kirby Dick: And to learn that it caused her to leave her job. We were stunned; we had no idea. We expected Paul Williams to have had a really difficult experience, but his supervisor? Wow, that was surprising.

Amy Ziering: And for her to do an interview 27 years later, overcome with emotion talking about this. If it’s that powerful, you can imagine people thinking, Why talk now? No good can come of it. There was so much shrapnel, and I was so burned in the past. Post–Me Too, you’d think so, but this was just bad

Amy Herdy: And the thing to remember, Woody Allen has said repeatedly that he was cleared by New York City investigators. And that episode shows that that investigator did not clear [him]. That investigator found that he had enough evidence to go to court with. And what happened to that investigator? He got fired!

The audiotapes show Woody in a cold-blooded timbre we’ve never really heard before. Does he always sound like that? How many tapes were there? 

Kirby Dick: I would say very consistent throughout. There were hours and hours of tapes, but what you hear is that Woody Allen through a large part of those tapes. There’s a lot of shifting of perspectives and emotions welling up. What we tried to do is find places that showed how both Mia and Woody were feeling when we were at that part in the story.

Amy Herdy: There were several tapes, and they recorded each other. But Mia did not start recording Woody Allen until she was led to believe that he was taping her. I think that’s important to note.

With regards to the Farrows’ home-video footage, do you know what types of occasions she filmed? How often was she filming?

Amy Ziering: All the time. She was like an early adopter, she was the precursor of the selfie era. She had a gorgeous eye; many of the photographs you see in the movie she took herself. She really could have had another career, honestly. And she’s also just a really creative person, she was always videotaping. And you see, at the start of episode two, that home movie she made, dressing up and playacting.

Was there any other concerning footage not seen in the series of Woody interacting with Dylan?

Amy Herdy: I think it’s what you see. I think the developing physicality is what is shown of him with Dylan.

Kirby Dick: But also keep in mind that someone who is trying to do this would not do it in front of a camera. If a camera is out, they’re going to be much more cautious. I think that as soon as the camera came out … it didn’t surprise us.

It shows an interesting lack of boundaries. 

Amy Herdy: The look on her face.

What was the process in getting the footage of young Dylan talking after the alleged abuse and then getting the blessing to show it? 

Amy Herdy: Dylan chose to give us that footage, and she said that she debated it for a long time. An outcry witness is the first adult witness whom the child discloses having been abused to. And this tape, to me, as a journalist who has covered crime for many years, this tape was evidence of Dylan’s outcry.

Amy Ziering: Mia, when Dylan became of age, gave Dylan the tape. She said, “Here, do with it what you will. It’s yours; it’s you.” Dylan, at that point, did not look at it, from what I was told, and filed it away in a closet. After a long internal debate, she decided to offer it to us to look at. We felt it was very important to include it as outcry, as evidence, but also as sort of a teachable moment. Let us all learn from it, and let us become more enlightened as to what this violence sounds like, from the voice of a child.

Kirby Dick: And I think that’s actually another testament to Dylan’s courage, is that she put this out there for that reason. She knows the experience, she knows there are millions of children, and adults, who have gone through this.

More to clear this one up: At the end of the first podcast episode, there’s the note about how Woody and Soon-Yi were contacted in December 2020 and given two weeks to respond. What determined that time frame? 

Amy Herdy: They were given two weeks to indicate interest. Not just to respond, but just, “Hey, are you interested in talking with us?” You have two weeks to say yes or no.

Amy Ziering: And begin that conversation, and so we would do whatever timeline was necessary to accommodate them. That’s how we do all our films. When there’s people we’d like to speak with, we reach out to them and then we accommodate their schedules. But we give them a certain finite time to respond so that we can plan our productions accordingly.

So the series would have been delayed if there was interest on their side. 

Amy Ziering: One hundred percent. We would have loved, loved, loved getting to talk with them. Oh my God.

What response have you received about the series so far? 

Amy Herdy: The series is being noted by members of the legislature in Maryland because they were working on legislation having to do with child custody and the child-welfare court system, and police and judges and trying to educate them. They’ve contacted us and said, “Your series is amazingly informative.”

Amy Ziering: And I got an email from an incest survivor who is part of a nonprofit, and she said, “Thank you, this is going to be such an effective teaching tool. Finally, people will understand how grooming works.” She said this is going to be so eye-opening. So we’re hopeful this will hopefully push us forward on an issue in a way that is long overdue.

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