A new BBC documentary charts Harvey Weinstein’s rise to power. Stylist speaks to the director, Ursula Macfarlane, about its making and actor Erika Rosenbaum on her experience with the disgraced producer.
Erika Rosenbaum didn’t really know what to make of Harvey Weinstein. She’d heard of him, of course, who hadn’t? And those whispers that he was temperamental, mean spirited, could destroy your career on a whim etcetera. But who knew what to believe?
At the time, she was a young actress and Weinstein was a powerful film producer you wanted an audience with. He could make you a star. But while his name roused hopes, dreams and yearnings in Rosenbaum, she had no face to put to it. So, when she was seated next to him at an industry dinner, it took her until dessert to realise who she was speaking to.
“He was amused by the fact I wasn’t intimidated,” Rosenbaum tells Stylist, “I hadn’t caught his name, so I didn’t even know I should be. Looking back, I think he got a kick out of my comfort in the situation and that I was so young and so clearly out of my depth.”
They talked about his love of movies, their families, her dreams. “He seemed like a grounded, intelligent, interesting character,” she says, “and a regular movie nerd”. By the end of the night, he was certain he could help her out. “At the time, I thought I was just living the Hollywood experience. I was saying yes to adventures anytime I could. I felt invincible. Like I was at the beginning of it all,” she adds. “Only now, as an adult, do I realise how absurd it was for me to be at that party.”
After the dinner, Weinstein asked her for a lift back to his hotel. And then to continue talking in his suite. And then to take off her shirt. And then for a massage. Rosenbaum was terrified, made her excuses and got out quick. But Weinstein was still - as he calls himself - “the sheriff in town”. And you didn’t want to upset the sheriff, so Rosenbaum kept in touch. The odd call. A plan to meet at a film festival. It was years later, in another hotel room, that she was assaulted by him for the first and last time.
“There are many times I’ve thought I asked for it by being too nice. And by putting myself in front of him,” she says, “but it’s a mind trap, because being an actor means making yourself available, putting your best foot forward, and being your most charming, engaging, interesting self because that’s how you get hired. That’s the story of Hollywood success, right? We hear it all the time. You charmed the right person.”
Rosenbaum is one of the women who shares her experience with Weinstein in a new BBC documentary Untouchable: The Rise and Fall of Harvey Weinstein, out 1 September. It charts his beginnings as a concert producer in Buffalo to a big shot film producer and a household name. But, crucially, it shows us how he created an environment that enabled his behaviour. We hear of the contracts. The pleading calls to staff about to quit. The tactics. The pay offs. The culture of silence.
“I wanted to put these accusations in the context of a man’s rise to and abuse of power,” says director Ursula Macfarlane, “it’s almost a Greek tragedy”. The film weaves us through interviews with those who worked with Weinstein at different stages of his career, the journalists who broke the story in the New York Times and the New Yorker and the victims themselves.
But making a documentary about a man who still incites fear in so many isn’t simple. “We had password protected documents and we used burner phones,” says Macfarlane, “my main worry was that he could get wind of what the women were telling us while we were filming. A lot of people were still frightened of talking, industry people in particular were really worried. Some had signed NDAs. He’s a powerful guy, he’s still got money and he’s not yet in jail. There were women who had never talked about it. Hadn’t told their family. Hadn’t told their husband.”
One such woman was Hope D’Amour, who worked for Weinstein in her early twenties in Buffalo. Back then, Weinstein was a wannabe film producer who moved through the world like a gangster. One day, he asked her to accompany him to a trip to New York, but when they arrived at the hotel he told her there had been a mix up with the rooms, and they’d have to share. She rolled her eyes and told him he was sleeping on the couch. What else could she do? That night, he raped her. She didn’t tell a soul.
“Hope told me that reading he was planning to sue the New York Times and the women they quoted incensed her enough to speak about,” says Macfarlane. “She rang them up and said ‘listen, I met this sick f*ck 40 years ago and you don’t know the half of it.’”
Macfarlane’s research involved viewing hours of footage of Weinstein to try and get to grips with the man behind the persona. “With most famous people there’s a lot of interviews to reference, they’ve done Parkinson or Desert Island Disks. But with Weinstein, there was nothing like that, ” she says. “I remember finding a Q&A at a film festival or something and getting excited. But he’d never say anything revealing.
It was always the same of shtick, these stories about his childhood that were very ha-ha-ha, his love of film, he never said anything revealing about his personality. It got me thinking, I wonder if anyone really knew him? Really knew him. People said he was just working all the time, even the parties were work, and he read scripts until he went to sleep. So, we can only judge him by his actions and you don’t feel there’s any sense of sorrow.”
With Weinstein’s trial the current news focus, Macfarlane hopes the documentary will put the women back to the centre of the story. “Over the past year, Weinstein has spent a lot of time keeping his trial in the public eye: by getting it delayed, getting this and that dismissed and the news is captivated by anything his legal team says,” she says, “the voices of the women have gotten lost in all of that.”
For Rosenbaum, voicing her experience has been tough but freeing. “I thought that this was something I would just carry with me forever. I didn’t see any benefit to sharing it, because it didn’t seem like he ever face any consequences,” she says. “But I’m speaking on behalf of other women, too: those who aren’t ready and those who never will be. And I want to dispel ideas that this is something we chose. The impetus does not rest with us.”
Untouchable: The Rise and Fall of Harvey Weinstein, Sunday 1st September at 9pm on BBC Two