Barry Avrich, the Montreal-born filmmaker, walked away from his 2011 documentary Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project “a little haunted” by what his film didn’t say about the infamous mogul. The Weinstein he depicted was both a genius who’d earned fistfuls of Oscars for the films he made at Miramax and The Weinstein Company (TWC), and a bully with a tyrannical temper. But he wasn’t what he is now known to be: an alleged serial sexual predator, and the subject of criminal investigations in London, New York and Los Angeles.
So when the Weinstein scandal broke in October, 2017, Avrich called Unauthorized’s distributor, IFC films, to suggest a re-edit. IFC’s co-president, Jonathan Sehring, turned him down. (Avrich has long suspected that IFC, which had a fruitful relationship with Weinstein, bought his film in order to bury it; they gave it a tepid release. Or as Avrich puts it, “You need a St. Bernard to find it.”) Then the scandal widened to include other alleged predators, the #MeToo movement exploded and Avrich decided, “This is an extraordinary time in history. I want to document it, immortalize the debate and keep it moving.”
The resulting film is The Reckoning: Hollywood’s Worst Kept Secret, which will have a splashy premiere on Saturday afternoon at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, with some of the film’s whistle-blowers in attendance. It features riveting interviews with, among others, Dylan Farrow, whose allegations against her father, Woody Allen, were investigated and dismissed; and Marie Henein, who successfully represented Jian Ghomeshi and is now representing Jane Doe, the anonymous Canadian actress and Weinstein accuser who is suing not just Weinstein himself, but also TWC and its parent company, Disney.
That’s the official story of Avrich’s film, and it’s a good one, delivered over a lovely lunch at Toronto’s Hazelton Hotel, where four different bigwigs pop by our table to shake Avrich’s hand. Avrich, 54, is whip-smart, a dogged worker and an expert raconteur. But in his own book, Moguls, Monsters and Madmen: An Uncensored Life in Show Business, Avrich writes that he once reassured Weinstein about Unauthorized thusly: “Harvey, I’m not telling the stories that maybe you think I’m telling. People have told me some salacious stories, but I’m not going down that road. This is a film about you and your movies, so you have nothing to worry about.”
So I have to ask: What did Avrich really know about Weinstein, and when did he know it?
His answer: While he was filming, a few of his subjects, journalists and Weinstein employees asked him off the record, “Are you going to talk about Harvey and the women, the sexual harassment, the payoffs?”
Avrich replied, “Talk to me.”
Nobody would. Avrich reached out to some alleged victims; none returned his calls.
“Harvey was still powerful,” Avrich says now. “I wasn’t hearing ‘rape.’ It did bother me that I knew about it. But what can I say in a documentary if nobody’s going to go on the record?”
Fair enough. But in The Reckoning, one of Avrich’s subjects refers to “the inertia of self-interest” – too many people in the media had too many deals with Weinstein, or made too much money from him, to expose him. Last October, a mere 72 hours before the reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published their first bombshell story in The New York Times, The Weinstein Company had bought Avrich’s next documentary. (Called Prosecuting Evil, it’s about Benjamin Ferencz, now 98, the United States’ chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg Nazi trials.) Could Avrich have been similarly self-interested?
“Unbelievable timing, I know,” he replies. “But at that point, we still didn’t know the story. And how many independent distributors are out there? A lot of people – John Irving, James Ivory – have told me they held their nose to work with Harvey. But he was a great marketer, and he won Oscars for people. He came at me aggressively. He said, ‘This Holocaust film touches me.’ They gave me a big cheque.”
Mere days later, Weinstein was fired, his company was in lockdown, and Avrich had to pull a Harvey-esque move to get Prosecuting Evil, which was in mid-production, back. His lawyer wrote a letter to TWC. The return letter read, essentially, “No way.” So Avrich called David Glasser, who was COO of TWC (but has since been fired).
“I said, ‘You don’t know what I know, and you don’t know what I don’t know,’” Avrich recalls. “’You’re in a precarious position. I suggest you give me the film back.’”
He grins. “It was a mob move, but it worked.”
The CBC has since bought the rights to Prosecuting Evil. Avrich hopes to release it this fall, after a private screening at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, which Ferencz helped to establish. “Out of all my films, I’m the proudest of it,” Avrich says.
For The Reckoning, Avrich says he deliberately didn’t reach out to Weinstein’s A-list actress accusers, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek. “I wanted women who had stories you’d never heard from,” he says, including Lauren Sivan, the actress and Fox News anchor who tells her first-person account of Weinstein’s infamous potted plant incident. “And some people were surrounded by book deals and other projects. This had to be done quickly. I wanted to be the first.” (He did ask Rose McGowan, but she was launching her series Brave, and couldn’t make the timing work.)
Farrow had never given an on-camera interview before. Avrich spent three hours on the phone convincing her, and then half a day filming her. Though he was initially conflicted – “I grew up reciting Woody Allen records in front of my relatives,” he says – he now believes her story “top to bottom.”
Henein was another juicy get. “She’s a fascinating character,” Avrich says, “She comes off the Ghomeshi case and it’s a victory, and at the same time, is she on the right side of history?” So did Henein agree to be in his film in some part to rehabilitate herself in the eyes of other women? Avrich isn’t saying.
What he will say: He thinks the #TimesUp discussion now needs to focus on revamping workplace culture, with specific laws and codes. He hopes the public doesn’t get bored before that happens. He’s hearing that talent agencies and studios are making positive changes. “But Hollywood also loves a comeback,” he says. “I think those who’ve done a mea culpa, like Louis C.K., may still have a career.”
As for Weinstein, he knew about The Reckoning. Avrich “fantasized about an Eliot Spitzer thing, where Harvey would call and say, ‘Let me go on the record,’” as the scandal-wracked former New York governor did with filmmaker Alex Gibney for his 2010 documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. But Weinstein didn’t call, and Avrich didn’t ask.
One final twist: Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project is narrated by the actor Albert Schultz, the first prominent Canadian to be accused of sexual misconduct in the #TimesUp era. Avrich blanches when I raise it. But then he tells me that a year after Unauthorized, he asked Schultz to narrate his next doc, Show Stopper: The Theatrical Life of Garth Drabinsky. Shultz’s response: “You always ask me to narrate the films about bad guys.”
Avrich can’t help himself: It’s a good story, and it’s true.