How ‘She Said’ got survivors like Ashley Judd to speak out again
When director Maria Schrader and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz began developing She Said as a film, they quickly laid down a few ground rules.
Her dramatization of the New York Times investigation that toppled Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and sparked a worldwide reckoning would not include visual depictions of sexual assault or harassment. Instead, the survivors – some even playing themselves – reminisced about the incidents in their own words.
There would be no female nudity and no brutalized victims at the crime scene. Survivors would be full-fledged humans, characterized more by their courage and resilience than their encounters with an abusive Hollywood power player.
And in arguably the most radical departure — given the outsized influence he wielded in the industry and the industry’s enduring fascination with violent predators — Weinstein himself would be on the sidelines of the story. In fact, the audience would never see his face.
“The film isn’t about Weinstein, it’s about a collective of women who bravely break decades of silence,” said Lenkiewicz, who began adapting Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s research before it was published as a book in 2019 . “We all felt that Weinstein had ingested enough oxygen for several lifetimes and I couldn’t imagine writing a screenplay with him in it.”
A propelling procedure that, like the Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” demonstrates the persistence, institutional support, and good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting it takes to break decades of silence and coercion, “She Said” is a celebration of journalists’ determination who managed to solve the case, and especially the unsung women who came forward to share their stories after their Hollywood careers went on hiatus.
Significantly, the film begins from the perspective of Laura Madden (played in flashback by Lola Petticrew and in the present by Jennifer Ehle) as she stumbles onto a seemingly magical film set in Ireland. But the spell is quickly broken: Seconds later we see her running through the city streets in panic. We later learn how Weinstein lured her into a hotel room, asked for a massage, and urged her into unwanted sexual contact—a crucial pattern that emerged in the accounts of many survivors.
Along with Madden, two other women will become key sources in the investigation — and characters in the film. Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton) and Rowena Chiu (Angela Yeoh) were both assistants in Miramax’s London office in the late ’90s when Chiu told Perkins that Weinstein tried to rape her at the Venice Film Festival. Perkins reported Weinstein’s alleged behavior but was pressured along with Chiu into signing a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement. Both women eventually left the film business, as did Madden.
“Famous actresses have garnered a lot of attention during the #MeToo blast, but in many ways these little-known women were at the heart of what happened,” Kantor wrote in an email. “To me, this film brings them back to Hollywood with a dignity and a respect that they never got their first time.”
Kantor and Twohey facilitated the introduction to these sources, and as she began writing the screenplay, Lenkiewicz was spending time with Perkins, Madden, and Chiu. “I wanted them to feel safe in the space of the film: [to know] that not only were we hijacking their lives, but that we absolutely respected them and admired them for being a part of the project,” she said.
“The attacks are being described because I think it’s important for people to know the trauma and authentic voice of the survivors. Just retelling is enough,” said Lenkiewicz. “I’m very aware of the male gaze as it’s been there for decades, and it’s really liberating to reverse that and just have women at the center — to be active and collaborate and not have to undress.”
Whenever they could, the filmmakers included real survivors and their accounts, giving She Said an almost documentary vibe at times. We hear the actual audio recording of Weinstein molesting model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez and acknowledging a previous assault because, Lenkiewicz said. “It was very important to understand how Weinstein worked — that it was very difficult to negotiate or navigate against the strength of his will.”
But the tape is accompanied by shots of empty hotel corridors, not actors doing a recreation.
“[As] You hear something very physical, you almost have a fantasy of those two bodies trying to escape, but we chose the opposite: a very still camera moving through the corridors,” Schrader said. “[Cinematographer] Natasha [Braier] and I’ve always tried to stay away from illustration.”
In the film’s final act, as the New York Times prepares to publish the investigation, we hear Weinstein’s real voice on the phone with Kantor, Twohey, and their editors. (Actor Mike Houston, glimpsed from behind, also appears briefly as producer in a scene set in a Times conference room.)
Actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Judith Godrèche, both of whom eventually went public to accuse Weinstein of molestation, also lend their voices to “She Said.” Former Weinstein Company employee Lauren O’Connor reads the damning memo she wrote in 2015 that became a key piece of evidence in Kantor and Twohey’s initial investigations.
“Everyone was invited to participate,” said Lenkiewicz. “There was also a deliberate casting of survivors in different roles.”
Ashley Judd, the most prominent celebrity to appear in Twohey and Kantor’s first account, appears as herself and recalls how Weinstein lured her into a suite at the Peninsula Hotel 30 years ago and urged her to give him a massage or watch him shower . (Her story is accompanied by images of a luxurious hotel suite.)
Judd reviewed the script and provided feedback on the wording of her report. Schrader said: “Ashley was there from the moment I met her. She’s an incredible, amazing person.” The moment when Judd, after much discussion, decides to go public with her allegations marks the emotional high point of the film.
Like Twohey and Kantor, the filmmakers had to convince the survivors that they could be trusted to tell their stories.
“We tried to treat the accounts and the survivor scenes with as much care as Jodi and Megan did,” Schrader said in her reporting, whose Unorthodox series explored related themes of female agency and sexual trauma. Schrader was an actress for many years before becoming a director, and recalled how reports about Weinstein in 2017 caused her to reconsider “small incidents and then not-so-small incidents” that she had experienced in the industry, and reluctantly accepted.
“I was definitely one of those people who tried not to be affected or try to use humor in it,” she said.
Hollywood is notorious for taking liberal liberties with anything “based on a true story” — rearranging timelines, changing character names, and inventing monolithic conversations. The sensitivity of the material in “She Said” called for a more cautious approach.
Lenkiewicz estimates that about 95% of the story is correct, although it took “tiny liberties” for dramatic effect. After all, “hearing a call is more exciting than reading an email,” she said. “It’s the truth, just a little livelier.”
Twohey and Kantor spoke with Mulligan and Kazan about their strategies for interviewing survivors.
Mulligan wanted to know “not just what words are being said, but in what tone and with what body language.” She also wanted to know how we manage our emotions when reporting such harrowing discoveries,” said Twohey, who shared some footage with the actor. “It was really moving to see all of this research on screen.”
“Those kinds of interviews are hard to come by in real life, let alone on film. You need to be empathetic, but also assess the strength of the account. They’re also trying to gain confidence in the investigation,” Kantor said. “In those interview scenes [Kazan]is so reserved that he gives the spotlight to the woman telling the story. But because she’s such an expressive actress, you can see the emotion that erupts beneath her professional demeanor.”
To reinforce the film’s female perspective, Lenkiewicz incorporated aspects of Twohey and Kantor’s personal lives that were largely omitted from the book. “I wanted to bring in as many aspects of womanhood as possible,” she said. “Megan and Jodi both have daughters, and I didn’t think working mothers were portrayed very often or very well.”
Both reporters are constantly juggling inconvenient calls—at the doctor’s office or on family outings. In one of the most relatable moments in the film, Kantor writes down her Netflix password and gives it to her daughter while she’s on the phone. She later has a hearty conversation with her daughter about rape via video chat while she’s out of town to hunt down sources.
Twohey, meanwhile, is placed on the Weinstein investigation immediately after returning from maternity leave while recovering from postpartum depression.
“I’ll admit that I felt a little vulnerable making that leap, especially during one of the more painful chapters of my life,” Twohey said. “But the more we spoke to the filmmakers, the more we saw a real opportunity in this. We hope other working moms will relate to these characters and feel seen in the film.”
And that, according to Lenkiewicz, is the real goal of the film: “If it stimulates conversation and someone feels solidarity with other women, then we’ve done our job.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-11-18/she-said-harvey-weinstein-ashley-judd-gwyneth-paltrow-survivors How ‘She Said’ got survivors like Ashley Judd to speak out again