'On The Record' Investigates Sexual Misconduct in the Music Industry
On December 3, 2019, it was announced that directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering had collaborated with Oprah Winfrey on a documentary called On The Record, about sexual harassment in the music industry and, specifically, rape allegations against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. A little over a month later, Winfrey, who was one of the film's executive producers, dropped out of the project, effectively putting an end to the film's distribution deal with Apple TV+. The media juggernaut withdrew her name from On The Record 15 days before the doc's world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Her reasons for her departure were murky at best, but Dick and Ziering didn't have time to fixate on that. They now had a film to sell. As the team behind The Hunting Ground (about rape on college campuses around the country) and The Invisible War (about rape in the military), Dick and Ziering were adamant that as many people see their latest film about rape as possible. They wanted to make sure that the world saw the struggle former music executive Drew Dixon dealt with when she made the decision to become one of the first women of color, in the wake of #MeToo, to come forward and publicly accuse hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct. They also wanted people to hear fellow accusers Sil Lai Abrams and Sheri Sher’s stories. Eventually Dick and Ziering, with the help of Impact Partners, which helped finance the film, found a home for On The Record at HBO Max. The doc marked the first Sundance acquisition for the new streamer, which launches May 27 with the premiere of On The Record.
DOCUMENTARY: With Oprah and Apple TV+ pulling out of the film right before its Sundance premiere, how would you describe your overall Sundance experience?
KIRBY DICK: Any time you take a film to Sundance and you don't have a [distributor on board], there's a lot of chaos. But at the On The Record premiere, we had so many people come up and say that was the most intense screening and Q&A that they had ever seen at Sundance. So I think obviously what the audience was feeling, we were really feeling. The women whose stories we told are true and it's very important that their stories be told and heard. So it was extremely rewarding to be able to show it to an audience, get that kind of response and then get a distributor like HBO Max to support it.
DOCUMENTARY: I’m assuming that you received many offers from various distributors for this film. Why did you decide on HBO Max, a new entity with no track record?
AMY ZIERING: We love HBO and we love the HBO brand. The HBO Max executives were amazing and many of them were at the premiere and just came up to us right away and said, 'This is phenomenal.' We felt their enthusiasm was authentic and infectious. We were looking for strong allies that had courage, and that’s what all those men and women at HBO Max are. It wasn't a hard decision.
KD: And we'd made a number of films for HBO before, so we had very good experiences with HBO in the past.
DOCUMENTARY: Do you think originally having Oprah as an executive producer behind this film allowed the project to get made?
AZ: I think Oprah was a huge contributor and we're grateful for her contributions; it definitely helped this story get made.
D: Oprah said that she was troubled by 'inconsistencies that the film had not adequately addressed,' which is one of the reasons she pulled out. What is your response to that?
AZ: The film has been fact-checked and vetted, and we stand by it.
KD: Fact-checked by The New York Times, by Apple Legal, by our legal, by HBO Max legal… HBO has probably made more investigative documentaries than any other distributor ever, so they really know their business, and everybody has said that the [women's] stories completely stand up and are completely ready to be exhibited. I would also just add that [Oprah] didn't mention what those 'inconsistencies' were, and if she had, we certainly would have investigated them.
D: Did either of you have any hesitations about exploring the topic of sexual assault and rape again after making The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War?
KD: We did discuss, 'Well, do we want to do this again?' But one of the things that is interesting for me is that each time we make a film on this [topic], you come with a deeper knowledge of the subject and that allows you to go deeper into the subject matter in a way that you couldn't have done in your previous film.
D: Did you always know that you were going to make a trilogy on the topic of sexual assault?
AZ: It wasn't exactly like we were trying to make a trilogy per se, but we were looking for other stories in this arena that hadn't been told but needed to be told.
KD: Before On The Record we actually had been trying to make a film on sexual assault in the entertainment business. We had pitched [the project] to distributors, and people were interested and fascinated, but they were very unwilling to fund it. Then the #MeToo Movement broke and we got funding through Impact Partners within weeks.
D: Having made The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War, did the #MeToo Movement come as a surprise or were you expecting it?
AZ: It was a total surprise. It was shocking. I would read headlines and go, 'Is this The New York Times or is this The Onion that I’m looking at?'
D: Compared to convincing women to speak with you for Invisible War and The Hunting Ground, was convincing women like Drew Dixon to participate in On The Record any easier, due to your track record on the topic?
AZ: No, it wasn't easier. In fact, the agreement we had with Drew was that she wouldn't sign a release [while filming]. She didn't even know if she wanted to be in a documentary.
D: So when did Drew finally sign the release?
AZ: We were filming with her for at least a year before she signed. Even after she spoke to The New York Times, she didn't know if she wanted to be in our movie. The layers of reluctance were very there. There was the hurdle of, 'Am I going to talk or not to The New York Times?' Then she talked to the Times. Then she's like, 'Let's see how that goes because I don't know what kind of blowback I'm going to get from the article, so I'm not sure I want to be in a movie and two years later deal with the next set of headaches.'
D: So you're following her around for a year not knowing if she will even be a part of the film?
AZ: Yes. There was no pressure. But also I should say that we were filming a lot of other people at the same time, so it wasn't like she was the only person we were filming. It was sort of like we were rolling the dice on Drew's story. We thought she was so amazing and we hoped she would sign the release, but we just didn't know.
D: Was the plan to tell the story of rape allegations against Russell Simmons via these other women if Drew didn’t sign?
AZ: No, we would just tell a different story. Maybe a story about women in the music industry more broadly. #MeToo happened and our phones start exploding with, 'Hey, you guys should do a movie.' So at that point we started just collecting material, and we had a lot of different stories. So Drew's was one of many stories we were following. So it's very organic and nerve-racking, but it also wasn't so crazy to say, 'We're just going to shoot this person for a year and see what happens because that's how we operate.'
KD: It allows you to get more immediately in the moment as it's happening, as opposed to having a story told in retrospect. One of the things that immediately attracted us to Drew's story is watching a survivor decide to come forward. We've heard people talk about the difficulty in coming forward, but it's only after the fact. [We felt] that a film that showed that whole process was really important. And not only the plot of the coming forward but also the plot of what happens after you've come forward. So it was worth it for us to take this risk on Drew because we felt that her story would make for a very important and powerful film.
D: When did you know that Drew would be the central subject of the film?
AZ: The first day I interviewed her, I remember calling Kirby and saying, 'If we do a film on the music industry, we have our lead.' So it was very early on. It just all hinged on whether she was game or not.
D: In the film a lot is said about black women having the burden of having to choose between race and gender. Are you hoping that this film will shift that longstanding mindset?
AZ: No. This film is about elevating women's voices. It's about elevating voices, empowering women whose stories haven't been heard. It's also about the dynamics of power, the dynamics of gender violence and the legacy that trauma yields on people's lives and the way it infects and inflicts trauma on our society at large.
KD: We are hopeful that there will be a greater understanding of that issue and that there will be much greater support for survivors in general and for black women survivors in particular once people have seen this film.
D: As two white people, did either of you ever feel awkward or uncomfortable about directing a film about black women accusing a black man of rape?
AZ: It was often a question I would put to the experts, and there is a whole sequence we cut where we were talking about that [issue]. But it also should be noted that our team was co-racial throughout the entire project, so the optics aren't exactly what they seem.
D: Were you planning on going to other festivals with On The Record, or was Sundance the only one?
KD: We were planning on attending Hot Docs. There were also other festivals that we were going to attend but that was cut short because of COVID-19.
D: How do you feel about only going to one film festival and now releasing On The Record during COVID-19 without a big HBO Max premiere?
KD: It's obviously not ideal. We wanted to go through the festival circuit and have that whole experience and have audiences be able to see the film, but we're also very grateful that we have a film to show at this point. A lot of filmmakers are halfway through their films and so we're actually in a fortunate position in that we have something complete and to show. It might even be in some ways a better time for a film being released on a streamer because everyone is home and watching. So in the end it actually might be better for the film.
D: Is this the last sexual assault film you will make, or are there plans to make another one?
KD: I would say it's not the last.
Addie Morfoot has been covering the entertainment industry for the last 15 years. Her work has appeared in Variety, The New York Times Magazine, Crain's New York Business, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Documentary and Adweek.