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‘On the Record’ Directors Talk Sexual Assault in Music Industry, Loss of Women’s Voices

New documentary from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering centers on allegations against music mogul Russell Simmons

Sil Lai Abrams, director Amy Ziering, director Kirby Dick, Drew Dixon, and Sheri Hines of 'On the Record.'

Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/Shutte

One of the most anticipated films at Sundance is getting a premiere on new service HBO Max Wednesday — after a highly publicized dustup in which original backers Oprah Winfrey and Apple dropped their support right before its premiere at the festival.

Helmed by veteran filmmakers Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, On the Record was filmed largely during the height of #MeToo and takes aim at Russell Simmons, the music mogul accused by multiple women of sexual assault and harassment. (Simmons has denied all charges.)

At this year’s Sundance festival, all press materials were to indicate that the film would focus on women in the music industry with no mention of Simmons, Ziering says. However, the festival published a photo of one of Russell’s main accusers, former music executive Drew Dixon, and the dams burst.

Simmons launched a public campaign, urging executive producer Oprah Winfrey to withdraw her support from the film. She did so a month later, citing creative differences and denying that Simmons had anything to do with her decision. Apple, who had previously picked up the film, left with Oprah.

“I have great respect for their mission but given the filmmakers’ desire to premiere the film at the Sundance Film Festival before I believe it is complete, I feel it’s best to step aside,” Winfrey said in a statement (via New York Times). “I will be working with Time’s Up to support the victims and those impacted by abuse and sexual harassment.” Not long after Winfrey and Apple’s exit, new service HBO Max stepped in to give the film a home.

Kiering and Dick have a long history of films about sexual abuse. Their 2012 film The Invisible War focusing on military survivors of sexual assault earned them an Academy Award nomination and a pair of Emmys. 2015’s Emmy-winning The Hunting Ground dealt with sexual assault on college campuses. On the Record deals not only with assault and abuse but also the insidious byproduct of women forced out of their industries by men who view them as objects instead of creative equals.

On the Record centers on former music industry executive Drew Dixon as she struggles — in the midst of #MeToo — with whether to come out publicly against Simmons, who she alleges raped her in 1995 when she worked for him at Def Jam. Over the course of the film, Dixon finds herself pushed out at the label as she grows increasingly uncomfortable in the wake of the alleged assault — finally quitting the music industry after she says music executive L.A. Reid muzzled her creativity at Arista Records when she refused to succumb to his advances. More than 20 women who participated in the documentary accused Simmons of misconduct, including writer and domestic violence awareness activist Sil Lai Abrams, musician Sherri Hines and actress/screenwriter Jenny Lumet.

Simmons exited Def Jam in 2017 following sexual misconduct allegations, addressing Lumet’s claims after she wrote an essay outlining them in the Hollywood Reporter. “While her memory of that evening is very different from mine, it is now clear to me that her feelings of fear and intimidation are real,” Simmons said in a statement. “While I have never been violent, I have been thoughtless and insensitive in some of my relationships over many decades and I sincerely apologize.”

In a statement provided to the creators of On the Record, Simmons said: “I have issued countless denials of false allegations against me… I have lived my life honorably as an open book for decades, devoid of any kind of violence against anyone.”

Reid exited his post as chairman of Sony’s Epic Records in 2017 amid accusations of sexual harassment but has since started his own company, Hitco Entertainment. In a statement to the filmmakers, he said the allegations against him were “unfounded, not true and represent a complete misrepresentation and fabrication of any facts or events alleged therein as having occurred.”

Rolling Stone spoke with Ziering and Dick before the film’s premiere about the music industry, presenting emotionally difficult stories and that Oprah issue.

“It’s not just the cost of these crimes, but also the cultural capital that we lose.” – director Amy Ziering

Why did you decide to make Drew Dixon’s story the backbone of the documentary?
Amy Ziering: In the wake of #MeToo, our phones started ringing and we just decided to jump in and start collecting stories. We were doing many interviews with women in many, many different industries.

We did a five-day shoot in New York — about five interviews a day. Drew was one of those interviews. Afterward, I called Kirby and said, “I really think that this was an exceptional interview and she has a really interesting story and she’s grappling with a really interesting dilemma right now. I don’t know if she’d let us, but if she would, it would be pretty amazing if we could actually follow her as she decides whether to come forward.” We went in very organically; it wasn’t preconceived: “We’re going to do this with this person in this way.”

During the course of the documentary, Dixon was also talking to the New York Times, right?
Ziering: Yeah, she was trying to decide whether she wanted to go public with her story. She was also deciding whether, even if she wanted to go public, she wanted to be part of the documentary. She didn’t sign a release for a very long time. Even after she spoke to the New York Times. She kept letting us film, but it was probably a good eight months until she decided that she would go forward with the documentary — very late in the process.

You’ve both worked on several docs about sexual assault in the past. What did you learn while making this film? How was it different from the rest?
Ziering: What was interesting for us as filmmakers having worked in this arena is that we didn’t have to cover some ground that was really essential for us to cover in earlier films. When we were pitching Invisible War, we were told no one wants to hear women’s stories. No one wants to hear rape stories — and certainly, no one wants to hear your story about women being assaulted in the military. That was in 2012.

The talking point we had to do in the Q&A for that film as well as Hunting Ground was: “Believe women.” That was considered audacious and revelatory. Now, we didn’t have to lay that groundwork. People understood that these kinds of things happen incredibly frequently. They’re not reported — not believed. So those discussion points had already been more absorbed by the culture by the time we were making this film. We could dive deeper and go into the issue in more complexity.

Over the course of making this film — doing a series of interviews with women from several different industries over the course of six to eight months — I realized that it’s not just the cost of these crimes. It’s not just how traumatic they are for individuals [or] how harmful they are personally and emotionally. But also the cultural capital that we lose. That was revelatory. It isn’t just that women — because of misogyny, the patriarchy — don’t rise up. It’s also that they’re traumatized out — that they felt exiled. That had never really had come into focus for me. We’ve watched generations of leaders, mentors, creative capital — it’s just been annihilated. Vanished. What does that mean to our culture?

“We have a unique opportunity to show the experience of someone deciding to come forward.” – director Kirby Dick

In 2017, a lot of the cultural reckoning was aimed at Hollywood over the music industry. Looking back, would you have wanted to focus on the industry at large more?
Kirby Dick: I would say no. I think there’s a very important film to be made on the music industry, but we really chose to keep the focus on Drew [and the rest of the women]. We have a unique opportunity to show the experience of someone deciding to come forward. I don’t know if an audience has ever really seen that. Usually people start telling the story after someone has come forward.

The film adds a lot of context about the roles of black men and women in the historical sense. How black women are often not believed when it comes to sexual assault and may feel impelled to protect black men from racism and violence associated with their sexuality. Why did you decide to employ this framework?
Dick: One of the wonderful things about making this movie was — as we interviewed Drew and [other survivors] — we also interviewed Kimberlé Crenshaw [the scholar/lawyer/philosopher who coined the theory of intersectionality] and others. They sort of took us into this world and gave us insight into the challenges of black women reporting sexual assault. That was one of the things that opened up for us and added just an entire [new] level of understanding — communicating that experience to audiences. We were really very grateful for that guidance.

Tell me a little about Oprah backing out of the film. How do you respond to her claim in the New York Times that “there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured”?
Ziering: Oprah was a collaborator with us from February [2019] through almost a year in the making of the film. She saw some clips in early February — she shook my hand in that meeting and said she was coming on board. In the course of working with her, we had shown her clips from several different interviews we had done and Drew was among those. We called her and said, “We’ve been putting this together… and we think we’ve got something that might be a bit different. It might be just a feature film on the experience of black women through the prism of Drew’s experiences.”

We showed her a rough cut in June and she loved it. She called us and said, “Absolutely. Let’s do it that way.” We kept working with her very closely; she gave us notes throughout. … In August, [Oprah’s production company] Harpo and Apple decided that we should apply to Sundance and Apple did the application. There was no sense that there were any problems. She was incredibly supportive and thoughtful and gave a lot of creative input.

Sundance and Harpo then put out a press release and then Sundance did an announcement where they inadvertently published Drew’s picture. The film was just supposed to come out as a film about women in the music industry — that was the only description that was supposed to go public at that time. But people saw the photo and heard that it was about Russell. Then Russell started a very public campaign saying that Oprah shouldn’t be part of the film. After that, she had a huge change of heart and we’re sorry. We know the film wouldn’t be what it is without her. It would have never gotten to where it is without her close collaboration and creative input.

“People have been reaching out to [the subjects] … to embrace them and tell them how they’ve been inspired by them.” – Ziering

What kind of vetting did you do for your subjects?
Ziering: We always do a very rigorous process of vetting. We would never put anything out without that. We had not only our legal team, Harpo’s legal team and Apple’s legal team. Most of these stories — or many of these stories — had already been published in the New York Times [and other publications]. It’s probably one of our most rigorously vetted [films].

Tell me about the montage of women at the end — all sharing their stories about Simmons. That was added later in the process, no?
Ziering: No, actually, in Invisible War it features five main characters and then there’s [a montage]. It’s something we typically do. We had cut that version [at first] but in editing we decided it was worth putting back in.

Dick: We actually did additional interviews for the montage. We thought it was important because obviously 20 women have come forward publicly talking about experiencing sexual abuse of some sort from Russell.

Have you heard anything from Simmons?
Dick: We went out to Russell to participate in the documentary and [his people] declined.

How did the partnership with HBO Max happen after Apple left?
Ziering: Some of the people that work at HBO Max were at the premiere at Sundance and they were so moved that they felt that that was something they wanted to acquire. So, they got in touch with us shortly after the premiere. We appreciate and applaud their vision and leadership. We feel like we couldn’t have landed at a better place.

Have you spoken with the women from the film? Are they nervous at all about the premiere?
Ziering: You get very close with everybody. The journey is so arduous. This is not an easy lift for anyone involved. But I think they’re excited. People have been reaching out to them in the wake of Sundance to embrace them and tell them how they’ve been inspired by them.

In 2017, it seemed like perhaps men would face a reckoning when it came to #MeToo. Three years later and some of these men are returning to work. What more do you think needs to happen for men to stand accountable for their crimes?
Dick: To look at the positive first, we never actually thought that the #MeToo movement would happen in the way that it did. There definitely has been some change.

[But] the way the culture approaches sexual assault, it’s been ingrained in our culture for centuries. I think it’s going to take a lot longer than two or three years for that to change. It’s an ongoing fight to keep these issues in front of the public, to support survivors. I think that’s the key thing. If you support survivors, they will come forward. If they come forward, they will report on these assaults and there’s an opportunity for justice. And that encourages other survivors to come forward. It’s probably going to be a long process, but I think certainly we’re in a much better position than we were five years ago.