A Filmmaker’s Saga: Harvey Weinstein’s Outrageous Battle to Sabotage My Movie About Him
Illustration by: Guy Shield

A Filmmaker’s Saga: Harvey Weinstein’s Outrageous Battle to Sabotage My Movie About Him

In this exclusive excerpt from Barry Avrich's book 'Moguls, Monsters and Madmen: An Uncensored Life in Show Business,' the Canadian filmmaker reveals the pain and ingenious roadblocks he overcame to get his 2011 documentary finished (and why his mother thought the studio head was going to murder him: "Can't you pick another dead one so at least he can't kill you personally?").

Canadian filmmaker Barry Avrich, 52, always has had a passion for documentaries about difficult men. He has profiled subjects including Rolling Stones promoter Michael Cohl, writer Dominick Dunne and famed Canadian lawyer Edward Greenspan and now is working on a film about the Bronfmans. A particularly tough subject was Lew Wasserman, the legendary MCA chairman. "He put his hand on my shoulder with his thumb in my neck," recalls Avrich, "and said, 'The film won't be made, whether I'm alive or dead.' " But Avrich persisted, and three years after Wasserman's 2002 death, he premiered The Last Mogul to strong reviews. Wasserman was his most difficult subject until Avrich tried to make a documentary about Harvey Weinstein, the colorful co-founder of Miramax and The Weinstein Co. As Avrich recalls in this excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, Moguls, Monsters and Madmen (ECW, May 10), Weinstein, 64, used both charm and an iron fist to sabotage the project — and when that didn't work, he secretly conspired with IFC Films, which bought distribution rights, to turn Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Story into a semi-authorized story.

I'm not sure what attracts me to making films about moguls. It could be their Faustian exercise of power, often leading to a tragic downfall. It could be the glittering world that — at least for a time — they create around them. When I was filming Lew Wasserman, whom I called "The Last Mogul," the name Harvey Weinstein kept surfacing. The entertainment industry had grown so exponentially since Wasserman that no single person could hope ever again to hold it in such an iron grip. Yet, Weinstein, operating from both America's East and West coasts, changed movies in ways that others scrambled to copy. He was a self-described outsider, and yet everyone in the industry knew him by his first name. As a producer, he had the ambition of a tyrant and the eye of an artist. His films captured an unprecedented 303 Oscar nominations and more than 75 wins.

Like Wasserman, my introduction to him came through my advertising work with Echo. Alliance had the rights to distribute for Miramax Films, founded in 1979 by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, and this made me the marketing guy for Miramax in Canada. Occasionally I would be on conference calls with Alliance, and Harvey would ask, "What are we doing in Canada? No, no! You gotta buy more media."

Avrich next to a poster for his 2005 documentary about MCA chairman Lew Wasserman.

Once again, Dusty Cohl, co-founder of the Toronto Film Festival, was instrumental first in urging me to do a Weinstein documentary and then in getting me to Harvey through personal emails and phone calls. I said repeatedly to Weinstein, "I'd like to make a film about you," and he replied each time with increasing force, "No, I don't want you to do it right now." Eventually, he added, "I shouldn't tell you this, but Quentin Tarantino is already filming a documentary on my life."

I replied, "Harvey, I find that hard to believe. He's working on Kill Bill Vol. 3."

I heard another filmmaker — certainly not Tarantino — had tried to document Weinstein, who was said to have pushed him right out of the business. But Harvey also had sent me a pleasant note about The Last Mogul. So, maybe? When I contacted him again, he sounded more conciliatory. "Barry, I'm not ready to make the film, but when I do, you're the guy."

I knew he never meant it to happen, but by now enough buzz had been created by my attempts to get it started that The New York Times approached me. I replied, "Let me get the financing in place first, or I'll look like an idiot if this unravels."

I did get the financing, selling domestic rights to HBO Canada and international rights to High Point Media, a U.K. distributor. After that, The New York Times did a major story: "Documentarian Attempts to Climb Mount Weinstein."

Michael Cohl [Dusty's cousin] called me as soon as the story hit. In the early days, Michael and Harvey had known each other because both promoted concerts. Later, they had partnered to produce Broadway shows. Michael began by saying, "Harvey asked me to speak to you." Was he going to wave a flag or swing a bat? "Harvey doesn't want your film made, so if he doesn't want it, don't make it. There are other films you can do."

"Michael, I'm making the Harvey movie."

"I'm asking you not to. Harvey doesn't want it. Take a check, go and meet him, and maybe he'll finance one of your other films."

I became cagey. "What kind of check are we talking about? In 1989, you offered The Rolling Stones $40 million to walk away from Bill Graham. If I'm going to be a whore, what's the payoff?" Michael couldn't answer because he wasn't supposed to be negotiating. Instead, he became somewhat aggressive. After I started setting up key interviews, word again got back to Harvey, and I received another call from Cohl. "Barry, don't be an idiot. Stop making the film."

"Here's the deal, Michael. Set up a meeting with Harvey. Let me sit down with him, and let's see what we come up with." Michael passed on my message, and Harvey agreed.

I flew down to Los Angeles on the weekend of the 2011 Oscars. We were to meet at 10 a.m. at the Montage in Beverly Hills. Even though I'd brought my friend Todd White, a savvy criminal lawyer and a former partner of Eddie Greenspan, I was trembling. The notepad I'd just purchased said "Carpe Diem," and seize the day was exactly what I hoped to do.

In a scene Avrich says was like something from 'The Godfather,' Weinstein ordered him to a meeting at the Montage in Beverly Hills.

Harvey was sitting in the middle of an otherwise empty dining room with a group of associates. It was like a scene from The Godfather, as if he had taken over the entire restaurant for his meetings. When he finished the first conversation, he came over to my table. He glanced at Todd.

"Who is this?" he asked.

"Todd White, a friend."

"OK, then do you mind if I have a friend join us?"

"No. That's fine."

I don't remember who that friend was, but I do remember that Harvey immediately began working me over with his charm offensive. "Barry, I'm not ready to do this film. I've got a family, you know, and I'm building my new business. Let's do something else together. Do you want to make a film about Martin Scorsese? I can get that done."

"Not really. That film has already been made. Harvey, when I made The Last Mogul, you told me —"

"Fantastic film! Could I have another DVD of it?"

"Sure. I'll send it."

"How about a movie about Arthur Krim? Great story!"

"Who?"

"Arthur Krim. He created Orion Pictures and was an adviser to Lyndon Johnson."

Another dead man. "Harvey, fewer people will go to that film than a film about you."

That seemed to encourage him. "So, we're going to agree that a film about me is not worth doing. Now, do you want something for breakfast, or a Diet Coke or anything?"

"No, no, I don't want anything."

"OK, then let's agree to keep talking about this."

"Sure, we can agree about that."

"Anything else you want?"

I decided to go for something better than a Diet Coke. "I'd love to attend your famous post-Oscars party."

"Done!"

I walked out of the restaurant knowing I was still going to make the Harvey Weinstein story — and still trembling.

When the Page Six gossip column of the New York Post printed a story saying I was moving ahead with the Weinstein project, Harvey contacted me again. "I need to talk to you about this movie. I'm getting annoyed here."

We set up a telephone appointment for the next Saturday morning. Before that could happen, I called my friend Jim Sherry, who had worked at Miramax, for advice.

"Barry, there are three phases with Harvey. He's going to tell you what an unbelievable filmmaker you are and try to convince you not to make the film." Check. "He's going to try to buy you out by promising you money to make another movie." Check. "Then he's going to try to destroy you."

Next, I called Eddie Greenspan. "I don't know how to handle this," I said. "Can you listen in quietly on my phone call with Harvey and take notes?"

Harvey launched into familiar territory. "Barry, I've asked you over and over and over not to make this movie. You're making the movie, and I'm not happy. I've offered you things, and you're still making the movie."

"So, you want me to make a movie about somebody else? Wire a million dollars into my account tomorrow, and we can get into a development deal together."

Silence. Then, "Are you going through with this film or not?"

"Yes."

"How would you feel if I showed up on your doorstep with a film crew to make a movie about you?"

"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."

"Barry, this is not over. I don't want you to make the film, and I'm not through with you."

"I hear you, but I'm making the film."

We hung up. Eddie said, "You handled it well. You went back at him. It's fine, keep going."

Harvey Weinstein hadn't yet declared war. It was still cat and mouse. When The New York Times contacted him for another story about the film, he told them, "Barry is a great filmmaker."

After that, he kept checking in on me. He tried coercion. He tried threats. He recommended people to interview for the film. He contacted people I'd already lined up and compelled them to pull out. Periodically, he would even ignore me.

When my mother, who knew about the threats over the Wasserman film, heard I was making a documentary about Weinstein, she asked, "Can't you pick another dead one so at least he can't kill you personally?" My mother — an overnight Harvey Weinstein expert — was almost right, but it wasn't me Harvey was determined to destroy. Just my documentary.

By mid-June 2010, despite Harvey's harassment, I had all the interviews I needed for the film. Word circulated through the industry that I had a rough cut worth seeing. In September 2010, IFC Films asked for a screening. They were enthusiastic. They offered me more money for a documentary than I had ever seen in a deal that included release through their own theater and television network. Wow. Since they were in a hurry to get the deal done, I bought out my international contract with U.K.-based High Point Media so IFC could announce their acquisition. Neither I nor my lawyers stopped to ask, "Why the rush?" Hell, they even had me sign the contract in Toronto on the hood of a stranger's Ferrari in front of Yorkville's Sassafraz restaurant.

With the deal in my pocket, I thought my only problem was to finish the film. Among other things, that meant hiring the right narrator. Like everything else involving Harvey, this proved to be more difficult than it should have been. My friend Peter Fonda was my first choice. "I'd love to do it," he told me. Then his agent got involved, warning him, "You make the same kind of movies Harvey does. Take this job and you won't get hired." Next, I asked Frank Langella. We worked out a deal, then he told me, "Harvey nixed it." Frank pulled out. Christopher Plummer told me, "I live two houses away from Harvey in Connecticut. I'm not going to mess with him." Alan Alda refused as well. Same reason.

Canadian uber-agent Perry Zimel recommended William Shatner. Then IFC chimed in, "He's not the right voice for the film." (I agreed.) Finally, I settled on Albert Shultz, who runs Toronto's Soulpepper theater company. He had narrated for me before, and he was fantastic.

Weinstein and Sienna Miller at the 'Factory Girl' premiere afterparty in 2007.

So, back to the editing room. When IFC saw my rough cut, I was told, "Harvey objects to that Hickenlooper humping scene and he wants it cut." [It was a particularly funny scene where Factory Girl director George Hickenlooper recalled Harvey helping direct a sex scene between Hayden Christensen and Sienna Miller, telling Christensen, "You're going to hump her and hump her and hump her and hump her, and then you're going to flip her over and do her the other way. Then she's going to get on top of you, and then there's going to be a tear running down her cheek, and the whole audience is going to tear up with her. That's how it's going to be done." And then Harvey threatened to fire the director when he didn't think the camera shots caught a wide-enough angle of the two stars in bed.]

[Editor's note: The Weinstein Co. denies this, producing separate statements from Christensen (“Harvey and I never had the conversation as described in the unauthorized book. It's absurd and sensationalized. It also would have been very easy for the author to validate said info by checking with me but that never happened”) and Miller (“I can attest that Harvey's contributions to the film and its artists were all of a positive, collaborative and incredibly constructive nature”), as well as Weinstein Co. COO David Glasser, who says in a lengthy statement: “Sadly this story is sour grapes from George Hickenlooper regarding a film that was admittedly a tough shoot. Guy Pearce and Sienna Miller had strong suggestions for the film and Harvey empowered them to improvise during the shoot. They made a movie that was in great shape better. Unfortunately, George was angry with Harvey and they weren’t able to resolve their difference before he passed away. As far as the documentary, Harvey thinks Barry Avrich is a great filmmaker and tremendous writer and is impressed with this depiction. However, as much as Harvey wishes he could live up to Barry's image, he is basically a nerd who reads three books a week and watches way too many black-and-white films. Mr. Avrich essentially makes Harvey's Clark Kent look like Superman.”]

I was flabbergasted. "Why is Harvey calling the shots?"

"Well, Barry, IFC does business with Harvey. We buy his films," said Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment.

"But he's not a partner in this film."

"No, but IFC now owns the movie, and these are the changes we want to make."

That was when I realized I had reached Act III in my negotiations with Harvey Weinstein, as my friend had predicted. True, Harvey hadn't killed me, as my mother feared, but he had sucker-punched me. IFC was owned by the Dolan family, who owned Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall. The Dolans and Harvey are close friends. Had Harvey instructed IFC to buy my film to control it? In the case of the Hickenlooper Factory Girl humping scene, I managed to save the anecdote by cutting Harvey's instructions down from six humps to four.

I worried that my film was essentially dead. Those fears were briefly allayed when IFC's head of acquisitions told me Unauthorized would be entered into key international festivals, followed by a few high-end screenings in New York and Los Angeles before its mainstream launch. Great! Had my previous dealings with Harvey made me unnecessarily paranoid?

I flew to New York to speak to Sehring about release dates. He said, "Barry, I have to tell you that Harvey sent a team to Toronto to see the film, and here's his list of changes they want." He took a sheaf of paper from his drawer. "If you aren't going to trim the film, we will."

Apparently I hadn't been paranoid enough. Harvey had final cut.

We fought over every snip. I won a few battles but lost most. Unauthorized was in danger of becoming Authorized. When I continued to press for a distribution plan, I received a passionate promise from Sehring about the importance of the film to them and how they planned to use it to launch their new Netflix-like service. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Too soon.

Follow-up calls and meetings appeared to be vintage theater, designed to keep me distracted. For the next year, IFC broke promises on screenings and marketing campaigns, probably hoping I would go away. After months of avoiding my calls, Sehring and his acquisitions flunky nearly dropped their champagne glasses when they found me seated at a table next to them at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Later, I ran into Weinstein himself on the terrace of the Hotel du Cap. Typically, he was surrounded by stars: Jane Fonda, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. When Peggy Siegal, the go-to person for getting celebrities to parties, recognized me, she called out, "Barry, do you know Harvey Weinstein?"

Weinstein (right) at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival with Kering CEO Francois-Henri Pinault and Pinault’s wife, Salma Hayek.

Harvey said, "I understand you made a good movie about me."

I responded, "My cut was way better."

By now I was pretty sure IFC had bought my film to bury it. I wanted to buy it back. My lawyer said, "That's ludicrous. Walk away. Make another movie."

I was losing every round. I rallied when a New York Times article in October 2011 asked, "What happened to the Harvey Weinstein film?" IFC went on the record saying the film would be released. On Oct. 7, 2011, they played Unauthorized on their obscure download service, SundanceNow.com, with zero publicity. You had to be a tracker dog with a keen nose to find it.

Even after this knockdown, I was still in the ring. IFC had refused to run my film in its New York theater. I called up the director of film studies at New York University. "How would you like to screen the Harvey Weinstein film that everyone's talking about and that nobody has seen? I'll come with great stories about the making of this film and show an uncensored cut." He was enthusiastic. "I'd like to open the screening up to the public," I told him, "so I'm taking an ad in The New York Times."

He liked that even more.

As it turned out, of course, the Times refused my ad because, I believe, they were afraid of pissing off Harvey, who placed a lot of ads for his films in the Times. As he once reportedly bragged to the media, "I'm the f—ing sheriff of New York!" I called the Times editorial division and told them that their ad department had turned me down. I essentially embarrassed the Times into taking my ad after all. IFC was furious.

Good.

I invited key players from New York and L.A., intent on becoming an irritant if that's what it took to get the film noticed. The NYU theater was packed, and my panel did a great job for my moment of glory. Afterward, I received a slew of emails and calls from insiders and lumi­naries, such as director Oliver Stone, who thought the film was amazing. Ron Meyer, chairman of Universal Studios, also called to say that it was a perfect follow-up to my earlier film on Wasserman.

The professional critics weren't as kind. I had tried to create a well-balanced documentary for the general public. As usual, however, I attracted the asshole factor: Where's the sleaze? Where's the inside story that's never before been told? Where's the Michael Moore exposé?

I'm proud of the film. It was finally released intact in Canada in February 2011. We subsequently created a Mogul Box Set of my films including Unauthorized. I sent one to Weinstein.

Harvey keeps in touch. He answers my emails almost immediately. When I asked him for a copy of The Imitation Game to show for the Floating Film Festival in January 2015, he said, "Yes, but I'm going to need a favor in return."

"OK. What's the favor?"

"I don't know yet."

Typical Harvey.

IFC Responds in a statement: "IFC refutes these claims and says the edits to the film were minor and were made for legal reasons and it was distributed appropriately.”

Excerpted from Moguls, Monsters and Madmen: An Uncensored Life in Show Business © Barry Avrich, 2016. Published by ECW press, ecwpress.com

This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

comments powered by Disqus