Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick are locked in a battle of wills during a music session with a group of editors in early February. The directors are wrestling over a key moment in the four-and-a-half-hour docuseries Allen v. Farrow when the titular Mia Farrow confronts a chillingly calm Woody Allen during a never-before-heard phone conversation recorded by Allen back in 1992. Farrow launches in about their 7-year-old daughter Dylan’s claims that he molested her.
“I just don’t like the piano, the constant piano. It makes it sort of workaday,” says Dick. “Remember the tone, what we came from. Things are happening, and then you go to a phone call, which is much more intimate. But the same instrument is doing the same thing. Would it be weird to pull out the piano and bring back the violins, the strings?”
Ziering counters, “It’s good, Kirby. Let’s move on. Let’s agree to disagree.”
The Zoom session grows more heated as Dick pushes back, enlisting editor and writer Mikaela Shwer in his defense. But Ziering’s got supervising editor Sara Newens in her corner. “It’s actually stunning. It’s perfection. What am I missing? What is your issue? I don’t even understand,” says Ziering. “I’m going to die on this hill. Sorry.”
The filmmakers reach a stalemate and agree to revisit the issue later. After all, the clock is ticking. In just two and a half weeks, the explosive Allen v. Farrow will launch on HBO, and the pair is racing to the finish line on a project they’ve made in secret over the past three years. Beginning Feb. 21 and airing in hourlong installments over four consecutive Sundays, the series offers plenty of bombshells, including the allegation that Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Farrow and late musician André Previn, were in a sexual relationship while she was still in high school, and the holy grail of the Farrow-Allen narrative — never-before-seen video shot by Farrow of young Dylan recounting the alleged abuse. Allen has maintained that he never molested Dylan. The doc marks the first time Farrow has publicly discussed her former partner and collaborator in decades and features Ronan Farrow, who once tried to dissuade his sister from participating.
Long before #MeToo punctured the Hollywood consciousness, the documentarians tackled the powerful, among them Harvard Law School for 2015’s Emmy-nominated campus rape doc The Hunting Ground and the Pentagon for The Invisible War, an exposé on sexual assault in the military that was nominated for an Oscar in 2013 and won two Emmys the following year. But nothing they’ve undertaken before compares to Allen v. Farrow, which reexamines one of the most high-profile allegations of incest ever.
Featuring scores of people who have never before gone on camera to talk about the subject — including many who were at Farrow’s country home on that fateful day in 1992 — the series delves into the custody trial of the century and its impact on the woman at the center of the narrative, the now-35-year-old Dylan Farrow, as well as its broader reverberations.
“It really is a mirror to our society at large,” says Ziering. “The way these crimes go unpunished and all the reasons they do, the way that all of us are unwittingly and wittingly complicit to some degree. Woody’s persona disarmed all of us. We have this celebrity culture, and that gives them this shield of impunity. We imbue them with a certain trust and a love and then can’t believe or hear the cognitive dissonance. We give their crimes cover.”
Adds Dick: “He was like, ‘I’m just this disheveled guy who is caught in the headlights. This vicious woman has come after me.’ He is always painting himself as a victim, which again is classic. People who are accused of sexual assault, that is the first move they make. It’s like, ‘I am the victim because I have been falsely accused.’ “
The genesis of Allen v. Farrow, which marks Ziering and Dick’s first-ever docuseries, winds through the Harvey Weinstein saga. In 2016, the year before Weinstein was outed as a sexual predator thanks in part to Ronan Farrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé in The New Yorker, Ziering was a member of the Sundance jury and was seated next to future Weinstein accuser Rose McGowan at a festival-sponsored dinner. “I don’t know who she is. She doesn’t know who I am,” Ziering recalls. “I said, ‘I did The Hunting Ground.’ She goes, ‘Oh my God, can we talk?’ Rose tells me her whole story about Harvey.”
A few months later, Ziering met with another soon-to-be accuser, Ashley Judd. They began pitching the Weinstein project around town, and “everyone said no,” Ziering notes. So they moved on. Then #MeToo hit. “My cellphone explodes, and everybody is like, ‘Remember that thing you pitched? Would you guys still want to do something?’ ” she adds. That’s when Amy Herdy, the lead investigative producer at the pair’s Jane Doe Films, suggested they pursue Dylan Farrow. Tara Lynda Guber, wife of Peter Guber, had once hosted a screening of Invisible War and promised the pair seed money if they decided to pursue a project on incest. Dylan Farrow’s story could bridge the Hollywood #MeToo backdrop with Guber’s call for an incest deep dive.
Still, enlisting Dylan Farrow wasn’t easy.
“Ronan was working against us in the beginning,” says Herdy. “He did not want Dylan to do an interview with us, and he advised her to not do it. I think he felt that it wasn’t going to do her any good, that it was just going to subject her to more punishing backlash and ridicule and hate mail. And who needs that, right?”
But Herdy continued the conversation with Dylan and discovered some court records associated with her case that had never been made public. “I called her and I said, ‘I think there is so much more to your story, and I feel that you’re being, rightfully so, very guarded, and I really need you to try to trust me and open up and tell me everything that you possibly can because I would like to dive down the rabbit hole with you on this,’ ” Herdy remembers. “There was a brief hesitation, and then she said, ‘Let’s do it.’ So that day she started giving me names — ‘This person can corroborate this, and this person knows about this, and this person was a friend of the family and they saw this.’ ”
In January 2018, Dylan Farrrow sat for the interview, the same week that Ziering interviewed former hip-hop executive Drew Dixon, who detailed a harrowing claim of sexual assault at the hands of mogul Russell Simmons. Ziering and Dick worked simultaneously on both projects, with the Simmons exposé On the Record finishing first. (It premiered at Sundance in January 2020 to raves after Oprah Winfrey dropped out as an executive producer 15 days prior and cited “inconsistencies in the stories” of the accusers but also said she “unequivocally believed the women” in the film.)
For Dick, Winfrey has never given a sufficient explanation for pulling out.
“Our interest was to stand by the survivors who were courageous enough to come forward and tell their story,” says Dick of the nine Simmons accusers featured in the film. “It was an unfortunate situation, but, no, I don’t think she has given the complete story.”
Like Simmons, Allen was a powerful, beloved figure with a legion of A-list defenders. But long ago, Allen solidified the narrative as a he said/she said, with a tidy explanation for his daughter’s accusation: that she had been coached by her mother in retaliation for him falling in love with another of Farrow’s daughters, Soon-Yi Previn. With no PR machine behind her, Farrow was largely branded a scorned and desperate woman. Few were aware of some of the more disturbing elements of Allen and Previn’s relationship. These include testimony by Allen’s housekeeper that she found what she believed to be semen stains on the sheets and condom wrappers in the wastebaskets after Soon-Yi’s visits to his apartment while Soon-Yi was still in high school.
“They were entering into territory that the public thought they understood, that had been out there for years, for decades, and they were going to come back and tell an entirely new story than anyone had ever imagined was true,” says Ziering and Dick’s frequent collaborator Dan Cogan, an executive producer on Allen v. Farrow, On the Record and Hunting Ground. “And that is a very big challenge. It is one thing to introduce people to an issue or a problem that they are not aware of. It’s another thing to say to them, ‘These assumptions you have had for 20 years that you think are settled? They’re totally wrong, and here is the truth.’ But Kirby and Amy are willing to tackle the biggest monsters and are scared of nothing.”
Mia was reluctant to participate but eventually acquiesced.
“She said, ‘I’m only doing this for my daughter. Never in a million years would I do this otherwise. I wanted this all to go away. I’m done. It’s past history,’ ” says Ziering. In fact, Mia was so loath to go on camera, she showed up wearing a shabby black sweatshirt on the day of her interview. Ziering balked.
“I was wearing a silk blouse. I took off my shirt, got a shirt from a crewperson, gave her my blouse, she puts it on,” says Ziering. “For the next three years she called me the silk blouse lady.”
As time went on, Mia became more engaged and opened up her basement to Herdy, who found audiotapes recorded by Mia. All the while, Herdy worked her own sources involved with the twin investigations looking into the molestation claims — one in Connecticut and one in New York City — as well as the custody case. (As the allegations swirled, Allen sued for custody of Dylan and Moses Farrow in a case he eventually lost.) “There were several sets of records reflecting different aspects of this case. I started trying to ferret out where they were and how to get them. And there was more than one method of getting them, and I think that is pretty much all that I can say about that,” says Herdy. “But we were uncovering documents that no one had seen before.”
In June 2018, Herdy says she made the first of two requests to interview Allen for the project. His team never responded. When asked by THR about the docuseries, a spokesperson for Allen declined to comment.
HBO quietly acquired Allen v. Farrow in summer 2020, as the project was reaching the finishing line. HBO has a long relationship with Dick, a CalArts grad and a married father of two, having released his 2004 Academy Award-nominated doc Twist of Faith, a film about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
“It’s the kind of storytelling we seek out — deep dives into the complexities of a story that may seem well known in order to illuminate larger issues of our time,” says Lisa Heller, co-head of HBO Documentary Films, of Allen v. Farrow. HBO also is launching a companion podcast hosted by Ziering after each episode that will feature new material.
Ziering, a divorced mother of three and a self-described “lapsed academic,” first teamed up with Dick when she was getting her Ph.D. at Yale in comparative literature. She never finished her dissertation and instead collaborated with Dick on the 2002 doc Derrida, about French philosopher Jacques Derrida. After their take on the man who originated the form of analysis known as deconstruction, they shifted their focus to the topic of sexual abuse, becoming the premier team in the space. Or, as HBO Documentary Films co-head Nancy Abraham says, a “deep commitment to exploring difficult stories with sensitivity and rigor.”
All of Farrow’s surviving children with the exception of Soon-Yi, who remains married to Allen, and Moses, an ardent supporter of his father, participated in the documentary — some on camera and some off. (Both Soon-Yi and Moses declined to be interviewed for Allen v. Farrow.) At this point, only Mia, Dylan and Ronan have seen the finished series.
“All three of them could not believe that we had captured everything that we had,” says Herdy. “They were just so incredulous that we had gone to the depths that we had gone, that we had all the details that we had, that we had all the documents that we had, that we had all the interviews that we had. I think none of them realized that we were going to be able to put together something as monumental as we did.”
As for Ziering and Dick, they’re ready for a change of pace. They are currently at work on Not So Pretty, an HBO Max docuseries about toxic chemicals in cosmetics. “I hope [Allen v. Farrow] will be an awakening and a moment of reflection about celebrity culture, incest, misogyny, the whole cluster of patriarchal power,” says Ziering. “But I am also hoping that our next few projects might take us away from this wheelhouse a little bit. That would be a nice emotional shift for me.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.