Almost four years ago, investigative journalist Ronan Farrow helped spark the movement for survivor justice known as #MeToo, with his reporting that exposed decades of sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein. Yet, the story behind the story of how Farrow and others brought the allegations to light is a thriller on its own, adapted into Farrow's 2019 book, "Catch and Kill," and later, "The Catch and Kill Podcast with Ronan Farrow."
Now, the epic story of power, truth-telling, and a sea change to protect and empower women, has been adapted into an HBO documentary series, "Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes." Directed by Emmy winners Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the series is an accumulation of years of intimate interviews and chilling research, presenting the harrowing, captivating tale of how Weinstein was finally brought to justice — and the corporations, lawyers, notorious non-disclosure agreements, police departments, and media ecosystem that protected him for years.
"There has been change, but it's important to understand just how difficult it can be for certain stories like this to see the light of day," Barbato told Salon. "It is the persistence and hard work of so many people, clearly Ronan at the forefront, being relentless to tell this story against so many odds, against a corporation saying, 'no, we're not going to move this story forward.' Thankfully for all of us, he, with the help of others, kept persisting."
A unique cast of characters brings "Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes" to life – from the courage and craftiness of Italian-Filipina model Ambra Guttierez, who first caught Weinstein's confessions of sexual abuse on a wire in 2015 to a surprising ally in Igor Ostrovsky, initially hired to spy on Farrow for Weinstein. The result is a thorough and addictive triumph of investigative reporting that presents the cautious dismantling of systemic, patriarchal abuse of power. Bailey and Barbato spoke to Salon about adapting the story for television, the continued impact of the story in 2021 and beyond and the humanity and compassion that lie at the heart of this project.
Between the police investigations, the original interviews from when Ronan Farrow was first reporting, and the new interviews on the podcast, there was a lot of material for the show. What was your process of sorting through all of this material and creating a cohesive product? What were the new pieces of information or materials that you knew you absolutely needed to use?
Fenton Bailey: We came on board when the idea of this series was born, and by that point, the book existed, the audiobook existed and the podcast existed. And they'd had the foresight to tape a lot of those interviews for the podcast. It was in the middle of a pandemic, so the opportunity to go out and film new interviews wasn't really possible, so they came to us and said, "Can you make something of this?" We were wildly passionate and excited about it, because even though the story has been told in the articles Ronan wrote, the book and his podcast, seeing it makes all the difference. When you see the people Ronan interviewed, and can put a face to the voice, it creates another dimension. We were so honored to be able to present and show the victims of Harvey Weinstein over many years.
Then, I feel this series shows you the story of the story. It pulls back the veil and shows you it actually is really hard to bring someone to account, and investigative reporting is hard, difficult, even at times dangerous work. As storytellers, Randy and I thought this is a really gripping story, in that we were familiar with a lot of the points about Weinstein, but we hadn't seen this in quite this way, from this perspective. It really feels like a real-life thriller, really.
Weinstein is in jail and still due to stand trial in Los Angeles. While "Catch and Kill" takes place in the past, what sort of consideration were current-day events given to how you created the series?
Randy Barbato: For us, from a creative perspective, I think the most important thing was to make a series that respected the voices in the series, whether it was the whistleblowers, or the other journalists who Ronan spoke with, private investigators. The series isn't necessarily about the current events in the story, now, because I think the story is evergreen, it's timeless. Like Fenton said, Ronan's book and the podcast and series are about the story of the story itself, speaking truth to power, the courageousness it takes. Look how long it's taken Weinstein to be brought to justice, it took the voices of all these different people to come together. It wasn't our job necessarily to make a series about the story today, our job was to help people understand how we got to where we are today, what it took, for Weinstein to be brought to justice.
In the first episode, Catch & Kill will explore how even with the confession from Weinstein that Ambra Gutierrez caught while wearing a wire, police still didn't act. What has retelling her story on the show been like, at this time of increased criticism of how police departments have harmed or ignored survivors?
Bailey: I think there is tremendous institutionalized disbelief when it comes to victims. It's not just the police department, you know, it's corporations, sometimes even the press, the Justice Department. You see that in Ambra's story, because you would think doing what the police asked her to, wearing a wire, getting the confession caught on tape — you'd think it would be a short few steps to Weinstein being arrested and put on trial, but that is not what happened. Instead, Ambra found herself put on trial in the media, when stories started emerging about her past in Italy.
We see this time and time again, the fundamental disposition to disbelieve the victim. It's a story that plays out not just over a few weeks and a few months, this is over years. Just the end of last month, Weinstein was extradited to L.A. — it's still going on. This is a process that's been going on in Weinstein's case for decades. If it takes that long to bring one person, one high-profile person like Weinstein to account, think how many more are out there who have been getting away with it and continue to, to this day. It's profoundly disturbing, really, and also why we found it so important to tell this story because you see over the six episodes how it wasn't enough to have one person, you had to have multiple people. And even then, multiple people weren't enough, NBC didn't believe Ronan had the goods. He had to go to the New Yorker. It's an epic quest to bring those stories to light.
[UPDATE: By NBC's request, here is Noah Oppenheim's note to staff on October 14, 2019: "Farrow's effort to defame NBC News is clearly motivated not by a pursuit of truth, but an axe to grind. It is built on a series of distortions, confused timelines, and outright inaccuracies."]
TV adds a visual element to this story. What were some of the visuals you wanted to employ or avoid when it came to the typical way documentaries show past events?
Barbato: For us, as filmmakers, the subject always dictates the style and approach. While this is an epic story and thriller of sorts, we did want to have some of those elements and visual elements to amplify the storytelling. We also never wanted to overpower the subjects and the intimacy. The fact that HBO and Ronan had the foresight to record these conversations was at the core of the show. Our job was never to show our fingerprints, never to overwhelm those voices, because it's those voices and the combination of those voices — that's the story. We were lucky enough to have an incredible team we worked with, our composer, our DP [director of photography], for a very long time who all felt a personal connection to the subject matter and a commitment to bringing this story to light without overwhelming the very essence of what it is, which is these voices, the voices of the whistleblowers, the journalists, the investigators.
In addition to the voices of people who were directly harmed by Weinstein, this show will build upon the podcast and pull back the curtain on the people in media who made this reporting possible — and also tried to stop it. What insights does "Catch & Kill" offer on how media coverage of sexual violence has or hasn't changed since some of the shock reporting of fall 2017?
Bailey: I think we've seen a huge change with #MeToo, the whole movement that's come out of this sparked by this case. I do think there's a tremendous impact this story has had. I suppose in trying to understand how that is, perhaps it was just the straw that broke the camel's back. The tide rises, finally, you get a case that is a moment of precipitation. You've reached a critical mass. There's been tremendous change, certainly, at the top in Hollywood; Weinstein isn't the only predator or male behind sexual harassment to have lost his job. There is that change. I think a lot of the underlying factors persist, of a reluctance to believe people. There has been tremendous change and there is a lot further to go.
Barbato: I do think the series also reminds us — particularly if you look at Episode 2, which features some other award-winning investigative journalists Kim Masters, Ken Auletta, who were on the case of this story — how formidable the forces are against truth. How money and power can prevent truth from seeing light.
One of the most shocking pieces of "Catch & Kill" — the book and podcast — is the revelation about how Ronan Farrow was being spied on, and Igor Ostrovsky even gives his account in the sixth episode. There are so many layers and twists in this saga, what was most shocking to you as creators? What was the most challenging to convey for TV?
Bailey: Without doubt one of the most shocking things was to see those interviews Ronan conducted of people who subsequently come forward and have been identified, but at the time who gave interviews in silhouettes.
It was profoundly shocking to see how many there were, and it's gut-wrenching to hear their stories. In spite of knowing what a complicated story this is, and how many layers there are in terms of corporate layers, legal layers, always different factors at play, it's still pretty hard to recognize or accept that people can be victimized and abused, and nothing gets done about it. That a whole system can exist not intentionally necessarily, but a whole system can exist and allow and encourage this kind of behavior, and doesn't stop it. That's the hard thing, the most shocking thing, I think.
And on a personal note, the depths of depravity of Harvey Weinstein are hard to fathom — even before all this, the stories of him being a bully and abusive person were legion, but I don't think anyone ever suspected he was also a serial rapist. He's just a villain of the most extraordinary degree, and deserves no compassion, and I hope finds no legal recourse to escape the consequences of his action, the lives he's destroyed. It completely erases his cultural contributions.
Barbato: On the flip side of what was the most shocking, what was the most surprising and satisfying, was connecting with and experiencing the humanity from so many of the participants in this series. It gave me a sense of hope. Whether it was Rowena Chiu, or Rich McHugh, these people who came and spoke out and took the steps necessary to move this story forward, and did that out of this sense of duty to tell the truth, discover or find the truth. When Rich McHugh, a producer who worked with Ronan at NBC when they were pursuing the story there, in the end he left his job. He did it for the future of his daughters. There's something about that and so many other stories that are shared during the course of this series that, my hope is some of those stories will overshadow the darkness of Weinstein's story, that they will renew our hope moving forward, that less of this will happen, that there will be change. And these nefarious, powerful individuals who think they can just ignore the norms will think twice and be more respectful.
There would be no "Catch and Kill" without Ronan Farrow – but what was his level of participation for this? Did he have any general thoughts on how this should be approached?
Bailey: Ronan? Oh, yeah. Ronan is formidable. He doesn't do anything in half-measures. He doesn't do anything at a distance of arm's length. He was very involved, he agonizes over every word and every detail. He's insanely hard-working, conscientious, and scrupulous, to a degree that is quite jaw-dropping really. Working with him was such a pleasure. It's just an honor to be in the presence of that formidable an intelligence, and not only formidably intelligent, but also compassionate and funny. It's just been a sheer pleasure working with him.
"Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes" premieres Monday, July 12 at 9 p.m. on HBO and will stream on HBO Max.