‘Allen v. Farrow’ Filmmakers Answer All Our Burning Questions About Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow
Documentary team Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (“On the Record”) talk about their HBO docuseries on Woody Allen’s alleged child sexual abuse of daughter Dylan Farrow.
Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering have dedicated their careers to, as they put it, taking on “very powerful institutions in an aggressive, truth-to-power, no-stone-unturned way.” In recent years, the documentarians have exposed the sexual assault epidemic in the U.S. military (The Invisible War), the scourge of sexual assault on college campuses (The Hunting Ground), and the numerous allegations of sexual assault levied against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons in last year’s On the Record. But nothing could have prepared them for the story of Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow—a decades-long saga involving incest, child sexual abuse, misogyny, media and Hollywood complicity, and government corruption.
“It never really was told,” explains Dick. “We thought it was told, but we’d only heard one version told over and over and over again, and that version never really told the truth.”
And that version was Woody Allen’s, who has long claimed that his then-partner Mia Farrow coached their adopted 7-year-old daughter Dylan into lying about him molesting her in the attic of their Connecticut country home on Aug. 4, 1992, because she was incensed after catching him in a sexual relationship with her other adopted daughter that they’d raised together from a young age, Soon-Yi. As Dick and Ziering’s four-part HBO docuseries Allen v. Farrow persuasively argues, the facts appear to overwhelmingly support Dylan and Mia Farrow’s version of what happened—that on Aug. 4, 1992, Allen sexually assaulted Dylan in the attic, and that it was the culmination of years of disturbing behavior Allen had shown toward Dylan, and which Allen had seen a clinical psychologist about in 1990, two years prior to the alleged incident.
In Allen v. Farrow, we hear from not only Dylan, her mother Mia, and her brother Ronan, but also other members of the Previn family, babysitters, tutors, neighbors, family friends, police, and social workers, all of whom support Dylan’s testimony, which has been consistent since she was a child. The docuseries also presents never-before-seen documents and audio recordings made by Allen and Farrow of conversations between them, argues that Allen had begun preying on Soon-Yi as a high school teenager, that the infamous Yale New Haven report exonerating Allen was highly questionable, and that the New York City Child Welfare Administration’s investigation was halted under suspicious circumstances. (In a statement released to the press the night of its Feb. 21 premiere, Allen and Soon-Yi called the series “a hatchet job riddled with falsehoods,” while failing to counter any of the claims with any specificity.)
The Daily Beast spoke with Dick and Ziering about the making of Allen v. Farrow, which was shot in secret over the course of three years.
How did this project come across your desk, so to speak?
Ziering: I always like to say that our projects find us, we don’t really find our projects. Things happen in a much more organic way than some other documentary films work, in that we don’t adapt things or look at things in the past. Post #MeToo, some friends called us and said that there were a lot of women talking who were experts in the field. We set up a shoot in New York, and Amy Herdy, our lead investigative producer, said, “Would you guys maybe want to interview Dylan [Farrow] and do something on Hollywood?” We envisioned this as a series where we’d have different clusters of women, and we’d also been long meditating on an incest project, so we said sure. We were fortunate enough to secure the interview with Dylan, and that week in Brooklyn was the week we not only interviewed Dylan but also Drew Dixon, who ended up being the lead subject in our expose on the music industry and Black women when they suffer sexual assault in On the Record. We did the interview with Dylan and we all talked afterward and thought there was way more to this story that we didn’t know. And then Amy [Herdy] just said, “Let me do some digging…”
Dick: I thought, well, there have been so many reporters on this that they must have found everything there is to find. But first, listening and watching to Dylan’s interview, and just how powerfully she came across and what an epic story she was telling—here is a young woman where this has been her whole life, and she tells every step of it in not only a persuasive way but an emotional way. We’ve interviewed a lot of survivors, and as you can see, it really affects audiences. Then, when Amy Herdy started investigating and coming up with more and more information, including the cover-up of the investigations, as well as how Woody Allen has spun this and controlled the media, we thought, no, this is not a story that’s been told at all. This is something that there needs to be a lot more investigation into. And keep in mind: This was probably the most high-profile case involving incest in the U.S. in the last 50 years. So, this case has influenced the way we see this issue. Suddenly, it went from not just a story about Dylan, but a story about how the public perceives this issue and how the media portrays it.
And you said it was incest, which it is, although I just wanted to clarify for readers that Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow are not blood-related.
Ziering: It’s still incest, and that’s a fallacy—but it’s an interesting thing that you bring up. When we were doing research, I was struck by how they keep saying “the adopted daughter,” “the adopted daughter,” as if somehow if you violate a sacred boundary and commit any kind of crime against someone in your family and you’re not blood-related it’s different. It absolutely is not. A child relates the same way, and it affects the child the same way.
What do you feel is the most damning new testimony or information that you’ve included in Allen v. Farrow?
Dick: For me, it was the cover-up around the New York investigation. I mean, that was shocking. Paul Williams was one of the most highly esteemed investigators within the entire agency. He believed Dylan, and it was very evident when you read through hundreds of pages of notes, it’s a saga of cover-up again, and again, and again. That was really surprising to me. And also, that so many people who were trained investigators who interviewed Dylan believed her. And that information never got out.
Ziering: And for me, it was listening to the private tapes of Mia [Farrow] and Woody [Allen].
Allen does sound cold and almost villainous on the tapes. There’s that moment where Mia keeps asking him what he was up to in the house on Aug. 4, 1992, and he keeps ominously replying, “All the details when the time comes…”
Ziering: He does sound very, very different from the persona we all fell in love with, that’s for sure. And if you listen to that and look at it through the lens of, “If you were a father that was concerned about a daughter that made up charges, would this be your line of questioning as a response?” It was just striking. Really striking.
Kirby, I wanted to go back to the New York “cover-up,” as you said. The documentary implies that this went all the way up to then-Mayor David Dinkins, and that it had to do with the millions of dollars that Woody Allen was bringing to the city with his film projects.
Dick: It did go well up the chain, and there were communications from the mayor’s office urging that the investigation be stopped. And there were multiple efforts by multiple superiors—this wasn’t just one person saying, “Shut it down.” As Paul Williams’ attorney says in our film, this happened at multiple levels and multiple times. Because Williams was a person who really wanted to get the truth out, and he kept fighting against the cover-up and kept getting shut down. Because he wouldn’t give up, and because he felt it was important to complete the investigation the way it should, he was fired. That’s how extensive this cover-up was. Obviously, Woody Allen is revered in New York and he brought in a lot of money to the city at that time, but we don’t have any knowledge of direct communications between Woody Allen and the mayor. What we do have is extensive evidence of a cover-up of an investigation by a very skilled investigator.
Media complicity appears to play a big role in Allen v. Farrow. Right when the investigation starts into the Dylan allegations, Woody holds this big, rather out-of-character press conference at The Plaza where he declares his love for Soon-Yi, and claims that Mia Farrow did all this out of vindictiveness and spite. And then he does this press blitz, including cover stories in TIME, Newsweek, and People, as well as 60 Minutes. To this day, it’s extraordinary how Woody’s narrative has taken hold.
Dick: That was classic parental alienation syndrome strategy, which is if you’re accused, to go on the attack. And the reason that kind of lands is because we live in a misogynistic society that often blames mothers for everything. There’s this archetype of the evil mother, and that’s what’s being played on here, when in fact, it’s so rare that people are intentionally false reporting—children or mothers. What Woody was able to do was get out this narrative, in part because he had a powerful PR machine, and in part because he was super aggressive—hiring PIs and all that—but also in part because Mia chose not to speak since she knew that the more she spoke, the more destructive it would be for her children. She chose to protect her family and protect her children rather than get into this huge public fight that would traumatize her children even more. This is the first time she’s spoken on camera about this, and she was turning down interviews. She turned down an interview with Maureen Orth, who was one of the only members of the media who was trying to dig in and get to the truth of this story because she was trying to protect her children.
What lessons do you feel the media should learn from this?
Ziering: Do your homework. I think the media really dropped the ball here. And look who the messenger is. Does the messenger have a vested interest in conveying a certain message? And if they do, be a little more skeptical about amplifying it and creating an echo chamber for a very biased, one-sided narrative. What was so crazy and manipulative about this narrative was that it was presented as a he said, she said, when it was really just a he said, he said, he said. And don’t be so seduced. Don’t conflate celebrities’ personas with their private lives. And we’re all susceptible to that. The public was played by this narrative because Woody was so beloved. And the last is: beware of misogyny and beware of your unconscious biases. We all were really primed to accept these narratives—not just because Woody said them and because the media amplified them, but because for centuries, these have been the dominant narratives. Men are the protagonists and superheroes, and women are hysterical.
What was the process like trying to get ahold of Woody Allen and Soon-Yi for this?
Dick: Amy Herdy, who was our investigative producer, reached out multiple times in multiple different ways. We really wanted to get an interview with them. We really wanted to hear their side of the story in an interview. To be honest, we didn’t expect Woody Allen would say yes because he rarely says yes to any interview—even about his own films. But we were able to put his side of the story in throughout the series [through the audiobook version of his memoir, Apropos of Nothing], all the way from meeting Mia at the beginning all the way through to last year and how this was being covered in the press. That’s one of the things that really helps understand what’s going on, is that you hear Woody Allen’s perspective throughout the series.
You do a solid job of contradicting many of Woody Allen and Moses Farrow’s claims about what happened on Aug. 4, 1992. You provide Woody Allen and Moses’ contradicting testimony as to what Woody was up to that day. We see that Woody testified during the child-custody trial that Moses wanted nothing to do with him that day and walked off, and Moses has an entirely different version of events where Woody was around.
Dick: Moses says that he was present with Woody Allen almost all the time, so how could this have happened, and Woody, as you said, completely contradicts that by saying Moses was off on his own most of the day.
A part of me thinks that many members of the media and public don’t want to believe that Woody Allen molested Dylan Farrow. It’s such a disturbing thing to believe, and it does color his work and makes it difficult to watch it again.
Ziering: It’s a very deep connection people have with people they see on screen, people they enjoy, people they’ve been entertained by. With Woody’s persona on screen, he was so neurotic, and charming, and witty, and it made him seem like someone we could all identify with, and that’s hard. You form a very deep connection to that and have a very deep investment to that. Also, Woody didn’t just play a character like Daniel Day-Lewis. He ostensibly played himself. His character was always him—the underdog, neurotic Jewish guy who stumbled through life in an amusing, original fashion, and that’s incredibly seductive and appealing, but then it was hard to believe that he was anything other than that in his real life. And not only is it hard to think about things that make us uncomfortable about people we’ve fallen in love with in the public eye, but also is really uncomfortable to ever think that parents could do this to their children, so it’s almost this double-situation. The #MeToo movement hasn’t really happened for incest survivors, because it’s something that people aren’t really comfortable even entertaining. It’s so disturbing.
What do you think of Moses Farrow’s continued defense of Woody Allen? Did you dig into why Moses has been doing this? Is he financially tied to Woody? To come out decades later with this different version of events and full-throated defense of Woody has always struck me as odd.
Ziering: I think we just want to talk about Episode 1. We’re happy to come back and talk about things in Episode 3, but these are things that haven’t aired yet.
Let’s talk about Hollywood complicity then. Everyone knows that Dylan’s story gained a lot of traction during the 2014 Golden Globes, where Woody Allen received a lifetime achievement award that was introduced by Emma Stone, and received by Diane Keaton, and Ronan Farrow sent out a viral tweet accusing Allen of molesting his sister. And around that time, you had Cate Blanchett vying for—and winning—an Oscar for a Woody Allen film and defending him, and a number of other stars have defended Allen over the years, many of whom have received great acclaim for appearing in his films.
Dick: I think that’s not exclusive to Hollywood. Every industry has protected the powerful people within those industries. The actors who spoke out on his behalf—a lot of them have actually changed their minds and expressed their regret about that, and some of it goes back to how Woody Allen was able to dominate the story here to the point that the real story never came out. I would be very surprised if an actor came out with a full-throated defense of Woody Allen after they’ve seen our series, or after the series has come out. I do want to say one thing though: Hollywood as an industry is often critiqued as being shallow, and there is a lot of truth to that critique, but I do think Hollywood should be given credit as being one of the industries at the vanguard of the #MeToo movement—and especially the women in Hollywood. There’s a long history of Hollywood protecting powerful predators, but to the industry’s credit, they’ve really led the charge to start to shift things in our society.
Have you received threats from the Woody Allen camp over this?
Dick: Um, no, we have not. But that wouldn’t stop us. We’d still go forward with what we know is the truth, and we’re certainly prepared for an entire range of responses, but we’re also very confident that what we have is completely corroborated and the reporting is rock-solid.
I wanted to ask a question about On the Record, which is a documentary that I don’t think got the respect it deserves. I’ve spoken with Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, and Sheri Sher, and Sil Lai has been a contributor to The Daily Beast. The other night, Gayle King conducted a strange interview with FKA Twigs concerning her abuse allegations against Shia LaBeouf, and then Drew responded on Twitter with a link to strange questions Gayle asked her and the other Russell Simmons survivors, and then Gayle King said to Drew, “Shame on you.” So, I’m wondering why you think Oprah backed out of On the Record, and how you felt about it. From The New York Times piece, it certainly seemed like Russell Simmons may have gotten to her.
Dick: Um… well, I think you’ll have to ask her that. Certainly, the full story hasn’t been told. There’s no question about that. But you’ll have to ask her. She would be the person who would be able to speak to what hasn’t come out yet.
How did you feel about Oprah backing out of the project right before Sundance? Because that is a huge thing to have happen, to not only have Oprah back out but the distribution deal that came with her. It put you and the film in a very vulnerable position.
Dick: It was obviously very challenging, and a complete surprise. But again, we knew that we had to stand behind the survivors. Even if other people were backing out, we knew we had to stand behind the survivors, because they had courageously come forward and spoken in our film, and if we were to back down, it would reflect very badly on their story, and it would raise questions about their story, and there were no questions to be raised at all. Just like in Allen v. Farrow, the reporting in On the Record is rock-solid. So, we chose to stand behind the survivors and move forward. And we’ll always do that.
Ziering: We stand behind survivors, and we stand behind the truth. The two go together. All the things in our films are corroborated, verified, fact-checked, and triple-vetted by law firms. We’ve never had to do one fact retraction from any of our films, and our films take on very powerful institutions in an aggressive, truth-to-power, no-stone-unturned way. We were confident the story was solid, and we were not going to let the people down who had been so brave in telling it by in any way backing away from a distribution plan that had had Oprah’s blessing. It was Harpo and Oprah who told us to submit to Sundance. This thing was rock-solid, and also, I do want to say that it would not have been made without Oprah. But it was traumatic and devastating and super sad on all levels—and also very instructive. I feel super bad for everyone.
I want to go back to Allen v. Farrow, which I felt was quite comprehensive and powerful. We hear from neighbors and family friends in the first episode, and these are people that I don’t believe we’ve heard from before. What was it like to get hold of these people?
Ziering: Well, as we’ve said, Amy Herdy is incredible. She tried to get us in touch with anyone who would be eyewitnesses on the scene at the time, so whatever friends were in and out of the house, babysitters, nannies, tutors, police, investigators, prosecutors, etc. That’s what she does, and that’s how it all happened. She really cast a super-wide net, and once people started responding, many were reluctant, and many turned us down, but some neighbors and family friends were happy to talk and tell us what they witnessed happen.
And the film was made in secret over three years?
Ziering: Pretty much so. My kids were the only people who knew. My mom and sister didn’t know, my friends didn’t know. As soon as the trailer broke, all my friends were like, “Oh my god.” We had a codename for it—it was “Eliza”—and everything was in code. We spoke on Signal or WhatsApp. It was very close to the vest.
Why did you decide to take those security measures?
Ziering: We typically always do, honestly. As Kirby pointed out, we tend to do stories that weren’t already broken, and we had new information in this one, so we didn’t want anything that would impede our ability to get access to documents or witnesses. The more you talk, the more things can disappear or get shut down. Our standard operating procedures are very sensitive in investigative stories like this.
What was the most difficult part of tackling Allen v. Farrow?
Dick: This is an epic story. There are so many people involved, and it took place over decades, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there. The other thing about the series is you really live through these experiences with the people who were there—with Dylan, with Mia, and even to some extent with Woody Allen, in using the recording of his audiobook memoir Apropos of Nothing. It not only is a look into the truth of what happened, but it also is a look into the psychological and emotional experiences of the people who went through it over many decades. And expands from that to even larger social issues, including issues around media coverage. We really wanted to capture the whole thing.
Are you two going to be tackling the Harvey Weinstein saga? Other than the documentary Untouchable, which I saw at Sundance and wasn’t so comprehensive, there hasn’t yet been a docuseries on Weinstein. Is that on your radar?
Ziering: Well, it’s not—but even if it were, we wouldn’t be able to tell you.