On the night of Jan. 25, 2015, Emile Hirsch settled into a VIP booth at Tao, a pop-up nightclub situated at the base of Main Street in the mountains of Park City, Utah. Several hours—and drinks—later, eyewitnesses say that two people had to physically pull the then 29-year-old actor off a female film executive whom he’d choked unconscious.
The occasion, as it were, was the Sundance Film Festival, an annual showcase of the year’s best independent cinema offerings. Over the years, it’s hosted the debuts of Blood Simple, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects, Whiplash, and Get Out, among others, launching the directorial careers of everyone from the Coens and Soderbergh to Tarantino and Peele. In the eyes of many aspiring actresses, however, it’s seen as something far more sinister: the hunting ground of Harvey Weinstein, who is alleged to have assaulted several women during the fest, including Rose McGowan.
Hirsch, the star of such films as Into the Wild and Lone Survivor, was there to promote Ten Thousand Saints, wherein he plays a straight-edge, closeted punk rocker heavy into Hare Krishna.
Sundance has long suffered from a kind of cultural bipolar disorder. By day, it’s swarmed with beanie-sporting cinephiles so eager to indulge in the latest experimental films they’ll trudge through feet of snow; at night, it transforms into a boozy bacchanalia, where attractive guest-list-approved scenesters rub shoulders with A-list stars (and partake in snow of a different kind).
I was at Tao that night and, along with a friend, observed Hirsch in the bathroom line just before 2 a.m. He was stumbling about, his shirt drenched with booze. We decided that was our cue, and left. We had no idea that the actor would soon unleash a paroxysm of violence.
According to police records, Hirsch claimed he’d had three or four drinks and his memory of the night was fuzzy. He further alleged the aforementioned film exec, Paramount VP Dani Bernfeld, provoked him. “She started kind of causing a ruckus and I sort of started getting intervening and this happened,” said Hirsch. “I don’t think it was much more than that to be honest... I think she had a go at me and I probably defended myself.”
Bernfeld, 31, and eyewitnesses painted a very different picture. She said Hirsch, whom she’d never met before, repeatedly got in her face when she refused his advances, asking why she looked “so tough” and branded her a spoiled party girl who’s “never done anything” with her life. “Your parents are rich and you don’t know what it’s like,” Bernfeld recalled him saying. She then pushed him away from her, telling the actor that she was in fact a studio executive and the daughter of a school principal. A waitress seemed to corroborate Bernfeld’s version of events, informing police that an inebriated Hirsch was making Bernfeld uncomfortable, pawing her and grabbing her hair.
The light shove appeared to do the trick, and Hirsch left her area. Minutes later, though, Bernfeld said he returned and jumped her. “He basically grabbed me at the curve of the elbow, choked me up, threw me across the table, and I felt the front of my throat hit the back of my throat,” she told police. One eyewitness said that Hirsch put Bernfeld in a chokehold from behind, dragged her across the table, and body-slammed her to the floor. An unidentified filmmaker-friend of Bernfeld’s claimed that Hirsch was on top of Bernfeld choking her, and it took him and another person to pull him off. “I have seen quite a few fights in my life, but this was pretty violent,” offered the director.
Cops were immediately called to the scene and Hirsch was handcuffed. An officer who interviewed Hirsch on-site said the actor was apologetic, but seemed to have little grasp of how serious things were. “I feel like I could patch it up with her,” he reportedly told police. (Both Bernfeld and Hirsch did not reply to multiple requests for comment.)
Hirsch was arrested but quickly released; police documents, meanwhile, reveal that Bernfeld was initially scared of pressing charges against the Hollywood actor given that it could potentially affect her industry standing (just two months prior, The Hollywood Reporter had named her to its list of the top industry execs 35 and under). The next day, after observing the bruising on her neck, and with her name and details of the episode already leaked to the press, she chose to pursue charges. “I am fundamentally not OK with what happened,” Bernfeld told police. “It was insanely painful and absolutely terrifying.”
More than two weeks later, Hirsch was formally charged with felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor intoxication. He faced a $5,000 fine and as much as five years behind bars for the felony charge, and a $750 fine and 90 days in jail for the misdemeanor. After spending time in rehab, Hirsch ultimately pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal, sentenced to just 15 days in jail, 90 days probation, 50 hours of community service, and a $4,750 fine. He was also ordered to pay restitution to Bernfeld, a portion of which covered her hospital bills.
“There’s absolutely no excuse for what happened. I had drank an enormous amount of alcohol and I can’t really recall exactly what happened—or even why it happened—but I know it was completely wrong, and reckless, and irresponsible,” Hirsch told the court. Bernfeld was disappointed in the deal, calling Hirsch’s sentence “the bare minimum.”
This past week, the news broke that Hirsch had been cast in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a based-on-a-true-story tale set against the backdrop of the 1969 Manson Family murders. The movie is set to star Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Kurt Russell, and Margot Robbie as the late Sharon Tate.
When Hirsch’s casting was announced, The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil, a pal of Bernfeld’s, criticized the decision on Twitter: “Cool. Emile Hirsch strangled my tiny female best friend until she blacked out at a party in front of dozens of witnesses at Sundance Film Festival (and was convicted) but Tarantino just cast him in a movie. INTENSE case of rich white male privilege eh? Cool. Cool. Cool.”
The addition of Hirsch represents another layer of ugh to one of the more ill-conceived film projects in recent memory.
For starters, it’s the first post-Weinstein film for Tarantino, whose impressive oeuvre not only helped create the Weinstein mythos but also kept his company afloat—this despite the filmmaker knowing that the mogul had attacked his ex-girlfriend, the actress Mira Sorvino. If that weren’t enough, Tarantino has also defended Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, who raped a 13-year-old girl (“Look… she was down with this”); endangered the life of Uma Thurman during the filming of Kill Bill; creepily propositioned Jane Hamsher, producer of the Tarantino-penned Natural Born Killers; and called on himself to choke Diane Kruger in Inglourious Basterds.
Then there’s the matter of Brad Pitt, who chose to make not one, but two movies with Harvey Weinstein—Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Killing Them Softly—after the film executive had attacked his former partners Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. As I reported previously:
A source close to Pitt confirms to The Daily Beast that Pitt knew of the Paltrow incident with Weinstein but that ‘Quentin went to him directly to bring him into the project, and Brad did it because of the relationship and the contact. Interaction with Harvey was very limited.’ The source, however, went on to explain that since every Tarantino project has been distributed by Weinstein, Pitt understood that Inglourious would be as well. They could not confirm whether Pitt knew at the time of his then-girlfriend Jolie’s alleged incident with Weinstein.
So just to recap: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film centered on the gang murder of a pregnant woman, will be directed by and star two men who excused Weinstein’s predatory behavior, and will co-star a man convicted of brutally assaulting a female film executive.
What a total nightmare.