Documentary filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato are giving a face to the voices behind Ronan Farrow’s 2019 book “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators” and subsequent podcast series.
In “Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes,” six half-hour episodes follow Farrow as he works to report on Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior.
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Never before seen (only heard) interviews with the Weinstein survivors Rose McGowan and Ambra Gutierrez remind audiences of the pain they suffered and efforts Farrow went to as part of his journalistic storytelling
The series brings a new light to the story, and serves as “not just a Hollywood story, but every day every town story,” Bailey says, to shine a spotlight on how America as a whole has endorsed bullying culture.
Bailey and Barbato joined Variety via zoom to talk about their new series and its present-day importance.
At what point did you think that after the podcast and book, that there was a series in there too, take us on that journey?
Randy Barbato: [HBO documentary heads] Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller reached out to us. They had filmed Ronan and some of his conversations thinking there was a possibility of this being a series and they reached out to us and shared the footage. We were blown away by these conversations.
For us, we instantly thought there is an opportunity for something really special. We’re huge fans of the book, huge fans of the podcast, but we also felt that there was an emotional dimension of the story that could come through with a TV adaptation. Seeing the whistleblowers, feeling their stories, it felt like there was a real opportunity and the creative challenge.
It was all about how do you balance respecting the source material and not overwhelming it.
Over the years we’ve seen Ronan as an investigative journalist, but when you saw that footage for the first time what was that like for you seeing it come to life?
Fenton Bailey: It was devastating. Yes, we read the interviews and read the book, we even heard the voices. When Rose McGowan pauses in the podcast, that is sort of dead air, but you can see the pain on her face and you can see the tears in her eyes, it was just so emotionally intense.
To see that just added a whole other layer, and it was just pure emotion.
There’s a figure Ronan interviewed in silhouette [in Episode 5: “The Editors”] and he’s asking her about working for the Harvey Weinstein company. He asked her this question, ‘What did Mr. Weinstein do to you?’ There’s this long pause and she puts her head down. It was so hard and you just wept because you could feel her pain that in other mediums, whether it’s reading it, or hearing it, this was more cerebral and you see that person in front of you suffering and dealing with the trauma. This isn’t a few years in the past, it’s right there for them, right now as they’re speaking about it, and you can’t escape feeling that whole emotion.
Talking about emotion, the power of seeing Ambra Gutierrez recount her experience was just as heartbreaking and emotional, but then throughout the series, there’s this idea of repeating Weinstein’s voice and that constant reminder asking for ‘just five minutes.’ Can you talk about that?
Bailey: He’s such a repulsive person. I think hearing that voice, that sort of relentless, whiny, non-stop, it’s almost like a machine gun. The frenzy of it was viscerally repulsive, and terrifying, but it’s like a leitmotif.
Barbato: It is a reminder that his voice was on tape. That a crime was committed, and yet it took so much more time for justice to be served. That’s the power of Ronan’s investigative journalism in this story. It is a reminder that we are living in an age where truth is co-opted by power and money. Watching this series, you’re reminded how much it can take to shine a light on the truth.
It’s the work of many investigative journalists. It’s the voices of many whistleblowers, and it’s all of that coming together to fight this criminal. Yet there he was on tape years ago admitting what he had done, and yet, it wasn’t enough. It took the work of Ronan and others and all of these voices.
We have an amazing team of passionate creative editors and composers and DP, they were all so moved to work on this project. They were moved because they understood the importance of amplifying the story and the message, and its relevance in the age of Trump.
Bailey: It’s such a present-day story. We got one bully, but there are others out there.
I forget how angry I felt because Ambra did what the police asked her to do, and then nothing. Harvey Weinstein had reason to believe that that tape had been destroyed. The tape featured in the series is not the tape that she gave to the police. It is a backup copy. She had the idea to put her phone into record and make her own copy. But then you feel angry that Harvey Weinstein thought that he had been able to prevail upon the D.A to destroy the evidence, and we don’t know whether he did but the tape that you hear in the series is the one she made on her own.
You mentioned the editing, the music, and weaving in the archival footage, but this was all done in the pandemic, can you talk about putting that together?
Barbato: It was this incredible creative challenge and it was a balancing act because the story does lend itself to some dramatics. We never wanted to overwhelm the voices, so it was very much about brainstorming and collaborating with our team, many of whom we’ve worked with for years, and experimenting with visuals. Again, it was always about coming back to the podcast and to the source material and the simplicity of these conversations. We never wanted to overpower that because I do think that is how you end up connecting so deeply to it.
I also love the 30-minute format of each episode. What was the challenge in whittling that down when you have all that source material and never seen before footage?
Bailey: We felt quite strongly that it was a good idea to focus each episode on one aspect of the story.
I know that the default length is one hour for limited-run series. But it just felt the right amount to get these doses. I think that the half-hour format is the new thing, especially if you do two at a time [which is how this will air, in two-episode stints]. You’re getting a little sense of ‘Oh, I’m binging, and you’re not restricted to having just one episode.’
What do you want audiences to take away from the series?
Bailey: This isn’t really a Hollywood story. I think it’s a story of every town, everywhere. When Rose says, she wants the NBC lawyers to watch her interview because it’s their daughters, it’s their mothers, it’s their children and it’s their relatives who are experiencing this kind of abuse, it made me realize that America has promoted bullies, and has endorsed bully culture.
If you don’t stop that kid on the playground, if you don’t stand up to a bully, the consequences for us Americans, as a society are devastating and enormously destructive.
You only have to look at what we’ve been through for the last four years to know that. It’s so important to stand up to bullies and the work that the whistleblowers and what Ronan did is that they stood up to bullies. I want people to feel encouraged or wherever they encounter a bully. You don’t have to be, you know, sexually attacked or bullied, but bullying by itself is a terrible evil. It is a really destructive force in America and has done great damage to this country.
“Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes” will air Monday on HBO.
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