Sara Newens on Editing Russell Simmons Sexual Assault Doc ‘On the Record’

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HBO Max’s “On the Record” is a searing look at sexual harassment allegations against music mogul Russell Simmons.

The documentary follows former Def Jam Records executive Drew Dixon, who has accused Simmons of rape and sexual harassment. Other survivors — Sil Lai Abrams and Sheri Hines — and academic thought leaders — Kimberelé Crenshaw, Joan Morgan, and Tarana Burke — also share their stories in the doc.

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Directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, the team behind “The Hunting Ground” (about rape on American college campuses) and “The Invisible War” (about rape in the military), are no strangers to lensing stories on the tough subject.

As Dixon lets us into the powerful world of hip-hop, she exposes the ugly truth behind closed doors, recalling how Simmons exposed himself to her and persuaded her to come to his apartment on another occasion.

The film (streaming beginning May 27) received rave reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival following controversy sparked by Oprah Winfrey cutting ties with the project in January.

Sara Newens discusses editing the film with Variety.

Did you make any changes after the film screened at Sundance and after Oprah Winfrey withdrew her name from the film?

There were very minor changes and swapping out shots, that was it. But this is almost the final version that screened at Sundance.

How did the story come together and get to the part where Drew Dixon finally talks about her rape?

When I was first hired, the conversation was more geared towards having multiple women tell their stories and focus on that. We were not expecting to elevate Drew’s story as much as we did. I’ll never forget sitting in the room with them and with the vérité footage we had, to see her be so reflective at that moment.

With the interview Amy had done, it was so deeply moving and it just became clear that we could interweave those things around that and make it powerful.

The more I was building Drew’s story and background, the more it became about not just interweaving past and present, but also realizing that this was going to be a story that analyzed the black female experience. That was one of the trickiest parts, finding all those balances and looking at the challenges that women of color faced.

We had to figure out where it got too cerebral, too.

It was powerful to hear Drew say, “And then, I blacked out.” It was such a striking moment as the camera blacks out and as a viewer, you’re hit hard. How did you arrive at that point?

That came together very early on. I remember it being in the first iteration of construction, and it felt right to underscore that moment for the audience.

That whole sequence comes together visually with a lot of the reenactment-style shots. It was also this delicate dance of how to do it without feeling salacious or exploitative.

Kirby and Amy did a lot of test screenings, which is huge to their storytelling success. They could keep on gauging what was too much and what wasn’t enough through those screenings.

The story, as you say, goes beyond rape. It goes into how women have been erased from the narrative and why this was so important. How did you weave that in without overwhelming the story?

In a lot of ways, Drew’s reflection through the interviews and vérité moments led us down those pathways because she’s such a deep thinker. We buoyed her thoughts with the thoughts of the other women.

A lot of it was about trial and error. We wanted to provide a historical context. Where we look at misogyny in hip-hop and music, it was about how far off the offramp could we go and come back to Drew.

This is so much about the bravery of women speaking up and sharing their story, what are you hoping women get from this?

For myself, working on this was incredibly profound. I hadn’t thought that deeply about the black female experience. I hope it will provoke audiences to ruminate more and the aftermath of coming forward and how race and class complicate that experience

Terence Blanchard contributed to the score; talk about how you used his music.

I loved that I got to think about the world of music and Drew’s world of music. As an editor, you’re working with a temp score for a long time. When Terence came in to talk about the score he was going to build, he talked about how he was going to compliment the hip-hip in the film. He was hearing humming and piano and he tapped into the haunting and complex score, too. I got to go to a recording session and work with him while they were live scoring and that was a really enjoyable part of the process.

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