For the past year, Alexia Norton Jones has been in anguish, constantly reliving an experience that she deeply regrets.
On Dec. 30, 2019, Jones flew to Los Angeles from her home in Arizona, to talk to the directors of the documentary “On the Record” about the night in 1990 when she says music mogul Russell Simmons raped her. Jones was a last-minute addition to the film, which features accounts from several women who claim they had been sexually assaulted or attacked by Simmons. “On the Record” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in late January 2020, only three weeks after its directors — Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick — spoke to Jones for roughly two hours, pushing her to recount details of the alleged assault, she says, without caring about her as a person.
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“I remember thinking, ‘Is this how documentaries are made?’” Jones says, recalling the time she spent with them. Although she’d talked about the alleged rape in detail over the phone with Amy Herdy, one the movie’s producers, and had brought a suitcase full of background information about her, the filmmakers didn’t show any interest in those things. Jones was surprised that Ziering didn’t seem to know anything about her — even basic details about Jones’s upbringing (she is the granddaughter of late book publisher W.W. Norton). “She had no idea of my identity,” Jones says.
According to Jones, Ziering asked her to recount the story of the alleged rape repeatedly in the interview. “My thought was, ‘Wow, this is more like reality television,’— like when people tell me reality television is scripted,” says Jones, who describes the exchange as triggering. “It was completely out of control.”
Looking back, Jones says she wishes that she hadn’t participated in the film. “I regret not vetting the filmmakers, and I regret not vetting the people involved in the film,” she says. “I regret that I jumped in blindly, innocently, with hope, and that when I began drowning there was nobody there. Nobody wanted to talk about it. And it’s the way people are about rape.”
Ziering, Dick and Herdy have been making news recently with the release of their HBO docuseries “Allen v. Farrow,” about alleged childhood sexual abuse of Dylan Farrow by her father, Woody Allen. While the filmmakers were doing press for that series, Variety asked them about Jones’ regrets about working with them. They expressed surprise and said they would speak directly to Variety about it in a separate conversation.
But after multiple requests over several weeks, they didn’t comment on Variety’s reporting through their publicist Ryan Mazie.
After this article was published, the filmmakers posted a statement on the Twitter account of their production company Jane Doe Films. “For many years, we have worked extremely hard to make films that lift up the voices of sexual assault survivors in the hopes this would help them heal, raise broader social awareness around these issues and inspire cultural change,” the statement reads. “We are very sad to hear Ms. Norton Jones was unhappy with her experience. We have the most utmost respect and gratitude to Ms. Norton Jones for being courageous enough to share her story, and we truly wish her all the best.”
“On the Record,” which debuted on HBO Max last May, follows the life of Drew Dixon, a music executive at Def Jam Recordings, who was allegedly raped by her boss, Simmons, in the mid-1990s. The ripple effects of the attack, which Dixon talks about movingly in the film, changed her life and derailed her career, forcing her out of a job at which she excelled.
Publicly, Dixon has been effusive about working with the directors, telling IndieWire in November 2020 that “they clearly understood survivor trauma.” But privately, written communications from her reviewed by Variety indicate Dixon experienced a situation that was often stressful and difficult behind-the-scenes. In the final months before the film was set to premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, as its executive producer Oprah Winfrey contemplated taking her name off the movie due to creative differences, Dixon repeatedly complained about the filmmakers “triggering” her, according to multiple text messages that she sent to a third party.
Dixon, who is also represented by Mazie, didn’t comment on the record for this story.
But Deborah Drooz, an attorney who represents Jane Doe Films, said in a letter written to Variety: “Ms. Dixon maintains the film’s producers and directors treated her in a sensitive and caring manner throughout production and thereafter.”
The story of what happened during the making and release of “On the Record” is a cautionary tale. In the #MeToo era, Hollywood has been investing in documentaries about sexual abuse survivors. But the demands of making a movie, which requires stories to be told in taut narratives, might not always align with the needs of survivors, who are often still processing their trauma. As Jones discovered, when a rape survivor talks to a documentary filmmaker, she can lose ownership of her own narrative.
While “On the Record” offers mountains of evidence about Simmons’ alleged predatory behavior, the movie also became a source of tension, drama and frustration for some of the subjects involved in the film. In January, shortly before Sundance, Winfrey dropped her name from the credits, saying that she believed the survivors in the movie, but the filmmakers didn’t follow her notes for changes. Until now, several women associated with the movie have avoided speaking out against it, they say, because they don’t want to diminish the survivors’ stories — or somehow become a talking point for Simmons’ defense. Simmons has denied any rape or sexual abuse allegations.
Stories about troubled movie productions are as old as movies themselves. But it’s not as common for a documentary to have so much tension, and to leave at least one of its subjects — a rape survivor — emotionally wounded, particularly when the purpose of the film was to reveal the suffering that Simmons had inflicted on his alleged victims.
“The sad takeaway of the story is the subject of the movie — the sexual abuse of African American women — got lost,” says Ann Walker Marchant, a publicist based in Washington D.C., who represented some of the survivors featured in the film. “It became about the directors and what they wanted to portray, as opposed to what was best for the survivors.”
Beyond “Allen v. Farrow” and “On the Record,” Ziering and Dick have made a career out of interviewing sexual abuse survivors in documentary form, specializing in this genre.
One of their breakout films became mired in controversy because of perceived inaccuracies. In 2015, “The Hunting Ground,” about sexual assault in college campuses, premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival. It was released in theaters in February, from Radius-TWC, a now defunct division of The Weinstein Company, whose founder Harvey Weinstein is coincidentally serving a 23-year prison sentence for rape, and aired on CNN that November. As it continued to get more exposure (its song “Til It Happens To You,” performed by Lady Gaga, was nominated for an Oscar), journalists started to question the veracity of some of the storytelling in the film.
In June 2015, an article written by Emily Yoffe in Slate, “How ‘The Hunting Ground’ Blurs the Truth,’” reported on how Dick and Ziering misrepresented the details of an alleged rape case at Harvard Law School involving a Black man to advance the film’s thesis that sexual assault is rampant on college campuses. After that, 19 Harvard professors signed an open letter, criticizing “The Hunting Ground.”
And then, in November 2015, New York magazine ran a story with the headline, “‘The Hunting Ground’ Uses a Striking Statistic About Campus Rape That’s Almost Certainly False.” This article called out the filmmakers for using potentially misleading data to suggest serial offenders are responsible for most sexual assault cases on college campuses. (In a statement at the time, Dick stood by the film’s reporting: “Every statistic in our film is accurate, including the statistics on repeat offenders, and nothing in this article proves otherwise,” he said.)
While making “The Hunting Ground,” the filmmakers weren’t positioning themselves as impartial storytellers. The National Review uncovered an email from Herdy, who also worked as a producer on that film, attempting to assure a lawyer of an alleged victim that her documentary would side with survivors. Herdy wrote: “We don’t operate the same way as journalists — this is a film project very much in the corner of advocacy for victims, so there would be no insensitive questions or the need to get the perpetrator’s side.”
When things started to unravel with “On the Record,” a high-profile sexual assault survivor told Jones about these articles. “Oh my God, when I went online, I felt like I’d been snookered,” Jones says. “I felt fooled. I thought they were legitimate.”
“On the Record” would have been a demanding narrative for any director. But for Ziering and Dick, who are white, they had to clear an especially high bar— telling a complicated story about fame, power and abuse in the hip-hop community.
Before anyone had even seen the documentary, there were already serious problems behind-the-scenes. Winfrey had signed on in June 2019 as the project’s executive producer, with plans to release the film as part of her deal with Apple TV Plus. But when Simmons got wind of the film, which followed a New York Times exposé about his alleged sexual assaults, he launched targeted counterattacks against his accusers and called Winfrey’s assistant, demanding that he be put in touch with Winfrey and she not release the movie, according to sources with knowledge of these efforts. In January 2020, Winfrey eventually removed her name from the film, because, she said, the directors didn’t take sufficient time to retool certain parts of the movies based on her notes prior to Sundance. (Through a representative, Winfrey declined to comment.)
“In my opinion, there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured, and it has become clear that the filmmakers and I are not aligned in that creative vision,” Winfrey said in a statement at the time to The Hollywood Reporter.
The directors, though, believed Winfrey was unnerved by Simmons’ threats, and was looking for an excuse to sever ties with them, according to sources with knowledge of their interactions. In the midst of this negativity and finger pointing, Jones felt like it was part of her responsibility to help save the film. Although she’d initially sided with the filmmakers — and spoke out against Winfrey in an interview before the Sundance premiere — she’s now come to believe the mogul was right to cut ties with “On the Record.”
“Oprah has a standard,” Jones says. “She doesn’t like messy things. Imagine if Oprah had been on set with me and saw what happened. Do you think Oprah would have been happy?”
After she sat down with the directors, Jones learned that she’d been added to the film because of Winfrey’s notes. Once “On the Record” had been accepted into Sundance, Winfrey started to second guess some of their filmmaking decisions. That winter, after watching a cut of the film — and consulting with her friend, director Ava DuVernay — Winfrey told the directors that too much of the story in “On the Record” centered on Dixon. According to multiple sources with knowledge of these discussions, she asked that more survivors be added to the film, with six or seven weeks left before the Sundance premiere.
That sent the filmmakers scrambling, as Herdy reached out to survivors who had previously told their stories in the press. When Herdy got on the phone with Jones that December, she asked her if she’d be willing to get on a plane the next day, according to Jones (she flew in later). And Herdy wondered if Jones could help her find more survivors for the film. “I thought it was inappropriate,” Jones says. “It was aggressive and uncomfortable.”
Eventually, Jones would sit down with the filmmakers. Having barely slept the night before out of nerves, Jones was startled when she overheard Dick say to Ziering: “Let’s make sure we go over the assault three times,” she recalls. Ziering’s demeanor in asking her questions was off-putting, she says: “What surprised me the most in the shooting, as we go to film, every time I say something about myself, I’m completely cut off,” Jones says. “Amy keeps cutting me off. It’s just, ‘Let’s get to the assault.’”
As the interview progressed, Jones felt like Ziering knew nothing about her. Ziering prefers to go into interviews cold, for “the element of surprise for the viewer,” as she told Jones. But for a survivor who had brought documents about her life (which Herdy had asked her to pack and the directors didn’t look at), Jones felt this approach dehumanized her.
“I start feeling fear, because I don’t understand what’s happening,” Jones says. “As the interview goes on, I start cursing like I’ve never cursed in my life. I’m like, ‘What the fuck am I doing here? Why don’t they know anything about me? Why am I being blindsided?’
“Now I feel like I’m being assaulted again, because I’ve been set up,” Jones says.
After she finished filming, Jones thanked the filmmakers and gave the appearance of seeming OK. But she relayed her terror to a friend shortly after shooting. “I was pacing, trembling, shocked,” Jones says. “I felt sick. I felt ashamed.”
“She was upset,” the person she talked to recalls, confirming Jones’ version of events. “She told me they made her feel very small, brushing her to the side and didn’t know anything about her. It seemed like she was used.”
In the film, Jones’ story doesn’t stand on its own. It’s part of a montage in which she’s combined with other survivors, and Jones’ sentences are cut up. The details surrounding the alleged rape, which Jones said took place after a date with Simmons, aren’t fully explained. In total, she speaks for about 40 seconds in the movie.
Other women featured in the film didn’t have the same problems with the filmmakers. “I had a great experience,” says publicist Kelly Cutrone, another voice in the montage, who Simmons allegedly attempted to rape. “They were serious people who made a serious film,” she says.
The screenwriter Jenny Lumet, who alleges that Simmons sexually violated her in 1991, spent a day in Brooklyn filming for “On the Record,” talking on camera to Dixon and Sil Lai Abrams, another survivor in the film. “My experience with Amy and Kirby was positive,” Lumet says.
Although she didn’t meet Jones, Lumet stands with her: “It breaks my heart to hear that Alexia had this experience,” she says. “I feel like it’s the responsibility of the filmmakers to make sure that people feel safe.”
Another complaint made by some of the survivors: the filmmakers never told them that the movie would be mostly about Dixon’s life.
Sheri Sher, who founded the first all-female DJ and rap group Mercedes Ladies, participated in the movie to talk about her career — including writing a hip-hop novel based on her journey in music. In the early 1980s, she was allegedly raped by Simmons in his office. After Dixon reached out to Sher, she invited the filmmakers to shoot at her home, capturing a scene where she met Dixon, and filming with the directors for several other days.
But when she saw “On the Record” for the first time at Sundance, it felt jarring to her how little of her story they used. “I was shocked they shot so much of me, just to see my life narrowed down to that,” Sher says. “I was narrowed down to a victim of Russell Simmons and an accuser. I’m so much more than that. I think the people that know me and talk to me, they were hurt.
“I never wanted to appear vulnerable, because I grew up in the streets,” she says. “With this film, I went through such an emotional roller coaster. I never wanted to look like a victim. In my mind, I’m always a victor. To see myself looking broken, it kind of affected me a lot.”
She still supports the film. “I don’t regret it,” Sher says. “Either way, it’s still a forum for me to tell my story. I want other people who didn’t grow up privileged to still know they have a voice.”
Throughout “On the Record,” in addition to stories of survivors, there are clips of activists, lawyers and writers — such as Tarana Burke, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw and Kierna Mayo — talking about the devastating effects of sexual abuse for survivors in the Black community. But Variety has learned some of the experts featured in the film had no idea they were going to be part of a Simmons documentary.
One of these women says she was originally told she was being interviewed for a documentary about a different topic that Ziering and Dick were working on. When the subject matter changed, the filmmakers never explained they were using her interview in a Simmons documentary. She felt like the filmmakers misled her, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Another woman, who also didn’t know what the movie was going to be about, was still pleased to be in it, and to support the women who spoke out.
As “On the Record” was being finished, Dixon asked a family friend, Ann Walker Marchant, who runs her own public relations firm in Washington, D.C., to represent her. Throughout the summer of 2019, Marchant kept asking the filmmakers about their press strategy for the film, which no one had seen.
After the movie’s Sundance debut was announced, Marchant started to get concerned. “They knew nothing about the Black community,” she says. “Zero.” Marchant initially represented Dixon pro bono because of their relationship.
In December, as Simmons attempted to undermine the film, Marchant approached Time’s Up for support, since there was no indication that the filmmakers had a plan to protect the survivors from the social media attacks. The nonprofit, which provides legal and public relations counsel, offered her a modest fee to represent several of the survivors in the film if they chose to use her services. But this arrangement, according to sources with knowledge of the decision-making, was meant to support the women in the film, not to promote the film itself.
Dixon finally saw a cut of the movie at a private screening in November. She was happy with the result. But she asked the filmmakers to stop reaching out to her directly. According to text messages from that time period that she sent to a third party, Dixon felt that the filmmakers were asking for too much and creating a stressful environment for her.
Dixon seems to have clashed mostly with Ziering as the film was being completed. In one exchange reviewed by Variety, Dixon noted how Ziering “snapped” at her after Dixon had emailed the director about making some changes to the movie. Ziering got agitated that Dixon hadn’t used the encrypted messaging app Signal, because Ziering was worried that if the email leaked “it made it look like the subject was influencing the film,” according to a text message written by Dixon at the time.
“[Variety] implies that Drew Dixon — a sexual assault survivor whose story is documented in the film — was berated, scolded, ‘triggered’ and otherwise mistreated by film producer Amy Ziering,” Drooz, the filmmakers’ lawyer, says in a letter to Variety. “These accusations are false and have been flatly contradicted by Ms. Dixon.”
Dixon wrote in another text message that Ziering repeatedly referred to survivors she’d been interviewing as “the other Drews,” a description that Dixon found “offensive.”
“No African American filmmaker would have said that,” Jones says. “If Ava DuVernay made that film, this would have never happened. That’s how they were thinking of us. We were just product.”
By mid-December 2019, as Winfrey asked for significant changes to be made to the movie, the filmmakers went into full panic mode. There was constant fear that Winfrey would drop out. “They wanted Drew to reach out to the other survivors,” Marchant says. Marchant advised the directors to get their own messaging out, as Simmons continued to malign the survivors.
“Amy and Kirby had no contacts in African American media,” Marchant says. “The only contact they seemed to have was people who reviewed documentaries from a film perspective, which is not what we needed. We’re trying to preserve the reputation of these women and not have them be traumatized.”
Marchant suggested that, prior to Sundance, the filmmakers send the movie to credible influencers in the Black community who could view the film. Although reluctant, they said they would, and she offered suggestions. “I got a call from one of my dear friends who is a journalist, and she’s really upset,” Marchant says. “I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ She said, ‘My name is on a list that is circulating of people who are endorsing the movie.’” The friend hadn’t even seen the film yet. “I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap!’ I was furious.”
While everyone was waiting to see what Winfrey would do, Marchant booked three of the survivors — Dixon, Jones and Abrams — for an interview on “CBS This Morning” with correspondent Michelle Miller. Marchant saw it as an opportunity for the survivors to make sure that their stories were told accurately in their own words.
On Jan. 10, the same day as the interview with CBS, Winfrey announced she was dropping out of the project. Initially, some of the survivors came up with the idea that they could fill the void by being listed as producers on the movie themselves, but that idea never panned out.
After Winfrey ended her relationship with “On the Record,” the movie went to Sundance, seeking a new distributor since Apple was now out as well. Time’s Up issued a statement standing by the survivors (without specifically endorsing the film). In mid-January, Dixon fired Marchant prior to Sundance.
The filmmakers started a whisper campaign that Marchant had been secretly working with Winfrey to derail the movie, according to multiple sources. They believed that Time’s Up was in on it too, because the nonprofit had accepted a $100,000 donation from Winfrey for the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund in 2017, which became part of a story that ran in The Hollywood Reporter in June — called “When Time’s Up Didn’t Step Up.”
“I never had a conversation with Oprah Winfrey,” Marchant says. “I never had a conversation with anyone at OWN, and I don’t know Ava DuVernay. That’s ridiculous.”
The survivors initially decided to stick together. But after Winfrey pulled out, the dynamics changed between them. “I thought this was a film of unified survivors,” Jones says. “That was the main reason I got involved with the film.”
Marchant believes that by playing favorites, the filmmakers drove a wedge among the women featured in the film. Some of the survivors received gifts — such as flowers — from the directors, while others didn’t. Several of the survivors in the film were invited to accompany the directors to Sundance. When Jones asked if she could go, someone from the film told her that she’d have to pay her own way, at a cost of thousands of dollars a night. She stayed home, feeling “dismissed,” Jones says. “I was alone. I was isolated. I was in the dark, and nobody was telling me anything.”
When Jones asked what happened to Marchant, she says that Amy Herdy told her that Marchant was “toxic” and wouldn’t be working with the survivors. “This is the lie,” Jones says. “She was never toxic. She was the helper.”
Jones felt “gaslighted,” she says, because Mazie offered to represent her as part of the film’s publicity team. As she was making up her mind, he told Time’s Up that he was her new rep, which she says she hadn’t authorized. “This was when my mental health began to fall apart,” says Jones, who felt betrayed that he was speaking on her behalf. “He didn’t have my permission. As survivors, do they want us to survive? Or do they want to profit off our pain?”
By the time “On the Record” finally aired on TV in May, Jones had severed ties with the filmmakers. When she reads stories that celebrate them as advocates for survivors, she thinks back to their indifference to her. She wishes she could be removed from “On the Record.”
“It took so long to tell my story,” Jones says. “It’s the idea that I’ve been muzzled again. The directors muzzled me, when I thought the film would be the thing that set me free.”
Kate Aurthur contributed to this story.
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