EXCLUSIVE: In their first public statements since the makers of the drama Wind River regained control of the drama amid the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal, writer-director Taylor Sheridan, stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, and producers Basil Iwanyk and Matthew George sat for a highly emotional, even tearful panel that highlighted Deadline’s The Contenders awards-season kickoff event Saturday.
Watch the footage of the panel above, but keep reading because the filmmakers sat with Deadline for a subsequent wide-ranging discussion on everything from ending the cycle of sexual and verbal abuse in Hollywood to their feelings of betrayal after making a film that shines a light on the rape of indigenous women on reservations and discovering their distributor was headed by a man accused of being a serial predator.
How did Sheridan and cohorts wrest back control of a movie, and scrub all memory of Harvey Weinstein and The Weinstein Company, and get the distributor to earmark any future revenues due Weinstein from DVD/VOD and streaming to instead go to the Indigenous Women’s Resource Center? Sheridan, who said his motivation in writing the film was to provoke conversation on the exploitation of indigenous women, said he gave TWC a simple ultimatum.
“I called TWC president David Glasser and said, ‘I’m going to demand something of you and you are going to get absolutely nothing in return,’ ” he said. ” ‘And you’re going to do it, because it’s the right thing to do. To David’s credits, he agreed.’ ” Among the conditions: “[Weinstein] did terrible things, and they affected a lot of people, and they affected our film. And now, the profits he would have made are going to benefit people that endured exactly the abuse that he doled out.”
What would Sheridan have done had TWC refused?
“I said, if my movie’s going to die, I’ll be the one to kill it,” Sheridan said. “I will Alan Smithee the film, take my name off it, and publicly denounce it. I would have said, don’t go see this movie, don’t rent it, don’t watch it. If he was going to remain publicly attached, if he was going to benefit from a film highlighting the atrocity he perpetrated? No.”
Wind River had won the Best Director prize for Sheridan in Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year, had become one of the top-grossing prestige film releases of 2017, and was readying for awards season when a torrent of actresses came forward with horror stories. The Wind River filmmakers said they knew Weinstein was a bully, but had no idea of the alleged assaults when they sold TWC the distribution rights. Sheridan immediately got all five of them — him, Renner, Olsen, Iwanyk and George — on the phone to be sure they were united on a plan to ensure Weinstein no longer derived any benefit from the upcoming VOD/DVD release through Lionsgate, and streaming life on Netflix.
They prefaced their comments Saturday with the caveat their hardships are inconsequential compared to the plight of women and men who’ve come forward to tell stories involving Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Brett Ratner, or the indigenous woman who, as Renner said, “have had to deal with atrocities since we got here.” The filmmakers said they considered it a moral victory in wresting control of the film and being able to do something more than simply issue statements of outrage over Weinstein’s behavior. No matter what happens during awards season, they said keeping a scoundrel from profiting further was important. Maybe, they hope, it will keep Wind River from simply being part of a growing amount of collateral damage in Weinstein’s shameful and precipitous demise.
Onstage on Saturday, Renner welled up as he discussed his decision to make the movie because he wanted to amplify the themes of assault, which mirror unspecified incidents that happened in his own family. After composing himself, Renner said, “We have the film back, and so [Weinstein] can go and kiss my ass.”
Sheridan in making the film and Olsen in educating herself on the plight of indigenous women prompted him to expand his involvement in tribal advocacy, and it spurred her to volunteer one day a week at the Rape Foundation in Los Angeles County. All of them believe the current scandal has the potential to change the culture of sexual harassment and abuse in general in Hollywood, but they believe real change will require explorations that go well beyond a few gruff executives cleaning up their act and being respectful to others because they fear the consequences of continuing to behave abusively.
“I can’t discuss the specific feelings I have [about Weinstein and this issue], because they are way too intense,” Renner said. “I can only focus on, there’s a problem, and how can I solve this thing? And thank God we found a solution for a film that sends a strong message. All these women coming out, for things that happened 20 or 30 years ago? I want it to be possible for those people to be able to do that in the moment. Everyone can talk about being supportive, but it takes individual courageousness to be able to stand up for what is right and wrong in their lives. This is how I teach my daughter, how I parent my child to give her confidence and strength. That is my reaction to something as shitty as Harvey, to things that have happened to my family in the past. It is that we can do something, show a voice and a strength, whatever that might be. We need to encourage women.”
Said Olsen: “Especially young women. And boys, who need to learn how to speak to a girl and how to relate to a girl when they are talking about other boys. What is funny and what is completely unacceptable. Empathy and respect have to start at a very young age.” Olsen cited strong human resources departments as an underutilized tool, and said that laws have to change to make accountable those engaging in sexual assaults. “To get a conviction on someone who has committed a sexual assault is so difficult it sometimes seems impossible because there are so many things you have to prove,” she said. “Until we can figure out how to adjust that somehow in a governmental sense, which none of us know how to do…”
Renner said he could not fixate on bureaucratic matters beyond his control. His focus is on encouraging more people to stand up when they see others being abused. “It’s a behemoth to try to get the law to change, and it is what brings about the frustration and fear of people who don’t say anything,” he said. “Here’s an example of what we’re talking about. George Clooney, a friend of mine, saw a crew member being screamed at by a director. Abused verbally. He went over to that director and threatened him. That is action, in the moment. He didn’t need a bureaucracy or human resources to lean on. He just goes over and says, ‘Look man, this is unacceptable. You do not step in and treat this grip, this PA or assistant that way.’ To me, that is how things change. Make someone accountable for their actions. It builds from there.”
Said Iwanyk: “Someone capable of sexual assault, they’re not thinking, my God, I could get thrown out of the Academy. There is something broken there. Some of these incidents seem surreal, but I’ve done this job a long time and one of the things I notice over and over, and get more disgusted by each time I see it, is how verbally abusive people can be on a movie set, in front of a crew, in front of everyone. Honestly, I think that is one of the things that has to change.”
Said Renner: “No one has done that to me, because I won’t accept it. But not everyone has that confidence or strength to do that.”
“But everyone should,” Olsen said.
“I know a lot of actors who’ve just been screamed at by directors,” Renner continued. “Embarrassed, on a set. That sounds like nothing by comparison, but it is abuse when you raise your voice, shout and shove me into corner.”
Iwanyk said such fits of temper were part of Weinstein’s mythology, and this was part of the problem. “It was this pirate image, the whole Harvey thing was, he’ll scream and yell, go nuts on your at a preview,” he said. “It became this manly test, can you get past the Harvey experience, all the screaming and yelling to make your film? I’m going to do it! I’m going to muscle through it. Reform has to also include how we treat each other.”
George, whose Acacia banner was the conduit to the tribal financiers of Wind River, said that the precipitous downfall of Weinstein is proof that change and reform can happen suddenly, as was the case with civil rights and voting rights. “It takes that one moment, that tipping point, and we are going through this sea change right now because of one guy being exposed,” he said. “Things will never be the same, but it took a spark. We are going through one of those moments right now and I love that this film can be one of many talking points, in that change.”
Sheridan countered that it wasn’t that simple. “Change can happen quickly, but complacency can set in and then the task isn’t completed,” he said. “This has been a recurring story in our nation. Oppressors fought amongst themselves over the rights of the oppressed and as soon as the Civil War was over, we just went West and committed genocide for the next 10 years.”
Sheridan also said another catalyst for meaningful reform is self-criticism. He said for instance that he is ashamed of himself, when he looks back at some values he reflected from his upbringing in Texas, for example.
“A level of homophobia and discrimination was acceptable 20 years ago,” he said. “You’re a product of what you are taught and when I grew up in rural Texas, I was taught to believe the opposite of what I believe now. I had to do a lot of work on myself and go, wow, what a fucking asshole I was, for the first 22 years of my life. You are talking to a guy who flunked out of college. I was a failure for the first 40 years of my life, in pretty much everything I tried.”
This seems surprising, since Sheridan’s scripts are timely social issues wrapped in thriller formats. Whether Wind River gets taken seriously or not in awards season because of the past Weinstein taint, Sheridan believes they did what they could to keep the film’s message from being lost. He also believes that powerfully told stories can be an important catalyst.
“I wrote Wind River hoping to affect social change,” he said. “The Oscars started to celebrate the art of our business, but it really is a way to continue telling that story beyond its theatrical release. If you told a story you think matters, you want to do anything you can to keep it alive and in the conversation. Someone who is dealing grief and doesn’t know how to articulate what they are feeling, can see a film that is a meditation on grief, wrapped in a thriller, and glean some comfort in that. What we do, our entire notion of storytelling comes down to this. [We provide] a means for people to benefit from an experience, without the burden of having to endure it. You can alter someone’s perception, make them realize that rape is not sex, it is violence. You can make people think, and then tether their actions to wisdom. When I was young, I was so bad and unwise, but I have learned my own lessons and try, as imperfect as I am, to be a better man. I try really hard with my son, to help him not step in the potholes I stepped in.
“The one thing the past month has told me is, this epidemic exists, everywhere,” Sheridan said. “As the mirror is being held up to our industry, we’ve learned that it’s not just Harvey. People come to this business with hopes and dreams of being part of this. They are young and powerless, and there are people with extreme power who are in the position to make decisions that can change their lives. That happens every day. My life was altered, when somebody gave me a chance. Lizzie’s life, Jeremy’s too. All of us. Likewise there are people that abuse that power grossly, and alter lives in an entirely different direction. Artists hold a mirror up to the world and reflect who we are as a society, what we’ve become and what we need to become. And now that mirror is being held up to our industry, and this purging over sexual assault and sexual harassment is necessary. It is going to hopefully wake this town up, and in regards to harassment, it will make people measure their words, and their actions, and think about the consequences to themselves.
“Sexual assault is an entirely different thing,” Sheridan said. “That is not a sex act; it is an act of violence. That distinction needs to be clear. Neither one is acceptable and shouldn’t be tolerated in the workplace in any way, but one is criminal and people should go to prison.”
Sheridan veered back to the subject matter of Wind River and the underlying reason he made the movie. “I just met with the attorney general in Montana and the tribal leaders of the Crow and Standing Rock Reservation, and all the leaders of indigenous women’s groups, who are actively still trying to compile some kind of database so they can figure out how many women are missing. They don’t even know.
“Something great is happening to our industry,” he said. “People are standing up and I applaud them. But you can stand up and scream as loud as you want, on a reservation. You can tweet anything you want, and nobody cares. It is institutionalized oppression and that’s what we wanted to put the mirror up to. It was important to get this movie back, because they risked money and we risked reputation and took no money, basically, because we believed in the story and the subject matter. Against all obstacles, we managed in 30 days to execute something here. I’m not comparing myself to [Sicario director] Denis Villeneuve or [Hell Or High Water director] David [Mackenzie], but I’m proudest of this because I bled the most for it.”