In “Allen v. Farrow,” the four-part docuseries that premiered on HBO Sunday night, documentarians Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering and Amy Herdy have tackled an especially daunting and divisive subject, even for them. The filmmakers behind the documentaries “The Hunting Ground,” “The Invisible War” and “On the Record,” have investigated Dylan Farrow’s 1992 allegations that her father, Woody Allen, sexually abused her when she was 7 years old.
Dylan Farrow’s harrowing accusations played out in court during the lead-up to the vicious custody battle between Allen and his ex-partner Mia Farrow — and every day, they were also splashed on the pages of the New York Post. Simultaneously, Allen’s then-newly revealed sexual relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow’s older daughter, ensured the tabloid press was fully engaged, something Allen weaponized against Mia Farrow, whom he painted as a manipulative hysteric. In “Allen v. Farrow,” she talks on camera for the first time about what she went through.
In the aftermath of the custody fight, which Mia Farrow won (to say the least), the allegations against Allen were often willfully forgotten. His singular career as a writer-director continued unabated, with a parade of A-list actors — from Cate Blanchett to Penelope Cruz — signing up to star in his movies, and often being rewarded by the Academy for it. In 2014, Dylan Farrow reasserted her claims in an open letter published on Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog, calling out those who worked with him in personal, direct terms. But again, people continued to do business with Allen— until the #MeToo movement of 2017, spurred in part by Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s crimes, once again revived Dylan’s story (which hasn’t changed since she told her mother what she says her father did to her nearly 30 years ago). “Wonder Wheel,” Allen’s 2017 offering, was the last of his films to get a major theatrical release in the United States.
“Allen v. Farrow” aims to give the full picture of what happened between Dylan, Mia and Allen. Ziering, Dick and Herdy use never-before-seen home movies from Mia Farrow that she shot, including of Dylan at age 7 saying what Allen allegedly did to her. There are also audio recordings the public has never heard that Mia made during phone conversations with Allen as the custody battle loomed (he was taping her too). In addition to Dylan, several other of Mia Farrow’s children — Ronan Farrow, and Fletcher and Daisy Previn — also gave interviews to “Allen v. Farrow,” as did family friends and people who had worked on the investigation.
Allen, 85, who has always angrily denied any wrongdoing against Dylan, did not participate. His side is presented through past interviews; press conferences; the surprisingly intimate home movies in which he appears (often uncomfortably hugging and kissing Dylan); and in snippets from his audiobook reading of his 2020 memoir, “Apropos of Nothing.” (A representative for Allen did not respond to Variety’s request for comment, but on Sunday night, Allen issued a statement through his sister and producer, Letty Aronson, calling “Allen v. Farrow” a “hatchet job riddled with falsehoods.”)
In an interview with Variety, co-directors Ziering and Dick, and Herdy, the docuseries’ investigative producer, delved into the first episode of “Allen v. Farrow,” and previewed its subsequent episodes. (Spoilers abound, so be warned.)
“It’s a story we all think we knew,” Ziering said. “But we didn’t.”
Can you talk about the origins of “Allen v. Farrow,” and how you convinced Dylan Farrow— and then the rest of the Farrows — to participate?
Amy Ziering: Projects find us, we don’t exactly find projects, per se. We were casting a wide net, talking to women in the wake of #MeToo, and we thought we might do some kind of series and there might be a Hollywood portion. And Amy Herdy was like, “Maybe for the Hollywood portion, we should interview Dylan Farrow.” Amy managed to have Dylan agree. At that point, we were not making this project, but that’s initially how we fell upon the interview with Dylan.
Kirby and I, and Amy, were like, “There’s so much more here that none of us knew about. And how is it that none of us knew about it?” And that piqued our curiosity, but it really piqued Amy’s curiosity. And as Amy dug and dug and dug, she came up finding all this new material, and bringing it to us.
How did you pivot to knowing you were going to do a documentary about this specific thing?
Kirby Dick: Information about evidence started coming, and this started making us realize there’s so much of this story that hasn’t been told. That combined with the personal story that Dylan had told — not only what happened when she was little, but also how she had to live with having the culture in many ways denying her story. We realized we had an epic story on our hands.
At what point did you discover the trove of archival things that Mia Farrow had?
Amy Herdy: I first started having conversations with Dylan in February of 2018. That fall was when I was first introduced to Mia. I spent a lot of time rummaging through her house. She was very polite, and said, “Feel free to look around. I’m not going to do an interview, ever!” She had bookshelves everywhere, not just lined with books, but also with these home movies and photo albums. Then she casually mentioned that there might be some boxes in the basement, so down to the basement, I went. There were just a few disparate court items, and some of those were the audiocassettes.
There were photocopies of photos of Woody Allen with the kids as they were growing up that had been entered as an exhibit in the custody trial. I thought that was interesting, because he had maintained that he had kept such a distance from them. There was the affidavit of when he adopted Dylan — that adoption went through in December of 1991. And there was his affidavit, which is a sworn statement, testifying that he and Mia were in a close, committed and continuing relationship. A month later, those photos were found of Soon-Yi — the naked photos. So that was a seismic disconnect.
Ziering: The old-fashioned cassettes, Amy managed to claw back from the jaws of death, and called us and said, “Oh, my God! This is Woody and Mia talking contemporaneous as these events were happening!” People hear those in the subsequent episodes, and it’s pretty jaw-dropping.
They’re shocking. Something else shocking in the first episode was that Woody Allen would make Dylan lie in bed with him when he was in his underwear, and that Mia and even someone outside the family, Priscilla Gilman, had walked in on that.
Ziering: We talked to some experts as we were doing our research, and they were saying those are classic grooming patterns. It’s this behavior that right at first seems unseemly maybe, but maybe OK. But if you’re not an expert in this arena, you don’t know how to recognize it. And the transgressions are subtle, and they happen incrementally, which you see in Episode 1 — [Dylan] sucking [Allen’s] thumb. It’s these slight transgressions — of personal space, of appropriate behavior — that you normalize the child to.
Can you talk about why you felt it necessary to establish that Woody Allen is an iconic filmmaker with all the talking heads?
Dick: For a younger generation who hasn’t grown up so completely with his work, I think it was important to do that. It was also, I think, important to acknowledge his accomplishments. It’s fair; he has accomplished a great deal. But also, to show that how revered and respected he was — by society, by critics, by the industry. It was that respect, that reverence that actually gave him a lot of opportunity to create the spin that he did later on.
Ziering: It’s about much greater themes: It’s about the power of celebrity, the impunity of privilege. The impunity that the power of celebrity can confer on people. The way that a celebrity grooms all of us, to some extent, to be blind to certain private acts that might not accord with what we perceive their public persona to be.
Mia says at the end of the series that she’s still scared of him, and about what he’ll do once he sees or hears about what’s in the documentary. Have you thought about that both for the Farrows’ sake and for the project’s?
Herdy: I think that’s knee-jerk PTSD on her part, and understandably so, right? When you try to ask her to name what she fears that he will do, it’s, “Well, he could do anything.”
Dick: He has done a lot…
Ziering: She’s been through a lot. She was publicly excoriated for decades — she has rightful trepidation, she has not been treated kindly by the press. It’s been presented as “he said/she said” where it’s really just a “he said” narrative over and over and over and over again. And she hasn’t had a voice in it. I mean, I’d be scared too if I were her.
And I really think we all owe her and Dylan and all the Farrows and everyone who spoke with us a societal debt. For their courage and for their ability to overcome their fears and say, “You know what? We hope this helps other people.”
Ronan is obviously a hugely accomplished journalist with his own track record of investigations into sexual assault and many other things. Was he giving you any input along the way from his perspective on the movie?
Ziering: No, this is a very independent investigation. It was the contrary — just like Mia, I want to be perfectly and patently clear that they were all extremely trepidatious and not eager to participate. What helped them overcome that fear and agree extremely reluctantly to giving us a minimal amount of time in these interviews was that they felt that we were actually uncovering things that had not ever been revealed to the public.
Herdy: And things that they didn’t know. It’s revealed in Episode 1 that Dylan was put into therapy when she was 5 for being shy and sad and withdrawn. Which we know now in 2021 are classic symptoms that something is going on with that child that’s very, very wrong. They didn’t recognize it back then.
She disclosed twice to her therapist that she had a secret. And it wasn’t said in a cheerful way. So this was a girl who was clearly troubled. And this was two years before she came forward with any kind of allegation about him molesting her at the home in Connecticut.
I was going to ask you about that. What do you think that secret was?
Herdy: I don’t want to assume, because I don’t assume anything. But if I were a therapist treating a child, I think I would have pursued it. And I think I would have informed the child’s mother. She didn’t tell Mia; Mia didn’t know.
Ziering: When we talked to experts, they frequently say that one of the things predators do is they say, “This is our secret.” And that’s one of the classic ways that predators get children to not talk, right? So when Amy uncovered that, which was new information that Dylan had actually gone to a therapist two years before this incident, it is pretty significant. And revelatory.
Is the implication, then, that he was molesting her already?
Ziering: You should draw your own conclusions. What we showed it throughout was, as I said earlier, there were these incremental behaviors: sleeping in bed with underwear, sucking the thumb. Experts will tell you there’s an incremental transgression of boundaries so that everything becomes normalized when you actually do more profound violations. But they’re all violations in my book.
Was there anyone that you wanted to interview who wouldn’t talk?
Herdy: Well, there was somebody that we found, and it was too late. And it was one of those forehead-slapping moments. Allison Stickland: who was the nanny who actually was an eyewitness to behavior between Woody Allen and Dylan, who testified in the custody trial and gave a sworn statement to police that she walked in and Woody had his face in Dylan’s naked lap.
I sent a snail mail letter, a very carefully worded one, and said, “If you are Allison Stickland who was a nanny in Connecticut, I would love to have a conversation with you,” and put my cellphone number in it. And apparently, she got the letter and debated it for several weeks. And then she sent me a text message the day after we locked, and said, “Sure, I’ll talk to you.” And it was excruciatingly painful. But we did talk to her for a podcast. She’s amazing. And she still remembers everything very vividly.
The series makes an argument about movies such as “Manhattan,” drawing a direct line between what Allen was putting on screen and his alleged off-screen behavior. HBO Max currently has five Woody Allen/Mia Farrow collaborations to stream. What do you think of that?
Ziering: We talk about that in Episode 4; we go into depth about the decisions people have to make about consuming product. It is something that many people talk about struggling with. And that’s also why we want people to think and reflect on that.
I think there’s a lot of art out there with complicated biographical backgrounds. We invite people to make their own decisions.
What do you want viewers to be thinking about after they’ve watched all four episodes? What do you want people to take away from it?
Ziering: It’s about the power that celebrity confers on individuals, and the way that it can blind us all to uncomfortable truths.
It’s also a real and intense meditation and reflection on incest, which was one of the reasons why to do this project — it is the third rail. Now #MeToo has happened, but it hasn’t yet happened for survivors of those kinds of crimes in their own household. That has its own set of horrors and complexities that we really need to look at. And society would be a lot healthier if we did.
Dick: It becomes this psychological horror story, really, in the first episode. To see the perspective of a child and a partner when it’s slowly dawning on them that something is not right with a person that is deep inside the family is really a family psychological horror story that I think is extremely cinematic, and gives you a perspective into what many people in families where incest is happening.
Do you feel like Dylan will finally have been heard after this is all over?
Ziering: Our hope is that people finally see the truth.
This interview has been edited and condensed.