Almost 30 years after Woody Allen was first accused of sexually molesting his 7-year-old daughter, Dylan, the story is still being told. The four hourlong episodes of Allen v. Farrow retrace the history of the case, including the court battle for custody of Dylan and her brothers Moses and Ronan, which Allen lost, and the criminal investigation into Allen’s conduct, which concluded with Litchfield, Connecticut, State’s Attorney Frank Maco claiming he had probable cause to charge Allen but wouldn’t proceed with a process that would have required Dylan to testify in court.
But the series, directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, adds new depth to the story, including substantial present-day interviews with Dylan as well as the first public airing of the 1992 videotape, shot by her mother, Mia Farrow, in which Dylan says that Allen sexually assaulted her. (Allen, who declined requests to participate in the documentary, has always denied the charges.) After I finished watching Allen v. Farrow’s final episode, I spoke to Ziering and Dick about the country’s shifting attitudes toward sexual assault, how making the docuseries changed their minds, and how to handle the art of problematic artists. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sam Adams: You’ve been making documentaries about sexual assault for more than a decade now, since The Invisible War. Has the way those movies are received changed?
Amy Ziering: It’s changed dramatically—almost a universe of difference, honestly. When we were first pitching Invisible War, the response we got was, no one wants to hear women’s stories. No one wants to hear stories about rape, and no one certainly wants to hear stories about women in the military being raped. So imagine that world, which was just 2010, 2008, and now look how many films are in this space, how many things are getting greenlit, how much interest there is. You see that difference right there.
For us, the big message, in both The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground, that we had to make sure we were saying in all our press was: believe women. That was radical. Now, as you see with On the Record and with the Allen v. Farrow series, we can go much, much deeper. On the Record is a much more complex examination of how is this different for Black women than it is for other women when they report? With Allen v. Farrow, it’s a much broader and richer and deeper palette that we’re able to explore.
Unlike the previous films, Allen v. Farrow covers a story that’s been extensively reported on, over a period of decades. What made you decide there was more to tell?
Kirby Dick: When we started discussing and focusing on this story more specifically, I certainly was reluctant because it had been covered so extensively. What weighed in favor of it was Dylan’s initial interview, which was so complete and so revelatory from a personal perspective. It was very strong. But then Amy Herdy, part of our team and our producer and investigative producer, started digging into this story and started finding more and more and more information about it. We started realizing that even though there was all this coverage, there was so much more that the public wasn’t aware of. I think it was at that point, once we realized that no, this story has not only not been thoroughly investigated, but the spin that Woody Allen put out has really created a situation where this country has the wrong perspective on this story. We felt it was important to dive into it.
Was there a particular piece of new evidence that really struck you?
“I’m the exact demographic to really have believed what I was told. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I sort of bought what the predominant narrative was.”
— Amy Ziering
Dick: I think there’s actually two. The chronicle of Paul Williams at the Child Welfare Administration in New York City and how from the very beginning, he interviewed Dylan, he completely believed her, he felt there was absolutely enough evidence to move it into the criminal court system, then the pushback and the cover-up that he encountered on multiple levels, all the way up to the mayor’s office, that was astonishing to me. Woody Allen had always used the fact that that investigation had cleared him, but the truth was that the investigator took the absolute opposite tack, felt that there was enough to actually have the court system investigate him and really believed Dylan. So that was revelatory.
The other thing was the three government agencies who had investigators directly interview Dylan, all three of those interviewers believed Dylan. There was always this spin put out that he was investigated and he was cleared, when in fact the government agencies and primary investigators were actually all believing the accusations.
Ziering: Everything throughout surprised me. I never honestly … I didn’t have a predisposition either way. I’m in my late 50s. I’m the exact demographic to really have believed what I was told. I’m embarrassed to say it, but I sort of bought what the predominant narrative was. When we came in, I didn’t know where anything would land. So throughout I was continually surprised. I want to say that.
But after the fact, looking back, I would say I was most profoundly disturbed by the retribution, all the fallout, the shrapnel. I had no idea about how many people had been affected for the worse by this, not just the nuclear family but people that were looking to explore and to investigate and bring to light. That they had been so punished, that to me was really disturbing. The interview with Sheryl Harden, [Williams’ supervisor at the Child Welfare Administration], the things, as Kirby said, that we uncovered that happened to Paul Williams. [State’s Attorney] Frank Maco went through hell just for doing his job. A lot of people, if they found things that certain people didn’t want disclosed, got severely punished and had consequences. That was really upsetting to me, and sad.
One thing the series does very well is evoke how big an intellectual icon Woody Allen was by the early 1990s, how much media attention he commanded. The year before the accusations, a feature in the New York Times Magazine painted Woody and Mia’s relationship as a kind of bohemian ideal. So when the story broke, he had enormous power to shape the narrative, to place the emphasis on his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn rather than Dylan’s allegations of sexual assault. The magazine covers were about Woody and Soon-Yi, not Dylan.
Ziering: The predominance of the narrative of Soon-Yi as Mia’s adopted daughter really elided the fact that Woody had actually been functioning as a father since Soon-Yi was very young. That was not at all in our public discourse or processing. We thought, Oh well, maybe it’s strange, but it really was drilled into us that this was a very highly distanced [childhood] relationship. When we started looking at the home movie footage, he’s around constantly, and she’s super young. It’s like a 10-year relationship where he’s functioning as the father.
“The feedback we’ve been getting is that this is not just a film about Woody Allen and the family, even though it focuses on it a lot. It’s also about how society looks at incest.”
— Kirby Dick
Dick: The other thing, you talk about Woody being at the height of his power, that was also getting to be the peak of independent cinema, and he was the independent filmmaker at that time. So yeah, he was a complete cultural icon for many different parts of society.
Peter Marks, the Times reporter who covered the 1993 custody hearing, talks about how for a lot of people, loving Woody Allen’s movies wasn’t just an aesthetic preference. It was really a core part of their identity, something that was hard for them to give up. He says he never watched another Woody Allen movie after the hearing, but a lot of those Woody Allen fans just set Dylan’s accusations aside. As Slate’s Lili Loofbourow says in Allen v. Farrow, there’s this profound desire not to know the thing we don’t want to know, because knowing it would mean reckoning with the consequences. We need the eggs.
Dick: That doesn’t just apply to people’s love of artists. It applies to the much bigger issue of incest, how the entire society does it. The feedback we’ve been getting is that this is not just a film about Woody Allen and the family, even though it focuses on it a lot. It’s also about how society looks at incest. This is the most high-profile incest case of the last 50 years. There’s a narrative that has come out of that I think a lot of people have just unconsciously taken in. So not only are we trying to open up this issue and have people look directly at it but also to understand that they have been under the sway of this narrative—around incest in general, not even specifically in this case. We want people to reexamine that.
Ziering: This narrative gives them permission to look away from something they’re already inclined to look away from. Not only did we feel we needed the eggs because he’s so pleasant, it’s entertaining, but you identify with that Woody intellectual position, so there’s this narcissistic thrill you get. But there is also, coupled onto that, sort of an existential link—I think Ronan [Farrow] talks about this—to your own identity. Right? Because you have so much invested, it’s not just pleasurable, it’s also much more of a cathexis onto him and his persona and all that he represents. That’s very hard to disengage from, or the cognitive dissonance of having that be perforated is very uncomfortable.
One thing in Allen v. Farrow that helps disrupt that identification is the audiotaped phone conversations between Woody and Mia during the court battle and the criminal investigation. Even in the home movies, he seems like he’s riffing on the persona we know so well, but on those calls, he sounds like a very different, more frightening person. Do you remember when you first heard those tapes?
Dick: Well, I certainly remember my reaction to them, hearing that tape where he denies that he’s taping and then his attorney calls. That was—
Ziering: We speculate it’s the attorney.
Dick: We speculate, yeah, right, that’s true. Thank you.
Ziering: Just to make sure.
Dick: But anyway, just listening to the hours and hours of them—it gets back to how traumatic it was for Mia, first with Soon-Yi, and then realizing what she had tried to deny for so long [with Dylan] was a reality. It’s really heartbreaking, actually.
Ziering: The tapes were a gift, because you get to hear a different persona entirely and make of it what you will. When we first heard them, we were like, this kind of makes the case for itself in a way. I grew up in L.A., so I had a little less—a lot less, I would say—reverence for celebrity, because you ran into them all the time and you really did see the major disconnect. But being able to have evidence of that disconnect in a way that is so viscerally palpable, we were grateful for.
One of the most painful sequences in the series is in the last episode, when you effectively have the viewer watch the 2014 Golden Globes tribute to Woody Allen through Dylan’s eyes. Her New York Times op-ed came out just a few weeks later. What do you think brought her to come forward, and why did that telling of her story, which had been public record for more than two decades at that point, have such a different impact?
Dick: I think her conversation with Ronan, and Ronan believing her, meant a lot. Mia was so traumatized and so uncertain about how to deal with this as a family, she just went into this mode of protection and not talking about it. So to be able to talk about it was the first step. You know, Dylan has been really courageous about this from age 7 on, right? Obviously there was all this trauma that just piled on top of her and compelled her to just close up. But I think underneath all that there’s a really courageous person. I think as soon as she had some support privately from Ronan, and then publicly from Ronan, there was always that part of her that she was going to speak up and tell the truth. I think that it’s really incredible that she did it when she did. This is pre-#MeToo. I think in some significant way, this actually contributed to #MeToo happening, because she was speaking to people in Hollywood.
Ziering: Culture change and paradigm shifts happen because of a confluence of forces. She was definitely ahead of the curve, and super out there and courageous. She was an outlier. But I think some of the culture change had begun actually in part due to the large student movement on campuses about rape that had been going on concomitantly. Invisible War, our earlier film, really became national news and was shown on campus and ignited national discussion. I think it was a confluence of forces that the culture was a little more primed to be open and hear things a little differently. I do actually think we all owe her a debt of credit for having been that courageous.
Dylan’s participation in Allen v. Farrow is extraordinary, but it can also be extraordinarily hard to watch. At one point, her body starts shaking uncontrollably. How do you negotiate as filmmakers the desire to tell these stories and allow these subjects to be heard with the risk of retraumatizing them in the process?
Dick: I think Amy is really skilled at setting up safe spaces for subjects, especially during the interviews. I think that the interviews that she’s done over the last decade in Invisible War, The Hunting Ground, and On the Record are just models for how filmmakers should interact with subjects. She just creates this really safe space. People have said to her and said to us that it was an empowering experience, it was a positive experience.
Ziering: That reaction of Dylan’s points to the reason why we all have to be so grateful and protective of these people who have the courage to speak out, and be empathic and compassionate, because it is retraumatizing for them. It can’t help but be. As Drew [Dixon] said in On the Record, “My body is a crime scene.” That doesn’t go away. You can’t disengage from your body. To have a physiological response in your own home so much later just is really striking and instructive for all of us about how these incidents are so devastating and have such reverberations that we all can’t imagine. I feel like I’m always worried in interviewing them. I’m always saying, “We can stop any time, and this is about your emotional health. You’re in control of this. If you don’t want to answer something, fine. If you want me to leave, fine.” People do take us up on that.
You’ve said that Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, as well as Woody and Mia’s son Moses, who has defended his father publicly and also accused Farrow of being physically abusive, all declined to be interviewed for the film. But you do include excerpts of Woody reading from his autobiography, the tone of which can be jarringly out of kilter with the rest of the film. Was that just in lieu of being able to get him on the record yourselves?
Dick: Yeah, obviously if we’d done an interview with him, I don’t think we would have used the audiobook. It does give his perspective on things, both how he met Mia and his initial interactions with Dylan. What’s really interesting is that this was written in 2020 and he still has this perspective today. In spite of the fact that his daughter is in obvious pain, there is really no acknowledgment of that. Not only is he talking about it, like, Listen, this is my point of view, but it’s done in such a dismissive way, as if it’s an opportunity to make jokes about it. I think that gives you an insight into his personality, and the way he could weaponize so much because the personal interactions didn’t seem to be that important.
Ziering: One thing I was really struck by was when we interviewed an expert and she said, “You know what dads say to me if they’re falsely accused and they didn’t do it? They say, ‘Oh my God, how can I help my daughter? Why would she make this up? Who is molesting her?’ ” She said, “That’s what I hear from the dads, they’re shocked, they’re concerned, and their first priority is their child’s mental health and how do we fix that? Where is this coming from? What must have happened for them to break like this? Let’s all try and figure that out and help them because they’re in a lot of pain.”
When he does speak to Dylan, through a press conference, he says, “Don’t worry, the dark forces will not prevail.” That’s not exactly “How can I help?”
Dick: Right, yes.
The series makes a real attempt to reckon with Woody Allen’s work as well as his actions, or more specifically the relationship viewers have with that work. You talked to a number of critics, most of them women, who say that his movies were foundational for them—some of whom say they’ll never watch a Woody Allen movie again, some of whom are just reckoning with the fact that relationship is a lot more complicated now. There’s a point of view that says that the films don’t even belong in this discussion, that compared with what Woody Allen is accused of doing, they don’t matter. Why was it important to include that aspect of Woody Allen’s legacy for you?
Dick: One of the things I found interesting is the uncomfortable position this puts film critics in, because so many have really loved his work. I think there’s an identity created there, even maybe more so than in the public. It’s a good thing that they’re uncomfortable, it’s a good thing that they’re acknowledging that, and it’s a good thing that they’re examining that.
Ziering: It’s OK to be uncomfortable. That’s where growth comes sometimes.
A lot of the time, even.
Dick: We’re not just saying personal growth. They are writers who are interacting with society. They’re taking this on at a more personal and more intense level and processing it back.
Ziering: Western culture is littered with horrible people who made brilliant art. It’s too reductive just to dismiss the art, but it is instructive to take their biography and learn from their art in a different way. What are the ideologies that they’re touting in their art? Maybe their biography informs that. Maybe I can analyze that rather than adopt it and inhale it without critical inquiry. The second level is, if I know someone is currently perpetrating crimes and my economically supporting them is giving them more power and impunity to do so, maybe I can make a different economic decision. Those to me are the two nexuses. Everybody is going to come up with their own way of landing. I’m not going to stop reading Heidegger, and my dad was in concentration camps. Make of that what you will. I learn a lot from Heidegger, and I still do and always will.
Dick: And have been uncomfortable in the process of learning it.
Ziering: Right, yeah. I’m glad he’s dead so I can buy his books.