Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Maria Schrader combine forces for a powerful adaptation of She Said; journalists Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s account of how they broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment. Nicole Davis spoke to the screenwriter and the director to conduct her own investigation.
Screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, whose credits include Ida, Disobedience and Colette, first met with the producers of She Said – Plan B Entertainment’s Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner – before journalists Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor had even finished writing their book. That book, also titled She Said, would go on to describe, in riveting detail, how they investigated claims of sexual assault and abuse perpetrated by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, or as they write “coaxed out secrets, pinned down information and pursued the truth about a powerful man.”
“I had to wait a while for the actual chapters to come in, so there was a bit of time to form ideas and think,” Lenkiewicz tells Girls On Tops. In the meantime, she met Megan and Jodi in New York, visited The Times offices, as well as the journalists’ homes. An opportunity, Lenkiewicz says, to get to know them “as full-bodied women.”
It was during this waiting and thinking period that Lenkiewicz had an opportunity to shower Megan and Jodi with questions, understanding not just “the logistics [of the investigation] but also the emotions”. For Lenkiewicz, writing this screenplay was about going beyond the expertise and intellect so visible in the book, and depicting the very real pressure that Megan and Jodi were under.
“I felt that not only is it important to tell a story about two women who changed history, but how they are doing that and the backstage of what became a very public event.” Lenkiewicz wrote several scenes where the onscreen versions of Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) take calls at home while tending to babies, cooking dinner or in the middle of the night. Working motherhood is shown to be both fraught and fulfilling.
Megan and Jodi continued to be involved in, and integral to, the redrafting process. “They would see a draft and question certain phrases or scenes,” says Lenkiewicz. “From the start, we were very clear that nothing would go out that they didn’t approve of. It’s their life and their work, and we weren’t there to take liberties or to sensationalise.” The idea of the unsensational is the beating heart of this adaptation. It bristles with a quiet rage, but also listens, attentively, to what the survivors are saying, without gasps, or gobsmacks.
When it came to polishing the screenplay, Lenkiewicz trusted her sense of rhythm. “I don’t have a plan for structure, all I do is read and re-read and see if the rhythm is feeling healthy. It’s a mixture of gut feeling and craft to see if it’s racing well.”
It was racing well. When director Maria Schrader first read that script she was “blown away”. She was so impressed in fact, that it marks the first time Schrader has gotten involved with a project solely as a director. “Usually I write scripts myself, or I’m involved in the development,” Schrader says. Schrader liked that Lenkiewicz’s script didn’t “shy away from complexity” and that viewers got a glimpse into Megan and Jodi’s “private lives throughout this time of investigation.” Whereas the book focuses on facts and processes, and establishing a clear body of evidence, the film burrows deeper into the emotional terrain, and cost, of that investigation. “Because of the particular subject matter of the investigation - it’s so intimate and vulnerable and traumatic,” says Schrader. She was interested in depicting how Megan and Jodi gained the trust of the survivors, as well as “what it meant for them to know about these stories,” and living with the possibility that they might not get published.
When it came to thinking about the visual language that would be best suited to this story, Schrader felt “a lot of responsibility”. And not just because it was “the first feature film allowed to shoot at The New York Times”.
Schrader didn’t want her filmmaking to be showy, but to give “a cinematic stage” to both journalists and survivors. “It was a conscious decision to find a language that had a realness to it, and so we had several scenes that were just one shot to have it happening in front of the camera,” which was also a conscious choice to allow the actors more time to rehearse, rather than taking up valuable shooting time with camera set-ups. Often, these slower-paced, more focused takes occur when survivors are recounting their stories to Megan and Jodi.
Lenkiewicz was also keen to give a cinematic stage to the act of journalism itself. “Initially I was going down a few alleys, then I realised the strength was in following [the investigation].” Knowing how passionately Megan and Jodi felt that “the journalism should be accurate and authentic and detailed,” Lenkiewicz went “on a crash course at The New York Times” and learnt about the ethics and politics of the profession.
That journalism can sometimes be quite internal or un-cinematic – lots of emails, internet research, phone-calls and of course, writing – didn’t faze Lenkiewicz, and she had the freedom to reconfigure how these were shown. “I didn’t [envision] emails or texts flashing up on the screen. I felt it needed to be through voice. Faces receiving voices are interesting but emails have their limitations, so sometimes they are embodied in different ways. I took a bit of artistic licence, but the words were the same.”
She also wanted to feature the “different layers of care” that allowed Megan and Jodi to report the story as diligently as they did. One such scene occurs when Megan, portrayed by Mulligan, arrives back at the office after maternity leave and her boss, Rebecca Corbett, asks her if she’s ready to be back at work. “Rebecca was like a mother to them,” says Lenkiewicz. It felt key that the film honoured that relationship and showed that “there are different ways to approach a job. You don’t have to be bombastic. There are many ways to be brilliant.” It’s a sentiment that applies to the film itself.
One of the trickier aspects of adapting the book, published in 2019, was recreating the pre-Covid atmosphere of The New York Times office. In some ways, it’s a period piece that required historical research. “I asked them a lot about the work details,” remembers Schrader, who met Megan and Jodi properly in New York after Zooming from her home in Berlin. “I’ve never seen that workplace working in real life.”
Schrader became familiar with the terrain by watching The Fourth Estate (Liz Garbus’ documentary series about the inner workings of The New York Times during the Trump era) and grilling Megan and Jodi, as well as New York Times editors Rebecca Corbett and Matt Purdy about the layout of the office, what the conference rooms were used for, what would happen if Dean Baquet – The Times’ executive editor at the time of the investigation – wanted to stop by for a word, when they would begin to record a conversation, how that gesture could be deployed to their advantage.
As well as understanding the internal architecture, which Schrader notes, “feels so open and communicative” and is impressively large and glassy, it became a helpful starting point to consider and frame several scenes in the film. There’s a repeated motif of reflection: mirrors, windows, puddles.
Schrader was most affected by these stories of assault when considering how they had remained hidden for so long. As Zelda Perkins details in the film, played by Samantha Morton, the NDA she signed prevented her not just from speaking about what had happened publicly, but also from accessing therapy to process what had happened privately. Schrader felt that these women had been put into a room without windows or doors, their voices locked away. Reflections became a way of translating, for the big screen, “this step towards sharing” and shining a light on that which had been shrewdly and systematically suppressed.
In one of my favourite scenes, Megan and Jodi pause briefly, beneath one of New York’s many heavily-scaffolded buildings, to ponder whether they have regrets about signing up for this story. They’re at a crossroads: wondering whether they’re on the precipice of collapsing an infrastructure of abuse, or if their story will be shut down and the structure upheld. “It’s beautiful that you realised that,” says Schrader. “They’re questioning the very construction of society.”
Perhaps the most faithful decision – not just to the book, but to the real events – was to depict the assaults in a way that leaves much more to the imagination. A claustrophobic hotel corridor, an empty couch, a strewn bathrobe, a running shower.
“We were all very determined that no attacks would be seen, and that any recounting would be verbatim from the survivors so that they were true to the facts,” says Lenkiewicz. Schrader also notes that this was a reaction to how the entertainment industry, as well as society at large, tends to frame these narratives. “We usually concentrate on the perpetrators,” she says. We are morbidly fascinated with the person who becomes violent or deviant.
With She Said, Schrader wanted to “take the time to hear the survivors’ story”, which paved the way for other choices, such as “not to see a naked woman. I actually never want to shoot a scene that shows violence against women. We’ve had enough of this.”
“Trauma is such a huge subject,” adds Lenkiewicz. “I felt that [these survivors] not having a voice for so many years, the most powerful thing would be a voicing.” In many ways, the plainness and plaintiveness of these moments focuses our attention on the words being spoken. Lenkiewicz and Schrader prioritised recounting, articulating, and voicing. The “she said” over the “he did”.