As has been made increasingly clear in recent years, it takes great bravery and courage to speak out against abusive systems, both in Hollywood and in the world at large. The dam of silence around the subject of sexual assault in Hollywood was broken by Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor's 2017 New York Times exposé on Harvey Weinstein. Through their work, the journalists brought the truth about Weinstein's abuses of power and sexual misconduct out of the darkness and into the light, helping to propel the #MeToo movement founded by activist Tarana Burke, and sparking a cultural reckoning that saw a flood of survivors come forward with their own stories of harassment, abuse, and assault in the workplace.
Twohey and Kantor's article earned a Pulitzer Prize, which they expanded into a book, titled She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. The article and book have now been adapted to the big screen in She Said, starring two-time Oscar-nominee Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan as Twohey and Kantor, respectively, and chronicling the work and compassion that went into breaking the silence.
Investigative journalism is difficult and important work, but as it consists of extensive research, writing, and interviewing, it is not necessarily an inherently cinematic job. But the team behind She Said had no doubts about translating the reporters' work on-screen.
"It all starts with the script," Kazan tells A.frame. "Rebecca Lenkiewicz wrote this unbelievably compelling script. Carey always says it's a marker of how compelling it is that we all know how the story ends up and still we felt on the edge of our seat reading it. I cried every time I read the script, because it's so moving that all these women had so much bravery to come forward and risk so much in doing so. We just feel this incredible debt of gratitude to them and feel so lucky to be a part of telling this story."
Director Maria Schrader echoes that sentiment. "I never doubted that it was cinematic," she explains. "There's a lot of conversations, there's a lot of phone calls, but I remember reading Jodi's and Megan's book, and I kind of read it breathlessly. I was very interested and exhilarated by the description of the details, and sometimes the more you concentrate on the specifics of this particular work and create an emotional connection with a protagonist, the more interesting it gets. Because it's always interesting to look into other people's lives and routines."
Mulligan and Kazan were given time with their off-screen counterparts to connect beyond their respective professions. All four women are working moms and, as portrayed in the movie, Twohey and Kantor were never forced to choose between their families and their pursuit of the story. If anything, motherhood added another layer to their dedication and empathy for the people they speak with. Mulligan, meanwhile, was able to deeper her understanding of Twohey through their shared experience of postpartum depression.
"It was a really important part of the script for me," notes Mulligan. "It was one of the first things that Megan and I talked about. I remember when it happened to me feeling like the only person in the world who'd ever experienced it and, of course, that's not true. But that's not in the book and Megan didn't need to include that, and she chose to allow Rebecca Lenkiewicz to put that into the script. It's a big part of who she is and what brought her to this story, and I thought the home life of both characters were so necessary."
As Twohey and Kantor work the story, they received support from assistant managing editor Rebecca Corbett, played in the movie by Oscar nominee Patricia Clarkson, and executive editor Dean Baquet, played by Andre Braugher. "It's a big task to play fiercely intelligent, steadfast, graceful ladies," Clarkson said of playing Corbett, who she chose not to meet prior to filming.
For Braugher, he understood that Baquet wasn't the focus of the film, and adjusted his approach accordingly. "As large and complex as Dean actually is, this script emphasized his leadership, his mentorship, his guidance and his protection of his reporters in the face of Harvey Weinstein’s power, his prestige, his political connections, his influence," he says. "Every time Dean comes into a room, it's to reassure them. It's that he's on their side, that he's taken precautions to protect them, that this important investigation is going to move forward."
Clarkson adds, "Every day [of filming] was about the importance, the urgency, and what's at stake — people's lives are literally at stake in this. We also had survivors on set, so every day we were reminded of the gravitas of the situation."
As such, Schrader and her team were dedicated to treating the subject matter at hand with sensitivity. "We had a therapist on set," says the director. "We knew that we might encounter unexpected high emotions or re-traumatization. And we had very emotional moments on set, with actors and survivors participating in this, and I think we managed to create an atmosphere where people felt comfortable and heard and safe. And also encouraged to do what they do, and for actors to go as far [as they needed] and to raise the stakes in the particular scenes."
Having survivors on the record was integral to the publishing of the article, but many were, and still are, reluctant to speak out. For many of the women involved in the Weinstein story, they had signed non-disclosure agreements, and thus, faced the threat of being sued by Weinstein's powerful legal team. Yet, Twohey and Kantor's compassion, empathy, and hard work paid off when one of their sources, Ashley Judd, agreed to go on the record, which inspired others women to then break their silence.
It's a cathartic moment within the film, when the deadline to publish is fast approaching, with Judd playing herself and recounting Weinstein's harassment while shooting 1997's Kiss the Girls. Judd sued Weinstein for defamation and retaliation in 2018, a year after The Times article was published. In 2020, Judd won an appeal, which allowed her to continue pursuing legal action against Weinstein.
For Schrader, it was especially meaningful having the actress onboard, having spoken with Judd early on during the development process. "Ashley Judd is such an impressive person," she says. "She was both very open, very patient, but also very self-confident. I think it's a surprising and incredibly powerful moment in the movie."
She Said ultimately focuses on the bravery of the people who spoke out, and the reporters who shared and cared for their stories. "The fundamental change, which the publishing of this article caused, was that people started talking," Schrader says. Though the direct aftermath of the article being published isn't shown on-screen, the audience knows its impact. It's through She Said that we learn what it took to get there, and the work that still needs to be done.
By Elizabeth Stanton