News broke Tuesday that Disney/Pixar’s chief John Lasseter was taking a six-month leave of absence because of “missteps.” Immediately following, reports in The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, and Variety revealed allegations of unwanted kissing, hugging, and touching of his female colleagues. In Los Angeles, women who work in TV animation told BuzzFeed News that although outsiders perceive animation is as a wholesome industry, sexual harassment is pervasive and has long gone unchecked.
“I don’t think that should come as a surprise to anybody who’s spent any time in animation,” said Ashley Long, a director who works on adult-oriented shows. “Abuse of power by men — I don’t want to say it’s part of the territory, because that makes it sound like you have to put up with it — but it’s extremely common.”
Lasseter’s departure, although temporary at the moment, followed the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged sexual harassment and assault, which were first reported by the New York Times Oct. 5 and The New Yorker Oct. 10. The accusations against Weinstein spurred countless women and men to come forward with stories of their own experiences of harassment. Under heightened scrutiny, many prominent men, including some in animation, have been punished. “It was always the law, but suddenly people woke up and realized it’s the law,” Long said.
Still, it was unclear to the women who spoke with BuzzFeed News whether the surge of accountability for sexual harassment in the animation industry would lead to lasting change. Even publicly criticizing Lasseter, who has admitted to making his colleagues uncomfortable, was seen as risky by Elise Willis, a 29-year-old storyboard artist. Calling Lasseter “revered,” Willis was hesitant to be quoted, saying, “I’m still not 100% on using my name, because like I said, things are looking good now, shitty dudes are getting fired now, but I don’t know what it’s gonna be like in the future.” She then added, “The people that allowed his behavior to happen are still there.”
As Vanity Fair reported, Disney executives discussed Lasseter forcibly kissing and fondling a colleague at a party in 2010; the magazine’s source called him a “crazy-horny 13-year-old” they had to “keep in check,” but then went on to praise him as a “genius.” Willis was irritated by that thinking. “He can be replaced!” she said.
Disney did not immediately respond to a request for a comment Wednesday, but on Tuesday, they released a statement saying, “We are committed to maintaining an environment in which all employees are respected and empowered to do their best work. We appreciate John’s candor and sincere apology and fully support his sabbatical.” Lasseter’s representative did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.
Animation is a small industry, Long told BuzzFeed News, and there’s “fear” of formally reporting incidents or communicating discomfort with a colleague’s behavior: “You don’t want a bad reputation,” she said. “As a woman, the feeling is you want to go in with absolutely no marks against you because you’re afraid that any little thing could give them an excuse to not hire you. … A lot of women are very afraid of being seen as troublemakers.”
Ashlyn Anstee, a 28-year-old storyboard artist, said that she’d reported verbal harassment by male colleagues at three of six jobs and was brushed off by producers. “A lot of producers are women,” she said. “Women making excuses for men. It’s a frustrating message for young women: If it bothers you, it’s because you’re not strong enough, or you don’t get the joke. … Because this is a boys’ industry, any woman is just kind of visiting, and the men are gonna keep doing what they’re doing and you have to be cool with it.” Younger women, she said, are challenging the status quo, but change has been slow.
Anstee found the term that many used to describe Lasseter’s reported unwanted hugging and kissing — “touchy-feely” — frustrating. The inherently sexual undertone of hugging a female colleague for too long, or kissing her, was obscured by “touchy-feely,” she said.
Marie Bower, a storyboard artist also in her twenties, told BuzzFeed News she was happy Lasseter’s behavior had “finally” resulted in consequences. Although Bower said she had never interacted with Lasseter directly during her brief time working at Disney in 2015, his unwanted touching was joked about in the workplace. Bower remembered a male colleague told her that Lasseter would sometimes go in for a kiss when he hugged women. Although that male colleague didn’t recall the exact conversation, he confirmed that Lasseter’s hugs and kisses in the workplace were openly gossiped about. Neither Lasseter nor Disney responded to a request for a comment on this.
“All of this was not hidden information,” Bower said. “The misogyny runs deep in animation, and a lot of it has gone unchecked because it’s been a boys’ club for so long.”
Bower was concerned by Lasseter’s memo — and, like Willis, she worried that Lasseter could still be forgiven. “It’s so weird that he’s like, ‘Oh, in six months, I’ll be back,’” Bower said. “Ugh, I hope not.”
Since sexual harassment and assault allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein spurred a torrent of other claims against men in Hollywood this fall, it’s felt like profound change was in the air. The industry has a track record of standing by powerful men who’ve allegedly or admittedly harmed women: Roman Polanski won an Academy Award 26 years after he pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977 and then fled the US; Bill Cosby signed a development deal with NBC in 2014, well after he’d been sued for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, and 13 other women agreed to testify against him in the lawsuit; Mel Gibson pleaded no contest in 2011 after he was charged with battering the mother of his child, and he’s currently starring in a Christmas film. But almost overnight, it seemed, men were being held accountable for sexual misconduct.
Among female directors and producers in Hollywood, there’s an unfamiliar feeling about all this: hope.
“It’s very empowering,” Haifaa Al Mansour told BuzzFeed News. Mansour became the first Saudi woman to shoot a feature-length film in that country with 2012’s award-winning Wadjda. Her film Mary Shelley premiered this fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. Mansour said that with so much gendered harassment and abuse becoming public, producers in particular are more consciously positioning themselves on women’s side. “I think people are considering me more,” she said. “And considering not only me — considering other female directors more.”
Shadi Petosky, the creator and showrunner of Amazon’s animated series Danger & Eggs, heard about the decades of sexual harassment allegations against Weinstein almost immediately after the New York Times published them Oct. 5. She was disgusted by the report but did did not expect much fallout. “You see this news all the time,” she said. “Nothing really happens.”
Although Petosky was initially skeptical, she quickly decided the moment is “incredibly hopeful” as more women began to come forward with their own experiences and Weinstein was fired.
“It feels a little bit how the Women’s March feels,” Petosky said. “There’s a lot of solidarity, and people are meeting behind the scenes, and creating these Facebook groups, and really working on specific tasks, which is pretty amazing. … Outside of the people that are famous getting fired, there’s people all over Hollywood in different jobs who are finally getting let go to create safer spaces.”
Janicza Bravo, a writer-director and Sundance alumna, was “excited” that her younger female colleagues refuse to put up with as much mistreatment as she has over more than a decade in the industry. Still, she warns against a movement that reinforces another strain of inequality in Hollywood: “What I do hope is that we’re not gonna replace all the white guys with white gals.” She added, “In our business, when we talk about women, we tend to be talking about white women. Women of color are sort of ‘and also.’”
Although Bravo was encouraged by male colleagues initiating conversations about the sexual harassment news during episodes of HBO’s Here, Now and Netflix’s Dear White People she’s directed since Oct. 5, she noted critically that she had never seen such a widespread response to racism. Bravo thought the national conversation has persisted so long because most of the women coming forward with stories about Weinstein are white. “It’s tied to white women, and whatever our perception is about the delicacy or fragility of white women,” she said.
For women who have loudly railed against misogyny in Hollywood for years, the weeks after the Weinstein revelations have been strange. Brenda Chapman, the writer-director who won an Oscar in 2013 for her Pixar film, Brave, described herself as “hopeful with a very large dash of cynical.” After years of working on the film she conceived and directed, Chapman was fired from Brave in 2010; she kept her credit, and has been outspoken since then about the double standards women are held to in Hollywood. Her own story left her feeling “mixed” about the current traction women’s stories are getting.
“It’s incredibly frustrating that is has taken this damn long,” Chapman said. “But at the same time, it seems to be finally happening, so maybe this kind of predatory behavior will finally be looked on by society as it should have been centuries ago — with the disgust it deserves.”
Like Chapman, heavy hitters in the industry have expressed skepticism. Kathryn Bigelow — the only woman to ever win an Academy Award for Best Director — told the Los Angeles Times that Hollywood still needs to undergo “a tectonic shift.” Ava DuVernay told Vanity Fair on Oct. 14 that she wasn’t sure whether this moment would lead to real change.
Actor and director Amber Tamblyn said she sees a long road ahead. “You can’t undo a hundred years of the entertainment business in a week,” Tamblyn told BuzzFeed News. “We have to keep speaking about all of the stories. I mean, bombarding them. People are tired of hearing them? Great. Keep talking.”
Alanna Bennett contributed reporting to this story.
Louis C.K. has been accused of sexual misconduct by five women, according to a new report published by the New York Times on Thursday, with two women telling the paper the comedian exposed himself to them in 2002 and masturbated.
“We were paralyzed,” Dana Min Goodman told the newspaper of the time she said C.K. invited her and her comedy partner, Julia Wolov, to hang out in his Aspen hotel room before asking if he could taking out his penis.
“He proceeded to take all of his clothes off, and get completely naked, and started masturbating,” Goodman said.
Another woman, Abby Schachner, told the Times she could hear C.K. masturbating during a phone call with her in 2003.
“I definitely wasn’t encouraging it.” Schachner said. “You want to believe it’s not happening.”
Lewis Kay, the comedian’s publicist, did not respond to a request for comment on the Times story from BuzzFeed News. However, he told the Times that C.K. “is not going to answer any questions.” In the past, C.K. has dismissed gossip similar to the allegations reported by the Times on Thursday as just “rumors”.
Rumors that the Times was working on a story investigating C.K. have been widely shared in media circles for weeks.
The scheduled Thursday night premiere in New York City for C.K.’s controversial new film, I Love You, Daddy, was abruptly canceled just hours before the story was published. His scheduled appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert was also axed. William H. Macy will take his place Thursday night.
The Times story comes just weeks after the newspaper and the New Yorker revealed multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein spanning back decades. More than 60 women have come forward about their experiences with the producer, inspiring a surge of women — and somemen — to start publicly telling their own stories of harassment and abuse with other celebrities. (Reporter Jodi Kantor worked on both the C.K. and Weinstein pieces for the Times).
Gawker posted a blind item in 2012 thatsomebelieved was about C.K.. “We’ve heard from several sources that this shameless funnyman whips it out at the most inopportune moments, often at times when his female companions have expressed no interest in watching him go at it,” the blind item said. When Gawker reached one of the female comedians who was the subject of the rumor, they reported she said the “facts were wrong” and she didn’t want to be part of the story. In 2015, Gawker’s sister site, Defamer, published an anonymous secondhand account from a man who said he confronted C.K. on behalf of two women C.K. allegedly preyed on. But the anonymous source declined to name the women and C.K. did not comment to Defamer.
The closest thing to a firsthand allegation seemed to be made by comedian Jen Kirkman on her podcast in 2015. On the podcast, she said “a very famous comic” who was “lauded as a genius” was “a known perv.” She did not get into specifics, but she said, “This guy didn’t rape me, but he made a certain difficult decision to go on tour with him really hard. Because I knew if I did, I’d be getting more of the same weird treatment I’d been getting from him.” She said she knew she couldn’t talk about it openly because it would damage her career.
About a month later, journalists beganspeculating that Kirkman had been talking about C.K., and as a result, she deleted the episode. In August of 2015, she told Nerdist that the media had blown things out of proportion, and then in 2017, she publicly denied she had been referencing C.K. “There are rumors out there that Louis takes his dick out at women. He has never done that to me,” she told the Village Voice in September 2017. “I never said he did, I never implied that he did.”
Some powerful female comedians have addressed the rumors about C.K. over the years.
Tig Notaro told the Daily Beast in August 2017 that he needed to “handle” the sexual misconduct rumors, “because it’s serious to be assaulted. … It’s serious to be harassed. It’s serious, it’s serious, it’s serious.” (C.K. executive produces Notaro’s Amazon series One Mississippi, which featured a storyline in which a character is accused of sexual misconduct and masturbates in front of a woman in his office.)
Notaro told the Times that she believes C.K. released her 2012 comedy album to “cover his tracks.”
“He knew it was going to make him look like a good guy, supporting a woman,” she said.
“Sadly, I’ve come to learn that Louis C.K.’s victims are not only real,” Notaro told the Times, “but many are actual friends of mine within the comedy community,” citing Goodman and Wolov, who Notaro said confided in her.
In 2016, Roseanne Barr was very upfront with the Daily Beast: “Some of the biggest comics, males, are doing some terrible things. And they’re about to get busted.” She went on to specify, “It’s Louis C.K., locking the door and masturbating in front of women comics and writers. I can’t tell you—I’ve heard so many stories.” She said she didn’t have firsthand knowledge, but had heard whispers of the behavior “for years.” Barr herself had tweeted about these stories before.
C.K., for the most part, has not addressed the allegations over the years. In September of 2017, when he was promoting his forthcoming film I Love You, Daddy, he tried to avoid the question from the New York Times, saying, “If you actually participate in a rumor, you make it bigger and you make it real.” He then denied that the stories were true. “They’re rumors, that’s all that is.”
He responded similarly in 2016, when Vulture asked him whether the column Gawker posted in 2015 was part of “click-bait and what you see as online misinformation.” He responded: “No. I don’t care about that. That’s nothing to me. That’s not real.”
When pressed further about the secondhand allegation that he had masturbated in front of women without their consent, he said, “Well, you can’t touch stuff like that. There’s one more thing I want to say about this, and it’s important: If you need your public profile to be all positive, you’re sick in the head. I do the work I do, and what happens next I can’t look after. So my thing is that I try to speak to the work whenever I can. Just to the work and not to my life.”
His new film, I Love You, Daddy, which opens on Nov. 17, shows a respected auteur with a reputation for sexual impropriety. In the film, C.K.’s character grapples with his daughter’s relationship with the filmmaker, who is a figure in the mold of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen: lauded as a genius, and dogged by allegations of sexual abuse and assault.
On Thursday, 217 women and gender nonconforming people in animation sent a letter to more than a dozen studios demanding an end to sexism and sexual harassment in the animation industry. Recipients included executives at Disney, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, DreamWorks Animation, Bento Box, OddBot, Paramount, Shadowmachine, Sony Pictures Animation, Stoopid Buddy, Titmouse, and Warner Bros.
Though there are very few women with creator credits on TV shows, several among that small group endorsed the letter’s message — among them are Rebecca Sugar, the creator of Steven Universe; Shadi Petosky, the creator of Danger & Eggs; and Lauren Faust, the creator of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. There are also multiple Emmy winners on the list.
The letter began to take shape last week after a swell of harassment stories were exchanged publicly and privately, moving the group into collective action. In the letter, they explicitly call for clear and uniformly enforced sexual harassment policies from studios; stronger action from their union against harassers; and more support from their male colleagues. “This abuse has got to stop,” they said.
Women have long noted the lack of gender equity in animation, a fact that is often overlooked both within the industry and by mainstream media outlets. In December, for example, the Hollywood Reporter infamously published a roundtable discussion “on avoiding ethnic stereotypes and how to ‘break the mold’ of princesses” featuring Seth Rogen and six other white men: The article was met with widespread derision online and eyerolls offline.
Harassment in particular has received even less attention: As the letter points out, it was only in the last few weeks that conversations about harassment started to happen more openly, and the letter writers were “struck by the pervasiveness of the problem.”
In interviews with more than two dozen women in the industry this year, women repeatedly told BuzzFeed News that animation is “a small industry” and thus they feared that speaking out about gender-based mistreatment would negatively affect their careers. In these interviews — which were conducted before the sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein prompted a reckoning among women in the industry — a majority of women said they had a suspicion that nothing would come of any allegation they made about harassment; many said they worried making such a report would make them seem “difficult” or “not fun.”
But this letter seems to mark a shift. More than 200 women and gender nonconforming people have now publicly called an end to their silence.
Read the letter in full:
An Open Letter to the Animation Community
We, the women and gender non-conforming people of the animation community, would like to address and highlight the pervasive problem of sexism and sexual harassment in our business. We write this letter with the hope that change is possible, and ask that you listen to our stories and then make every effort to bring a real and lasting change to the culture of animation studios.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, many of the women who work in animation have begun discussing more openly issues that we have dealt with quietly throughout our careers. As we came together to share our stories of sexism, sexual harassment and, in some cases, sexual assault, we were struck by the pervasiveness of the problem. Every one of us has a story to share, from tossed-off comments about our body parts that were framed as “jokes” to women being cornered in dark rooms by male colleagues to criminal assault.
Our business has always been male-dominated. Women make up only 23% of union employees, so it’s no surprise that problems with sexism and sexual harassment exist. Sexual harassment and assault are widespread issues that primarily affect women, with women of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups affected at an even greater rate.
As more women have entered the animation workforce, it seems that some men have not embraced this change. They still frequently make crass sexual remarks that make it clear women are not welcome on their crews. Some have pressed colleagues for romantic or sexual relationships, despite our clear disinterest. And some have seen the entrance of more women into the industry as an opportunity to exploit and victimize younger workers on their crews who are looking for mentorship. In addition, when sexual predators are caught at one workplace, they seem to easily find a job at another studio, sometimes even following their victims from job to job. We are tired of relying on whisper networks to know who isn’t safe to meet with alone. We want our supervisors to protect us from harassment and assault.
This abuse has got to stop.
The signatories of this letter demand that you take sexual harassment seriously. We ask that:
1. Every studio puts in place clear and enforceable sexual harassment policies and takes every report seriously. It must be clear to studio leadership, including producers, that, no matter who the abuser is, they must investigate every report or face consequences themselves.
2. The Animation Guild add language in our constitution that states that it can “censure, fine, suspend or expel any member of the guild who shall, in the opinion of the Executive Board, be found guilty of any act, omission, or conduct which is prejudicial to the welfare of the guild.” To craft and support the new language, we ask that an Anti-Harassment and Discrimination Committee be created to help educate and prevent future occurrences.
3. Our male colleagues start speaking up and standing up for us. When their co-workers make sexist remarks, or when they see sexual harassment happening, we expect them to say something. Stop making excuses for bad behavior in your friends and co-workers, and tell them what they are doing is wrong.
It has not been easy for us to share our stories with each other. Many of us were afraid because our victimizers are powerful or well-liked. Others were worried that if they came forward it would affect their careers. Some of us have come forward in the past, only to have our concerns brushed aside, or for our supervisors to tell us “he’s just from a different era.” All of us are saddened and disheartened to hear how widespread the problem of sexual harassment still is in the animation industry, and how many of our friends had been suffering in secret.
It is with this in mind that we resolve to do everything we can to prevent anyone else from being victimized. We are united in our mission to wipe out sexual harassment in the animation industry, and we will no longer be silent.
Chris Savino, the creator and executive producer of Nickelodeon’s popular cartoon series The Loud House, was suspended last week after several reported instances of harassment, according to Cartoon Brew. Variety also confirmed the suspension.
When asked for a comment, Nickelodeon did not confirm the suspension, but sent this statement: “Viacom is committed to the safety and well-being of our employees, and to fostering a workplace free from harassment. As a matter of policy, we do not comment on specific employee matters, but we take all allegations of this nature very seriously, investigate them thoroughly and take any necessary actions as a result.”
The Loud House premiered in 2016 and centers on the life of a boy who lives with 10 sisters. It is in its second season; Nickelodeon greenlit a third season in October last year.
Savino’s manager did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
In the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations lodged against Harvey Weinstein, the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts has decided not to accept a pledged $5 million endowment from the now-ousted executive of the Weinstein Company. Since last Thursday, more than 20 women — including Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie — have alleged Weinstein made inappropriate, unwanted sexual advances; several women claimed he sexually assaulted them.
The endowment was to fund scholarships for women directors at USC. Just last Thursday, Weinstein touted his gift to the school in a statement he gave to the New York Times. “One year ago, I began organizing a $5 million foundation to give scholarships to women directors at USC. While this might seem coincidental it has been in the works for a year,” he wrote in his statement, which addressed the newspaper’s report about the decades of alleged sexual harassment.
A spokesperson for USC confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the decision to nix Weinstein’s endowment was made on Tuesday (Oct. 10) — the same day The New Yorker published a story that included three women’s stories of being raped by Weinstein and the New York Times published a follow-up story detailing new allegations of harassment and coercion.
Through a representative, Weinstein “unequivocally denied” having nonconsensual sex to the New Yorker.
Weinstein’s representative did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for a comment on the rejected donation to the university. But in the statement last week, Weinstein said he would name the endowment after his mother, adding, “I won’t disappoint her.”
Harvey Weinstein was fired from his position as co-chair of the Weinstein Company days after the New York Times published an article that detailed decades of sexual harassment allegations against the celebrated executive.
In a statement to the Times on Oct. 5, Weinstein said, “I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it.” Later that day, one of his attorneys announced that Weinstein planned to sue the newspaper for the story, which the attorney called “defamatory.”
Rumors about Weinstein’s inappropriate behavior with women had been circulating for years; actor Kate Winslet — who did not identify as a victim of his alleged misconduct — suggested as much in a statement she gave to Variety on Monday (Oct. 9): “I had hoped that these kind of stories were just made up rumors, maybe we have all been naïve.”
According to former employees, many people had heard stories about the producer; Mark Gill, the former president of Miramax Los Angeles, told the New York Times, “If a female executive was asked to go to a meeting solo, she and a colleague would generally double up” to avoid being alone with Weinstein. And in the New York Times story, Ashley Judd said, “Women have been talking about Harvey amongst ourselves for a long time, and it’s simply beyond time to have the conversation publicly.” In 2015, Judd had told Variety — without naming Weinstein at the time — about an incident in the ’90s when a studio mogul had put pressure on her to perform sexual activities.
When director Henry-Alex Rubin requested the FBI’s help with his 2012 cyber drama Disconnect, he wanted notes on the screenplay’s accuracy. But he suspected they wanted something more.
“They understand that perception is everything,” he told BuzzFeed News of the FBI. “The more they are perceived well, the easier their job is.”
He recalled that the FBI employee who reviewed the shooting draft of his film proposed changes to a scene in which two agents aggressively questioned a journalist.
“I remember distinctly the consultant saying to me, ‘This is not at all how we operate,’” he said. As Rubin recalled, the consultant told him that the FBI approaches people in a manner that “at least on the surface” is “kind and cooperative, and that attitude usually yields much more results than being suspicious or aggressive.”
Rubin changed the scene.
“If we don’t tell our story, then fools will gladly tell it for us.”
The director was right to think that the FBI is keenly concerned with its public perception: Hundreds of pages of FBI documents BuzzFeed News has obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit reveal that the FBI actively seeks to control and burnish its image through consulting work on films. Over the past five years, the FBI’s Hollywood-focused Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit has played a role in the development of hundreds of movies, television shows, and documentaries. Examples are varied, and include the newly released Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, a biopic about the famous Watergate leaker Deep Throat; the 2012 straight-to-DVD Miley Cyrus romp So Undercover; and an episode of the docuseries Fatal Encounters. The bureau views these projects as marketing tools for an agency that desperately wants to build the FBI “brand,” the documents say.
“If we don’t tell our story, then fools will gladly tell it for us,” reads an August 2013 FBI PowerPoint slide advising bureau personnel how to use the media to their benefit. “Most people form their opinion of the FBI from pop culture, not a two-minute news story.”
The slide also includes this bullet point: “In any given week, Nielsen data indicates that FBI-themed dramas or documentaries reach 100,000,000+ people in the United States.” (Nielsen did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment on this data point.)
According to that slideshow, the FBI’s public affairs office — which acts as the liaison between the entertainment industry and the bureau — reviewed 728 requests for assistance on media ranging from novels to big-budget blockbusters in 2012 alone. FBI consultations are free for the filmmaker (although not for the taxpayer), and the consultations described in these documents ranged in scale from a cursory informational email exchange to “personnel and time intensive” multi-day shoots at the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, DC.
The majority of productions asked for something relatively small, like a quick fact-check or permission to use the FBI logo. In one brief consultation from March 2011, the FBI seriously considered a request from the screenwriter of the musical zombie horror-comedy Diamond Dead. The writer “was looking to put the FBI in a chase for zombies ‘just because’ in his [mind] he thought the fictitious FBI in his script would like to research the zombies,” an FBI employee wrote in the documents. “I advised him to try with someone like NIH, HHS, CDC, or another health/medical government agency as it would be of no interest to the FBI unless they committed a crime.”
The writer-producer who made that call, Andrew Gaty, told BuzzFeed News, “I always like to do fairly serious research,” recalling that he spoke with the staffer for a few minutes. “My basic question was, what would the FBI do if they found zombies?”
“My basic question was, what would the FBI do if they found zombies?”
The FBI doesn’t just field queries from filmmakers but also takes a proactive role when an opportunity arises to advance its own public relations interests. Indeed, a few years ago, an FBI agent was reading a Hollywood trade publication when the agent came upon a story about a movie that would star Sylvester Stallone as reputed mob enforcer and FBI informant Gregory Scarpa. The agent was intrigued and decided to reach out to Nicholas Pileggi, the Goodfellas scribe who was writing the Scarpa screenplay, to ask “if he wanted FBI input,” according to the FBI documents. Pileggi apparently was interested and told the FBI agent he would make contact when “he was ready to start the project.” Pileggi’s representative did not respond to a request for comment, and the film is still in development.
Christopher Allen, the Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit chief, told BuzzFeed News that the FBI could not provide updated figures about the number of productions it has assisted with since 2013. But productions featuring the FBI continue at a rapid pace. Mark Felt was released Sept. 29. In October, Netflix will premiere Mindhunter — a series about FBI agents who study and track down serial killers — and CBS will air the 280th episode of its own serial-killer-catcher procedural, Criminal Minds. The Netflix series consulted directly with the FBI, and the former agent who wrote the book Mind Hunter, John E. Douglas, is a credited consultant on the show. Criminal Minds has also consulted with the bureau, and this season, an agent turned producer will have his 11th writing credit on the show.
Although the bureau explicitly says it “does not edit or approve [filmmakers’] work,” winning cooperation from the FBI often means portraying the bureau in a positive light. According to the documents, the FBI will sometimes deny permission to use the logo for reasons that border on petty: One film was turned down in 2008 because the FBI’s role in the movie was too small. And for certain projects — like the Silence of the Lambs trilogy, the 2009 Johnny Depp film Public Enemies, and 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard — the bureau will go to extraordinary lengths to assist production teams, assigning agents to answer questions on call or approving multi-day shoots on FBI grounds. Additionally, the bureau conducts semi-regular “FBI 101” workshops at the Writers Guild, instructing screenwriters on the ins and outs of working with the bureau; an invitation to one such event in June called it “your opportunity to engage the FBI directly.”
Matthew Cecil, a scholar of the FBI’s image, told BuzzFeed News that the FBI’s relationship with Hollywood dates back eight decades. The bureau’s PR strategies have been “remarkably” successful in advancing the FBI’s goal of making people “more comfortable with the idea of this extremely powerful agency.” Cecil, who wrote Branding Hoover’s FBI, distinguished the bureau’s branding from that of the CIA (which has an “entertainment industry liaison”): “They’ve never been good at it at all.”
The FBI is still secretive about how it interacts with Hollywood filmmakers. It took three years and a lawsuit to pry loose these documents. But nearly a dozen filmmakers who spoke to BuzzFeed News were mostly open and positive about the liaison. The majority recounted how deeply impressed they were by the thoroughness and professionalism of the FBI employees they interacted with. “They were highly intelligent, and they could see easily what the script was trying to say, and where it was going,” said Peter Woodward, who wrote the 2010 Samuel L. Jackson film Unthinkable.
Filmmakers explained that they contact the FBI because they want their work to be more realistic. “I have always found the FBI to be extremely and productively cooperative and open. … I’ve actually found them almost as eager understand the narrative I’m after as I am,” said Mark Felt writer-director and former journalist Peter Landesman.
But it’s clearly more than just an educational exercise for the bureau. Internally, the FBI says it has a “mission interest in developing the public image of the FBI and ensuring an accurate portrayal of FBI personnel, past and present, in order to encourage public cooperation with the FBI in performing its mission.” The documents show that the unit evaluates how high-profile a project is going to be before deciding to approve consultation, generally reserving their highest levels of assistance for projects expected to be blockbusters. The unit’s guidelines for requests specify that the agency needs to know “whether the project is ‘sold,’ ‘green lit,’ commissioned, or speculative.”
In one 44-page spreadsheet that logged more than 200 requests made between 2005 and 2014, Tom Hanks was name-dropped three times (for Captain Phillips, Parkland, and Mark Felt). In another document referring to the predicted blockbuster Live Free or Die Hard, the office acknowledged that the movie was not about the bureau — in the final film, FBI characters spend much of their screen time describing the havoc caused by hackers. And yet the Office of Public Affairs approved a two-day shoot at the J. Edgar Hoover Building involving around 400 extras; additionally, an agent from the Los Angeles office worked with the production “extensively, to include sitting in on production meetings.” In contrast, another project received a recommendation that “LIMITED ASSISTANCE BE PROVIDED AS THIS IS A FIRST TIME SCREENWRITER.”
The FBI’s self-interest was evident to Ed Saxon, the Silence of the Lambs producer who was the bureau’s point person on the 1991 film. Saxon expressed some misgivings about the consulting arrangement. “We had political qualms about how closely we were working with the FBI and how much we were making the FBI look like heroes when the FBI’s history as an organ of the state has been complicated, to say the least,” he told BuzzFeed News.
In a nod to those reservations, director Jonathan Demme added a line to the film about the agency’s record of civil rights abuses, Saxon said. “To Jonathan in particular, it was important that he wasn’t just making a commercial for the United States police department.” The production team knew the FBI viewed the movie as a recruiting tool for female agents: “Our picture — with a heroic female agent, or agent trainee, at its center — lined up well with their goals,” the producer said.
Saxon’s take is more in line with internal records at the FBI. The bureau’s recommendations for cooperating with filmmakers generally emphasize a commitment to accuracy, but sometimes they refer directly to how the agency appears. A few documents stated that the goal was not only to support authentic depictions but favorable ones; one said, “Most of the time, Hollywood writers do not seek our input and oftentimes they get it wrong. So when given the opportunity to educate the writers/producers we have found we are in a better position to possibly have them portray the FBI in a positive light and with accuracy, or fairly close to accurate.”
There are also hints that the bureau wants to remind the public that FBI employees are people, too. When the FBI recommended that personnel should be interviewed on camera for a special feature on the 2000 DVD release of Donnie Brasco, a document explained that “[t]he segment would satisfy the public’s desire to learn about the FBI by showing the human, personal side of an Agent’s job.”
The documents suggest that the ideal onscreen FBI character is approachable, polite, and not conducting surveillance. In April 2012, someone from the production of the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson crime caper Empire State put in a request to use the FBI seal in the film on short notice. After the unit reviewed the script, the request was denied, in part because the script featured bureau personnel being rude to local law enforcement. “P. 70 had FBI agents rolling onto scene and immediately condescending NYPD,” the log says. “Also later in script agents were ‘dragging’ patrons out of restaurants and theaters…the script does not accurately portray FBI procedures and personnel and therefore use of official SEAL was declined via email on 4/27/2012.”
This position — preferring a restrained image of the bureau — was echoed in the recommendation for Public Enemies, which followed the hunt for a group of 1930s bank robbers. Although the FBI approved significant consulting on Public Enemies, a document noted that the film “‘heightens the image of the FBI as an agency seeking to win by whatever means necessary,’ not necessarily a flattering portrayal.”
And the FBI has long wanted to avoid associations with covert surveillance in particular. Wiretapping, as Cecil writes in Hoover’s FBI and the Fourth Estate, was expressly forbidden from the TV series that the bureau essentially coproduced in the ’60s and ’70s; that aversion continues to the present day. A request was declined in 2012 not only because a “[f]ictional agent has incredibly small role” but also because the agent was “not portrayed in best light (mostly through scare tactics of wiretapping and other surveillance).” And on the podcast Crime and Science Radio in 2015, FBI Public Affairs Specialist Betsy Glick said that bureau officials shaped fictional portrayals of the FBI because they don’t want people “getting a bunch of erroneous, negative, Big Brother–type messages from the media” — explicitly referring to the pervasive state surveillance in the book 1984.
“[I]f all the people see in the movies or in pop culture are negative and wrong antagonistic portrayals, they’re not gonna cooperate.”
Notably, one of the most prominent recent films that was critical of the FBI — 2014’s Selma, which portrays the bureau’s intense surveillance of civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. — relied on books, documentaries, and internal FBI documents, and not on consultation with the bureau itself. Director Ava DuVernay, who also rewrote the script, was not available for an interview, but her representative confirmed to BuzzFeed News that she never reached out to the FBI for assistance; neither did screenwriter Paul Webb, his representative said.
One screenwriter’s takeaway from an FBI seminar held at the Writers Guild — that the FBI largely worked with filmmakers because the agency wants to seem friendly and approachable — was repeated by Glick on the podcast. “How does the FBI solve crimes?” she asked. Glick answered her own question: “We solve crimes when people are willing to talk to an agent when he knocks on their door, and if all the people see in the movies or in pop culture are negative and wrong antagonistic portrayals, they’re not gonna cooperate. Our mission is to build the trust of the American people so that they can help us solve our operational mission.” ●
Ariane Lange is an entertainment reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in LA. Recipient: IRE 2016 FOI award; Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame. PGP fingerprint 46DB 0712 284B 8C6E 40FF 7A1B D3CD 5720 694B 16F0. Contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org