Peter Biskind has made his name in Hollywood not through filmmaking, but through his reporting and writing on the industry. A longtime contributor to Vanity Fair, Biskind, 77, has authored numerous books, including a biography of Warren Beatty and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Biskind’s 2005 book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, is in large part a study of the Weinstein brothers—Harvey and Bob—who, via their company Miramax, changed the way Hollywood made prestige films. Although the book presents a damning and critical portrait of the hot-tempered and voluble Harvey, it does not touch on the accounts of rape, assault, and harassment that numerous actresses and others have given to reporters over the past several weeks.
To discuss Weinstein’s career and the lack of media focus on his grotesque behavior until now, I spoke recently by phone with Biskind—whom I have met socially and is friendly with my father. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why Harvey’s sexual behavior didn’t take up more space in Biskind’s book, how Hollywood has and hasn’t changed, and how Brad Pitt felt about Weinstein allegedly harassing his then-girlfriend, Gwyneth Paltrow.
Isaac Chotiner: You did an interview for HuffPost in which you said you had heard stories. You specifically mentioned hearing one from Brad Pitt. Were these stories about Weinstein being creepy with words or putting his hand on someone’s leg, or were they about assault or rape?
Peter Biskind: You know, I don’t remember the stories. It was nothing as extreme as raping anybody. But I actually don’t remember. I would have to go through my notes again, which is a nightmare, so I haven’t. The “common knowledge” business that everybody mentions is true. You heard stories about hanky panky, but I don’t remember what I heard in detail, but I think I would have remembered it if it was anything as serious as rape. But a mild kind of casting couch attitude goes with the territory in Hollywood. The stuff that has been revealed recently is much more serious than that. Casting couch is such a cliché at this point that there are many, many ways you can take that. I didn’t hear anything like what has been reported.
Did you feel that casting couch behavior deserved to be reported? That’s not a part of your book. In hindsight, should it have been?
You know, at that point, the book was not about Harvey per se. It was about the explosion of independent film in the ’90s. I felt that, you know, I covered the personal lives, the dark side of the personal lives in the previous book I wrote, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, because it affected the kind of films they made. It was the era of personal filmmaking. But I regarded this as more of a business book, and I didn’t feel it affected his business that much, the conduct of his business. Now, maybe that was a mistake, but that’s the way I felt about it at the time. I also felt that it was so incendiary and would change the focus of the book. It would cannibalize the whole book if I got into it.
If you say that it would have cannibalized the whole book, that implies you were hearing a lot of different things, rather than a one-off story about a casting couch.
I am not lying to you. I don’t remember what I heard and I wasn’t looking for it, so I probably didn’t hear as much as I could if I’d gone looking. And people were off-the-record and they had signed confidentiality agreements and so forth and nobody wanted to talk about it.
If they said they signed confidentiality agreements, that implies there was something there.
Well it did imply there was something there, but I didn’t go looking because I didn’t feel like it was germane to the subject of my book. Now I suppose you could argue that that kind of behavior—abusive behavior—did affect his business, but up to that point I think it was a stretch. Now it has—it destroyed his business. But at that point nobody said anything. All the people who went on the record, 90 percent of them, said they were afraid to say anything. And I was writing that book at the height of his powers. People were terrified of him—even the executives I spoke to who worked for the company didn’t want to talk.
It does seem like this was part of the way he negotiated business. He used people in his company to facilitate his behavior. He used this stuff in negotiations.
The book is more about how he produced the films that he made and his relationship with filmmakers. That’s what I focused on.
The book does talk about his weight and his marriage, so you did have interest in him as a person.
So you didn’t find things in your reporting that made it appear like this was a large or overwhelming part of who he was as a person?
No, because I just didn’t hear that much about it. I was reading somebody’s post on Facebook, someone I interviewed, who said he regretted not being able to tell me the truth…because he signed a do not disclose agreement. But that I had two stories about this—two sources, but both off the record—and I couldn’t go with it because nobody would go on the record. I have no recollection of this and I went and looked back at his interview and couldn’t find anything. I have forgotten a lot about what I heard.
Just to be clear, when you were doing your reporting, no one came to you and said “you should report on the fact that he assaulted me” or something like that?
No, that never happened.
When Pitt told you this story off the record about Paltrow that you can reveal now because he revealed it, what was his attitude when he told you the story?
His attitude was, paradoxically, that he said he liked Harvey and admired him, despite that. I got the feeling that whatever he did to Gwyneth Paltrow wasn’t that serious or Brad Pitt wouldn’t be saying things like that.
That’s one interpretation.
He definitely said he liked Harvey.
Did you hear a lot of shady stories about people in Hollywood—not having sex per se, but inappropriate or illegal behavior—when reporting your other books?
I certainly heard a lot of that in the ’70s, but I don’t know about illegal. I am trying to think of some stories. There was a lot of free sex in the ’70s. I am trying not to get myself in trouble. This was the era of free love, so everybody was stoned all the time. Sexual encounters were more relaxed than they are now. Don Simpson was somebody who was abusive and I did write a piece about him. And I did get into that in that piece. He tied a woman to a tree I believe. What he did beyond that I don’t know. But the ’70s was such a different era.
When you say you don’t want to get yourself in trouble, what are you referring to?
I was trying to formulate an answer to one of your questions. There was a general feeling in the ’70s, and I think it has always been true in Hollywood, all the way back to silent pictures, that rules don’t apply to them, which was the name of Beatty’s last movie. It’s the air they breathe. They are not constrained by civilian morality, put it that way.
Do you mean that rules don’t apply and they cheat on their wives and have sex with 150 people every year, or that you can grab a woman or assault her?
It depends. It’s like the Roman Polanski stuff. He felt no compunction. I am sure he felt that he wasn’t doing anything wrong. And depending on the person and how far it went, I think there was a general feeling that you could do what you wanted and get away with it.
You really think he gave a 13-year old drugs and had sex with her and didn’t think he was doing anything wrong?
I have no idea. Bert Schneider, who was the head of a company called BBS, which was incredibly influential for a couple years, had a 16-year old girlfriend when he was in his forties or something. One of his daughter’s friends. I don’t think that was all that common but I also don’t believe that he felt that it was anything that out of the ordinary, and nobody seemed to raise their eyebrows.
Jodi Kantor, who helped break the story for the Times, told me yesterday that one of the reasons the story broke now is that his power has ebbed.
How and why has it ebbed?
He was in a great position with Disney. Disney gave him a lot of money and his eyes were bigger than his stomach and he wanted to compete with the studios. He made Cold Mountain with like a $90 million budget. We are talking about a studio that started out making $2 million movies.
Clearly he had difficulties and the films just didn’t do as well as they were supposed to do, and he went into television and over-expanded. He started a magazine. He spread himself too thin. He was completely unaware of his own limitations.
What is his legacy in Hollywood?
Awful as he may have been in many, many ways, he put independent films on the map. Before Harvey, no independent films made over $10 million. He broke out of the art film ghetto and put independent films in theaters in suburbia. He got Oscars for independent films. He transformed Oscar campaigning.
He had a real knack for identifying films no one wanted and making a lot of money with them. And consequently, as I said, he transformed the whole world of independent film. But there was a downside to it too. When he started outbidding everybody with Disney money, when he was acquiring films, and spending more money to acquire films, you become more conservative. You use movie stars on the way down who want to remake their reputations, like Stallone and Bruce Willis instead of looking for new talent or taking risks. You try to protect your money. I think that contributed to the decline of independent film as well. He developed it and then he broke it to some degree.