WASHINGTON ― There were very few Hollywood reporters better positioned to expose Harvey Weinstein than Peter Biskind. The author and journalist was the executive editor at Premiere magazine, a glossy dedicated to the movie business, during the film producer’s rise, and he later became a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
In the world of the lunch-date celebrity puff piece, Biskind stood out for his doggedness. His unflinching book on the woolly fraternity of 1970s-era American filmmakers, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, is considered the definitive account of that era.
After that book’s success, Biskind turned his attention to Weinstein for a sequel of sorts chronicling the rise of the ’90s indie film rebels. In 2004, he published Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film. The book, which runs more than 500 pages, details Weinstein’s brutish business practices but contains zero details of his alleged criminal and lecherous behavior toward women. Biskind told HuffPost he just didn’t think it was relevant.
In the book’s preface, Biskind describes an astonishing meeting with Weinstein. At this point, Biskind’s work on the book was underway, and the mogul wanted assurances that the reporter would not be poking around his private life. Biskind told me that Weinstein’s paranoia was unnecessary. He needed access and he wasn’t interested in pursuing the rumors. He couldn’t see a way the allegations had influenced Weinstein’s business operation (they had, of course).
“It was probably the first meeting I had with him, which I was trying to see if he would talk to me, essentially, so I was probably trying to reassure him that I wasn’t looking for that,” Biskind explained. “I guess I wanted to put him at ease to some degree because I wanted to interview him.”
The scene of that meeting Biskind describes in Down and Dirty Pictures is by now recognizable as textbook Harvey.
“Harvey was unhappy,” Biskind writes. “I had told him that I wasn’t going to pry into his private life ― the 1990s were not, after all, the 1970s; drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll were not creative stimulants or career busters as they were then ― but he had received word from his network of informants who curry favor with him by picking up the phone and conveying what they’ve heard that I was nosing about.”
Weinstein teased Biskind about his book being a lame idea and then dangled the prospect of a more lucrative payday for the journalist. Maybe he could do something for Miramax Books, he offered. Biskind is honest enough to admit he started to take Weinstein’s bait.
“I did have a project that I was secretly nursing, and I told him what it was, all the while feeling like a schmuck for letting him play me,” Biskind writes. “What I said seemed to excite him. His face lit up, and he bellowed, ‘That’s a terrific idea, that could make millions. We’ll do it, won’t we, Bob? Why don’t you just give up the book you’re writing now and do this one.’ I declined, and he seemed genuinely sorry for me as I confirmed for him that I was indeed a loser.”
The exchange didn’t anger Biskind enough to dig any deeper. And Weinstein ended up cooperating for the book.
In light of the revelations that have come out in The New York Times and The New Yorker, I tracked down Biskind. Here is a condensed version of our phone interview about his Miramax book and why he didn’t pursue the biggest story to hit Hollywood in decades.
Did you ever hear the rumors about Harvey when you were doing the book?
I heard some, yeah. But I didn’t pursue them because first of all the book wasn’t solely about Harvey. It was about the explosion of independents in the ’90s and secondly I felt like I had gone into people’s personal lives in my previous book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, because that was about Hollywood in the ’70s. It was an era of personal filmmaking, and I felt it was relevant. In this book, this is more of a business book and I didn’t feel it was all that relevant to the subject I was writing about.
I also felt that if I got into it, it was going to skew the book completely and turn it into a different kind of book. I did hear some rumors. It’s impossible not to. But as I said, I didn’t really follow them up.
Did you ever ask Weinstein about them? Did you wonder if looking back it did have an impact on his business? He used his power in ways to intimidate people, keep these women docile.
I think that’s true that it does keep them docile, but on the other hand if you are giving a freshman actress a role in a feature film, that keeps them pretty docile, too. … I didn’t feel like it affected the business that much. I didn’t see the connection.
Did you ever ask Weinstein about it?
I never asked him about it because, again, I didn’t feel it was relevant to what I was doing. I mean, I did hear, you know, the Gwyneth Paltrow story — I heard from Brad Pitt, but it was off the record and so I never used that. I was writing a profile of Brad Pitt for Vanity Fair.
And when Brad Pitt told you, did you take that up with [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter?
No. I didn’t use it because it was off the record, and it was a kind of parenthetical in the interview.
What was your impression of Weinstein? Did you think he was capable of this kind of thing?
Yeah — very. He was a scary guy. He was always very nice to me but in the book ... I talk about this meeting I had with him right before the book came out. I said something like … the air was heavy with menace and there was a baseball bat leaning against the wall in the corner of his office. He was a scary guy, although he was always nice to me. He never lost his temper with me. I did a lot of interviewing with him but he never lost his temper. He was really on his best behavior, and I had known him before I started working on the book — not well, but well enough. I never saw that side of him.
Do you regret that you didn’t report out the Weinstein assaults?
I still feel like it would have distorted the book and would have made the book about Harvey.
There are a lot of stories in the book about his business practices, which are pretty horrifying, and nobody wanted to talk about that. It was hard enough to get the stuff that I was looking for, much less to go after this other stuff, which would have been twice as hard to do.
In a way, it would have made the book juicier and it would have done some justice to the people that he mistreated, but again you have to pick and choose. You can’t cover everything.