The July 1998 Premiere article "Flirting With Disaster," which was referenced the other day in an incredibly brave and true piece for Indiewire by Liz Manne, can be found here. Thank you to Stephen Saito for saving me the trouble of abusing my own scanner. Below is a small account of how that piece, and another, came to be.
I guess it was some time in the summer of 1997 when Jim Meigs, the then-editor-in-chief of Premiere, told me there was an investigative journalist with whom he wanted me to work. John Connolly had once been a detective with the NYPD, and during the heyday of Spy magazine had done a lot of the digging for inside-Hollywood columns penned by the of course fictitious “Celia Brady.” The piece Jim handed me was something John had done about Michael Viner, a producer and publisher and, from the sound of it, a fairly shady guy. I was a little wary of the piece for two reasons. One, I did not think that Premiere’s readership would give a rat’s ass about Viner, and two, there seemed to have been some personal animus between author and subject. Connolly’s piece was upfront about it, but I still didn’t like it. I felt a little burned after having taken over a piece about a heroin-addicted actor and learned months after publication that its author had been some combination of personal assistant and NA sponsor to the guy.
One day John came up to the office. If we were gonna be a team, we made a very odd couple. John like myself is a broad-shouldered Irish guy (well, half-Irish in my case) but he was a quintessential old-school man of a certain world. Florid of complexion, always crisply dressed in a blazer over a cashmere turtleneck or some such thing, well-groomed, ever carrying a discreet hint of aftershave. Whereas I was a slouchy cigarette-dangling-from-the-lip quasi-dirtbag who thought that having edited the National Magazine Award-nominated “David Lynch Keeps His Head” by David Foster Wallace entitled me to come to work in my Tex Avery t-shirt two or three days out of the week. (Daniel Filipacchi—the chairman of Premiere’s owner Hachette-Filipacchi and the man who introduced Chantal Goya to Jean-Luc Godard—did eye that t-shirt with amused admiration in the elevator one day, I think. Tex Avery was big in France.)
When John pitched New Line, he opened with a story in which, on a “trust-building” cattle-drive exercise during a corporate retreat, one executive (he’s named in the article) decided to ditch the activity and go back to the resort with a bunch of colleagues and trip out on mushrooms. And I told John, “I’m sorry, and I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but if I had been one of the people on that cattle drive, I would have been right behind him on the way to the van. You’re going to have to come up with something better.”
And so he did. Quite a bit. All this happened, as we bragged in our display copy, over the course of eight months. Eight months that were sometimes exhilarating, sometimes dispiriting. Personally, they were mostly miserable. I remember saying to Jim very early in the process, “I don’t know if I’m cut out for this.” And he said, “This is journalism. Do you want to do it?” Leaving aside a detailed examination of “want,” I assented.
I can’t actually go into much detail on the process, even to this day. All through it, though, we had amazing support from two women at the top of Hachette’s legal team. This was kind of surprising. Hachette’s CEO at the time was still David Pecker. At the time Pecker was not highly invested in investigative journalism, to say the least. The Editorial Director was the late Jean-Louis Ginibre, who I wouldn’t call discouraging, but who also often gave the impression that he’d rather be in Philadelphia, where he housed his 30,000-LP jazz record collection. And who could blame him. And I think at the time Hachette’s deductible in a libel or defamation lawsuit was something like $500,000, an amount the company was not eager to spend on such an endeavor. And yet. The company’s General Counsel, Catherine Flickinger, and her second in command, Kathy Daniels, were incredibly helpful in mapping out what we needed to do to protect ourselves and most importantly our sources, most of who ended up being anonymous.
Eventually we started having these very heated meeting with publicists and lawyers from New Line, objecting to many things, including what they termed Connolly’s “when did you stop beating your wife” line of questioning. There I sat with my dangling cigarette and Tex Avery t-shirt staring down these guys in very expensive suits with a “you fucking die!” glare. What a schmuck. One of the publicists, after one such meeting, told me that I was personally going to hear from a lawyer, a particular one, but that I shouldn’t worry, because this lawyer was “the nicest guy you’d ever meet.” Somehow this did not sound very reassuring. Later I found out that this lawyer, now invariably referred to by me as “the nicest lawyer I’m ever going to meet,” was the husband of a cousin of the woman I was dating at the time. This turned out to be a genuine coincidence, but still. In any event, I never met the guy. I often wonder just how nice he was.
We made a rather bad strategic error at the end of the process. There was one anecdote that we had definitively nailed in terms of sourcing even though the subjects of the story were not its sources. It was about a New Line executive laying a hand on a well-known actor, female, who was developing a project to produce and star in at the studio. We thought, why not ask the actor to comment on the story. After all, this figure was well known as someone doing good work in making the industry more female-forward, etc. Surely she will want to get on board with this. So we faxed the paragraph with the anecdote to her, care of her manager. Within ten minutes there were three phone calls, one from manager, one from agent, one from lawyer, all saying that if we printed the story we’d be sued seven ways from Sunday or whatever the phrase is. So, the anecdote went. Which was a pain in the ass because we were already in galleys and had to change the layout. That wasn’t the only reason. For a really long time I was really irritated at the actor, and it’s only been in recent years that I accepted that in extending the opportunity to comment, we were also extending the opportunity to shut it down, and she had very legitimate reasons to do so.
As Liz Manne’s excellent piece on her own experience of sexual harassment at New Line points out, when the piece was published, Premiere was subjected to a lot of tsk-tsking from industry “insiders” such as Peter Bart and David Poland, quibbling with the sourcing of the story, bemoaning the fact that we were going after “mavericks,” and a lot of other bullshit. Poland, to his credit, has expressed his regret over certain of his comments; I don’t expect to hear anything from Bart, who the record shows was also invested in protecting that other maverick, Harvey Weinstein. I never liked that guy. Bart, I mean. I never liked Harvey either, and was delighted that he stopped knowing who I was after I wrote that, with The Cider House Rules, he was creating a new “cinema du Papa.”
At the time of the New Line piece, though, Harvey was very happy. As has been pointed out elsewhere, Harvey had a byline on a piece in the same issue in which the New Line story appeared—one in which he bemoaned the use of anonymous sources in film journalism, for Christ's sake. I honestly have no idea how this scheduling glitch came to be. I believe, though, that it was the last time Harvey’s byline appeared in Premiere. In any event, rumor had it that he had photocopies of both his own piece and the New Line story on his desk as the magazine hit newsstands, and he gleefully passed out both to visitors to his office. I thought that was gross.
Because the piece did not result in a lawsuit—on account of, you know, every goddamn thing in it being absolutely true—John was feeling feisty and suggested he and I team up on a Miramax piece next. I don’t think I was particularly eager to put myself through what would have been an even more painful process, but I knew it was a salutary idea anyway. John spent a large amount of his own money hiring a private detective to track a potential source, a sexual assault victim, halfway around the world. When John finally contacted her, she insisted her encounter with Harvey had been entirely consensual.
In the meantime something else had happened. New Line did not sue us, but they blackballed us. The company had always made the kind of movies that appealed to our core readership, the entirety of which would soon become contributors to Ain't It Cool News (not really, sorry), and now New Line was going to deny us, with extreme prejudice, access to those movies. The studio would soon go into production on the Lord of the Rings movies, to give you some idea of our problem.
Now obviously the individual talents working on these movies would want out coverage, and would afford us forms of direct access, but the whole process was made much more difficult when you had the studio against you. We had to ask ourselves whether we could live up to the other aspects of the magazine’s mandate if both New Line AND Miramax were refusing to play ball with us. It wasn’t a matter of advertising—we were not very proactive with respect to advertising from studios at that time. But as we were making our morality-versus-business calculations, John’s trail went cold.
Jim Meigs was let go as EOC in late 2000, and his successor, Michael Solomon, was eager to make a big splash with his debut issue, so he brought John C. back, and put us to work on a piece about Arnold Schwarzenegger. We had about four weeks to do what we took eight months to do with the New Line story, but we created a solid, unpleasant portrait of a philanderer and ass-grabber (and worse) that again was not challenged in a court of law. (We were inadvertently helped out a great deal by Mr. Schwarzenegger’s legal representation, which early on in the process faxed us a cease and desist letter that laid out in great detail all the things they would hold us liable for if we printed them. So we didn’t print them. Genius.) The reaction to that story only bolstered the cynicism I felt after the New Line story not only did not end sexual harassment in Hollywood, but was spun to make Premiere look like the bad guys for printing it. A bevy of Schwarzenegger’s cronies and colleagues, including Linda Hamilton, Rita Wilson, and James Cameron, wrote in with testimonials about what a great guy the future Governor of California was. The multivalent fallout from Schwarzenegger’s divorce from Maria Shriver all but verified everything in the story (we had inklings about the illegitimate child story, but no solid trail)—and not many people cared anymore, at that.
The thing was this: people did not only think highly of Schwarzenegger, they had an investment IN thinking highly of him. Michael Solomon did not know it at the time, but rather than making a big splash, he had laid out the first nail of his coffin. The boys upstairs, to a one, were very “Why are we going after Ah-nuld?” It just didn’t sit right with them. Michael did not last a year at the magazine, and after he left, the word was handed down that John Connolly (whom Michael and I were cultivating for non-scandalous work, too; he did a rather lovely piece on the last days of Mae West for us, and a funny Robert Evans profile too) was no longer going hang a shingle at Premiere.