When The New York Times published the report on Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault allegations in 2017, 82 additional women gathered the courage to share their stories. Journalists Meghan Twohey and Jodi Kantor’s tireless work didn’t just scratch the surface on systemic sexual harassment. It contributed to activist Tarana Burke’s work on the #MeToo movement, drawing attention to this pervasive issue on a global level.
The year the story was published, Maria Schrader was in Berlin. She wasn’t familiar with Kantor and Twohey yet, but decades in the film industry meant that she understood the weight of this particular story. In addition to her work onscreen as an actress in Germany (Aimee and Jaguar, Deutschland 83/86/89), Schrader is perhaps best known for directing the Netflix hit series, Unorthodox. This captivating series displays Schrader’s knack for depicting intense, intimate moments with care, ultimately winning an Emmy for her work. Additionally, she wrote and directed Germany’s official submission to Best International Feature at The 94th Academy Awards, I’m Your Man (2021).
With her new film, She Said, Schrader attacks this seismic story with a thoughtfulness and attention to detail that mirrors the work of Kantor and Twohey. I was excited to speak with Schrader about her filmmaking process, the power of portraying working mothers on screen, and the self-doubt too many women experience.
Sophia Ciminello: Hi, Maria. Thank you so much for joining me today, and congratulations on your new film, She Said. I saw it at the New York Film Festival and really connected it.
Maria Schrader: Oh, I’m so happy. Were you at the premiere?
SC: Yes, I was. It was amazing.
MS: It was a really nice screening. It was a very important experience for me because it was the first time I watched it with an audience. It was a beautiful screening and an incredible experience for me. I felt how much the whole crowd connected to the movie, and it made me very happy.
SC: Oh, that’s so good to hear. It was a very emotional experience, especially seeing everyone up there on the stage.
MS: Yeah, there is a movie, but then there is also a cause, and we all felt how alive that is, right?
SC: Of course. I’d love to know how you got involved in this film. What was it about this particular project that made you sign on?
MS: I got involved late compared to my other projects. When I direct, I usually write the script or co-write the script. On the series Unorthodox, I was there when the project was born, and I was able to be in the writers’ room and involved in the scriptwriting process. I met the producers after Unorthodox was quite successful. Dede Gardner had already talked about this project, and then came back to me at the beginning of 2021. She said, “Look, here’s a script we believe in, and we looked at your work, and if you want it, you can direct it.”
And only then did I truly understand what the story was about and the risk, and there was a speechlessness. There is a moment when you feel the weight and the size. It’s not just any story. It’s a story that helped change the world. We all lived through what happened after that article was published. And being asked to direct a movie that tells the story of how that story came about and who was behind it had a big impact on me. I mean, I didn’t know who these people were. I live in Berlin. But I then read the book and read the script like a thriller. I read it breathlessly. And I was incredibly taken by the smart and interesting decisions the script already took to really tell the story from the female perspective. Jodi and Meghan, yes, but also these other individuals who were strong enough and courageous enough to share their stories and make this article possible.
Yeah, there was no doubt. There was just instant intimidation and a sense of responsibility you immediately felt. But you cannot let fear or weight stand in your way of taking something like that on. We were a team. It wasn’t just me, and I was very grateful.
SC: And I think the weight of the story would be something that would be intimidating or something that could cause anxiety at first, but the film does a great job of depicting Jodi and Meghan not just as journalists but as real women, working mothers. How did you decide to incorporate these more personal details for the characters? This is a side we don’t often see in films about investigative journalism. In All The President’s Men, for example, we don’t see that with Woodward and Bernstein.
MS: Not at all. Not at all. Woodward and Bernstein wouldn’t question their own role in society, for instance, during their investigation. The subject matter they investigated would never question them personally as individuals. It was campaign finance and political corruption. Here, you know, Jodi and Meghan are investigating the most intimate, private thing, right?
MS: And that echoes everywhere, and you cannot leave this behind in the newsroom. It accompanies you in your private interiors, in your thoughts. They have sleepless nights. They feel a great responsibility. This is what movies can do. And it’s pivotal for this story to include their doubts. They are not only professional and incredibly fierce, good journalists, but they are also normal, accessible women. That’s it, you know? They are our heroines, and they are movie heroines. But it’s so important at the same time to have the full picture and to not make them bigger than life but real people. They’re hit by depression in unexpected places.
I think it’s so important that these people are inspiring to us. It’s much easier to be inspired by people who do not necessarily have superpowers. You look up to them but understand they’re great at what they do. They’re passionate and knowledgeable, and at the same time, they’re also like all of us.
SC: I think that’s very true. And the inclusion of Meghan’s postpartum depression and Jodi’s relationship with her daughter and the conversation around the word “rape” felt like such a necessary inclusion to the film.
MS: Yeah, and within the research side of the film, the reporting side, we also included things that they discover left and right, like the details about NDAs, and what an NDA entails. To really look into these details is shocking. It’s wonderful that the movie allows space for that. It’s also wonderful to do that on the more personal and private side. To allow a daring thought, like Meghan Twohey saying, “maybe postpartum depression isn’t only an individual woman’s failure as so many people think,” right?
SC: Oh, definitely.
MS: But maybe there is something societal about it. Maybe this is not her fault. Something may be echoing: inequality, growing up and giving birth, and working in a male-dominated environment. So these bigger questions about the world are to be felt all the way through. This has been the beauty of this script from the first moment I read it.
SC: I love the idea of feeling something through the film and its feeling attached to a larger issue. I also appreciated that you didn’t show any of the sexual violence committed against the women in the film. There’s a power in leaving that to the imagination. I’m interested in your thought process behind a very effective sequence where we hear that tape, and the camera moves steadily through the hotel hallways. You feel that this could be happening behind any of those doors.
MS: It’s exactly that thought. We understand that these are very different high-class hotels in different countries, so there is anonymity. At the same time, we’ve already learned that it’s a pattern. Harvey Weinstein has meetings in high-class hotel rooms, and instead of trying to illustrate the energy and tension to be heard in the tape,–I don’t know, there’s a high energy and an almost hysterical aspect to it. One person tries to escape, and the other one doesn’t want her to escape–we chose the opposite. We were very steady and kept moving and passing one closed door after another. And as you said, the imagery we create in our own heads about that particular situation and what happens behind closed doors in all kinds of hotels with all kinds of men might be even stronger than a visual illustration.
SC: I completely agree. I also wanted to hear more about Ashley Judd’s involvement in the film. It almost feels like you’re breaking the fourth wall when we see that she’s playing herself. When did she come on board and what were the conversations like with her?
MS: We offered it to her immediately, of course. We invited people to collaborate and contribute—also, including the survivors. And the beautiful coincidence was that I was still in Berlin and had trouble traveling to New York because the consulate was still closed during COVID. She happened to be in Berlin, so we met here and had a cup of coffee, and at the end of the meeting, she said, let’s do that together. She was decisive. She was impressive. There was a calmness about her, a gentleness, and a strength. She said it was an easy decision and that she felt validated. Of course, it’s different and exciting not to direct an actor to play a different character but to give the actor, Ashley Judd, the stage to play Ashley Judd. And it’s, of course, her decision on how to portray herself. So these are interesting layers. Ashley Judd in 2021 is performing as herself, talking to Jodi in 2017, and then about an incident that happened almost 30 years ago. So this is very strong. And her appearance and the surprise, as you said: it’s her! (laughs)
SC: (laughs) Exactly!
MS: Maybe it’s also a little bit with the New York Times. It’s the very workplace where the story came about and where Jodi, Meghan, and Rebecca all work. Of course, it’s cinematic and beautiful architecture, but it also adds such a believability on two different levels. On one level, this is the real newsroom, but The New York Times was very much identifying with their stories. Otherwise, they wouldn’t let this movie in. And they also identified with our plan to translate it to the screen.
And what I loved so much is that on top of everything, all of us hadn’t had the opportunity to talk to all of these people. But all of a sudden, we had the possibility to en personne (be in-person) and to portray a different workplace. You know, a very different workplace from the one they investigate in Hollywood, which had Harvey Weinstein at the top of it. It’s also a workplace with hundreds of people. We also have a boss, a male figure. We have Dean Baquet, the chief editor. You know, you can also think about the hierarchy. Not to glorify anything, not to have a big love letter to The New York Times, but we are learning bit by bit, scene by scene, that they conduct things very differently. You can install a very different climate in a workplace like that. You can conduct that position so differently. I think it’s beautiful for this movie to show male figures where you see, wow, these are very different guys. They never would say, “oh, this is a female cause. This is a woman’s movie.” You know? They would say, “this is our cause.” This is a cause for the whole society, and they’re affected by it.
It’s wonderful that I also had the opportunity to portray their wonderful husbands. You might expect this stereotypical conflict scene, like, “hey my life is also important.” But, no, it’s not there. Of course, there’s tension sometimes, but there are these people, and I’m also happy to have a partner like that. If you’re stressed, they take care of the kids; they do the household. It’s not necessarily leading to a stereotypical conflict. It’s wonderful with a theme like that and a specter like Harvey Weinstein in the center of this movie to also introduce other men who have a very different look at the world and the workplace.
SC: He really is like a specter in the film. I agree with you. I think it’s powerful to see different institutions and how they’re set up, as well. This issue is ingrained deeply and systemically, but there are key differences.
MS: Yes, right. Right.
SC: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Maria. The film resonated with many of the women in my life and me, so thank you again.
MS: Oh, thank you, thank you. Very nice to meet you. Thank you, Sophia.
She Said is currently playing exclusively in theaters from Universal Pictures. An on demand and home video release has yet to be announced.