Jeffrey Epstein may be dead, but the hurt he caused the survivors of his sexual abuse likely never will be.
With her new Netflix docuseries “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich,” director Lisa Bryant set out to center the survivors and make sure their voices were heard, as much of the narrative surrounding the millionaire sex offender’s case has shifted towards conspiracy theories about his suicide in Aug. 2019.
Bryant started shooting the documentary well before Epstein’s New York trial, and even before the Miami Herald published an explosive piece digging into the dodgy deal Epstein and his attorneys made with then Florida District Attorney Alexander Acosta (who since resigned from his post as United States Secretary of Labor over his handling of the Epstein case).
Things began to move incredibly quickly after the Herald story, Bryant explains, as more and more survivors agreed to be interviewed and Epstein’s web of control began to disintegrate.
“Everything blew up and changed overnight, so we had to kind of start over,” Bryant tells Variety. “All of a sudden, this story became a worldwide obsession.”
The daily news cycle around the Epstein case is still changing so quickly that Bryant says she could envision doing perhaps one or two more episodes, particularly if Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s ex who allegedly procured and sexually abused women too, is brought to justice for her crimes.
Here, Bryant speaks with Variety about the survivors’ powerful accounts, the controversy surrounding Epstein’s death, and what happens next.
What made you want to tell this story?
I came aboard after Netflix, Radical Media and James Patterson had taken all the precautions needed for this story to be told. They wanted a female director to handle this sensitive subject matter and the more I became familiar with it and dug into it, the angrier I got. The scale and scope were so unbelievable, it was just this story that got brushed under the rug and these women who were treated horribly and called prostitutes and liars when they’re 14, 15 years old. They couldn’t be held to the standards of adults, and Epstein was a monster who preyed upon them, groomed them for sexual massages. It just made me angry and I really wanted to try to tell this very complex story from the survivors’ perspective. It’s their story to tell; it’s through their true bravery that they provide the most in-depth story of Jeffrey Epstein.
Did the reach of Netflix as a home for the series change how you framed these events?
We needed to keep in mind that most people know very little, if anything, about Epstein in other countries, and so that’s why we dove deep into the Florida communities and tried to expose what happened. I think it’s a story that people around the world will recognize; it’s the ultimate story of how power and money can hide such heinous acts, and how silence and complicity could allow this to go on. There are enablers and people who look the other way, and this was all happening in plain sight. Our American justice system is broken, and we wanted to expose that. It was built for political power and gain, let’s face it, and our officials didn’t do their jobs and they continue to give the wealthy a free pass. It’s just not OK.
How hard was it to get the survivors on board with the project?
It was very difficult. We started about eight, nine months before Epstein was arrested. The women were afraid of him. A lot of them had non-prosecution agreements, he used a lot of intimidation tactics. Some of the girls were being followed, some had never told their parents even. But we got the attorneys onboard right away and it was really just with delicate hands that we talked to these women. It’s about trust I think, and handling it the right way, showing everybody respect and that we had the right goals in mind here: keeping it survivor-forward, telling their stories first and foremost and treating them with the respect that they had been denied for so long. Their reaction was sometimes, “No thank you,” sometimes we would get no response, sometime, “Yes, I’ll meet with you and we’ll see how it goes.” Little by little, we were able to get a few women to go on-camera and when they did, I have to say we were so surprised and happy at how forthcoming they were and how genuinely they wanted to get their story out there.
Given that you had been working on the series for quite a while, how did Epstein’s arrest in July 2019 change things?
As the arrest happened, our story changed overnight. We were well into our second episode; we had almost shot a whole series, really. Suddenly there was a lot of competition for interviews, which fortunately I think worked in our favor because we had already done a lot of the legwork with the attorneys and some of the survivors, and that led to more interviews. After his death, more people were willing to talk, but many of the women are still afraid and there’s the whole embarrassment thing: Many survivors don’t want people to know it happened to them. We had two women who had never spoken out at all, and one of our survivors, Haley Robson, said she’s gotten so much support since speaking out, when she was not supported back in 2008. Her name was made public when she was 16, she was a victim, but why was she treated differently? Why was her name made public? She has never said anything, but she just feels really good now, and that makes me feel really good too.
Epstein’s death was ruled a suicide, but in the series you interview a forensics expert who was brought in to give a second opinion. What did you learn from that, and what are your views on his death?
We didn’t want to dive too much into conspiracies, but anything’s possible. We’re certainly following it and keeping it on our radar. It was ruled a suicide like you say, and I don’t know that we’ll ever know otherwise. There are certainly people that might have wanted him dead and suspicious things that happened surrounding his death in jail, but does that mean it was murder? I don’t know that we’ll ever know or have any proof that way. But because that was such a big thing, it didn’t feel like a conspiracy theory so much because there was a legitimate ask by Epstein’s family to review the autopsy, so we felt that it was worthwhile to dive into both sides and let the audience decide.
News emerged on May 29 that U.S. Virgin Islands officials could well compensate the survivors from the fortune that Epstein sent there before he died, but do the survivors feel that justice has been served?
I think the women feel like he got away with it, that he was very cowardly. It’s too bad, they wanted nothing more than to see him rot in jail and to be on trial so they could face him and have their day in court that they badly wanted. Most of them do feel robbed of justice in that sense.
Several key people involved in the case, such as Alexander Acosta, declined to be interviewed for the series, but Epstein’s lawyer Alan Dershowitz was not among them. What were those interviews with him like?
We interviewed him actually two times, both prior to the arrest. He’s the only attorney that would talk. We wanted all the people on Epstein’s team and anybody involved in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Florida. We reached out, but it was so difficult; no one wanted to talk about it [and] it was still under investigation at that point too. But Dershowitz immediately responded, “Happy to do it.” He told his part in it and I was very surprised at how forthcoming he was. He did keep driving the conversation back to his defense of the allegations against him, and I was like, “This is not the Virginia Roberts-Alan Dershowitz allegations story.” All we really wanted to hear was someone from Epstein’s team describing what happened during those negotiations with Acosta, because that’s what got him the sweetheart plea deal that he got. He explained it very well and he’s an effective defense attorney — that’s his job — and his take is always interesting.
Since Epstein’s death, many of the celebrities and royalty who were affiliated with him have rushed to distance themselves from the whole affair. Prince Andrew even gave a disastrous interview to the BBC about his alleged sexual abuse of Virginia Roberts. Do you think he, or anyone else in Epstein’s black book will ever be prosecuted?
As you saw in the documentary, we did interview a witness who saw Prince Andrew with Virginia Roberts. He identified to the FBI that she was a woman he had seen back in the early 2000s. After the arrest, the FBI came and showed our witness hundreds of photos, and when they showed him pictures of Virginia, and that picture with the prince’s arm around her, he said I’m 100% sure that was Prince Andrew. Whether that leads to anything, I don’t know. Buckingham Palace and Prince Andrew have steadfastly denied all allegations, so it’s very difficult. In the documentary we ask why didn’t they name X, Y and Z in court? Well, because those are allegations that we don’t have any proof of. We can’t throw names around; we have to be fair and balanced, and that’s what we did. I think there’s a lot of people that knew Epstein and that are in his black book that we hear about, but he’s the type of guy who just wanted to surround himself with famous, wealthy, smart people. Some of those people in there, I’m sure, probably never even met him. He might have had one phone call or no phone calls with them. There are certainly are people in his book that knew things and may have participated, but again, you can’t go throwing allegations around without proof. I think that’s what’s disappointing for people: They want to hear all the gossip, they say I’ve heard about this celebrity and that celebrity, and this model and that model. Well, unless you have concrete proof of an allegation, it didn’t serve our purpose and it’s legally problematic.
What is your hope for the survivors and the future of the Epstein case?
In this aftermath, we hope we can help make a difference in holding some of these people accountable and helping to keep the focus on the fact that Epstein’s dead, but his story is far from over. He really was just the tip of a much bigger iceberg: I think it’s really an international sex trafficking ring and there’s a lot of big players who still need to be brought to justice. As a documentary, we can’t really follow the daily news basis. The breaking news cycle is still changing so much, but we just wanted to get the story out there so that people would be aware and help put pressure on government officials, worldwide officials and the FBI to do something about the people who might still be out there. It was painful and cathartic for the survivors to come forward, and their goal is that it helps others not be afraid to do the same. Hopefully they will be respected now in a way that they weren’t back then.
“Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” is streaming now on Netflix.