With British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell currently awaiting a November 2021 trial, facing charges that range from enticement of minors to sex trafficking of children in connection, the producers behind “Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell” feel the timing of that docuseries’ release could not be more perfect.
This is because they did not set out to capture the definitive story of her legal battles, but rather “to be the definitive documentary on who this woman is,” executive producer Emma Cooper explained at the Seriesfest panel for the three-part docuseries.
The docuseries doesn’t solely focus on Maxwell’s relationship with the titular Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender who was arrested again (this time on charges of sex trafficking of minors) in 2019 and found dead in his jail cell just a month after that arrest. The two were in each other’s orbit for decades (though exactly how long may depend on who you ask) and were at times linked romantically (again depending on who you ask). Arguably without this association, Maxwell may not have come to the forefront of headlines. However, navigating “a tyrannical, powerful, wealthy man” was something she learned earlier in life, executive producer and director Barbara Shearer said, due to the way her father, publishing’s Robert Maxwell, conducted himself.
“We were trying to connect the dots to the audience, to make the audience to understand why she chose Jeffrey Epstein to stay with him for almost 20 years,” she explained.
“What we do have now with this documentary series is a really good basis for people to understand this woman behind the headlines that they will begin to see more and more as it goes to trial,” Cooper added.
Maxwell did not respond to the production team’s request for an interview, which they say upfront in the docuseries. Instead, they rely on more “the people who knew her the best in her different faces,” said Cooper, including childhood friend and writer Anna Pasternak, as well as series executive producer and journalist Nina Burleigh, who has written about Epstein and Maxwell for Variety‘s sister publication Rolling Stone under the PMC umbrella.
“We went in with a list of hundreds of names and started to approach them one by one. And it was quite an experience,” said Burleigh of finding and vetting people to interview on camera.
Pretty much right away “we realized we likely would not get [Ghislaine] on camera,” executive producer Jennifer Harkness said. “But we felt that through all of the interviews that we did spanning right back from her childhood all the way up to current day, her time in New York, that we’d be able to really round out who she was.”
Work on the his docuseries unofficially began in 2016 when Shearer was researching Epstein and came to realize Maxwell was an interesting character. “A woman who socialized with the two of them in Palm Beach came to me with a story. I didn’t know him, and neither did mainstream media,” Shearer recalled.
She pitched the project at the time and heard two main concerns: the first was that those she pitched did not know who this guy was and the second was that it was “a tawdry subject, a little distasteful.”
“One comment from a network guy [was], ‘Barbara, if this was a murder, I’d have a better shot at greenlighting this,” she said.
But she didn’t give up, and with years of research and numerous connections to people in their orbit, as well as a bigger spotlight already shining on both Epstein and Maxwell, she brought the project to Blue Ant Media’s Harkness and Laura Michalchyshyn in January 2020, just with an adjusted angle.
“I said, ‘Never mind him: who’s way more interesting than that guy because he’s just a grifter — he’s almost cliche — is this woman. She’s complicated. Her background is fascinating. … I still believe that she is a much more complex character, much more worthy of investigation into, from a documentary point of view,” Shearer said.
Additional research needed to be done for “Epstein’s Shadow,” especially around the 2,000 page court document about a defamation suit against Maxwell that dropped into public view in August 2019.
“We could not have done this without the legal documents that had been slowly released,” said Burleigh. “If you read them closely, you would be able to see why Ghislaine Maxwell and her lawyers would not have wanted this material to be public, because it was so filled with depositions and allegations that were really, really serious.”
“Epstein’s Shadow” began production in September 2020, with the team working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (They only met each other in person for the first time a few weeks ago.) When they began working on the the piece, Maxwell’s trial was set for spring 2020. However, in May a federal judge postponed it.
“Episode 3 ends right up at the trial,” Shearer said. “It didn’t affect our story. The only thing that would have affected our story in a much more dramatic fashion is [if] she’d gotten bail.”
“If she’d gotten bail,” she continued, “we would have had to really think about, ‘How do we go back and open up Episode 3 and get some voices in there and talk about bail?’ Because otherwise then our show would have looked outdated immediately.”
Working on a project where there is an active case against the subject can be a bit of a moving target. The team also “had to be really reactive to any new information that was coming out, so as soon as an item dropped on Twitter, there was a big group chain going around,” Harkness said. And certainly it comes with many sensitivities, as well. The key is sticking to what is known to be factual in telling her story. However, “even though we all do adhere to the code, I think that with a woman like this, and we are women, you come with questions and you come with an empathy and an inquisitiveness which then slightly directs where your eye might fall,” Cooper said.
The “Epstein’s Shadow” team was compromised of 60-70% women behind the camera, Harkness said, which was both “intentional” and important” in shaping the narrative of the three-parter.
Although “this is not a series necessarily about the survivors,” Shearer said, their points of view became integral towards the end of the three hours “because there is no crime if there are no victims.
“The final voice was given to Maria Farmer, who was a predominant fixture in Episode 2 and 3 because she was just so strong,” she continued. “So, we do have a nod to the fact that we do know there are victims in all of this, the survivors of all of this story. … It’s a beast of a story, and I think a lot more is going to come out.”
Whether they will follow up with a second part to the series focusing on the trial still remains to be seen, though, as Harkness would only say they “will all be watching [it] in November.”
“Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell” is streaming now on Peacock.