I start this week’s column with a suggestion for Quentin Tarantino: Make your next – and reportedly final – film in Israel.
Sure, you don’t actually know that much Hebrew, as you told Jimmy Kimmel last week, relying on kids’ videos to learn basic words like “cat,” “horse” and “cow” (which, in truth, might have been more useful if you were living on a kibbutz rather than in a chic north Tel Aviv neighborhood with wife Daniella Pick and son Leo).
But, to paraphrase Emperor Joseph II in “Amadeus,” sometimes your scripts have, well, too many words – so here’s the perfect opportunity to really let the action do the talking.
It’s not like you won’t be able to incorporate some of that local knowledge you’ve acquired, either. You told Bill Maher last Friday that if you were to make a movie in Jerusalem, “There’s no place you can put the camera that you’re not capturing something fantastic” – you obviously weren’t in town during that recent Flag Day march. (By the way, in Israel the “golden hour” refers not to those magical moments after sunrise and before sunset when the light is a cinematographer’s dream, but when there’s a 2-for-1 offer at the local schnitzel joint.)
And what about those classic Israeli kids’ songs you must already be sick of hearing? Why not have a getaway truck that’s big and green, delivering eggs and milk to Tnuva as a front? And, of course, one of your characters has to be nicknamed “Little Rabbit” – a permanently sneezing criminal who could also pay homage to the greatest freeze-frame movie ending of all time: the “Gesundheit!” denouement in the original “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” with Walter Matthau and Martin Balsam.
It was strange to hear the cult director discussing domestic life in Israel with Kimmel and Maher – because he made the place sound just like any other country, and not the “Boo! Hiss!” nation we’re used to seeing it portrayed as in the international media – a characterization the state has been happy to lean into over the years, of course.
For me, this is actually what soft power looks like, and no amount of dreadful Israeli public diplomacy campaigns could ever recreate what Tarantino’s enthusing about life here or Gal Gadot’s Israeli girl-next-door charms have achieved. Of course, you don’t necessarily get the best insight into a country from the penthouse of your Tel Aviv apartment, even if you do get an enviable view.
It was equally strange to hear that another big Hollywood name, Glenn Close, is set to star in the second season of the Israeli series “Tehran.” According to the Deadline website, Close is a big fan of the Kan/Apple TV thriller, and the role of Marjan Montazeri – a British woman living in Iran – was created especially for her by creators Moshe Zonder and Omri Shenhar.
Congratulations, Israeli television, you’ve now officially climbed up another rung in TV’s global power ratings ladder. What next? George Clooney begging Lior Raz for a role in season 4 of “Fauda,” where he gets to play a U.S. counterterrorism officer sent to Israel to learn some dirty tricks from Doron and the gang? Or Seth Rogen wanting in on season 4 of “Shtisel” because his mom wants him to reconnect with his Judaism a little more? You heard it here first.
Spotting a theme yet?
It’s amazing how quickly the new natural order has formed in the world of fact-based storytelling. Where once a “based on a true story” tale might go from magazine feature to big screen in one step, these days there’s a very clearly delineated, longer path:
1. Small publication breaks story, which often revolves around criminal wrongdoing.
2. Big media outlet – i.e., New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal – takes said story, adds new reporting and presents it as an exclusive, triggering global interest.
3. Podcast covers said story in excruciating detail, offering the kind of padding normally only seen when actors play Henry VIII.
4. New York Times/WaPo/WSJ journalist secures book deal to turn “their” story into a nonfiction best-seller.
5. U.S. cable TV channel and/or streaming giant produces documentary in which they interview protagonists, victims and the journalists who worked on the story.
6. Film and/or TV company buys screen rights to the original story, securing major talent to play award-friendly leading roles.
7. Viewer watches said film/TV show and wonders why the story feels like one they’ve already heard a million times before.
There are quite a few examples of this phenomena in recent years. For instance, there’s the rise and fall of WeWork, with Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway set to play husband and wife Adam and Rebekah Neumann in the Apple TV series “WeCrashed.” It is based on the podcast of the same name but not either of the books about the same subject or the Hulu documentary “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.”
Then there’s the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos scam: This one is a whole genre in itself, with podcasts and books going on to spawn documentaries (HBO’s “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley), planned movies (Jennifer Lawrence starring in “Bad Blood,” based on WSJ journalist John Carreyrou’s excellent book) and TV series (“The Dropout,” starring Amanda Seyfried as Holmes, based on the podcast of the same name).
There’s also the rise and fall – spotting a theme yet? – of “fake heiress” Anna Delvey and the journalist who uncovered her. A 10-part series, “Inventing Anna,” is coming to Netflix with Julia Garner and Anna Chlumsky in the lead roles, following in the wake of a New York Magazine feature, podcast (“Fair Heiress”) and at least one book (“My Friend Anna: The Story of a Fake Heiress”).
And then we have what can only be referred to as the Jeffrey Epstein industry, which has spawned to date countless podcasts, books (including the upcoming “Perversion of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story” by Julie K. Brown, the Miami-based journalist who arguably did more than anyone else to keep the Epstein victims’ story alive), and has generated one very nervous member of the British royal family. There have also been (at least) three documentaries in the past year alone. Netflix’s “Filthy Rich: Jeffrey Epstein” and Lifetime’s “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein” were hurriedly produced last year following the convicted pedophile’s prison-cell suicide the previous summer while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.
And now there’s Peacock’s “Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell” (showing in Israel on Yes Docu, Yes VOD and Sting TV starting Sunday), a three-part documentary about Epstein’s alleged enabler, featuring the somewhat incongruous tagline “Before her trial, discover her story.”
The key word in that sentence, of course, is “alleged,” since Maxwell is awaiting trial on six charges of sex trafficking, conspiracy to sex trafficking and perjury.
Peacock is following in the footsteps of a rather tawdry podcast called “Power: The Maxwells” in dishing the dirt on the youngest daughter of the late British publisher Robert Maxwell before she has her day in court – though never has a phrase been less appropriate, since Ghislaine Maxwell has seemingly done everything in her power to avoid ever setting foot in a courtroom (including several years hiding away in a remote New Hampshire mansion called – you couldn’t make it up – “Tuckedaway”).
I couldn’t get past a couple of episodes of “Power” with its decidedly trashy style and breathless approach, which seemed to serve as a reminder that too many podcasts these days sound like NPR if it were being run entirely by interns.
Before I actually discuss “Epstein’s Shadow,” this is a good time to put a word in for John Preston’s excellent recent book “Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell.” It delves into the chaotic life of the Czech-Jewish Holocaust survivor and alleged Mossad spy who, much like Spinal Tap drummers, died in mysterious circumstances after falling from his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislaine (yes, named after his daughter), off the Canary Islands coast in November 1991.
“Fall” recounts tales from the young Ghislaine Maxwell’s life (when it comes to pronouncing her name, the “s” is silent – like in the phrase “a total hit”), when her domineering father both seemingly adored her and mentally abused her. The book also recalls how, for a time in the early 1980s, Maxwell Sr. was the single largest investor in the then-ailing Israeli economy – so much so that, Preston reports, “People began driving around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with bumper stickers reading, ‘Please Mr. Maxwell, Buy Me!’”
Robert Maxwell’s funeral on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, when the likes of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon were in attendance, is one of several Israeli angles briefly explored in “Epstein’s Shadow” – though none will be news to dedicated Epstein followers around the world.
There is speculation by a former CIA agent that Ghislaine Maxwell herself may have been a Mossad operative – based purely on the notion that spy agencies like to use “multigenerational” assets, i.e., families. “I don’t think it’s at all a leap in logic to think that she’s continuing to do daddy’s work,” John Kiriakou states.
At this and several other points in the documentary, I found a voice shouting in my head, “Objection, your honor, conjecture!” as interviewees analyze with baffling certainty the actions of Robert and Ghislaine Maxwell – two of the most seemingly unfathomable people you will ever see.
There is also former Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe repeating the claims he first made in the 2019 book “Epstein: Dead Men Tell No Tales” that Epstein himself was working for the Israelis, “selling or giving or collecting secrets – however you want to put it.”
One of the biggest problems with the current deluge of Epstein-related documentaries, podcasts and books (we can only hope we won’t have to witness a narrative version of the Epstein story, but I think we all know that’s inevitable at some point) is that they’re all basically showing us the same pieces in the jigsaw, when it’s the ones that Epstein and Maxwell held that we really need to see. There are a lot of familiar faces among the interviewees here, including victims’ attorney Spencer Kuvin and artist Maria Farmer – who was the first person to vainly turn to the FBI for help after she was sexually assaulted by Epstein way back in 1996.
We also get numerous interviews with reporters who’ve covered the Epstein story. Is it just me that finds this lazy reporting – interviewing the people who’ve done the legwork rather than doing some yourself? There are also “former friends” who mainly try to distance themselves from their socialite acquaintance whose New York parties they frequented after she fled there after her father’s death.
Most frustrating are the all-seeing interviewees like Anna Pasternak, an “Oxford contemporary” of Maxwell – she’s actually six years younger – who makes the most sweeping statements about her (“What Ghislaine wanted was security”) and how she was clearly attracted to morally repugnant men due to her relationship with her own father.
The Netflix documentary “Filthy Rich” was far stronger in giving the young victims a voice than “Epstein’s Shadow,” which recycles a lot of previously aired interviews with the likes of Virginia Roberts Giuffre (who has really made Prince Andrew sweat in recent times and given the writers of “The Crown” a bit of a dilemma for season 6), so for long stretches this show forgets it’s meant to be about Maxwell and focuses on those well-trod Epstein horror stories.
And, of course, this couldn’t be an Epstein-related show without the conspiracy theory about secret sex tapes of the rich and famous being taken for yet another spin, but with nothing new to add. There’s only one person who can really shed new light on this particular tale, and she’s currently rotting in a scummy New York correctional facility, awaiting her trial in November. “This is such a bigger animal than anyone knows,” says Kuvin toward the documentary’s end, “and until Ghislaine Maxwell talks, we may never know” the full picture.
Rest assured, even if that never happens, it won’t stop people retelling this seedy, sordid story, and not always for the right motives.
“Epstein’s Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell” is on Yes Docu on Sundays at 9 P.M., and all three episodes are available to download on Yes VOD and Sting TV.