Ghislaine Maxwell: Making of a Monster

Behind the Scenes

The series that has put the spotlight on Ghislaine and those who knew her is coming out this week in the UK and continues to be released in the US. It’s not predominantly about Epstein, or Prince Andrew, or Robert Maxwell, although they feature in her life. There are fantastic films already about her within the prism of these men, but this is about the woman herself – Ghislaine Maxwell.

Firstly I would like to dispel the myth that it takes one person to make films like this. It takes a great team to make a documentary – and this was no exception. Our dedicated researcher found rare archive of Ghislaine speaking as a child to start the film and another researcher found Miles and Cathy,  who had never before spoken on camera about their time as managers of the Island where much of the abuse happened. 

As Series Director I filmed much of the series and crafted the films through the edit, along with expert edit producing from Havana Marking and Imogen Wynell-Mayow.  Series Producer Katherine Haywood unearthed new testimonies, powerful stories and created the relationships that allowed key parts of the series to exist. 

I started with an open mind and ended with a clear view that despite the difficulties in her early life, she was a powerful woman in her own right  and she used this power to cause great harm over other women.    Here is a view into the behind the scenes making of this series which led to this conclusion. 

How to tell a life 

I remember the moment exec producers  Mike Lerner and Dorothy Byrne called me on zoom in January 2021 while we were in the depths of lockdown and barely anyone was stepping out of the house. 

We were to come together to make a film on Ghislaine Maxwell – daughter of disgraced businessman Robert Maxwell and now facing trial on sex charges in the US following the death of her infamous ex-partner Jeffrey Epstein. 

It was a pretty tall task from the outset –  to encompass 60 years of a life of one of the most notorious women in modern times and compete on the world stage in covering the most talked about trial of 2021. And by the way, the nature of stories and people affected by her are strewn all over the world, so if we could just capture all that and more during a global pandemic! 

Of course I had to say yes. 

I was teamed up with producer Katherine Haywood and we immediately started going though the vast amounts of books, podcasts, documentaries, articles and online posts about Ghislaine Maxwell.  

Katherine had already spoken to dozens of people – from boyfriends, school friends, university peers from her early life all the way through to colleagues who worked with her only years before her arrest. 

What we discovered early on were two key things: firstly that much previous work had focussed heavily on the men in her life (both her father and her partner Epstein).  She was a product of others and this certainly underestimates her own agency and power.  

Our initial research of talking to those who knew her revealed that early on she was very much in a position of power over her peers, despite having a domineering father.  In the case of her later life, her more direct role in abuse was coming to light as the trial charges were revealed and as has been coming out in legal statements for some time from women that are in the public domain. 

The second thing we learnt was that each person we talked to believed they knew the ‘real’ Ghislaine – but each time the character described was somebody different. This is what makes her strangely compelling in her early life, but more sinister as time goes on.  She directs sexual games way before Epstein is involved, and yet is seen by others as lacking much identity.  Later in her life, there are horrific stories of her role in grooming and abuse of women – while at the same time having intimate conversations with friends over dinner or being at the centre of parties in New York.

We have gone beyond the simplistic narrative of a woman being a monster or a victim – which is why this is ‘the making of..’ – anybody who knows real women know that there is capacity for evil as well as good and have the complexity to appear different things to different people.

We made the conscious decision to research and film people in order of her life – so we could try our best to understand if and how things changed and learn more about her as we went on.  The person we knew and the stories would change from the funny, endearing and surprising to the more odd and sinister. Although stories from some friends remained consistent over the decades, the new voices of victims from the mid 1990s onwards really changes the tone of the films. 

Then you have the small nucleus of loyal friends from school who may engage but will never speak on camera.  It’s fair to say that we have been able to broadcast and include only a small proportion of the stories that we know off camera – which is always the case in most films, but the ratio is far higher in this project than any other.  The reasons really vary – but one key theme has been (especially in her early life) a very privileged strata of society who don’t want to identify themselves – who are successful in their own fields (including TV!) – and who don’t want to rock the boat. The cost in their eyes is too high on a personal and individual level. Others are unsure of their experience and don’t know what it means now such serious allegations are levelled at Ghislaine. It’s hard. I’m sure others would reasonably argue that many in our films – particularly victims – have paid a far higher price over the years. 

The film becomes a series 

Despite the reticence from some older friends, the amount of people willing to talk meant that we soon had to expand the film into a two parter within months.  Six months into the project, we then realised that we really needed three parts to even cover half of what we were being told.   This had turned into a series and we know needed to expand and become series producer and director mid-production.

Editorially this needed to be planned out intricately – with over 30 interviews, 60 years to cover and at least a dozen countries to film in with edits on the go, we needed to get this covered.

We found  the most enlightening way to tell this story was in sd sequential order as possible so as a viewer, you learn more about Ghislaine as you go along and see the complexities come out in the different testimonies.  I wanted to avoid going back and forth in the timeline as much as possible, for this undermines the key thing about Ghislaine – how she changes, how her different identities interact at the same time and where big events fit in with her life.   I wanted each contributor to have the space to tell their stories rather than keep cutting between people and without settling on the person who has come to tell their story.   I wanted it to be like when we called each contributor  – for them to chat to us as if we were talking for the first time , each story adding to our understanding of this person. 

Episode 1 does this the most, with new and exclusive testimony from friends, peers and colleagues.  In episode 2, we show the growing gap between her public rise through the New York society ranks and the dark manipulation and abuse of key survivors making allegations against Ghislaine as early as 1995. We uncover through unique testimony of both established and brand new survivors ways in which Ghislaine operated in detail.  The contribution from the Island managers also shows the tension between the different perspectives of Ghislaine and their battle with denial as details of what they really saw unravel.   We decided to purposefully let that interview run to show this unique and complex moment, which is rare in most documentaries. In episode 3, we continue with testimony, but this time from lawyers and survivors who make it to trial to show the road to Ghislaine’s ultimate downfall.  Even with the allegations public, friends from her early life find it hard to comprehend. 

Filming in a pandemic 

Series producer Katherine Haywood did a wonderful job of contacting and maintaining relationships which meant we had so many contributors. The biggest challenge to filming this was – of course- the restrictions from the pandemic.  

Not all of the interviews made it to air but during severe restrictions we filmed in the US (five different states), Ecuador, Barbados, Serbia, France, Italy and South Africa.   Some of these were remote but given the sensitivities of some of these, the furthest of these were done in person. 

Over two weeks Katherine was on flights to South Africa and Hawaii and weeks later I was in New York for a month, covering a trial, managing edits, and filming in Florida and other states as contributors felt able to talk. 

The restrictions meant that there were some things I had to change to make it all work – and there are some things I would keep and others I will not miss! 

Keep – Expanding possibilities with good crews: 

  • I normally shoot all my interviews but I have met some incredible DoPs in the US who are totally worth the money.  It also means that having cracked remote shoots, with DoPs I trust, I don’t always have to fly out halfway across the world. 

Won’t miss – the lack of the best connection remotely:  

  • With every great DoP, there were some more challenging experiences which meant that I would have rather been there myself. The biggest one is the connection with the contributor – unless you have a DoP who can really make them feel at ease (some do) you are relying on lots of nodding and smiling to even get half the connection you would have on location.  Personally I want to be out there and love that now I can really connect again with contributors in person now that restrictions have lifted. 

Ultimately this series joins a powerful canon of films examining Ghislaine Maxwell’s role in the grooming and abuse of women.  It’s important to make these to remind people that there is no ‘type’ when abuse is involved, it is possible to hide in plain sight and the way we as audiences and peers view and process this is still very much evolving.  This is something those who knew her have must to tackle for years to come, and why this series is so unique in the way that it has been put together.  

Ghislaine Maxwell: Making of a Monster is on Channel 4 (UK)  at 10pm on Tuesday 5th July for three consecutive nights and will be available on All4.  

Who is Ghislaine Maxwell? Is streaming on Starz in the United States.

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