By James Hibberd
May 27, 2020 at 07:38 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Epstein
Credit: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich doesn't pull any punches. The Netflix documentary series being released Wednesday details the mysterious sexual predator's "molestation pyramid scheme" (as one detective puts it) across four harrowing episodes, along with new interviews with many of Epstein's accusers.

Below, director Lisa Bryant discusses the series, which she began filming nearly a year before Epstein's arrest in July 2019, and answers some of the lingering questions that viewers might have after watching — including addressing new allegations made in the film concerning Prince Andrew and former President Bill Clinton, and the concerns lingering around Epstein's apparent suicide in August. "We traveled the globe to deliver the most complete and intimate look at Epstein’s survivors," Bryan said. "My goal was to untangle the convicted pedophile’s lies and manipulations, without losing sight of the women and young girls he preyed upon...By sharing their truths here, they are presenting international audiences with an unfiltered account of what they experienced."

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A producer shopping a Jeffrey Epstein project last year was quoted as saying there was very little studio interest in the subject, and he thought there wasn’t much of an audience who would be interested. Did you face a similar resistance in getting distribution?

LISA BRYANT: I wasn't personally involved in the selling of it, but I do think it was a tough sell because the material is tough. It's something that doesn't translate all that well to TV. So it was difficult. But the more I learned about it, the more I dug into it, and the more [production studio] RadicalMedia dug into it, we thought it's just such an important story that needed to be told. It really exposes how the American justice system is broken, and it was really built for power and political gain. We wanted people to see that and be angry about it, and hopefully that can provoke change.

This is the first that many of these survivors have gone on record. How did you persuade them to cooperate for a documentary series?

There was no persuading. It was really about trying to make inroads to earn their trust and first having conversations, then hopefully setting up a meeting. They learned about our good intentions — that we're just letting the world know that this went on and trying to figure out how the heck that happened and how he lied and manipulated. We made inroads that way, and then we got one on camera, and then it led to them telling someone else or giving us a lead. We were surprised at how forthcoming they were. We wanted to let them drive the narrative, it's their story to tell. The attorneys got on board right away. They felt the press has done such a bad job in the past, and Epstein and his powerful team have done such a great job of keeping it away from the press, shutting the press down. We were not going to be shut down.

You explain how Epstein became a multi-millionaire. I was still left unclear how he made the jump to being a billionaire. Are there still questions about how he got as wealthy as he did?

I don't know if he was, in fact, a true billionaire. He certainly billed himself as a billionaire. We know he's a multi-multi-multimillionaire. As we outlined in the series, his one main and possibly only client was Leslie Wexner, and he managed to engrain himself in his life, and I think he was duped by him as well. As we learned, he stole money right out from under him — a man who is rich and powerful in his own right. But Epstein managed to steal him blind.

One of the popular Epstein conspiracy theories is he was secretly an intelligence agent for a foreign government. This isn't really mentioned, so I was wondering if you were able to debunk that during your reporting?

[Epstein's former business associate] Steven Hoffenberg alludes to that a little bit — that Epstein had told him personally that he had given some information to the government. We tried to approach it from a documentary, journalistic standpoint, and we touched a little bit on some of the conspiracies. Of course, after his death, it only fueled them even more. But conspiracy theories are just what they are, conspiracy theories. So without hard facts, we tended to stay away from them and keep in mind this was for a global audience for Netflix, and many people around the world probably have never heard of him.

Trump and Clinton are highlighted as being powerful men in Epstein’s orbit, and one former Epstein employee claims Clinton visited Epstein's private island on the Virgin Islands at least once -- saying he saw him in a conversation at the estate there -- which the president has denied. There’s a certain amount of implication there. Did you find any evidence that either man did anything improper with the women Epstein was trafficking?

We don't have concrete proof of any wrongdoing. There's no proof that they were in his orbit recently. We had a couple of witnesses that saw him [on Epstein's island] — Clinton. But Clinton did come out saying, after [Epstein's] death even, that he had never been on any of his properties, and we did find that to be untrue based on our reporting.

The documentary tears apart the 2008 plea deal then-U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida Alex Acosta approved for Epstein. What do you think was his motivation for seemingly helping Epstein?

I think Epstein's team of powerful attorneys were more influential. I think that the way that they picked apart the credibility of these young underage girls and called them prostitutes is absolutely hideous. And that is unfortunately what happened in that case. Alex Acosta did have the power to probably do something, but [the deal] did go through multiple levels of government. So I think it wasn't just Alex Acosta's sole decision. It certainly went through higher ranks, and it just goes to show the reach of Epstein's power and wealth. This is a classic example of the rich and powerful and how our American system was really built for power and political gain. And our officials really have to do their jobs and not give the wealthy a free pass, whether they're influenced by the most high-powered attorneys in our nation. I think there was a lot of intimidation going on in this story.

Was there anything that you had to leave out due to legal vetting?

There's always a little bit, but I can't go into too many specifics. But I think that we managed to report more than most people have. I feel good that we were able to tell the truth based on our facts and our reporting. We also have found some evidence on Prince Andrew through one of [Epstein's] employees. We all know about Prince Andrew's disastrous BBC interview. We were with his accuser, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, two days later. She was devastated by what she felt was his mistruth and not owning up to anything at all. Then we spoke with an employee who worked for Epstein, who positively ID'd Prince Andrew as the one that he saw groping Virginia Roberts [while she was topless on Epstein's private island in the Virgin Islands]. The FBI came and interviewed him shortly after [Epstein's] death and showed him dozens and dozens of pictures, and he said, "That's absolutely [her], I'm 100 percent sure that's the girl." So I think that's a new revelation that isn't going to go over well for him.

I was wondering if since making this, and now that it's making the rounds, if you've heard anything from Prince Andrew or the Royal Family about that.

It's not [released on Netflix] yet. But these reviews and things are starting to come out. It is interesting since the trailers came out that we've received some interesting letters, some threatening letters from people who are involved in the case, warning not to defame them. They don't even know if they are in it. So it's interesting how the high-powered people are still trying to influence the media here. And it's not gonna happen.

Was there anybody that you were like, "Well, I didn't even know about your connection to this, but I do now." 

I can't say. But it's been very interesting.

There have been people firmly saying Epstein died by suicide, and others firmly speculating he did not. The documentary seems to tip toward the idea that he didn't. What's your personal opinion on that?

I don't have a personal opinion. I think we tried to present both sides because clearly, the medical examiner did rule it to be a suicide. But because Mark Epstein, his brother, asked for this independent autopsy [which claimed it wasn't suicide], it really became wildfire, fueling conspiracy theories. And then when the cameras didn't work, and the employees fell asleep, and when the camera that did work, that film disappeared ... we just wanted to present both sides and let viewers draw their own conclusions.

I'm not conspiracy-minded at all, but even I was like: "Whoa, wait a minute, really?"

There are a lot of people who wanted him dead. But how could he possibly live in jail, this guy who has been entitled his whole life, and had sex as many times as he wanted per day? So there are arguments either way.

You mention at the end that Epstein's assets were sealed off from any restitution to the survivors. What happens to all his money now?

There is a fight for that. The Virgin Islands is, and I think that the family is trying, and his attorneys are trying to do the right thing. I think it's going to take some time. But I do think that the survivors who've come forward will in time be compensated, as they so deserve. There's a fight now happening over the estate. Hopefully, they will get the money they're entitled to.

Was Filthy Rich always the title, or did that evolve along the way?

It was actually The Florida Project for the longest time. We started long before people really knew about him. This was in production nine months before he was arrested and became an international household name. It really threw our production in a loop. We took great precautions in the beginning because he was still alive. We worked with a secret server. We had cameras in our room. We had to safeguard our media because his people are known for hacking computers. Some of these people who were associated closely were helping him cover up and get away with these crimes and didn't want the media to report on it. We'd seen it happened to other outlets, and we weren't going to let it happen to us.

So many of the interviews are really heartbreaking, particularly when one survivor, Michelle Licata, in the first episode says, "Before Epstein, I was something else." Have they seen the series yet? 

They're getting an advanced copy. We don't normally ever do that as journalists, as you know. But because it's sensitive material, we feel like it's the right thing to do. So we are going to give him an opportunity to see it before the whole world does.

What’s your hope for the survivors moving forward?

My hope for them, and for all survivors, is that they will be heard and respected and taken seriously and believed and not be afraid to come forward. And I hope these particular survivors, the Epstein survivors, are not going to stop until there's accountability, and some of these other co-conspirators are brought to justice. There's a fight to overturn his plea deal, which protects these co-conspirators right now. So there's some legal maneuvering that has to happen. Nobody really knows where [Epstein associate] Ghislaine Maxwell is. Some of these other named co-conspirators ... I'm sure they're very nervous. But at the same time, the FBI has to take their time. But I am very hopeful, and I know they're very hopeful that his co-conspirators will be brought to justice because this is a worldwide sex trafficking ring.

Are you planning to produce any additional content?

If Ghislaine Maxwell is arrested tomorrow, would we try to do something? Probably, but I don't know. There are things that are still happening.  Every few weeks there's some legal action. I think the next big thing that could be an episode is something like one of these co-conspirators being arrested or some big break like that. We're certainly keeping it on our radar.

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