Interview: ‘Hunting Ground’ filmmakers talk campus sexual assault, Jameis Winston and more

With Michael Moore preferring to incite ire on social media rather than in movie theaters, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering are carving out a niche as contemporary documentary filmmaking's most reliable provocateurs, capable of planting their flag in an issue and generating emotion, debate, ire and, occasionally, tangible change.

For the past two films, the issue troubling Dick and Ziering — He's the director, she's the intrepid producer — has been institutional cover-up or denial of sexual abuse. “The Invisible War” earned Emmys and an Oscar nomination for its coverage of the sexual assault epidemic in the military. 

Their latest documentary, “The Hunting Ground,” is taking the issue to the even more sensitive terrain of college campuses, stirring up the hornet's nest on both a general level, but also in specific scandals like the one involving Florida State football star Jameis Winston. 

Like “The Invisible War,” “The Hunting Ground” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival” and as with “The Invisible War,” the “Hunting Ground” premiere was attended by many of the documentary's subjects, leading to both tears and multiple standing ovations. 

“Hunting Ground” arrived at Sundance with distribution already in place, courtesy of RADiUS and CNN Films. Its roll-out began in several markets last week and will continue, leading up to an airing several months in the future on CNN.

Last week, I sat down with Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering to discuss the film's swift turnaround from production to Sundance to release. We talked about the treatment of sensitive subjects surrounding future 1st Round NFL draft pick Winston, as well as the challenges of getting responses from the big universities mentioned in the documentary. And we also discussed the general state of the documentary marketplace, which has seemingly become robust in recent years with outlets like CNN, HBO, Showtime and PBS all offering exposure for documentaries.

Click through for the full Q&A and check your local listings to see when “The Hunting Ground” arrives in your market…

HitFix: I was at the premiere at The MARC last month, just like I was at the premiere of “The Invisible War” at The Temple two years before that. Are you guys no longer surprised by the emotion that those screenings and those premieres bring out in people? Because certainly the amount of tears that were in those two theaters for those two movies was rather impressive.

Amy Ziering: Well we were very surprised this time. We were shocked at “Invisible War.” That was our first time experiencing something like that. But at this time I think we were surprised because we had really, we literally carried the film onto the airplane with us so we hadn”t had an experience of screening it to a large number of people before it screened at Sundance. So we didn”t know really what to expect honestly.

[A minute-long debate ensures between Dick and Ziering over whether or not the print was literally carried onto the airplane. The conclusion seems to be that it was.]

HitFix: Okay. So this seems like the kind of story where there literally could be no end to the production process from your point of view. You could do interviews for the next 20 years, the story would continue to evolve. Was Sundance and that deadline, was that simply when you had decided you wanted to end this part of the storytelling?

Kirby Dick: Well we wanted to get the film out because obviously it”s just being covered extensively and there”s a lot of good coverage, but I think there”s also a lot of confusion and misunderstanding around the issue. And no one had really done an overview in such a way that this film does, that sort of lays out the nature of the problem and also a lot of particularities of the problem so that when you walk away from it you kind of have an overall understanding of what”s going on. So we felt we wanted to get this out as soon as possible so this would become part of the national discussion.

HitFix: And is that one of those things where Sundance just gives you a date to aim at, sort of a location?

Kirby Dick: It does, you know, festivals always do that but I mean, you know, we”ll just keep working up until whatever deadline it is.

Amy Ziering: And that”s also, you know, you do select or in your mind think about strategically what would be a really great launching platform and Sundance is that for these kind of documentaries certainly.

HitFix: Is there any kind of itch now, over a month later, do you guys want to go back in and keep adding stuff? Do you guys want to go back in and reedit?

Amy Ziering: We wanted to do that right up until. I think it would have been a different film a week later. We were really, literally working up until the last minute and we did have different ideas because we didn”t know what we had when we hit Sundance. We had thought we would have to be doing a bit more work after Sundance but because it played so seamlessly and was responded to in such a way that many of the ideas that we had that we didn”t have a chance to get to yet, we didn”t.

Kirby Dick: Well we did make changes. I mean we still were working pretty feverishly, you know.

HitFix: I assume you guys have gotten this response as well from the minute I started Tweeting about the movie to my review, et cetera, the Florida State football fans have been the loudest people in response to it and I assume you guys have gotten some feedback from the vociferous Seminole Nation. What has that been like for you?

Kirby Dick: I don”t know if we”ve gotten anything directly from them.

Amy Ziering: Us personally? 

Kirby Dick: I mean people have been writing about it but, you know, people are writing about this before they”ve seen the film. People were writing about “The Invisible War” saying it bashed the military and it was a misrepresentation of things. And then after people started seeing the film a lot of that died down. I think a lot of this one died down when people see it. I mean it was interesting. It screened at William & Mary which I think was the first college or university that screened it, they screened it a couple of days ago and I think one of the reactions was that, you know, the sports fans were saying is that if this was shown on ESPN a lot of people will take a much different look at that case once they hear it from the survivor”s point of view. So I think the same thing will happen even with the Seminole fans.

HitFix: Hard to know. my reaction was “Boy, every NFL team considering drafting Winston should see this.” And then you get the responses from the people who say, “Dude, he was acquitted of all these charges” and “Dude, he was found not guilty.”

Kirby Dick: Right.

HitFix: And you can only respond to so many of them, “But no he wasn”t.” How much do you, to some degree, view the amount of time you dedicate to that case in this as being the response to the people who are convinced that there was a decisive answer that maybe didn”t exist?

Kirby Dick: Yeah, I mean people are always gonna have a misunderstanding of these kinds of situations. Unfortunately when it comes to sexual assault people seem to think they understand the issue even if they”ve never had any direct experience with it whatsoever. Which is why I think this film is so important because when you hear whether it”s just not only Erica”s but all the survivors in the film, when you hear their experiences from their perspective, hear their voices, see them talking, I really think it changes how you see the issue. It happened with “The Invisible War” when the Joint Chiefs of Staff saw the film. One of them came up to us after seeing it and said you know, “This film told me more about the issue than 40 years of briefings.” So this is one of the things we wanted this film to do. Regardless of whether they”re looking at it, you know, NFL owners are looking at it for the Jameis Winston story or not they should be looking at it for the issue of sexual assault as a whole. This is a problem in our society, it”s a problem in the NFL. This will help them understand it.

HitFix: But he”s still a very different case in this, because he”s the person who you name.

Kirby Dick: True.

HitFix: And I”m curious what the legal conversations were because I have to imagine they were different with that than anything else in this documentary.

Kirby Dick: Well for us first is accuracy, right. I mean that”s the most important thing and, you know, she”s describing her experience and she has every right to do it. Obviously we worked very closely with lawyers but, this is her experience and she”s extremely credible.

HitFix: But still he”s the person you named.

Amy Ziering: He already had been named publicly. We weren”t outing him first out of the gate with that.

Kirby Dick: The issue of naming, we actually didn”t name a lot of other people who were accused of sexual assault even though we knew their names because we did not want people walking out of the film thinking, “Oh, if only we had put that person behind bars.” It”s not about putting one or two or three or four people who have been accused of rape behind bars. It”s about a whole, thousands of colleges and universities changing their policy and putting this at the top of their priorities. So we had to refer to him as Jameis Winston because everybody else would have been referring to him as that anyway. It was in the public. And, you know, The New York Times has done extensive and really very remarkable, extensive in reporting on this. It”s out in the public.

HitFix: That makes sense. Let's talk a bit about sort of the different institutional responses that you had from the schools that were being pointed to as the epicenters here, because you don”t have active administrators at any of the universities talking and I assume you went to all of them and said do you want to and they said, “Yeah. No thanks.”?

Kirby Dick: For the most part they said either “No thanks” or they didn”t respond. We do have one, Pat McGuire of Trinity Washington in the film. For the most part the history of  the way schools have responded to this is for presidents not to speak at all or even top level administrators, which is why we put that montage in there of people saying, “We take this issue very seriously.” Because it”s usually a statement that was given to a reporter and the reporter”s reading it or it”s a low level administrator reading the statement. Our position is presidents should be speaking about this issue. It”s a problem in all schools. 

HitFix: Well have you had the chance to get a copy of the film out to anyone at any of these schools to see if maybe after seeing it anyone is feeling like you feel? Or feeling differently than they were?

Kirby Dick: It will happen very soon. It”s been, I think, programmed now at over 50 schools already just over the next couple of months. There”s been inquiries from more than 500. It will be seen. It will be seen soon. So we will be getting those responses back soon. And we”re hopeful. We”re hopeful. I mean seeing, you know, nobody wants sexual assault to happen at their campuses. And we”re hopeful that, you know, they see this film and even if it could be hard to watch maybe even hard for them to take, but we hope it will help them toward making the changes that they need to make.

HitFix: Did you have any expectations that anyone at any of the schools was going to be more forthcoming to give their side of this?

Amy Ziering: We had hopes.

Kirby Dick: We had hopes, but it didn”t surprise us. I mean just to give you a little anecdote early on when we were making a trailer we were looking for some responses from schools, just over the last decade that we could cut into it, a promotional trailer. It wasn”t even something we were going to put out to the public, just in the process of raising money and things like that. It was hard to find, even though there had been extensive coverage over the years, it was hard to find. They don”t speak because they don”t even want the association with the word sexual assault with their university. Even if it”s in a positive sense they don”t want that association. That”s what I think. It was one of the root factors.

HitFix: When it sort of comes to the “other” side of the conversation. There”s the one person who kinda represents the fraternity system. There”s the one person who spent time behind bars for sexual assault. What was the thought process in terms of how much or how little you felt like there needed to be “balance” in a story that doesn”t really necessarily have that much balance?

Amy Ziering: Well all stories aren”t… I don”t understand the problem.

Kirby Dick: Well okay, I think the problem here is there”s an incredible imbalance in the way this country understands the issue. I mean this is a problem where tens of hundreds of thousands of assaults are happening annually. And yet this story has been almost submerged and in large part because colleges and universities have been so effective in, really in many ways, covering it up. So the first and most important thing here I think is to look at the big picture. And the big picture is this is a national problem that hasn”t been reported on. And so you have to hear from the voices of the survivors to really even begin to understand this problem. And people have not heard those voices.

Amy Ziering: And I just also think, I mean, one of the points the film makes is that false reporting is really only two to eight percent. So it”s like asking about the balance. So we are balanced. We”re talking about what”s happening 92 to 98 percent of the time which is a preponderance of balance and that side of the story isn”t really given enough focus and hasn”t been. Otherwise it wouldn”t be happening this way at these levels. And another just point that we like to make is the same amount of false reporting happens with any other crime and yet you don”t hear someone saying, “Where”s the balance in carjacking reportings and where”s the balance in robberies?” And I think one of the things our film makes clear is it”s really not a he said/she said. It”s very anomalous and strange for someone to make something up and report any kind of crime and rape is no different. 

HitFix: Well maybe “balance” though isn”t necessarily the right word because balance sort of implies that there”s another side to whether these things did or didn”t happen. I don”t mean to imply that. What I mean to imply is that there is the point of view of the school. They have a point of view.

Amy Ziering: I see.

HitFix: And similarly, the fraternity system has – there is a point of view. I”m not saying that it”s the point of view that says the other side is wrong but still you guys decided that wasn't going to be here so much.

Kirby Dick: Well, we did reach out and we got very few… The vast majority of people, like I said, either declined or didn”t even respond. I mean it”s not surprising. I mean this is the way that it has always been done and it”s true with not only colleges and universities. It”s true with any institution. I mean if there”s a problem they don”t, you know, one of the ways to keep things covered up is not to speak about it.

HitFix: Sure. And that was my impression is that it wasn”t like you were gonna get someone from the Florida State Athletic Department to go to you and say, “Yeah. It”s a problem, we”re sorry about that.”

Kirby Dick: “Let me tell you everything that went wrong with this investigation.” They should be doing that. I mean I understand. That would be a difficult thing to have a mid-level administrator to do that. But in order to solve the problem they have to be transparent. Otherwise they”re covering it up and you see this in schools. Schools could be having annual surveys about this where they poll their students on the prevalence of sexual assault, how comfortable do they feel about reporting, how confident they feel about the adjudicative systems. And they could get that information out to parents, students, the public. That would be the first step in solving this problem. And until schools start doing that, and that”s an incredibly effective tool and a necessary tool for them to solve this problem, until they start doing this they”re really still continuing a cover up of sorts.

HitFix: We hear both of your voices at times in the film. And I think that causes us to probably make certain assumptions regarding who felt more comfortable talking to you, who felt more comfortable talking to you. Is it as clear cut as did men feel more comfortable talking to Kirby, women feel more comfortable talking to Amy?

Amy Ziering: No I did all the male survivor interviews. So no, I mean people keep thinking that…

Kirby Dick: No I think that”s the way it appears, but that”s not the case. Amy does the lion”s share of the interviews with the survivors. She”s got an incredibly empathic way of talking to them and making them feel comfortable and safe. And she also, in most cases, initiates the interviews with all the experts as well. And then I usually come in afterwards and ask additional questions. There were some case or in times where Amy wasn”t there that I would be doing the interview and sometimes when I wasn”t there that Amy did the entire interview. But no, there”s not a male/female…

HitFix: And that was what I was what I wanted to get straight, because if there is that impression from where you hear people and I wanted to make sure.

Kirby Dick: It never occurred to us really.

Amy Ziering: No it”s not a gender thing.

Kirby Dick: Sometimes yeah, no, absolutely.

HitFix: That was the same on “The Invisible War” as well?

Kirby Dick: Oh yeah. No it”s the same, we used the same technique exactly.

HitFix: I wanted to get the process out there for my understanding and for anyone else who was curious. How quickly did you guys realize that Annie and Andrea were the spine to this?

Amy Ziering: Pretty late. I would say mid-to-three quarters. We knew they would be one of the storylines but that they would be the only spine? That wasn”t our initial conceit. We knew activism would be a throughline. That was early-on. We will carry that throughline because we were following other activists and activist movements? But that they would be the spine was pretty late.

Kirby Dick: We suspected that — they were at the first shoot that we did — e suspected that they could very well become, you know, and this sort of burgeoning student movement could become a story. We just never expected it to be so successful and have this kind of impact on a national debate.

Amy Ziering: You don”t expect your subjects to be at the White House within 12 months of shooting.

Kirby Dick: Right. No we did not expect that.

Amy Ziering: That”s like, “Whoa.”

HitFix: Well what is the process where you start to realize that? Is that actually when you”re in the production or is it not until editing is happening?

Amy Ziering: Editing.

Kirby Dick: We shoot and edit and shoot and edit right up until the end. But yeah, I mean as soon as we started editing then we have screenings all the way along the way and people responded extremely positively to them. I think that”s when we realized yes, they are going to be if not the major through line, they”re going to be one of the major through lines.

HitFix: And because they”d been out there as activists, they were okay with being up front and center?

Kirby Dick: Yeah and that”s the other thing. It”s very important in a documentary to have subjects who are willing and comfortable with the camera and willing to be covered in a lot of different situations over a long period of time.

HitFix: Is there going to have to be a different version of this that will air on CNN? Are there any of the conversations here that CNN can't air?

Kirby Dick: We haven”t even had that conversation. CNN has been so supportive of this version that…

Amy Ziering: They”ve vetted this version and were comfortable with it.

Kirby Dick: They”re very, very supportive of it. 

Amy Ziering: I think if we make changes it would come, mostly initiated by us and the desire, not them, is what we”re saying.

HitFix: The other campus rape hot button story that happened as you guys were getting close was the UVA/Rolling Stone controversy. Was there any way for you guys to work that in as an angle? or did you not want to become *that* film?

Kirby Dick: Tt happened very late in the process so that was a challenge for us. But also, the way we view that is that obviously there”s problems with the reporting there but it really is one story of one campus. And we wanted this to be much bigger, to look at this issue much broader, really capture the real story, which is a problem at campuses across the country. So we don”t want to focus on just that one specific case.

HitFix: To me like this kind of the response to the people who attempted to then marginalize the entire story because of the reporting flaws that you mentioned and there was a lot of that. “Because this story was poorly reported ergo the bigger story is flawed.”

Amy Ziering: But it”s not true. 

HitFix: Oh of course it”s not true, but I wasn”t sure if there was a way where you guys felt you could interact with the story on that level.

Amy Ziering: Well I think we interact with it a bit in that, as you see, the film makes a very good and hard hitting point of backing up all the statistics and studies which show that. That”s why you have study after study after study showing actually “No, these stats are accurate and true and it is happening at these academic levels.”

Kirby Dick: And the other issue is that we didn”t want that one story to be a distraction from the bigger story. I think that”s the key thing.

HitFix: Just as an overview last question. You guys are Sundance regulars and all. Coming away from the festival this year how are you guys feeling on a macro level about the documentary marketplace and what the state of the documentary marketplace being for whatever the next film is that you”re looking at doing?

Amy Ziering: I think it”s a very healthy marketplace and a very healthy environment for documentaries. Probably one of the most active and interested environments I”ve ever experienced honestly. It”s a heyday I think. We were just saying in a different interview I was just thinking [how] our culture now is so fragmented and we get our information so in sound bites from so many different sources and they”re sort of like just a perfusion of white noise that people are hungrier than ever before to sit and have a long form investigative piece and be able to sort of grapple with something in a quiet space for 90 minutes in a way that I don”t think really has happened before. It”s just sort of a cultural shift. And I also think because of those sort of diminishment of monies being put into investigative reporting and a lot of our mainstream media outlets that more of the burden has fallen on documentary filmmakers to do that kind of groundbreaking work and that”s sort of novel. So it”s an exciting time.

HitFix: Is there any degree where there”s sort of a dream project where you”re like, “Okay, because this is a dream time now is the time to make dot, dot, dot.” “This is when dot, dot, dot can actually happen?”

Amy Ziering: That”s an interesting question.

Kirby Dick: I guess our position is if there”s a dream project we”ll figure out a way to make it happen regardless of what the financing environment is.

HitFix: No one”s coming after you saying, “There actually is money for this now, what is that dream project?”

Kirby Dick: Oh I think people, yes I think there are people out there who would do that for us.

HitFix: But you haven't had to give the [dream project] answer to somebody with a blank check?

Amy Ziering: We”ve not seen that heyday yet. I think there is more money out there, there”s more ways to get money for films and that”s fabulous but people aren”t…

Kirby Dick: And it”s still, believe me, there”s not a lot of money. I mean it seems like a lot of money because there was absolutely no money. Now there”s a little money, so I think we should keep it all in perspective.

“The Hunting Ground” is slowly rolling out in limited release.