It's a rare occurrence when a breaking news story disrupts a long-planned documentary series that is in its final stages of post-production.
That's exactly what happened with Lifetime's four-part, two-night Surviving Jeffrey Epstein, when Epstein's suspected co-conspirator Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested July 2 at her secluded home in New Hampshire on federal charges of sex trafficking and perjury. She has pleaded not guilty, was denied bail and is in prison until a trial is set to begin next summer.
Scheduled to run on the one-year anniversary of Epstein's death in August 2019 in a New York City prison cell - some still do not believe it was a suicide – Sundberg and Stern were suddenly faced with re-interviewing some of their subjects about Maxwell, whom many called Epstein's number-one enabler when it came to grooming and then sexually assaulting underage girls.
Insertion of the latest news is only one element that sets Surviving Jeffrey Epstein apart from other recent docuseries done on the disgraced financier and sexual predator, including Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich on Netflix, which was based on the best-selling book of the same title, and Investigation Discovery's Who Killed Jeffrey Epstein? Both series ran in May 2020.
Lifetime's program comes on the heels of the cable network's impactful and award-winning Surviving R. Kelly and its follow-up, Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning. Like those multi-part series, which chronicled the alleged sexual abuse of young women by the recording artist, this is a story told through the lens of Epstein's female victims—survivors--all of whom are now grown women.
Eight of Epstein's accusers speak out, some for the first time, about how they were manipulated, trapped alone with him and physically assaulted in his palatial homes in the Virgin Islands, Palm Beach, New Mexico and Manhattan. The New York City property, a seven-story, 28,000 square foot Beaux-Arts townhouse built in the 1930s is one of the city's largest private residences and was recently listed at $88 million.
All of the homes in Epstein's vast real estate portfolio could be considered houses of horror, according to the women. Those taking part in the docuseries are Virginia Roberts Giuffre, Courtney Wild, Jena-Lisa Jones, Kiki Doe, Marijke Chartouni, Rachel Benavidez, Teresa Helms and Chauntae Davies.
More than three dozen women have filed lawsuits in state and federal courts seeking damages from the Epstein estate. The estate, which created a fund for the alleged victims, is valued at more than $600 million.
When Epstein was arrested in July 2019 after his private plane landed at New Jersey's Teterboro airport, which followed an explosive Miami Herald exposé written by Julie K. Brown, he was charged with sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy.
Within a week and a half of his arrest, Stern and Sundberg were interviewing attorney Alan Dershowitz about his possible role in the case and were still trying to line up survivors, working hard to fast-track the action on their documentary. It was being produced with Bungalow Media + Entertainment, which was already talking to Lifetime about the project.
Robert Friedman: This was not just about a badly behaving, influential wealthy man. It was a sex trafficking pyramid scheme.
"This was not just about a badly behaving, influential wealthy man. It was a sex trafficking pyramid scheme," says Bungalow's Robert Friedman, who executive produced the program.
By the time the 66-year-old Epstein was found hanged in his jail cell at New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center on August 10, 2019, the production team had yet to sign all the contracts.
Once the deal was done, they were clear on their mission to tell the story through the eyes of the women, balancing it with the sordid story of Epstein himself.
"One tricky thing we were finding is that we wanted to be guided by the women, but you want the context of the entire scope of the cases against Epstein," says Sundberg, who with Stern has directed documentaries including The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park, Reversing Roe and The Devil Came on Horseback.
"There were many news pieces done right away, and we were disappointed that the women seemed to have a collective voice and that the news stories don't go deeply into their stories," says Stern. "We told their lawyers we'd allow much more time without so much editorial.
Ricki Stern: Many of our films are character-driven in that they allow people in their own words to tell a story, to empower them.
"Many of our films are character-driven in that they allow people in their own words to tell a story, to empower them. We felt there was a nuance. It was a lengthy process, meeting with some of the lawyers beforehand. We had some women who'd never spoken, and we said it was up to them to decide how much they wanted to tell—and to talk as long as they needed."
Jones and Wild were junior high schoolers in West Palm Beach who desperately needed money when they were recruited by friends to go to Epstein's mansion across the waterway in the wealthy enclave of Palm Beach to give him a massage for $200.
Shocked and traumatized by being sexually assaulted, they nonetheless returned, lured by the cash they were being paid.
Chartouni and Doe were young models in New York City when they were approached about giving Epstein massages at his mansion near Central Park. Both were sexually abused by Epstein.
Helms was recruited in Los Angeles to fly to New York for a job interview with Epstein, which turned into a sexual assault.
Davies was introduced to Maxwell and flown by her from Los Angeles to his mansion in Palm Beach, where she worked for and was raped by Epstein for years.
Benavidez was a masseuse in Santa Fe when she was recruited to work for Epstein at Zorro Ranch, his secluded New Mexico estate. She said she faced years of degrading abuse at Epstein's hands.
When she was 16, Giuffre met Maxwell at the spa at Donald Trump's Mar-A-Lago, where she worked. Maxwell promised her massage therapy training and travel all over the world if she came over and worked for Epstein. Instead, she was sucked into a life of sexual servitude which she says included being sexually trafficked to the Duke of York, Prince Andrew – which he denies.
Ricki Stern: Epstein was adept at tapping into what women wanted and needed, whether it was money, whether it was to be a massage therapist or a model hoping to have a better life.
"Epstein was adept at tapping into what women wanted and needed, whether it was money, whether it was to be a massage therapist or a model hoping to have a better life," says Stern. "Each woman brought in was groomed and then trapped. The women who froze and didn't go back, they had the strength to walk away.
"But it still traumatized them. Why would a woman go back? It is complex and unique to each woman. In some cases they didn't know to expect anything different in life. Going back they felt trapped, they felt the power dynamic, they felt threatened."
"Epstein and Ghislaine had perfected their technique," adds Sundberg. "To give a girl a chance, a connection that might make that happen for young and ambitious women. When things went sideways, there was the fear there could be career reprisals. They knew how to play to each women's vulnerability."
Also interviewed in the documentary are journalist Andrew Yates, who covered the Epstein case extensively and Christopher Mason, an influential culture writer and a former friend of Maxwell's.
He tells about her background as the youngest daughter of powerful British media baron Robert Maxwell, who died under mysterious conditions in 1991 on a yacht named after his daughter Ghislaine. Soon thereafter, it was discovered that he looted the pension fund of employees of his publishing empire.
As the family suffered as a result of the outrage and disgrace, Ghislaine decamped to New York, armed with her little black book of powerful contacts, and quickly made her way into the top echelons of society--and met Epstein.
Mason speculates she was looking for a powerful substitute father figure-- and his money – while he was looking for an even splashier entrée amongst the powerbrokers of the city and visiting high-society Brits. It was a mutually beneficial relationship with each providing what the other wanted.
Epstein's victims say Maxwell was an active participant in his crimes.
"She weaponized class and gender to put these victims at ease before delivering them to Epstein for assault. She brought another layer to this story that we could really address," says Friedman, who also knew Maxwell personally through New York and London media circles in which they both traveled.
"The other thing we could address is the grooming of women as explained by the experts we brought in," he adds. "We thought it was important to understand what the women had gone through, the role of Epstein, Ghislaine and others and the role they had played."
The documentary identifies unindicted co-conspirators the women say were key participants in recruiting them into sexual servitude for Epstein, a veritable sexual pyramid scheme. Although some of them have also been revealed in court documents, including modeling agency owner Jean-Luc Brunel, none has yet been charged with any crime.
"There are a lot of potential charges still to come, and the women speak about that," says Sundberg.
"It was our intention and purpose that we had a graph of the pyramid scheme and co-conspirators," Stern explains. "It's attributed to the 2008 Florida plea deal for Epstein, which gave immunity to named or unnamed conspirators."
The once-secret and extremely controversial plea deal ended a federal investigation and was made without the knowledge of victims' attorneys. It allowed Epstein to plead guilty to lesser Florida state charges, serve a 13-month sentence and register as a sex offender.
It was overseen by then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, who later was forced to resign as the Trump administration's Labor secretary in the face of intense criticism over the deal, which he had defended.
"We hope this documentary gets people to ask a lot of questions, in addition to what we'll see in the court system. Were some people enablers? I don't think all these questions will be answered," Friedman says.
In the process of making the show, it became apparent that many of the survivors thought they were alone in their trauma, tears and torment.
"One of the most poignant moments is when Judge Berman gave them all an opportunity to read a statement in court [after Epstein's death]. One of the survivors says she realized when she looked around the room that they created a cult of 'survival sisters,'" says Friedman.
"It gets to the heart of the whole story--how to take on power, the power of these influential people in the world who should've been social pariahs. What can we do to help so that this doesn't happen again, and not just be a tabloid story?"
Editor's note: Surviving Jeffrey Epstein featured information on RAINN's National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.4673 and its website, rainn.org, along with RAINN public service announcements. As a result of the airing, National Sexual Assault Hotline usage was 34% above normal on August 9-10 when Surviving Jeffrey Epstein aired.