Faith in the Creative Impulse: Nicole Newnham Discusses ‘The Disappearance of Shere Hite’
By Coley Gray
Documentary director and producer Nicole Newnham still remembers finding, as a young teenager, a copy in her mother’s bedside table of taboo-breaking The Hite Report on Female Sexuality (1976). Authored by feminist sex researcher Shere Hite, the book was based on thousands of anonymous survey responses from American women about their experiences of sex and pleasure that radically challenged conventional stereotypes. “It was the singular portal for me into the world of female sexuality,” Newnham recalls, “that I carried with me throughout my whole life.” But it wasn’t until several decades later that she had the chance to explore Hite’s life and legacy on film, learning along the way how great the backlash and rise of conservative cultural forces had been in erasing her groundbreaking insights.
Premiering at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, The Disappearance of Shere Hite is a masterclass in using archival material to animate not only a single extraordinary life but also the times in which she lived. The film makes extensive use of Hite’s voluminous media appearances from the 1970s onwards and a trove of biographical material from her archives housed at the Radcliffe Institute. Interviews with friends and colleagues who knew Hite and her work, and actress Dakota Johnson’s voicing of Hite’s private writings contribute to a multi-layered portrait of a flamboyant iconoclast who was doggedly serious about her research. The film also offers a thought-provoking mirror on the current moment, when questions of sexuality, bodily autonomy, and gender are as urgent and contested as they were in the 1970s feminist movement.
A graduate of Stanford University’s documentary film graduate program, Newnham has been working in documentaries for almost 30 years. Most recently before Shere Hite, she produced and co-directed the 2021 Academy Award-nominated documentary Crip Camp. Ahead of The Disappearance of Shere Hite’s release in US theaters on November 17, Documentary spoke to Newnham over Zoom about how serendipity, determination to bring Shere Hite back to public consciousness, and a formidable set of like-minded partners have successfully propelled the film through a challenging production and distribution landscape. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: Let’s flash back to 2020 and the origins of this project. Crip Camp had premiered at Sundance to great acclaim and then COVID hits and turns the world upside down. Where does Shere Hite enter the picture for you?
NICOLE NEWNHAM: Well, we were in a pandemic, so the idea of another project seemed very theoretical! And at the same time, we were also doing an Oscar campaign—I spent almost every day doing Zoom screenings of Crip Camp, discussions, and interviews. Then I read Shere Hite’s obituary. I started researching it on my own as a possible film subject and the more amazed and outraged I became by the story, I thought that Hollywood’s going be all over it. I didn’t want to compete for those rights, so I put it away. Then right around the Oscars [in 2021], I got set up to have a general meeting with Molly O’Brien at NBC News Studios. She explained to me they were now making documentaries that are platform agnostic. . . [including] developing a film about a sex researcher from the 1970s. It turned out there was this young producer working at NBC News Studios who had also read the obituary and thought about the same things I had but from her perspective. After she put [Hite’s] name into the NBC database and an enormous volume of material came up, she had the same kind of feeling of outrage as I had. NBC asked me if I would work on it with them, and it just seemed fated.
D: So fate brings you together with Shere Hite’s story and then NBC in 2021. What happened next?
NN: NBC was willing to finance some of it, but they wanted to find a partner or sell it, so we went through a development process and started making a sizzle reel. Part of my thought process about taking this on as my next project was continuing the collaboration with editors I had worked with on Crip Camp, Eileen Meyer, Lauren Schwartzman, and Mary Lampson. I actually involved Eileen and Lauren in the cutting of the sizzle reel to try to get the money and the partners for the project. That process was like starting to make the film and actively trying to discover who Shere Hite was. Was she too cold and distant and weird to make a film about? Because that’s how she had been perceived at the end of the day. It was this heady, amazing feeling of watching someone become three dimensional at the same time as we were coming to understand how the two-dimensional caricature of her had been created.
D: Now you have a team of collaborators, some great source materials, a sense of your protagonist, and a sizzle reel. Where do you go from there?
NN: We were very fortunate in that we were connected to R.J. Cutler’s company, This Machine, and everyone was so excited about the project that there was this idea of finishing it in time for Sundance submission the following year. Which seemed like a really Herculean task, but we all wanted to rise to the occasion and make it happen if we possibly could. I always think making documentaries is kind of like the old-fashioned cartoon character who runs off a cliff and is running in the air and then looks down and realizes what they're doing and then falls. You can’t stop running, you just have to keep going! When they came on board and were able to leverage financing from Industrial Media, we had the budget in place.
D: How did Dakota Johnson come up for the narrative voice and her production company, Teatime Pictures, get involved in the film?
NN: The Shere Hite collection at Radcliffe had a lot of contemporaneous writings in it, things that she wrote to herself and for herself, not for other people at the time. We knew that having a narrative voice reading that material would be a way to develop the dimensionality of her character, but we weren't sure if a more reflective voice or a more immediate voice was right. Then [editor] Eileen put in her voice —she's about Dakota’s age—and it brought this freshness and immediacy to it and further enhanced that sense of being in Shere’s POV. We reached out to Dakota and, luckily, she already knew who Shere was. She and her producing partner, Ro Donnelly, called me back and said, we love Shere Hite, she’s somebody we really admire, and we would love to help in any way we can. I feel [Dakota’s narration] embodied Shere to the point where most audience members can’t even tell the difference, and yet she wasn’t trying to sound or act like Shere.
D: Coming out of Sundance, the film got a strong reception and reviews. Was your goal to get a theatrical release?
NN: I always really cherish the idea of a theatrical release. I was always really seeing this film cinematically so that was high up on my list of dreams. But I also know that the market is what the market is and who knows anymore these days, right? We were caught up in that whole market freezing at Sundance. Luckily, we found some people who were really passionate about the film as well, and we were able to make a deal with IFC Films, which was thrilling.
D: The film has been very visible on the film festival circuit following Sundance. How important is that strategy? And thoughts on an impact campaign and beyond?
NN: I’m loving working with the team at IFC because they’re engaged in communities and theaters and real people coming out telling each other to watch the film. That festival strategy is really important for their model in terms of building word of mouth for the film, and especially a film like this about somebody that people have forgotten about. In terms of an impact campaign, I am excited about starting to dig into that once we’ve gotten through the theatrical release. I like it when a film feels like it can be a bit evergreen, and I do feel this one could go on for a long time, just in the way Crip Camp is still being so actively screened in ways that we hoped for and some we couldn’t have even imagined. I’m extremely intrigued to see how that evolves for Shere Hite. And for it being on streaming platforms, I think, next year.
D: This film’s journey seems atypical for documentaries these days in the way the financing and the partnerships really fell into place. How has this film been similar or different to your other projects?
NN: It’s certainly the first time I’ve ever worked on a film, and I’ve been doing this for 25 years, where I didn't have to spend literally years raising funding. There was something about this project that it just had to happen. The ferocity of the response of people to the story, how badly myself and the other mostly women (but some amazing men, too) glommed onto it—we were consciously and subconsciously realizing this was an opportunity to respond to the backlash against women controlling their own bodies, the hostility of toxic masculinity in our society towards female sexuality, in a way that could be profound and activating and really meaningful in this current cultural moment. Then the Dobbs decision [the June 2022 Supreme Court decision that held the Constitution did not confer a right to abortion] happened in the middle of the shooting, which really drove us further.
D: There does seem to be something special about Shere Hite’s trajectory, but overall the industry is facing some pretty turbulent times. What’s your take on the state of the industry and what keeps you motivated to keep doing this work?
NN: Like most people, I do sometimes feel like it’s an unworkable situation. It can be very terrifying and frustrating. But in the way that The Disappearance of Shere Hite talks about progress and backlash against the progress and then a little more progress, when I look at the history of the documentary film that I’ve been involved in, I don’t see a straight line to the “golden age of documentary” and then the fall. I see we’ve already lived through a number of rounds of this kind of incredible creative drive and then the commercialization of that; then people rushing to invest in this incredible creative thing and then the coarsening of that; and then artists figuring out by hook and by crook how to make real art, and it comes back because people get bored of watching car garage remodeling reality shows, or whatever. I know people aren’t going to stop pushing to tell stories, and I do see the progress we’ve made in terms more diverse storytellers and more diverse stories that I don't think is going away. I guess I just have faith in the artistic and creative impulse.
Based in Washington, DC, Coley Gray has a background in arts management and public policy and works at the intersection of film, social change, and the philanthropy and nonprofit sectors.