By Rebecca Green
After producing the Netflix docuseries FEAR CITY: NEW YORK VS. THE MAFIA, Bernadette Higgins came upon the story of the now infamous Tinder Swindler, and his string of cons against unsuspecting women on the dating app. She, along with director Felicity Morris, went on to capture these women’s stories, catapulting THE TINDER SWINDLER to be the first documentary feature to hit #1 on Netflix’s top 10 list.
Bernadette sat down with Dear Producer to discuss how they engineered the interview process to captivate millions of viewers to three female’s stories, how the research process led them to start a companion podcast, THE MAKING OF A SWINDLER, and how the success of this documentary has impacted her producing career moving forward.
Looking at your IMDB page, I see you’ve done TV work, but this is your first feature, right? I would love to hear how you got into producing.
I took a long road, to be honest with you. I had a couple of careers before getting into producing. I worked in recruitment for a few years after university and then I worked for a charity for a couple of years. Then during that period, I moved to London. I’d always loved TV and film, but I didn’t really live in a place where it got made or where anyone I met worked in the industry. It was only when I moved to London that I started meeting people who worked in TV and film and then started thinking, “That’s way more fun than my job. [laughter] I’m going to try and do that.”
So I went back to the bottom of the ladder again and started doing structured, factual entertainment. Then my first feature documentary was in 2017 – it was a film about the boxer Sonny Liston for Showtime. It was made by RAW and I stayed on there to produce a three-part series for Netflix called FEAR CITY about the mob that came out in 2020. I met Felicity Morris while she was producing DON’T F**K WITH CATS, which was in production while I was making FEAR CITY. We knew then that we really wanted to do something together so when THE TINDER SWINDLER crossed our path, we were like, “Okay, we’re doing this. We’re going to do this one together.” It was her first directing position and she asked me if I would come and produce it for her.
Can you tell me about the company RAW that you work with often?
I’m freelance, but it just so happens that the last few gigs I’ve had have been with RAW who are at the forefront of documentaries in London. It was founded by Dimitri Doganis and Bart Layton who directed THE IMPOSTER.
They’ve always been at the cutting edge of thriller docs. Playing with the genre and taking docs away from the more traditional format. People used to expect to only be educated by documentaries, but now they also expect to be entertained by them.
It used to be considered so high brow if you watched documentaries, but now everyone watches them and they expect to have the same experience as if they’re watching scripted television. It’s brilliant, I think, for those of us working in documentaries, because it gives us so much more freedom in terms of creativity and having fun with the story.
A lot of the stories that we tell in doc, if you were to put them into fictional scripts, would be considered too far-fetched. The strangest stories often come from documentaries because they really did happen. Nobody can say, “Well, that would never happen!”
You see in THE TINDER SWINDLER that the initial story had a wave of attention in Europe, but I didn’t see that here in the United States. How did you find this story?
It was broken by VG, which is the Norwegian newspaper that we feature in the movie, and then it was picked up by the European press, and that’s how we came across it.
What was it about that story that got your attention?
It was just so extraordinary. Obviously, when you just look at the headline, ‘woman gives a quarter of a million dollars to a guy she just met who took her on a private jet on the first date…’ We were like, “You’ve got to read this story. This is bonkers. How did this happen?” It was like a movie except it was real life. We’ve all heard of catfishing and con artists, but we’d never heard about it on this scale before. This was more like THE TRUMAN SHOW.
Simon Leviev, the Tinder Swindler as we call him, used online dating as a way of finding people because it was a numbers game for him. Usually, when you go on a first date with someone you met online that’s when you’re like, ‘oh, he’s a foot shorter than he said he was,’ or ‘he’s 10 years older than he said he was.’ But when these women first met Simon he presented exactly as he had on Tinder and that’s when it really went up a gear. That’s when they went on an experience with an extremely convincing, and often unintentional, supporting cast. A lot of the people who were validating Simon didn’t realize that he wasn’t who he said he was either, everybody was helping to con everybody else, unintentionally. We’d never heard of a story like that before.
Also with this story, the victims were people we could so easily relate to. We’ve all heard of the lonely elderly people at home being conned, but Simon conned well-traveled cosmopolitan, very educated, professional women who you expect would be the least vulnerable to this kind of thing. Yet it happened. We wanted to know everything. We wanted to know every single beat of this story to understand how it was possible.
When you saw this article and tracked down the women, what was your in-point to start putting the film together?
When we met Cecilie and Pernilla, they had already been signed by the Los Angeles agency AGC Studios. We got in touch with AGC and then it was a case of a pitch to co-produce something. Then that’s when we took it to Netflix who had worked with RAW before. We’d just done FEAR CITY and DON’T F**K WITH CATS and various other series for them. We took the story to them and pitched our vision for it.
So this was a Netflix production?
Yes, it was made by Raw for Netflix Originals so Netflix owns it.
The bulk of this movie is the women simply sitting at a table telling their individual stories, but it is so compelling, you’re pulled in immediately and taken on a ride. It felt like I was one of their friends being told the story for the first time. How did you get these performances?
I spent hours and hours with each of the women on Zoom and we also had their full WhatsApp archive. It was about a thousand pages of WhatsApp. Their entire communication with Simon from start to finish, the voice notes, photos, videos, was all in there.
The first thing that we did was read all of the online exchanges between Simon and the women so that we could understand as much as possible before starting to talk to them. The challenging part was being able to fill in the gaps that were offline and also the bits where we really wanted to understand who these women were at the point of logging onto Tinder. What were their expectations? What were their ideals? What was their dating history? We spent hours and hours together over Zoom. It felt like becoming girlfriends really, finding out everything about them and their romantic role models, what they grew up watching and listening to, what their marker is for a successful relationship, which is why we have Cecilia talking about Disney.
As a child, she knew all of the Disney songs by heart, a lot of her English was learned by listening to Disney songs. We really wanted to capture that innocence about Cecilia because both her greatest strength and her biggest weakness is her naivety, her romantic heart, and her vulnerability. We really wanted to make sure that came across. It was just really getting to know them and getting to understand their stories.
Then it was explaining to them how we were going about this because we always wanted to be totally transparent so that nobody felt tricked or set up. We didn’t want anything during the interview to come as a surprise to them. We were trying to help them deliver their story in a way that would help the audience understand them and their decision-making process.
We based the interview scripts on the research chats to make sure that we got all the key points and to make sure that if they’d said anything particularly brilliant to me during a research chat, that we got it from them again in the filmed interview.
We explained that we wanted to start the story as a romance. PRETTY WOMAN meets BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. We always try to avoid hindsight and retrospection. We said, “You’re not telling somebody two years later after he’s scammed you, you’re telling me, your best friend, in the pub the next day.” We wanted to evoke that ‘Oh my God. You’re not going to believe the date I went on yesterday…’ energy
We needed them to be in the emotion that they were at that point in the timeline of this story, which was often challenging– especially when it came to getting Cecilia to tell the story of her first kiss with Simon. We interviewed Cecilia for two days and we try to go through the story in chronological order because it’s easier, but on the first day, she couldn’t get there. In asking her to tell the story of the first kiss, she was just too angry. She was like, “I don’t want to talk about the first kiss. I hate him.” [laughs]
I don’t blame her!
At the end of the first day, we sat together and had a glass of wine and re-explained to her that we know she’s not an actress and we’re not asking her to act. We told her, “We’re asking you to just try and take yourself back emotionally. The audience will be so much more on your side and they’ll understand everything you do so much more. You can’t start angry because you didn’t start angry with Simon. You can be angry at the point where you felt anger, but you’ve got to keep it bottled up until that point.”
We reassured her and promised that, “We know that we’re trying to paint him as Prince Charming at the beginning of the film. Trust us, nobody is going to think he’s Prince Charming by the end of this film, but you’ve got to take us on the journey with you. You’ve got to take the viewer by the hand and guide them through this relationship feeling the same emotions that you felt at the same time as you felt them. Then they will understand how this happened.”
They made themselves very vulnerable to us, but it was months of building relationships beforehand. We filmed Cecilia’s interview at the end of November/beginning of December 2020, but I had started talking to her in the summer of 2020. By the time we sat down for the interview, she understood what she was there to do and why and she completely trusted that we had her best interests at heart..
The approach you took explains that feeling I got when watching, that I was sitting across from the women in a bar listening to their story. It has a big impact on the viewer.
The interview set-ups were planned to give the viewer exactly that feeling. We wanted each location to fit the characters. Cecilia, she’s a classic romanticist. We were in a little French restaurant in London that’s candlelit and her hair was done in a romantic fashion. Her set was very much about being cozy and intimate. My reference point was the twinkly little bistro where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks have their first meet cute in YOU’VE GOT MAIL where he turns up and sees that it’s her, and then pretends that he’s just happened upon her accidentally. We were constantly thinking about the rom-coms we grew up watching and how they influenced our romantic expectations.
Then for Pernilla, she’s more worldly than Cecilia. She’s more of an international party girl. We wanted her location to reflect that a little bit more, so hers was in the basement of a Stockholm nightclub.
Then for Ayleen, we meet her in the story after we’ve discovered what Simon’s up to so her interview was very deliberately filmed in the daytime because what was unfolding in the story was happening in the cold light of day. It’s more like that coffee you have with your best friend the morning after finding out your boyfriend’s been cheating on you, it’s no longer a romantic optimistic setting.
For the Norwegian VG journalists that we interviewed, we wanted it to have that blue/gray, Nordic crime drama feeling. Ayleen and the other VG journalists, their interviews were done remotely because we couldn’t get to them due to COVID. We had remote crews that filmed interviews, and then we did the interview via Zoom on our laptops from London.
Despite the unbelievable story, I never felt like the film was making fun of the women or giving a ‘that would never happen to me’ tone, quite the opposite. Between you and your director, were there any conversations about how you could achieve that tone?
That’s why we wanted to really emphasize how intense the experience was for these women. It is very easy to say ‘that would never happen to me’, but we have all ignored red flags when we’ve been in pursuit of something that we want, whether it be a romantic relationship or a job.
Also, all of these women were lifted out of normal everyday life and thrown into this other world where they had no point of reference. They had to lean on Simon and believe that he would guide them through it. From the moment that Cecilia met Simon it was a whirlwind. She gets picked up in a Rolls Royce and then flown off in a private jet. They were talking about diamond dealers and enemies.
People do live in those worlds. It’s not like wealthy high-risk people don’t exist, they do.. They just live in totally different worlds to us. They do have protection and they do have dangerous deals going wrong. Especially in something like the diamond industry, it’s not hard to believe that he could have been in genuine danger. However, by the time that he played that card, these women were completely in love with him, whether platonically or romantically. They either considered that he was their future husband or their best friend.
The key thing about these mostly WhatsApp-based relationships that they were having with Simon is that he really provided an intense boyfriend or best friend experience for these women. He may not have been physically with them, but he made sure that he was in their mind every second of the day, he was texting them 200 times a day.
We mostly showed the most extravagant love bombing in the montage sequences with the hundred roses, and the private jets as these were the most outrageous and filmic, but really the intimacy and real trust and love was formed in the little moments. For example, if Cecilia told Simon she was having a tough call with her boss, he would send her a text 10 minutes before saying, “Good luck with the call, baby. You’ll knock him dead.” Then half an hour later, “How did the call go? I’m so proud of you, what are you doing tonight?”
It’s the attention he was giving. That feeling of being seen and that somebody cares about you– Who doesn’t want that? All of the glitter and the stuff that he put on top of it, that was obviously the most movie-esque element of it, but how he really got under their skin was in the little moments. That is where the real con is because that’s what makes you feel like you have a boyfriend who really cares about you.
For Pernilla, by the time Simon asked her for any money, he had been an extremely generous friend. There were times when he’d flown from Amsterdam to Stockholm to take her out for coffee because she’d had a bad date the night before and he wanted to cheer her up a bit and be her wingman. When they went out for dinner, Simon always paid.
Then it gets to that point where it kind of leans into how women are more vulnerable to this as well, because women are naturally more inclined to be people pleasers. More inclined to be seen as kind and helpful, especially when you’re dealing with somebody that wealthy, because your biggest fear is that he’ll think you’re only friends with him for his money. When he then asks you to lend him some money after he’s spent loads on you, you’re put in a very tricky position in terms of saying no.
The manipulation is very clever and very twisted. These aren’t stupid women and this is what we were really trying to illustrate through showing how he did this. We can say, “That would never happen to me,” but guess what? They wouldn’t have thought it would ever happen to them!
What do you think about Simon coming out and saying that the movie is fake and completely made up?
We always knew that he would say that and then try and capitalize on it in some way. I fully disagree with Cameo for allowing him to use their platform. He’s been kicked off all of the dating sites. I don’t think that Cameo should be giving him any oxygen and I think the people who are paying for messages from him should have a word with themselves, but unfortunately there will always be people who just enjoy the notoriety, and there will always my misogynists who applaud any maltreatment of women.
We were finding out things about Simon throughout our research, which we then– I don’t know if you know, but we made a companion podcast, which explores more about Simon’s antics before the timeline of our film. It’s called THE MAKING OF A SWINDLER. We made it because we were gathering all of this information about Simon in the making of the film through the course of research that we didn’t want to put it in the film, because it would fetishize the perpetrator. We decided that if the women didn’t find it out in the course of their story within the timeline of our film, then it doesn’t make it into the screen.
When we first started making the film, Simon was in prison. It was never our intention to interview him. We always knew that he would be extremely present in the film, through the voice notes and the videos and the messages, which was a much more factual depiction of Simon than anything he would ever say to us in an interview, anyway. He would’ve just come out with the same nonsense to us that he has to Inside Edition and everyone else.
We obviously had to offer him the right of reply, which didn’t really lead anywhere, apart from him saying he was going to sue us for defamation. We didn’t want to have him in the film. We would’ve had to do something if he wanted to, but it was never about making a film about Simon. It was about these women and what they experienced. We also know that there is always going to be an appetite to know more about Simon from the true crime, armchair perspective, which is why we then did the companion podcast.
When the film was over, I did wonder about all the other women he conned, but I assume that would have been too much of a rabbit hole to go down.
From the moment he took on the identity of Simon Leviev, he told the same story to every woman he met. We had the three key women in Cecilia, Pernilla, and Ayleen though we didn’t even know about the existence of Ayleen when we started making the film because she hadn’t gone public before.
We only find out about her about halfway through making the film. Pernilla kind of casually mentioned one day that she remembered getting an email from a girl named Ayleen and that she was with Simon at the time. She said she thought she had something to do with the arrest and she might have taken some of his stuff. I was like, “What? Who is this woman?” When I initially reached out to her, she didn’t want to have anything to do with the film but over the course of a few months I kept reaching out and eventually built up enough trust with her that she agreed to share her story and she’s delighted with the response she’s received!
That’s one of the things I liked about the film, these women coming together to share their stories, and to take Simon down.
Because the women in our movie are just extraordinarily brave. Simon was counting on Cecilia to just disappear into the woodwork, like so many other victims. For them to turn over their entire WhatsApp to total strangers–
Would be embarrassing.
Cecilie was like, “Screw it. I’m not having this.” Then for Pernilla to go undercover, like an FBI agent? They’re just so brave. Then when Ayleen has her revenge at the end. It’s kind of like what we were saying earlier. You couldn’t write this in a script and have people believe it.
I think it’s important to point out their bravery and vulnerability. These women shared their story to protect other women.
There’s a warning to men too though! Don’t underestimate us, we won’t just go away.
Shifting gears, I focus a lot on sustainability and the struggles of producers in independent film. As a UK producer, I’m curious to hear if your struggles are similar? What is the vibe in the producing community in the UK right now?
London’s become a bit of a documentary hub. To be honest, it can be a struggle to get producers because so many of the best ones move into directing faster than they can be replaced. There’s a lot of competition between directors to get the best producers so maybe some US producers should come over here if they feel it’s the other way around in the States!
The headline was that THE TINDER SWINDLER was the first documentary feature to be the number one movie on the Netflix Top 10. What does a headline like that do for your career as a producer?
It definitely felt like a lot of doors suddenly opened all at once!
For the moment I’m still at Raw though now in the director’s chair, co-helming a new 3-part Netflix series with Felicity.
However we’ve also recently set up our own production company ‘Ladywell Films’ (The name was chosen not just because we’re women but rather fatefully it’s also the name of the London area we both live in so was an obvious choice). We decided it was time to branch out on our own so we’re developing a slate at the moment. While I love directing and am always looking for stories I would like to tell, that certainly isn’t the benchmark for the slate, as there will always be fascinating stories where a different director would be a better fit… I’ll always think of myself as a producer first.