Even as other Hollywood bullies are being sidelined, the uber-producer behind ‘The Social Network’ and Broadway’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has been given a pass for his volcanic temper. Now, former employees open up about a boss who left many traumatized: “It was a new level of unhinged.”
On a brisk Halloween day in 2012, the thin facade of normalcy at Scott Rudin Productions shattered. Literally.
At about 4:15 p.m. — more than 10 hours into a typical Rudin day that began at 6 and never wrapped before 8 — the Oscar-winning producer was enraged that one of his assistants failed to get him a seat on a sold-out flight. In a fit of fury, he allegedly smashed an Apple computer monitor on the assistant’s hand. The screen shattered, leaving the young man bleeding and in need of immediate medical attention. One person in the office at the time described the incident as sounding like a car crash: a cacophonous collision of metal, glass and limb. The wounded assistant headed to the emergency room, and Rudin called his lawyer, according to another staffer there that Halloween afternoon. Everyone else huddled in the conference room, shaken. No one stayed until 8 p.m., with most of the staff heading over to a Times Square bar for a therapeutic drink.
“We were all shocked because we didn’t know that that sort of thing could happen in that office,” says Andrew Coles, a then-development executive and now-manager and producer, whose credits include Queen & Slim. “We knew a lot could happen. There were the guys that were sleeping in the office, the guys whose hair was falling out and were developing ulcers. It was a very intense environment, but that just felt different. It was a new level of unhinged — a level of lack of control that I had never seen before in a workplace.” Through a spokesperson, Rudin declined to comment on any of the specific allegations mentioned in this story. The alleged victim declined to comment.
For some four decades, Rudin’s abusive behavior has been chronicled — even celebrated — by the press. In a 2010 profile, this publication dubbed him “The Most Feared Man in Town” and called him “dazzlingly charming” one paragraph after describing acts of cruelty and intimidation. In a 2005 Wall Street Journal profile with the headline “Boss-zilla!,” Rudin himself pegged the number of assistants he burned through in the previous five years at 119.
But in October 2017, Harvey Weinstein was toppled from power following twin investigative reports in The New York Times and The New Yorker detailing his sexual predation, ushering in the entertainment industry’s #MeToo era. That reckoning has expanded in scope to include toxic behavior encompassing everything from racism to milder microaggressions. Talent and executives, including Sharon Osbourne at The Talk and three executive producers at The Ellen DeGeneres Show, have been kicked to the curb for bullying antics. Likewise, America’s Got Talent judge Gabrielle Union received a settlement from NBC in September after filing an employment complaint that alleged a “toxic culture,” which included fellow judge Simon Cowell smoking cigarettes on set and guest judge Jay Leno making a racist joke.
Still, there has been no reckoning for Rudin, 62, one of the industry’s most decorated producers, whose films have earned 151 Oscar nominations and 23 wins, including best picture for the Coen brothers’ 2007 drama No Country for Old Men. He’s even more successful on the theater front, having nabbed 17 individual Tony Awards. His Aaron Sorkin stage collaboration, To Kill a Mockingbird, became the hottest ticket on Broadway in 2018. During a single week that year, the drama earned more than $1.5 million at the box office, breaking a 118-year-old record in the process.
On May 14, Netflix will release Rudin’s latest production, The Woman in the Window. Like most of his efforts, the film features A-list talent, including star Amy Adams and director Joe Wright. As was the case with many things involving Rudin, it was fraught with drama, say sources, with the producer taking the reins from Wright after the Fox 2000 thriller tested poorly, then hiring Tony Gilroy to write for reshoots. In the end, sources say, it tested about the same.
Even as others have been canceled or have dialed back their aggression, Rudin’s behavior has continued unabated, leaving a trail of splintered objects and traumatized employees in his path.
Caroline Rugo had expected a grueling environment when she joined Scott Rudin Productions as an executive coordinator in fall 2018. She accepted that her days began at 5 a.m., fielding emails before reporting to the New York office at 6. Given that she lives with Type 1 diabetes, Rugo needed to carve out 30 minutes a day for exercise and provided a doctor’s note signed off on by Rudin that allowed her to work out from 5:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. Even with a narrow margin for an outside life, she was eager to work for the uber-producer behind The Social Network and Broadway’s The Book of Mormon. What she hadn’t anticipated was the onslaught of acts of intimidation.
“He threw a laptop at the window in the conference room and then went into the kitchen and we could hear him beating on the napkin dispenser,” says Rugo. “Then another time he threw a glass bowl at [a colleague]. It’s hard to say if he threw it in the general direction or specifically at [the colleague], but the glass bowl hit the wall and smashed everywhere. The HR person left in an ambulance due to a panic attack. That was the environment.”
Multiple people corroborated the incident involving the HR staffer, who never returned, as well as the laptop and napkin-dispenser episode, which took place in early March 2019 during a meeting with a publicist from SpotCo, a major Broadway ad agency. The following year, SpotCo sued Rudin for $6.3 million for unpaid pre-pandemic work on eight shows, becoming the latest legal action against him that spilled into public view. (The case is still active.) In 2018, the estate of Harper Lee sued Rudin, claiming that the Sorkin script altered characters, the setting and the legal proceeding at the heart of her novel. (The parties later reached a settlement, the details of which were not made public.)
Around the same time of the SpotCo complaint, red-hot writer Jeremy O. Harris called Rudin out on Twitter as “loudly racist,” in another public break. The Slave Play playwright and Zola screenwriter continued, “He called me on the phone and cussed me out once and said ‘you’re a baby playwright who has written one good play no one gives a FUCK what you have to say’ To which I responded, ‘Why did you just pay me to say something in TWO plays?’ “
Rudin tantrums have been well documented going back four decades and are said to have at least partly inspired the 1994 assistant revenge fantasy film Swimming With Sharks. Manchester by the Sea producer Kevin Walsh told THR in 2014 that Rudin demanded Walsh get out of his car and abandoned him on a highway. In the same article, producer Adam Goodman called the environment “really, really, really gnarly.” Others depict a cult-like atmosphere, where once-abused lieutenants take on their boss’ worst qualities (one former staffer says Rudin and a senior executive would throw every item off the desk of an office manager for “no reason at all”). In a 2010 THR profile, Rudin downplayed his high rate of turnover. “People who do fantastically tend to end up going on to very strong, illustrious careers,” he says, “and the people who wash out tend to not be heard from again.” (The Rudin diaspora includes such high-profile executives as producer Amy Pascal and Josh Greenstein, co-head of Sony’s Motion Picture Group.)
But with Hollywood reexamining its power structures and inequities, Rudin’s brand of aggro behavior is suddenly out of step in an industry championing egalitarianism. One recent Rudin assistant says the mercurial producer threw a baked potato at his head in 2018 for not knowing why someone from indie distributor A24 was in the lobby.
“I went into the kitchen, and I was like, ‘Hey, Scott, A24 is on the way up. I’m not sure what it’s concerning,’ ” he says. “And he flipped out, like, ‘Nobody told me A24 was on my schedule.’ He threw it at me, and I dodged a big potato. He was like, ‘Well, find out, and get me a new potato.’ “
Adding insult to injury, the assistant was fired by Rudin not long after dropping out of college to join his staff full-time.
Ryan Nelson, who was Rudin’s executive assistant in 2018-19, says he experienced and witnessed so much mistreatment, including the producer throwing a stapler at a theater assistant and calling him a “retard,” that he left the industry altogether.
“Every day was exhausting and horrific,” he says. “Not even the way he abused me, but watching the way he abused the people around me who started to become my very close friends. You’re spending 14 hours a day with the same people, enduring the same abuse. It became this collective bond with these people.”
Likewise, assistant Miguel Cortes became a bike mechanic for a year after leaving Scott Rudin Productions in 2019, feeling scarred by the experience and assuming that all offices operated this way.
“There was definitely a distance you wanted to maintain when you were talking to Scott at any time,” he recalls. “I’m a tall guy. Like 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, well, I’m not intimidated by him. He’s shorter than me.’ But every time I’d be sitting down is when he’d come over and lord over me. I remember thinking, ‘That’s almost a genius move, getting me when I’m at my smallest.’ He would be right over me and literally shouting at me.”
On Indeed.com, where Rudin posts ads for a constant stream of vacancies, one anonymous reviewer warned prospective applicants to “Please Run Far, Far Away” and claimed to have witnessed the producer “pulling a chair out from under an assistant’s seat to fire him so he could fall down,” among other transgressions carried out in front of the titan’s industry partners.
For Rugo, she was out in six months after enduring a series of so-called “soft firings” — a unique phenomenon at Rudin’s company that several sources detailed. An ousted employee would wait in the Starbucks in the lobby for Rudin to cool off and allow the groveling underling to return. Not this time. After Rudin became ensnared in a feud between Nathan Lane and director George C. Wolfe during previews of his Tony-nominated play Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, Rugo says Rudin began to blame her for the situation. He demanded that she skip her 5:30 a.m. gym visit or work faster. She refused — and didn’t bother waiting in the Starbucks.
“I got fired for having Type 1 diabetes, which is a federally protected disability,” says Rugo, who now works in development at Netflix. “I one hundred percent could have sued him. But I didn’t because of the fear of being blacklisted. But I’ve worked at Netflix for a year and a half now. And it was such a shock to the system because it’s one of the most respectful and progressive workplaces in terms of employee relations. Now that I have established myself here and I am a part of a team where my opinions are respected and welcomed, I have no issue speaking out about Scott. Everyone just knows he’s an absolute monster.”
Another assistant, who asked not to be named because he fears career retaliation, detailed a kitchen encounter with Rudin in 2018 that devolved quickly.
“He asked me to clean the kitchen. I told him, ‘That’s really not my job.’ I had to do a bunch of other stuff that was urgent,” the former assistant says. “The kitchen was not urgent. And then he flipped out, and he took his teacup, threw it, and it shattered and left a hole in the wall. I was like, ‘I’m a human. This is a physical act of aggression.’ “
Since its earliest days, Hollywood has been prone to abuses of power. Abusive behavior tends to be overlooked or accommodated when the power imbalance dynamic is at its most extreme. Nowhere is that more evident than at Scott Rudin Productions, where a conveyor belt of assistants — typically recent NYU grads who are hungry, vulnerable and willing to put up with maltreatment — rotates in and out, providing the backbone for the prolific producer behind There Will Be Blood and Doubt, the latter for both stage and screen, and TV’s What We Do in the Shadows and The Newsroom. None of them is over the age of 25.
One former Rudin assistant says the producer relished in the cruelty but was able to pivot from berating staff to turning on the charm as soon as talent walked in the door.
“When you feel his spit on your face as he’s screaming at you, saying, ‘You’re worth nothing,’ it obviously makes an impact, and we’re young,” the assistant says. “Over his long career, there are hundreds and hundreds of people who have suffered. And some have given up their dreams because he made them feel and believe that they can’t do whatever it is they’re trying to do.”
Another staffer says Rudin purposefully disrupted people’s careers with lies. Around the time that Rudin attained EGOT status in 2012 — becoming one of only 16 people living or dead ever to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — he became enraged when one of his female underlings left to work at The Weinstein Co. According to multiple sources, Rudin emailed Harvey Weinstein and insisted that she had stolen from him. (Weinstein didn’t listen and continued to employ her. She continues to work in the industry to this day.)
“That was a big, big moment,” says another staffer of the mistreatment of his colleague. “It literally changed everyone who was there at the time’s interest in having anything to do with him ever again. All of the employees realized that this is what we had to look forward to, after slaving away, being attacked so much, being maligned in really bizarre ways. There was a casual disregard for human rights.”
Rudin’s wrath wasn’t only aimed at employees. He privately clashed with director Sam Mendes and took out an ad in The New York Times to berate a Times theater writer. His emails — which became fodder for the general public following the Sony hack when he called Angelina Jolie a “minimally talented spoiled brat” and made racially insensitive jokes about President Barack Obama, saying he probably liked Kevin Hart — are often scathing, says an assistant who was privy to them. In one exchange with fellow EGOT Whoopi Goldberg, he lambasted her because she wanted to play a part in To Kill a Mockingbird instead of another Rudin-produced project, the film adaptation of Aleshea Harris’ acclaimed play Is God Is. He called her an idiot, said she’d never work again in anything important and wished her luck on The View. Goldberg declined to comment.
Rudin continues to work with the best in the film business. His next projects include Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, and Jennifer Lawrence’s Red, White and Water, both for A24. The New York-based distributor says it has no official first-look deal with Rudin even though it does frequent business with him.
Per a knowledgeable legal source, bullying claims against Rudin never see the light of day and are settled quietly. Fear of reprisals has kept many from speaking out. Employees typically sign a non-disparagement agreement. And several sources for this piece consulted with an attorney before proceeding, even off the record.
Rudin also has been known to change credits, both as incentive and punishment. Several sources say that the victim of the computer monitor incident received three associate producing credits in addition to a monetary settlement. Others have seen the flip side of Rudin’s leverage.
“When they ultimately quit — which they always do at some point — he vindictively goes on IMDb and takes away any credits they may have amassed while working for him,” says one producer who hired a traumatized assistant following a Rudin stint and saw the practice play out.
Coles hopes that fear of Rudin’s power will not stymie progress in the industry just at a time when Hollywood appears ready to confront abuses of power.
“Part of the change we want to see in the industry means starting to talk about these things openly, to name names, to talk about the things that actually happened. And you don’t get a free pass for abusing people,” he says. “I’m not afraid of Scott Rudin.”