Emmy-Nominated Creators Of ‘The Tinder Swindler’ On Their Goal For Netflix Documentary — “Expose” A World-Class Fraudster

There are smooth talkers, and then there’s Simon Leviev. Compared to him, most conmen are slick as sandpaper.

This is how Simon rolled: go on the dating app Tinder, pose as a guy looking for love. Attributes: handsome, emotionally available, sharp dresser, and oh yeah, rich. Really rich. With pluses like that, who wouldn’t swipe right? A lot of smart, beautiful, even sophisticated women did, as revealed in the Emmy-nominated Netflix documentary The Tinder Swindler.

“The women in the film, first and foremost, they were looking for a boyfriend. They were single, a bit lonely. And that was why they were on Tinder swiping, swiping,” explains director Felicity Morris. “Certainly, they saw in Simon something that would take them out of their ordinary life. There were pictures of him on private jets. He looked like a businessman. And I think that, for them, was really attractive.”

Norwegian-born Cecilie Fjellhøy and Dutch native Ayleen Charlotte were among the women who fell for Leviev’s chimeric charms. They ultimately discovered Simon was not after love but lucre. His tales of being an Israeli diamond tycoon’s son—pure fiction. The jet-setting lifestyle was real enough, but it was bankrolled through a sort of Ponzi scheme. He’d tap one mark for hundreds of thousands of dollars, use that money to fund a life of luxury, then share plenty of images on Tinder to convince the next mark he indeed rivaled James Bond as an International Man of Intrigue. To get women to drain their bank accounts and take out loans for his benefit, he moaned about temporary cash flow problems, but assured them he would pay them back.

“A big purpose of us telling the story was to publicly shame–or I suppose ‘expose’ would be the better word–Simon Leviev,” producer Bernadette Higgins tells Deadline. “The impetus and motivation for the women who took part [in the film] was to draw attention to him and warn others about this guy who has not been convicted of any of the alleged crimes that he’s committed against them and is still kind of just prowling around looking for his next victim.”

The film unfolds from the point of view of Fjellhøy, Charlotte, and fellow Simon mark Pernilla Sjöholm, a Swedish native. They made the brave decision to speak publicly about what had happened to them, probably knowing internet trolls would pounce (sample online attack: “They need therapy… They were complete idiots.”).

“We just felt that telling the story very much through their eyes, not giving Simon any kind of platform, was the way to do it,” Morris says. “The victims of these kinds of emotional crimes are often dismissed. Certainly, when Cecilie and Pernilla went to the cops, they just sort of laughed at them. ‘Oh, I’m sorry your boyfriend’s done this to you.’”

The Tinder Swindler has been recognized with five Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, along with nods for music composition, picture editing and sound editing. Morris also earned an Emmy nomination for writing the film.

“What we liked about the story of The Tinder Swindler was that it had that crime hook into it. There’s a crime story, but it’s about other things as well,” Morris says. “It’s about dating. It’s about love, about heartbreak.”

The multiplicity of themes helps explain the tremendous popularity of the documentary. For a stretch, it held the honor of being the most watched film on all of Netflix—fiction or nonfiction. It reached number one in numerous countries, from Sweden, Germany and Russia to Argentina, South Africa, Israel and Kuwait. The Tinder Swindler draws in viewers with a compelling arc—the women at the heart of it didn’t call it a day after they were snookered: they took action against Leviev (real name: Shimon Hayut), with the aid of investigative journalists, and got a measure of payback.

“As we were scripting it we were thinking, okay, if this was a movie, what would it be?” Morris recalls. “It starts off as a rom-com, turns into kind of a psychological thriller. Then it’s more of a thriller-‘boots on the ground’ journalists trying to track down the con artist. And then there’s the great revenge at the end.”

Among the creative decisions by the filmmakers was to film dramatizations of Leviev’s exploits. This necessitated finding an actor to embody Simon, someone with a close physical resemblance to him, at least from the nose downward.

“It was all about the jawline with him and how he sort of held himself,” Morris comments. “We knew that Simon had this strut and this kind of arrogance about him. With the actor, that’s what we were looking for.”

Director and producer came up with ingenious settings to film the primary interviews.

“We wanted the viewer to feel that they were on a date. And this is what Cecilie is like on a date and this is the kind of place she would like,” Higgins notes. “Pernilla’s a bit more worldly and a bit more glitzy. So, she was kind of in a nightclub bar, whereas Cecilie was in a classic romantic French restaurant. Then, obviously with Ayleen, by the time her interview comes along [later in the film], we know Simon isn’t Prince Charming. So, we wanted to film her in the cold light of day.”

Higgins expands on the visual influences for The Tinder Swindler.

“We were thinking a lot about our points of reference,” Higgins remembers. “One that kept coming up was Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks films and growing up on this diet of, ‘If love is going to survive, you have to overcome obstacles,’ and things like that. We were thinking about the scene in You’ve Got Mail where Meg Ryan goes on a date to meet who she doesn’t know is Tom Hanks, but she’s in that kind of twinkly little restaurant waiting for him. And then he sees her through the window and comes in as if by accident and starts talking to her there. So that was kind of the ambiance we were trying to create.”

In cynical fashion, Leviev took advantage of gender roles and expectations to soften up his victims. The film shows WhatsApp exchanges between him and his targets, showing how he played on their sympathies.

“He was tapping into that, ‘I’m going to make you feel sorry for me,’” Higgins says. “There’s such a burden on women, especially, to be kind and to be caring, and to be helpful, and to be nice… Because otherwise, [Simon would imply], ‘You’re just here for the private jet. You’re not here to help me.’”

Leviev has responded to the film, taking to Instagram Stories to proclaim his innocence, and adding, “It’s high time for the ladies to start telling the truth… Please keep an open mind and heart.”

As for Cecilie, Pernilla and Ayleen, they’re still paying off massive debt incurred as a result of transferring hundreds of thousands of dollars to Leviev. They have joined forces to create the Stronger Together initiative, which “represents women supporting women and speaking up to bring justice against all criticism because when women are together, they are STRONGER!”

Through Leviev.com they are selling a line of “Stronger Together” jewelry. “All profits will be going directly to the women to help them recoup their financial losses,” the website notes. “10% of the profits will be donated to charity on their behalf.”

Fjellhøy has become a public speaker, talking in a variety of forums about her experience. She has accrued almost 300,000 followers on Instagram. Her Insta bio notes, “Helping remove the stigma against fraud victims.” It adds, “Be Kind, Be Brave.”

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