What really goes on inside a cult? Over the past couple of years our collective fascination with that question has risen to a fever pitch. The literary world obsessed over Emma Cline’s The Girls and Stephanie Oakes’s The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, both of which re-imagine collective madness as coming-of-age tales. Indie auteur Ti West barely bothered to alter the Jonestown story for his horror film The Sacrament. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt turns a young woman’s survival of a doomsday-sect kidnapping into screwball comedy, and American Horror Story: Cult pulls everything from Andy Warhol’s Factory to Heaven’s Gate into its maniacal vision.
John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle are the brains behind Waco, the fledgling Paramount Network’s six-part mini-series about the deadly 1993 standoff between federal agents and Branch Davidian cultists led by David Koresh at the group’s compound near Waco, Texas. The brothers were haunted by the feeling that the media had shown them—and us—a version of events that was superficial at best.
“We were teenagers when the real Waco story happened, but I remember it unfolding live,” says Drew, who produces and co-writes most of the pair’s films. “It was this one-sided perspective, from the outside in. To experience that same story we remember from the inside out was a completely different thing.”
Their journey through those walls started while they were researching a fictional script. One of the characters, they thought, could be a survivor of the fire that ended the FBI and ATF siege of the compound—which killed 76 members of the group, including the 33-year-old Koresh.
“Then we said, ‘Hey, did anyone survive the fire?’ ” remembers John, who directs and co-writes their work. That led them to David Thibodeau, one of nine Branch Davidians who made it out alive. The Dowdles won his trust, and he allowed them to work from his auto-biography, A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story. To get the feds’ side of the ordeal, they mined the memoirs of Gary Noesner, the FBI’s lead negotiator during the standoff.
But they didn’t stop there. They conducted hundreds of their own interviews, listened to all the audio of the negotiations and watched every inch of Koresh footage they could get their hands on. Their goal: a “no bad guys” examination that humanizes participants who’d been demonized as fascists or fanatics.
They came to realize that Koresh, played in the Waco miniseries by Friday Night Lights star Taylor Kitsch, wasn’t the unhinged maniac presented by the media, and that Kitsch could embody the qualities that attracted many highly educated and spiritual people to Koresh’s ministry.
“This was someone who was really knowledgeable about the Bible and, in their minds, cracked codes they’d been trying to solve their entire lives,” says Drew.
In the end, Koresh was desperate and trapped, as so many of the Dowdles’ protagonists have been. Time and again they’ve put their characters through claustrophobic nightmares: the snaking corridors of an apartment building in 2008’s Quarantine; a broken elevator in 2010’s Devil; the catacombs of Paris in 2014’s As Above, So Below.
“It’s always interesting to see how characters respond when they’re backed into a corner,” Drew explains.
And through Waco they found a surprising answer to that quixotic question: What really goes on inside a cult?
“People think of everyone on the inside as having the same opinion, a kind of mind-meld,” says Drew. “Reading Thibodeau’s book, you realize how smart and opinionated these people were—they often disagreed with David Koresh—and, as events unfolded, how much debate happened inside over what they should do. It was very different from what you think of as a mind-control environment.”
Perhaps that’s why cult stories resonate through these volatile times: They reflect a need to understand what drives people to seek order within fortified walls—and a sneaking suspicion that their needs are much the same as our own.
Image courtesy Miller Mobley/Paramount Network and Weinstein Television.