Wild Wild Country: A Conversation with Chapman & Maclain Way
In this episode, documentary filmmakers Chapman and Maclain Way discuss their Emmy® Award-winning Netflix documentary, Wild Wild Country. The six-part series tells the true story of a controversial Indian guru and his attempt to build a utopian city deep in rural Oregon in the 1980s.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
[multiple voices chattering]
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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
Wild Wild Country documentary filmmakers,
Chapman and Maclain Way.
- That first 'Aha!' moment was not even so much about
the poisonings or the attempted murders,
it was almost a realization that, like, these people in red
have built a city in the middle of the Oregon desert.
And that, alone, was enough for me to be like,
"I am so fascinated by this story
and I want to learn as much as I can about it."
[Narrator] In this episode,
filmmakers Chapman and Maclain Way
discuss the origin of their Emmy award-winning Netflix
documentary series, Wild Wild Country.
- The genius of this film is that over the course of the
six hours, you begin to see heroes and villains
on each side of the conflict, and also eventually see
instances of heroism and villainy
within individual people.
Take us through when your contact at the
Oregon Historical Society says,
"Hey, there's all this stuff."
- They have a huge wall of VHS tapes,
those 525 raw Umatic tapes,
and it just says Rajneesh above it.
It was almost like, finally, I think we just started
talking about what the story was, and a film archivist
had just started working there.
He's from Brooklyn, and he started telling me
the story a little bit.
And it was almost one of those things where it was like ...
Truthfully, by the time you got to, "And then they bussed
in homeless people, and they try and take over the county,"
by the time you got to that point in the story,
I was questioning whether he was telling me something
real or not.
But really, that first 'Aha' moment
was not even so much about the poisonings
or the attempted murders.
Obviously those are fascinating parts of the story,
but the first tape that we popped in and watched,
it was almost a realization that these people in red
have built a city in the middle of the Oregon desert,
and that alone was enough for me to be like,
"I am so fascinated by this story
and I want to learn as much as I can about it."
- Take us to the meeting with Netflix where you
sit down with them and say, "Our next project ..."
- Yeah, it was kind of interesting.
We sat down with them and kinda pitched them;
and they hadn't released Making a Murderer yet,
but they told us we have this true crime show
that we're really excited about.
And then I remember us pitching them that this is not a
traditional true crime story,
and that it's not an investigation into
'who done it,' or who's guilty or who's innocent,
which is what a majority of true crime stories
are based around.
We really saw this as an investigation into what
led this religious minority group to commit
all these atrocious crimes.
It was going to be an investigation into
it was going to be an investigation into
Fear of the Other and things like that,
and I think that that actually really excited them.
I think they felt like we've got Making a Murderer ,
which is a little more traditional crime.
Let's maybe take a chance on something that's
It is a quintessential American story,
which we were real interested in diving into.
The whole cult thing was interesting.
I think we talked about it a little bit in episode one,
but coming off Vietnam War,
how disenfranchised the youth felt about the
direction of the country, and the government and Nixon,
and the lying and the corruption.
And I think that people were looking for 'there's got to be
'a better way to live;
'there's got to be better communities that we can
support and build ourselves.'
- I remember one that was just...
Rajneeshpuram was covered so much locally.
Nationally, Sheela was obviously a very well
nationally covered figure.
But when we would pitch this story, we would always say,
like, the one moment in the story where ABC, NBC, CBS,
everyone's covering the story on the nightly news,
is when Bhaghwan got in an airplane and tried to
flee the country, you know,
and we had a lot of archived footage for that.
So even something like that,
we knew that's the end of our second to last episode.
That was always the North Star for us
to how we want to build a lot of this series up.
Identifying a few of those key moments were enough for us
in the beginning to structure the show around.
- We were able to establish the fact that they were
heading to Bermuda,
and Bermuda was selected for one reason only, maybe two;
it's nice and sunny,
and secondly he was un-extraditable from Bermuda.
He would have successfully escaped prosecution.
- It was an interesting evening.
I don't think any of us knew how that would end.
- One plane was going to refuel in Pueblo, Colorado,
and the other was going to refuel in Salt Lake.
We found out that there was a significant chance they were
going to Charlotte.
- The first thing we did was we read about 20 books on it
and we watched all 300 hours of the footage ourselves.
We knew if we were going to do the story right,
we can't just give it to an assistant editor to look at.
We've really got to go through it with a fine toothed comb
and understand the complexities and inner workings of the story.
And so we started doing that and we kind of worked
backwards, which was what are the four or five
biggest cliffhanger moments.
One of our pet peeves in serialized storytelling
is sometimes they'll just throw a random curve ball
at the end of an episode that maybe there's a
big reveal of a character that's going to speak,
and it's a little bit of a forced cliffhanger.
We wanted the cliffhangers to play out in real time
in the story.
In episode two when the hotel gets bombed,
that's what happened at that moment.
We basically found that we had five of these
really great endings for the episodes,
and we knew if you're going to do serialized storytelling,
you've got to have people clicking on the next episode.
- In Portland, Oregon today, three explosions rocked the
downtown hotel owned by controversial religious
cult leader Bhaghwan Shree Rajneesh.
- The first bomb exploded at 1:19 this morning.
- What concerns Chief Klum now, there might be
more explosives in the building.
- Evidently, an explosive device blew a hole in the floor.
- It blew the door off the bathroom,
it blew the door off the room.
- One of the more difficult parts was episode one,
when Bhaghwan's building his following in India,
which was late 60s, early 70s.
There just wasn't a ton of footage,
as much as we would have liked.
I think we pretty much uncovered all the footage
that was shot inside the commune that you get to see,
but we spent a lot of time trying to find great archive
of the India days, which was really difficult.
- The only things that we couldn't really get,
there was a few characters;
there was one character that we really, really wanted,
tried years to get, and just couldn't get him.
His name was Krishna Deva.
He was the mayor of Rajneeshpuram
and he actually flips and turns states evidence,
and he's a huge reason why Sheela went to jail
and why Jane went to jail.
He was a key witness for the prosecution and he was just--
We were able to get to most people, but he was just a
flat out 'no' from day one, and just held strong.
- Now let's start with the inspiration for all this,
the Bhaghwan himself.
As I was watching the beginning of the series
and you touched on his philosophy,
I sort of got that the concept of mindfulness
was not necessarily mutually exclusive from capitalism.
But then as you tell the story, somewhere, I don't know,
the fifth, the tenth, the fifteenth Rolls Royce,
you start to wonder what this guy was about.
How did you guys make sense of
why all these people were in the Oregon desert?
- I think people always ask us why didn't you go super deep
into the religious teachings of the group,
like why did people join?
Why did people join?
That's kind of what everyone wanted to know, and
the truth is, we read a lot of books of Bhaghwan and Osho,
and we would ask people what is it about his teachings,
and you would get 100 different answers.
There didn't seem to be a consensus of it's this teaching,
it's this particular thing.
So what we really found, which we focused on,
is that most of these people found a very deep sense
of community and family for the first time in their life,
and a lot of these people had come from
very difficult backgrounds or difficult childhoods.
A lot of them were dealing with trauma,
and for the first time, they felt like they were
building a community that belonged to them,
that was for them;
I think essentially it was what we call a safe space today,
So that's what we decided to focus on;
less on what drew them to the teachings and more this
idea of a surrogate family.
[reporter on archive] Jesus Santos finished
a six year term at the Colorado State Penitentiary
- It provides a sense of community
and it provides me with people who care for me.
That's something I haven't had in my life,
and I think that's something that not only people need,
but I think it's the world in general.
- I'm just a city boy, you know, but,
this is what I always wanted to do since I was little.
I love it, definitely.
- And it wasn't really until episode six when we were
cutting the scene, and we were rushing to get it off
to Sundance, and we were super tired and really long hours,
and it's the scene where Bhaghwan has died
and it's a funeral, it's kind of a funeral procession for him.
And it was a really odd realization that it actually
wasn't, that crowd was maybe 30% to 40% Sannyasins.
That was a huge Indian crowd that had come out to
pay respects to Bhaghwan as he had left,
and they would burn his body down in the burning gods.
And for me, that was just a very interesting moment where
one of my final takeaways on Bhaghwan was regardless of
how you feel about his teachings
or whether he was a wise sage or not,
he had created a 20th-century religious movement.
He lived an exceptional life.
I don't think there's a lot of people that can say
that they did that.
As we were wrapping up the series, I remember that moment
fully grasping at the end what Bhaghwan had done in his life,
and it was something that I had maybe admired or appreciated.
I had complex feelings about it, but I remember that, yeah.
- Can you walk us through how you found her,
and how you convinced her that these two guys
from America needed to be who she confided in?
- The first tape we put in, Mac said earlier,
was them building their city in the Oregon desert.
The second tape we put in was Sheela on the Ted Koppel
nightly news show basically giving him the middle finger
and telling him to F-off live on the news.
And so immediately we were like,
'Who the hell is that person?
What a ...'
I don't know who she is, we didn't know how big she was,
but we were like, she is going to anchor this thing.
You could just tell right away.
And so the more research we did, we found a really
three dimensional, complex female character.
My wife is a producer;
we had some other female producers on the show
and they were really excited about this character
that they felt there's a lot of these male characters,
whether it's the House of Cards Frank character;
these very complex characters, a little darkness in them that
are fun to root for, and they found that there
wasn't really a lot of female characters like that.
You either get Wonder Woman, which are these very easy
feminist heroes to root for, but they were really excited
by the fact that there was this complex female that we could
really build as a three dimensional human.
- Actually, one of the first hurdles was that our
first documentary was on a Portland baseball team,
which you wouldn't think would work against us.
But I think Sheela was like, "Are you guys from Oregon?"
That was what she wanted to know, and we were like,
"No, no, no, we're actually not from Oregon.
We grew up in Los Angeles,"
because I think she's done with that whole state.
But it was a bit of a--
We didn't have to sell her on it,
but we just needed to build a relationship with her.
And I think that we were very honest from day one with what
we saw the show being, but it did take about three trips
out to Switzerland to work with her, to talk with her.
She was in a very interesting point, and everyone had their
own reasons for participating in the documentary.
And everyone that participated in the documentary totally had
a ton of reasons to not participate, too,
and they were very open with it.
- One cool thing about Sheela, she was the only character that
didn't ask for the questions before the interview.
She was the only one that said, "Turn your cameras on.
"You can ask me whatever you want.
I don't want to know beforehand."
Like, come interview me, which I thought was pretty cool.
- There is this moment after the, uh...
after the fire in the hotel
where you sense that Sheela has gotten more and more resolute,
and then her comments after that,
that American moment of,
'I will not back down anymore.'
And that was where I first got the beginnings
of this weird resonance to the present day.
- One of the things we found truly fascinating about the
story was how the politics of it were inverted
to today's politics.
You basically had this very liberal, spiritual group
using the Second Amendment to arm up with AK-47s
to protect their community from violence.
I was very fascinated by that.
I have family members who hunt and are pro-gun;
I tend to be more pro-gun control.
But when Sheela was looking me dead in the eye and saying,
"If someone bombed your hotel,
"if someone was coming after your kids,
"if someone was coming after your family,
it'd be pathetic if you didn't defend them and arm up."
And I remember sitting in that interview chair going,
"Jesus, how do I really feel about this?
And how do I think about that?"
I knew that if I was enjoying playing that
intellectual political game,
that I had faith that an audience would also
enjoy doing some critical thinking and really diving
into these issues to see how they feel about it.
- Yeah, I think that there was...
in terms of Sheela's character development through the story,
that was definitely one moment.
I think that even in episode one, we knew that Sheela had...
I am getting a little fuzzy on some of the details.
I think she was 20 or 21 when she got married, right?
And Chinmaya, her husband, had pancreatic cancer
and ended up dying.
And then literally 48 hours after her first love that
she's literally built her life around in America has died,
Bhaghwan just kind of lays down an ultimatum,
which is now you're going to dedicate your whole life
to this movement, and she just dives in head first.
She's incredibly emotionally vulnerable,
and she doesn't regret that decision but that was just
where she was in her life at that time,
and so I think that was the personal commitment
that she made then.
But yeah, that bombing, that end of episode two
I think was the external commitment;
which was like internally I'm devoted,
but now externally I'm going to go on talk shows,
I'm going to absolutely burn this entire system down.
- I had to be provocative.
I had to provoke.
- Isn't your leader the free sex guru?
- Free sex?
We don't charge for it if you mean that.
- We are the only community which has no venereal diseases,
no crime, no drugs, no alcoholism.
And I'll tell you about, one more thing,
that we are the only people who enjoy sex fully.
"How could you do that?
How could you?"
I said, "Don't tell me, I'm doing my job.
- This is legitimately a story about two sides.
Not every story do you need to hear both sides.
Our first documentary was about independent entrepreneurship
against corporate baseball.
We didn't interview Major League Baseball
because it wasn't necessary to that story.
This one, it is a battle of two different points of view,
so that's inherently what the story's about.
We talked about if you go to a boxing match,
you want a really good boxing match.
You don't want just the guy to the [bleep] kicked out of him
in the first round and then the story's over.
So we knew if people are going to stick around for six hours,
we need to elevate everyone's argument.
We're not there as a journalist to tear their arguments down
and poke holes in their argument.
That's going to deflate it, and by episode one,
who cares anymore?
We found what are their most valid arguments
and let's beef those up,
and then let's let them go head-to-head
in a boxing-chess match,
and then see where the chips fall.
- You were asking about Hasya, the Hollywood producer who
came in and was supposedly going to be the new secretary.
I think we were really interested in that storyline
because for a group that was all about enlightenment,
and being bigger than your ego, and not having jealousies,
I was very interested in the fact that it was like the
frailty of the human psyche that we all suffer from in our egos
to watching someone take power from you is never easy
no matter what gender you are or who you are as a human.
- When you start having Hasya, a rich woman from California
who had fairly recently come to the ranch,
Sheela felt threatened.
She suspected that there were other people now
who were having his ear.
- Bhaghwan even went so far as to call Sheela into his house
and to explain to her another corporation was to be set up,
and Hasya and John would run this corporation.
That made Sheela really, really angry.
- I'd like to hear about the interviews with Jane Stork,
because that was, to my view, a more nuanced,
more difficult project of getting somebody who was
this gentle soul at heart to talk about how her devotion
led her to attempted murder.
- Bhaghwan is going to orchestrate his death.
Tomorrow, Devaraj is going to kill him.
We've got to stop it.
We have to do something.
If we can stop Devaraj,
if we can kill Devaraj,
Bhaghwan won't die.
Who will do it?
We were all in shocked silence.
It was impossible.
It was just impossible that Bhaghwan should die.
But when somebody spoke and said, "I will do it,"
that was me.
That was my voice...
that rose up in that silence and said, "I'll do it."
- We spend a lot of time with our subjects before
we press record, and Jane was someone who was in Europe.
We also took a couple flights out there to spend time
with her, and her husband and her family,
and really get to know them.
We have honest conversations.
- She was an interesting counterweight, I thought, to--
because Noran the attorney, Philip, he is dyed in the wool
and he will defend Osho until the day he dies,
no doubt about it.
And that's why I was very interested in interviewing him
because I never thought it was a bad thing if we were
interviewing someone that has incredible agenda
or stakes in the interview.
And so Jane was somewhere that was,
her perspective was-- I wanted--
We talked about we wanted a Sannyasin that could give a
compelling argument for how destructive this was
in their lives, and I think that's what Jane was for us.
And Jane's life obviously was incredibly traumatized by
her joining the Sannyasins, but she was someone
that we spent a ton of time with.
One her big monologues, one of her big moments she has in the
series is when she walks you point, by point, by point,
by point the day that she tried to kill Bhaghwan's doctor
and ended up putting a needle in him to try
and kill him with adrenaline.
And I think that that probably isn't a answer that you were
going to get by parachuting in, and putting a camera on
and asking questions.
That's an answer that she knew was going to come up,
and she was going to have to deal with,
but we wanted to hopefully empower her
in a way to talk about that.
- I walked through the crowd.
I walked out the other side,
and I walked back to Jesus Grove
where I lived...
Nobody spoke to me and I spoke to nobody.
And I wanted to be alone.
There was the part of me
who felt I had saved Bhaghwan's life.
I had done what I had to do.
But deep inside of me,
I was shattered.
I had grown up clearly understanding
that thou shalt not kill,
and now I had tried to kill somebody.
What had happened?
- One of my favorite quotes is Philip at the end of three,
where he says, "There's darkness in all of us.
It doesn't make you a bad person."
And I think that applied to a lot of people in this story.
- Why did this experiment in self-reliance
and transcendentalism go berserk?
- I think that one of my early takeaways in researching
the story that I did probably come a little full circle
around on was that I did think that, I don't think that
the Rajneeshees intentions were to come to Oregon
and poison 750 people.
I don't think that was what they set out to do.
I think that they did try to set out to create a
model Utopia that hopefully could be replicated,
and they found a lot of happiness in the
Utopian commune that they had founded.
But through a series of intensely, intense conflict
on the outside, they did go down, what we would
mostly call a cult.
- For me it was getting used to on a day-in, day-out basis
making a thousand decisions,
and maybe 800 of those are going to be
how do you edit this documentary series.
But a ton of them, when we were trying to deliver for Netflix
and Sundance, there's color, there's sound mix,
there's a ton of people that you need to finish this project.
And I think that it was, we planned a ton,
but at a certain point I think every project becomes this way.
But there was-- this sounds like I'm bragging,
but I'm just trying to be honest.
There was something like putting six and a half hours
together was something that there was no blueprint for.
Actually, we did see Ezra's OJ: Made in America ,
and that gave me incredible confidence that it can be done,
and I loved that documentary series.
But I think it was almost like, it becomes like an orchestra
that you're conducting towards the end.
Things are just incoming, and you're trying to do your best
to make the best decisions possible to make this
documentary series as well as you can.
And I think that at the end it when we had finally wrapped
after four years of this, it kind of was a realization
which was like the Rajneeshees, they built their city
and this was my thing.
This was my Rajneeshpuram.
This is what I spent four years of my life doing.
And it was pretty incredible to do it with family, too.
We're brothers, and our oldest brother, Brocker, does all the
music for our things, and we have a really tight
working group that we do, and we all, I don't know,
came out of the other side with something that
we're all really proud of.
[Narrator] You have been watching Wild Wild Country,
a conversation with Chapman and Maclain Way on On Story.
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