In the 30 years since the siege at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas, there have been countless documentaries and shows released about the tragedy, but Netflix's Waco: American Apocalypse attempts to complicate our prevailing understanding of the 51-day standoff between David Koresh and federal authorities. Armed with recently discovered footage filmed inside the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit and 3D technology, director Tiller Russell (Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer) immerses viewers in the conflict, which began with a shootout at the group's Mount Carmel Center Ranch and ended with an inferno that claimed the lives of Koresh and 75 Branch Davidians, many of them children.
While Russell's access to never-before-seen footage is impressive, it's his in-depth interviews with people on both sides of the siege that lends the three-part docuseries real heft. Some of these interviews are heartbreaking: Heather Jones, the last child released from the compound alive, reminds viewers that her "whole family was murdered" on April 19, 1993, when the ranch went up in flames, and opens up about her survivor's guilt. Other interview subjects offer contradictory accounts of what happened that day, like FBI special agent in charge Bob Ricks and former Branch Davidian David Thibodeau, each of whom blames the other side for starting the fire. And then there's Kathy Schroeder, one of Koresh's spiritual wives, who goes so far as to defend the cult leader from well-founded allegations that he had sex with girls as young as 10.
Waco: American Apocalypse doesn't directly challenge Schroeder's remark, but in a wide-ranging interview with Primetimer, Russell explained why the appalling moment made the final cut, the docuseries' "implicit" judgment of Koresh's abuse, and finding the "humanity" in the headline-making tragedy.
Did you have a strong understanding of what happened in Waco before you started research for the docuseries? What was that process like?
The research process was intense and exhaustive. Going into the project I had a relatively superficial knowledge. I remember when the story jumped off and became the biggest news story in the world, but I had not done the deep dive on it. What pulled me in was the fact that there was this recently unearthed archival footage shot inside the FBI's hostage negotiation room. That was a fundamental point of entry because it felt like a new window into what had happened and the mechanics of hostage negotiation and how that works, which I'd never really seen or heard of before in that kind of intimate detail.
Then the research process was similar to what I do for anything, which is read everything that's ever been written on the subject, to pore through the previous tellings of the story. And then to work two separate avenues. One is: What is the archival material that's there to sculpt with? I went to the local news station, KWTX, and found out that they had archived hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of footage which had never been released.
The footage from the local news crew filmed the day of the initial shootout is astounding.
It really is. The cut news packages that ended up being broadcast to the world were very limited in duration. You didn't see the pregame, you didn't see the aftermath. When the cameraman is walking through that gauntlet of people in the aftermath of the shootout, that's the kind of stuff that is never released because it doesn't fit tidily into a cut news package, but to me it was the most revelatory because it shows the intense human experience of everybody involved. And same thing with photography. Chris Whitcomb, the sniper from the Hostage Rescue Team, he was the head of the photography unit for HRT. So he was able to dig out an old hard drive that had hundreds, if not thousands, of old photos that had never been released before, and really show the kind of HRT, sniper's-eye vantage point of what happened.
From there, it was about developing a visual language to tell the rest of the story. With Night Stalker, we had begun experimenting with this 3D technology where there are crime scene photos, and we ended up rebuilding them in 3D space, so it was like the camera was stepping inside of it. With Waco, we took that technology a step further. Because the compound is this iconic location where this entire thing took place, but it was burned off the face of the earth. So trying to come up with, "How can we make this palpable, tactile, immersive for the audience?" In using this technology called Unreal Engine, we're able to fully rebuild that in 3D space so the camera can take you in in a dynamic way.
And then there's the human side of it. In the past, this story has often been told in an intensely finger-pointing, blame game: Who screwed up? Why? Who's at fault? What I found in connecting with the people that lived it — from David Koresh's drummer, to the sniper, to David Koresh's attorney or the ATF special agent who watched his colleague get shot — was this intense and profound humanity of all the people involved. I wanted to approach it with empathy rather than judgment, to understand the human experience of it.
Some of the interviews, particularly those of Heather Jones, are quite emotional. Did any of these conversations change your perspective on the tragedy?
They radically changed my perspective on it, and it happened again and again and again. The interview with Heather Jones was particularly, intensely emotional because you look at this woman who was nine years old at the time, and you think, "Maybe she's blocked all this out and doesn't remember it." But instead, it was this precise and vivid, almost technicolor reliving of it. I felt it was important to bookend the series with her perspective. The first words are spoken by her, and the last words are spoken by her.
Because there's all these kids that are at the center of the story. There's all the adults from different political persuasions and backgrounds and methodologies, there's conflict within the FBI, there's the ATF guys, there's everything else. But at the center of it, there's these kids whose fates are being determined by the decisions and actions of the adults around them. So that interview with her felt like a keystone in some fundamental sense, emotionally. Because that experience was so intensely traumatic and burned into her psyche and consciousness, I wanted to evoke that to remind us all that this isn't just some insane story that happened on TV in the '90s, that there were human beings at the center of this.
I found that repeatedly with all of the people that I engaged with. In contradistinction to the Heather interview, another example of this was Chris Whitcomb. I anticipated he was going to be a tough, door-kicking guy, and he is that, but he was also a poet and a writer, and he engaged very intensely and deeply with David Koresh's theology to determine, "Is there anything to this?" It was so unexpected the kind of humanity of all of these people — that ended up becoming the guiding force for me. To restore the humanity to the story so everyone wasn't just statistics in David Koresh's apocalyptic vision, if you want to call it that, but to actually treat them as human beings, and to not pick a side. To very deliberately not grind an agenda, but to show it from all of these conflicting and complex viewpoints.
Because audiences are really smart, and they will make their own determinations. People may draw wildly different conclusions from it, and that's fine with me. What we need as a culture and society is to actually have complex, nuanced discussion again, and not just short-form, politicized, weaponized discourse, which a lot of it has become. [The subjects] struck me as people who were actually doing their very best, whoever they were, in these impossible and unprecedented circumstances. It's easy to sit back and quarterback, in hindsight, the failures and mistakes — and it's important to articulate those, as well — but I felt rather than pointing fingers, I wanted to try to capture the humanity of all of the people involved, and to let them have their say.
Speaking of the children at the center of this, in Episode 2, Kathy Schroeder, one of David Koresh's spiritual wives, defends him, saying he didn't have sex with "underaged girls, because you come of age at 12" in their religion. What was your reaction to hearing this?
It was intergalactic head-spinning when I heard it. It was one of the many moments when I thought, "Wow, this is not what I thought was going to come out of this person's mouth." I think the point she's trying to make in that is – it's almost like the Branch Davidians who believed David Koresh's theology, it was like entering into another universe with its own set of morals and rules and laws that were, as far as they were concerned, the dictates of god, not the laws of man.
For us it seems just absolutely like insanity to hear it, but at the same time, I didn't want to shy away from it because the truth of the matter is, David Koresh was a pedophile who was having sex with underage girls. And yet you could feel the weird love and respect these people, who were inside it, had for him, although it was conflicting and confused. I was astounded, frankly, by that, and I felt it belonged in [the series] in the same way Heather getting to hear her last phone call with her father belonged in. Those things that are provocative and shocking are also intensely important.
If I'm understanding you correctly, you never considered removing Kathy's remark from the final cut?
By the time it's said and done, we've considered every option of, "Do we put this in? Do we leave this out?" The fundamental approach of nonfiction is you have this incredible mountain of material, and you're carving away everything except the story you want to tell. But that comment was so astounding to me, and it made me incredibly uncomfortable, and because it made me uncomfortable, I felt like it belonged in the story.
Did you ever discuss offering a counterpoint? Right after Kathy says that, the section of the docuseries offering wider context about the Branch Davidians and Koresh ends. Were you concerned that by allowing her comment to go unchecked, you might be giving that type of abusive ideology a platform?
It's a very good question. My feeling is, right from the get-go, anybody in their right mind is going to say, "It's absolute insanity for an adult to be having sex with a kid." Out of the gate, you hear the FBI and other members making very clear their perspective that this is insane. [The docuseries opens with a fast-paced montage of interview and archival clips; in one such moment, Bob Ricks, FBI special agent in charge, says, “David Koresh had sex with young kids.”] So I feel like that judgment is absolutely implicit, and any sentient human being is going to have that same reaction to it. By putting something that's provocative in there, it puts it back on the audience to make their own judgments and reactions to this. I felt that's important to do.
Your interviews with the FBI negotiators and FBI agents are interesting because everyone seems focused on portraying their side in a positive light and shifting blame elsewhere. How did you square this reframing of history with your responsibility as a documentarian? Did these interviews pose any ethical challenges?
It poses ethical questions and challenges from start to finish, the whole time. There's intense debate among the team and everybody on there about what to include. The answer is, everybody has their own lived experience of what this was like. It is the tendency of all of us to sit there and judge others and say, "You blew this. You screwed this up." And there was a massive failure to communicate.
Right, that might be the clearest thing about the Waco siege.
That's what is the ringing historical lesson throughout this story. No one could hear what anyone else was saying, and that absolute failure to communicate — and that's not just within the FBI; that's within the Branch Davidians and the ATF, the press and the FBI, the press and the Branch Davidians. What lit the powder keg that this became and made it this explosive story is that inability to hear other people's viewpoints. So when you're retelling the story, it's important to have those conflicting viewpoints running up against each other and saying, "Well, this is what I was intending" or "This is what I was intending." It felt like the most authentic telling of the story to have those conflicting viewpoints butting up against one another.
30 years after the siege, what do you want viewers to take away from the docuseries?
My hope is that they understand the complexity and the nuance to the story, and that it is a restoration of the humanity. Each of the people involved was marked and haunted by this forever, and I think America is marked and haunted by this tragedy forever. Only by re-engaging head-on with that, but in a way that is humanist in its approach, do we learn from what happened. So, my hope is that people will.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Waco: American Apocalypse is now streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.
TOPICS: Waco: American Apocalypse, Netflix, David Koresh, Kathy Schroeder, Tiller Russell, Branch Davidians