'Waco' Writer/Directors On Bringing Out The Truth Of That Infamous Standoff [Interview]

Growing up in the '90s, the standoff between David Koresh and the Branch Davidians and the ATF was a shocking event to learn about from a distance. The consistent story was that Koresh was a cult leader who led his flock in a battle against police that concluded in fiery death for most of his followers.

The miniseries Waco tells a different story. It is honest that Koresh (Taylor Kitsch) was a polygamist, a lifestyle that wife Rachel (Melissa Benoist) supported. But they were fixtures of the Waco community, playing dive bars and giving a home to strays. It was the ATF who fired on them, and left negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon) to salvage the standoff.

Directing duo Drew and John Erick Dowdle produced, directed and co-wrote the miniseries Waco. /Film spoke with them about this new perspective on a misunderstood event in recent history. Waco premieres on The Paramount Network on Wednesday, January 24.

Were you teenagers when Waco actually happened?

Drew: That's correct.

John: Yeah, exactly. I was a sophomore in college, something like that.

Drew: Yeah, John was a sophomore in college. I was a senior in high school, I remember well when this happened. So we were adult enough to really remember the whole event.

To this day, does the name Waco still conjure up this incident?

John: Oh yeah. We actually stumbled onto this. We were researching something totally unrelated. We were like, "Oh, what if this bad guy grew up at Waco? What would that be like?" Then we went looking and found a firsthand account of what it was like living there. That's kind of how this all started, exactly, the name recognition, like what actually happened there?

Drew: It's interesting too how much it's used in present day events. With things going on in Oregon and the Bundys in Nevada. Law enforcement continually say, "We don't want another Waco happening here." John and I have younger brothers who are in their early 20s. We were talking to them about it. They were like, "What does that mean, they don't want another Waco?" So basically there's a whole generation that has no context for that term or that event. That makes the show pretty exciting too. There are so many people who really don't know anything about it.

It's funny that Koresh plays "My Sharona" in the first episode. Did you know about the SNL skit Janet Reno's Dance Party where Will Ferrell as Janet Reno dances to 'My Sharona?' She says, "The happy song makes Waco go away."

John: [Laughs] No, that's insane.

Drew: That's hilarious.

John: That's so weird. That's incredible. That's amazing. I had no idea.

Was the song choice a total coincidence?

Drew: Completely.

John: That was complete coincidence. We wanted a song that, you know, they played local bars. We wanted something that was a little unexpected, that didn't feel too religiousy or too on point, something that was kind of fun, which is really what they were like a lot of the time.

Did Gary Noesner's previous negotiation historically coincide just before Waco where his man killed the wife?

John: Yeah, it was the same tactical commander at Ruby Ridge and then at Waco. The two of them, Noesner and him, had three or four incidents together and didn't love each other. Just saw things differently. [Richard Rogers], played by Shea [Whigam] commanded a battalion of tanks in the Vietnam war. He was more of that mentality, whereas Gary Noesner felt like he would've been able to get everyone to come out peacefully had he been left to his own devices.

Drew: We felt that element of the evolution behind that moment in time is a really interesting element of the Waco story. The Hostage Rescue Team was kind of really the brand new shiny toy of the FBI and they were putting a lot of money into it. It was very much the new direction the FBI was going. Gary Noesner, the negotiator, saw some danger in that, in the militarization of the FBI in that moment. He had a lot of really impressive successes just before Waco as well, so you had two different sets of FBI that had very different worldviews on how to handle a situation like Waco.

Is portraying his conversations he had at the time a way of addressing the gun control debate now? Noesner actually says, "The more guns you allow, the more people use them."

Drew: I think that's generally a true statement. There's a lot of gun control narratives in the story, in the real life story. We find it interesting that an effort to disarm this religious community, the end result was arming a nation really. There were very few self-described militia groups in the United States before Waco but by 1995 there were like 5000. It was really the fallout from Waco. Private gun ownership was just massive. That's an interesting byproduct of Waco.

John: And Ruby Ridge. The combination of those two together.

Drew: Yeah, a gun control mission backfiring spectacularly really.

Was there a lot of discussion of how early you would get to the siege?

John: We wanted to allow for some time to get to experience them before all hell broke loose. We definitely toyed with should it be in episode 2, should it be in episode 3? We toyed with it being at the end of episode 2 or the start of episode 3. Those were kind of the two spots we considered putting it. Really, at the end of the day, we were like, "Let's spend a little more time getting to know them so you have a frame of reference for when things start to get really ugly." From there, the story gets very, very crazy as it goes.

Drew: One of the elements of the story we loved the most was kind of the self-fulfilling prophecy element of it that existed on both sides, on the Branch Davidian side and the law enforcement side. David Koresh had been preaching for years that the armies of Babylon are going to come to their door and shed blood. On the ATF side, there were so many elements of the ATF's investigation into Waco that were kind of not even connected to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. There were things going on in the ATF at the time that prompted this investigation that they needed to speed up. They had some elements of publicity surrounding this that changed the way they planned the operation. All these things that just felt like this prophecy fulfilled, giving us a little time in the first two episodes to get there felt like the right thing to do.

Did you stage the assault beat for beat as it happened?

John: Oh yeah, one researcher had done a thing where he had triangulated all the 911 calls and all the radio transmissions on their street as a point of recording and put it all together. We had literally a minute by minute, second by second account of the assault that we went off of. That's all legit. It's shorter than the real thing so we couldn't put everything that happened in it. What was it, a four hour assault?

Drew: It was over two hours. We played about 12 minutes. But who got shot and where they got shot, all of that is beat for beat true to real life.

I never heard that the law enforcement precipitated the engagement. Was that swept under the rug?

John: It was shocking. Like you, having grown up seeing these events, the way it was portrayed in the media was: Religious cult ambushes the ATF as they show up to serve a routine search warrant. That was not at all. There was no plan for serving a routine search warrant. Their plan had been we're going to crash through the windows, we're going to take them by storm, things they were not legally cleared to do. That was the only contingency. There was no contingency for backing away. There was no contingency in case people called 911. It was a really horrifically planned assault. In fact, ATF agents who we've interviewed have said, "Our commanders should've been arrested for what they commanded us to do there."

Drew: Their search warrant was a knock and serve search warrant. There was no thing that cleared a forced entry but that was the plan all along. So there were a lot of things about that initial raid that were kind of brushed aside. Them being ambushed by the Branch Davidians obviously allowed them to then fire back and enter forcefully. From everyone we've interviewed on both sides, the idea of the Branch Davidians just laying in wait and then ambushing them when they arrived just doesn't ring true in any way. They arrived in the back of cattle trailers with tarp covers. If they really wanted to ambush them, there would've been a hell of a lot more fatalities on the ATF side. That's still disputed but it's one of the elements of the show we take a position on what we believe based on all the research, all the interviews and all the facts. The dogs being shot were the first shots fired. That's for sure. That's not disputed.

John: All the evidence, the physical evidence essentially said the first shots fired were the dogs. The second shot fired was an ATF agent accidentally misfiring his gun into the engine block of the truck, then all hell broke loose. We've talked to witnesses who said the doors bent inward, not outward as the ATF claimed the Branch Davidians ambushed them from through the door which doesn't honestly make sense. It was one of those things where it was like okay, this is what everything's about.

Drew: Even David Koresh coming out on the front doorstep, if the plan was to start a gunfight with the ATF, that would seem very weird for David to be out on the front doorstep unarmed with his hands in the air. There are so many things you have to say what you believe based on all the evidence. How we portray it is very much how we believe it happened.

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Was it easier than you expected to be sympathetic toward the Branch Davidians, even in the episodes before the siege?

John: They were people searching for something. I think the media at the time really portrayed it as this almost Satanic sex cult. That just isn't what they were. Say what you will about David Koresh. Him aside, people will have a lot of feelings about him, but the other people, the Steve Schneiders, the David Thibodeaus, Wayne Martin, these were good people. People striving to do what they thought God would want them to do. These were people who were kind and trying to live a good life. So even the FBI negotiator said, "I really liked Steve Schneider. He was a really good guy and if David Koresh had died, Steve Schneider would've gotten everyone out of there safely." Just giving them names and faces I think really changes the way you see the events.

Drew: I think they tried to really paint them with the same brush as Jonestown or the Manson family, a group of people that were completely brainwashed and willing to do anything at the whim of their maniacal leader. Reading David Thibodeau's book and interviewing a lot of the living Branch Davidian members, it's just not at all what it was like. Like John said, say what you will about David Koresh. He definitely had crimes that he could've been arrested for and should've been arrested for most likely. In terms of the people there, they were just mischaracterized in a big way. These were very scholarly people. They were very knowledgable about scripture and the Bible. Frankly, they weren't that unusual when you look at America as a whole and that part of America. There's quite a few groups that live off the grid and study the Bible. That is not an uncommon thing in America at all. So kind of reframing the Branch Davidians into this more accurate portrayal was a really important part of this for us.

Was it true that Koresh liked The Lawnmower Man?

John: Yes.

Drew: Loved it.

John: We actually got that from the FBI negotiation tapes. There's like 10,000 hours of tapes and we listened to a huge chunk of those. It's just interesting hearing the stupid stuff they talk about. David Koresh thought the powers he had in The Lawnmower Man are a lot like Koresh's powers. Their favorite movies around there apparently were The Lawnmower Man, Hamburger Hill and Full Metal Jacket. Those were those favorite movies.

Drew: Lawnmower Man we found so funny because it really is like of course that's his favorite movie.

John: We had just worked with Pierce Brosnan on No Escape, so we had the moment where Michael Shannon's watching Pierce Brosnan. He's like, "Say what you want about this movie, that Pierce Brosnan's a good looking guy." We couldn't fit it into the show. We had too many good moments. It didn't make the cut. I loved the shout out to Pierce. Michael Shannon saying that is about the funniest thing I've ever seen.

When David tells him how to pronounce his name, he really holds on the end of Koreshhhhhh. Was that an important moment?

Drew: That was real.

John: That's really how he introduced himself talking with the negotiators. That was a moment for them where they had this, "Oh sh**, this is going to be trouble." I think they really had a moment there. The poetry of it, it's just such a weird "say my name like you say a death knell, the sound of a dying man. Koreshhhhh."

Drew: The name David Koresh has an alpha/omega kind of connotation to it too. It was the birth and the death. The name Koresh had a death connotation, not in any kind of sinister way but when you know that, it makes a little more sense the way he says it in that conversation.

Releasing his hour-long audio recording backfired on him, didn't it?

John: Yeah. He didn't like the way it was portrayed. That night he changed his mind on bringing everyone out and that really started the uglier side of things as a result of that.

Drew: The idea of David, when he did that message and later in the story, he agrees to surrender but he was going to write down an interpretation of the Seven Seals. In both of those parts of the story, I think David feels like he has this message that when he tells the world, the world is going to be blown away. When he's writing his interpretation of the Seven Seals in episode six, he feels like it's the new gospel, like it's going to be more sacred document than any document that's ever been written in human history. That's the level of his self-importance and his ego and what he feels is his connection to God. So in that moment, when they played his message, he thought the world was going to be just floored and be like oh my God, this guy is the real deal. That was not the reaction he got. Obviously it had huge consequences.

Scream Factory finally released The Poughkeepsie Tapes a few months ago. Have you gotten much feedback since people have been able to see it?

Drew: Yeah, I don't know about you, John, but I've gotten a lot of Facebook messages and things like that. People are finally seeing it. For us, it's so nice to finally have it out. I know the YouTube copy that a lot of people saw was a very early rough cut of it. So it's really nice to know that the real version of it is the one that's now on the record. Yeah, we've been getting a lot of love. I think Alamo Drafthouse wants to screen it in Yonkers. It's getting a lot of requests like that which is really fun.

John: It's nice it can finally have a life of its own and be out there in the world. That feels really good.

Drew: It just felt like this box that we couldn't check for 10 years. It was just held up and now it's finally like, okay, we can rest easy on that one finally.

None of your subsequent movies, even the horror movies, weren't as extreme as your first movie. Was it always the plan to just have one really extreme horror movie, or did The Poughkeepsie Tapes get it out of your system?

John: Before that we had only done comedy, strangely enough. That was our first more serious or darker film. I feel like we hadn't quite learned, it's like when you're learning to drive a car, the first thing you discover is the gas. Then it's like oh,there's a break on this thing too. I think some of it was that. If we were to make that film today, we'd probably modulate it a little more, maybe give you a couple breaths where you're not just feeling brain kicked the entire way through. That being said, I'm glad we went full tilt on it but it's important to allow for some breaths too and not necessarily make everyone feel like they need a shower afterwards.

What are you doing after Waco?

John: We have a little dramatic comedy feature we're looking to do. We're hoping to do that in the first half of the year and we have another limited TV series we're hoping to do with Mike Shannon the second half of the year.