Over the weekend, Netflix released the six-part documentary series Wild Wild Country. Many people discovered the story of the Rajneeshee religion moving into the Antelope Valley of Oregon for the first time, with Bhagwan Rajneesh and his number two Ma Anand Sheela. Some who lived through it probably still remember.
Last week I spoke with directors Chapman and Maclain Way the day before Wild Wild Country premiered on Netflix. If you’ve seen it, you probably have questions too.
WLE: Was this story extremely well documented?
Chapman Way: Yeah, we kind of had access to over 300 hours of archival footage. It was kind of a hodgepodge of local news footage, old documentaries that had been made on the movement. We also have some personal 8mm footage that was given to us to use. We started off with over 300 hours. That was kind of our first introduction to the story. We started transferring the footage and came across this incredible stranger than fiction story that not too many people outside of Oregon seem to remember.
Maclain Way: Basically, Sheela’s arrival and Bhagwan’s arrival in Oregon in 1981 and the Rajneeshees moving in there kind of rocked the state of Oregon for the four or five years that the Rajneeshpuram was built and existed there. It was certainly probably the biggest news story in Oregon of the 1980, including Tonya Harding at the time. It was just a massive, massive story. For some reason, outside of Oregon, very, very few people know about it. In Oregon, especially if you lived through it, you absolutely remember it. You remember Bhagwan, you remember Sheela, you remember the poisoning and the assassination conspiracy, the immigration fraud. You remember the more criminal aspects of the story but our experience was as we kind of got out of the state, people might’ve remembered the Rolls Royce Guru but beyond that, they didn’t really know the depth and complications and the complexity of just this story where it kind of keeps on getting more and more weird and bizarre as you work your way through it.
WLE: Was it like a puzzle piecing together 300 hours in chronological order
CW: Absolutely, that was definitely a difficult process. It took us about a year to log all the footage. We knew we had six one hour episodes to do, so we kind of just broke it out almost into a script, like a six hour movie. We scripted each episode and this is how the episode would begin, this is the middle, this is the ending. We kind of break down the footage of oh, this footage goes in episode one, this footage goes here in episode three. It took us a year to go through it all. Maclain and I are very hands on filmmakers. Other people may have hired interns or people to go through the footage but we really wanted to go through it ourselves with a fine tooth comb and make sure we weren’t leaving anything on the cutting room floor that can be really interesting to the story.
MW: In addition to the 300 hours of archive footage that we had, we shot about 110ish hours of interviews ourselves. It was actually not too many people. We did a lot of pre-interview researching on background and things like that, but as far as talking heads, we kept them pretty limited because we wanted the audience to really get a sense that they knew these characters on the front lines of this war essentially that happened in Oregon. The source material was around 400 hours, 100 hours of interviews, around 300 in the archives. Whittling that down to six and a half hours was certainly a big part of the editing process, figuring out the best way to tell this story, what goes in and what goes out. It took us a year and a half of almost nonstop editing to get it down to six and a half.
WLE: Was there overlap where one person has a better take than another, or you can take one part from another person’s account?
CW: Yeah, definitely. One of the game plans in making this was we wanted to give the audience multiple different perceptions of the same events that unfolded. Once you’re in the editing room, sometimes someone may have said something more elegantly or coherently, but maybe the other person who said it had more passion. Maybe they stumbled because they were emotional. All of those things go into the editing process when you’re trying to figure out the best way to tell the story. The difficult process becomes in the later episodes when even characters who are on the same side have different memories of how certain things unfolded. It just requires a lot of research, a lot of studying, trying to make sure you’re putting the best story forth.
MW: Basically also I think why we were so interested in telling the story of Rajneeshpuram in a six part documentary series is because we did want to include a variety of different perspectives of these events. Not so much because we were really interested in being objective and fair but just because we actually saw it as a story of two sides kind of entrenched in this cultural war between them that kind of boils into a political war and then obviously violence ends up breaking out as a result of it. We made a feature documentary back in 2014 for Netflix about a baseball team called The Portland Mavericks. That documentary it’s quite obvious who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. In Wild Wild Country I think part of the fun that you get to watch the series is that’s not so immediately clear. A lot of our talking heads, some people call them unreliable and that was kind of intentional on our part. I think as an audience member for Wild Wild Country, you’re doing detective work. Not so much in the true crime docuseries fashion of whodunnit but it’s kind of detective work in critical thinking and figuring out where do you draw the line between the differences of cult and religion and who was in the right on this and who was in the wrong as well.
WLE: Was it great to have six full hours?
CW: Yeah, once we started getting into the complexities of the story, it involves very specific legal battles around land use in the state of Oregon. It touches on specific legal issues on the separation of church and state. Also the immigration battles that were happening. We kind of knew early on that it would really be cheapening the story to tell this in a 90 minute feature. The entertainment value comes from the complexities of the topics that are being discussed. To really do that, the bigger canvas really allowed us to dive in and immerse the audience in the story and in these issues.
MW: It’s funny because I think a lot of people have been like wow, how much harder was it making a series than a documentary. Trust me, it is harder to make a documentary series than just a feature. It’s a lot more labor intensive but in a lot of ways, it was also easier. I cannot imagine telling this story as a feature, just because you can’t really get the variety of perceptions on it. Plus, you can’t really include all the plot points and you can’t really include all the character development and journey that’s so essential to it. So we were very eager and always knew that we needed to tell this as a series. I think honestly if it came down to it and we were never given that opportunity but we had to make it as a feature, we probably would not have touched the story.
WLE: What would you have to leave out or summarize to fit it in two hours?
CW: For instance, in episode two we have this interesting section that is kind of this cult hysteria that’s sweeping the nation. It’s two and a half years after Jonestown. This somewhat similar looking cult arrives in Oregon. I think in a feature doc, it would’ve been one or two lines that oh, a cult came here to Oregon. I think with the longer format, it actually gave us about seven or eight minutes to explain the Jonestown topic, explain the cult hysteria that was sweeping the nation and to go into how Christian conservatives were using the word cult to demonize and delegitimize any spiritual group that was different than them. So I think those interesting layers are something that make the series really provocative and entertaining that would’ve ended up on the cutting room floor on a 90 minute feature.
MW: Another example is a really critical part of this story is that one of the ranchers who shares a property line with Rajneeshpuram is John Bowerman. His father was Bill Bowerman who was a famous track coach at the University of Oregon. Bill Bowerman is a cofounder of Nike along with Phil Knight. When Nike went public, John’s father Bill came into a lot of money and was able to bankroll a lot of the Antelopians’ legal fights against the Rajneesh use. Bowerman’s friends in Oregon had a huge land use lawsuit against the Rajneeshees. In episode two it’s just those type of details, we show you the growth of Nike real quick and Bill Bowerman inventing this famous waffle iron shoe. On a surface level it really has nothing to do with Rajneeshpuram but then you’re able to tie the dots together and walk an audience through how the invention of Nike plays into the battle of Antelopians vs. Rajneeshees.
WLE: What was it like interviewing Sheela?
CW: Sheela was a really fascinating topic. When we started archiving the footage very early on in the process, like four years ago, she was the first character that jumps right out of the screen at you. She’s such a provocative character. She speaks her mind. She’s not afraid of anything or anyone. We knew that it would be so interesting to hear from her and knew that she would be a great lens and almost a main character throughout this story. So we reached out to her early on. We had no idea if she was going to have any interest in even doing this. Within a few minutes it became pretty clear that she feels like she really has never been given the opportunity or the platform to really tell her side and her version of events. Obviously a lot has transpired in her life between 1985 and who she is now and what she’s doing now. For us, it was just really interesting to not treat the interview as an interrogation or a gotcha interview but really have a conversation with her and time travel 30 years back to early 1981. To have her walk us through, being an audience, her journey and her experience. So we found her to be equal parts intelligent, thought provoking, challenging and really just a dynamic character.
WLE: By agreeing to it, was she confident she was going to come across well?
CW: Yeah, I think it’s been really interesting hearing the feedback on the series. I think some people see her as a cruel monster who was responsible for the poisoning of another town. Other people have had a little bit more empathy for her and her situation. That’s kind of the fun part of making a documentary 40 years after the fact. You get to kind of look at things through a new lens.
MW: I think that on its surface level, Sheela knew what this documentary series was about, Rajneeshpuram. She didn’t shy away from that. Rajneeshpuram is a story where Sheela pleads guilty to an attempted murder on the ranch of Bhagwan’s doctor, conspiracies to kill government officials and poisoning of 751 people. Personally, I’ve got to say, is Sheela always reliable as a storyteller or someone who’s telling you the events that happened? No, but I think she had a tremendous amount of courage to step out and talk about these events in details with us. There were a few people that chose not to participate in this documentary series, and they have every right to do that. That’s their own choice but I have to put Sheela in the group of people who had the courage to talk about these events that happened. I think that she knows what she usually comes across like in the story of Rajneeshpuram. I don’t think we really shied away from that. I think we tell you up front in the first 10 minutes of the series what this story is because we know the events of Rajneeshpuram. We know there were people who were targeted for assassinations, that there was an attempted murder on the ranch, the largest case of wiretapping and poisoning that ever occurred in the United States. I think what we were interested in was going beyond that and seeing the steps and events and how people were able to justify the things they were able to do.
CW: When we talked to locals and state officials and federal officials, many of them referred to Sheela as pure evil. I think one of the interesting things for the audience hopefully is to watch this series and decide for themselves if they think this is a person who is pure evil.
WLE: How did you first hear about the story?
CW: We were both born after this story. We grew up north of Los Angeles, had never even heard of the guru Bhagwan Rajneesh or Rajneeshpuram. It wasn’t until 2014 that we were talking to a film archivist in Portland, OR and he told us that he had 300 hours of never before seen footage on the most bizarre story that happened in the history of Oregon. He told us the story of this guru that built this $100 million utopian city and took over political control of the local town of Antelope and then bussed in thousands of homeless people to take over the Wasco County government and then ended up poisoning the entire town to the Dalles, 751 people with salmonella. Mac and I were just bowled over by what he was telling us and honestly didn’t think that it could be true because we feel like we would have heard about this story had all that stuff really happened. Sure enough in our research, we found that what he was telling us actually did happen.
WLE: What would you like to do next?
CW: We’re in development, pre-production on a new documentary series. We can’t say too much about it because it’s very early on. We do know we’re really interested in working in the longer format, the docuseries format. We feel like it fits our specific style of storytelling. It’s something we’re really looking forward to.
MW: Just gotta get a few more characters on board and then I think we can start figuring it out.
WLE: What was the experience showing this at Sundance?
CW: It was really interesting. We showed all six episode which ended up being six hours and 40 minutes. We were really nervous. How many people are going to stick around for this whole thing? It was pretty incredible. I have to say probably about 90% of the audience stayed for the whole six and a half hours. After the screening you felt like you had a real sense of bonding with the other audience members who stuck through this. We had a terrific Q&A that was really lively and thoughtful and got to hear so many different people’s interpretation of the series and what they were taking away from it. It’s pretty unique. I don’t think Sundance has really done that too much where they’ve screened an entire series. We were really excited by the opportunity and thankful.
MW: Yeah, we felt incredibly grateful. We sent them the first two episodes as something they might want to program. They got back to us and said, “Do you have more?” We said, “Well, we’ve got four more hours for six hours total, six and a half actually.” And they programmed the whole thing. The funny thing was we screened it at the Egyptian theater right on Main St. which is my favorite theater in Park City. But when I would tell people that, they’d say, “Oh no, that’s the most uncomfortable theater to sit in. There’s no way anyone’s going to make it that long.” The seats are better. They weren’t as atrocious and uncomfortable as people made it sound. It certainly was an experience sitting in that theater and watching the whole thing play from beginning to end.
WLE: I think the Eccles is tighter.
MW: Yeah, I agree, exactly.