‘Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults’ Director Clay Tweel On Bringing A Fresh Perspective To A Years-Old Story (INTERVIEW)

In March of 1997, the bodies of 39 people were found in a house in the suburbs of San Diego, California. All of them were members of the UFO-based religious cult, Heaven’s Gate, who’d committed mass suicide. Initially founded in 1974 by Bonnie Nettles (who died in 1985) and Marshall Applewhite (who died in the mass suicide), the group had spent much of its existence in relative obscurity, living quasi-off the grid in anticipation of their alien saviors coming to escort them to a new world.

This past December, HBO Max released a four-part docuseries that chronicles the formation, uneventful rise, and tragic end, Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults. In the closing days of 2020, director Clay Tweel spoke over the phone about the challenges behind the making of the series, from taking a new approach to what’s effectively become a punchline, to making documentaries in an increasingly-sensationalized world.

For a lot of people, certainly those 45 and under, the cult of Heaven’s Gate has become our shorthand for ‘crazy religious cult.’ What drew you to the topic initially and what did you want to explore when telling the story?

I was working with Ross Dinnerstein, we’d just finished Innocent Man for Netflix, a true crime series, and he got the rights to the 10-part podcast that Stitcher put out on Heaven’s Gate and I listened to it and I really loved it and really loved the way in which it delved deep into the experience of former members and family members.

For me, I was in high school in 1997 when the mass suicides happened. So, I remember all the same things that you probably do. The shoes, the Nikes, the purple shroud, the crazy-eyed leader, but I didn’t remember much more than that. So I thought it really offered this amazing opportunity to see what was the human pathos behind how these people got into that situation that led to such a tragic end. Being able to explore how their beliefs evolved to the way it did in 1997. Some of the things that have inspired me in the past; I really love the books and the writing of Lawrence Wright, which are Going Clear and The Looming Tower, which explore Al-Qaeda and explore Scientology and how they were born and changed over the years. So, I was like, well, I can do something similar with Heaven’s Gate, another group of people are aware of.

I was a year out of high school in ’97, but really all I could readily recall were the things you just mentioned. Although watching the series, it’s striking just how deeply lampooned and parodied this movement has become. Talking to former members, working your way through production, how did that help chip away at the caricatures they’ve become?

One of the main emphases for me was to break down those tropes and to really get you to care about some of the people that were involved. To care about Frank and care about Sawyer and to connect with them emotionally so that it will help you, in tur,n think about some of the larger thematic things and a completely different light. That was the hope and the idea for me, just really trying to humanize the group members and have people sort of reflect on the role of religion in their own life.

The common thread between a lot of these former members is the sense of loneliness and needing to belong, which is very easy to identify with, especially when you’re younger. Of course, there’s also the contingent of post-flower power hippies who just seemed frustrated with existence on this mortal coil. But in context, it becomes harder to just outright dismiss that kind of thinking.

We’re all trying to connect with people. You just want to find other human connection. And I think that was what there, you know, we touch a bit on it in the series a little bit, but that’s like the beautiful part of the group is [that] these are a bunch of people who found the common bond with each other and sort of formed a family. It wasn’t until suicide was really introduced that it crossed the line to something that would, that would be harmful. But for the most part, and for a long part of their existence, they were pretty harmless, sort of benevolent group.

It was really striking that, at one point, you see footage of them performing a talent show for one another. It never occurred to me, or a lot of people, to think about them being happy, much less living their day-to-day life. I think a lot of us just glance at the headline and move on.

Yeah, I was constantly trying to drill down to understand what the day-to-day life was like. And it was hard to nail down, honestly, sometimes because the group was just on the move so much, and so their existence was… it was a pretty hard life. The fact that a lot of these people were in there for 22 years and just moving every six months and living in everything from campgrounds for the first several years to, I know that they moved into houses, but, you move into a big house, you’re sharing a room with five other people. So, in trying to understand, “Well, what did you do on a daily basis?” And it was, “We try to tune into the next level would read a lot or do lessons.” Some people would stay at home, some people would go out and take jobs in order to make money so that they could pay for the house. It seemed like a pretty rough existence, honestly.

Yet so few of them seemed willing, or able, to take a step back and question why they were putting themselves through this. Aside from the promise of extra-terrestrial transportation, of course. But that’s a hard road they took.

It is. The other thing that fascinated me, was that it was really hard. But I remember Frank saying that you get accustomed to just not having to make a lot of decisions during the day. You are able to shut that part of your brain off. And so when you come out of the group, you have to kind of figure out how to re-engage with society and reengage that part of your brain that has to make the decisions on what to eat. Just like a bunch of little micro decisions. What to wear? What to eat? How to socially interact? So I was like, “Oh gosh, that’s a reason why the trauma of being in these groups often reverberates and lasts with former members for so long.”

Well, and it does speak to a specific flaw in the human condition that some are so willing to just shut off the critical, or extraneous, parts of their brain for this fealty-driven lifestyle. Having that kind of perspective in hindsight, how willing were some of the survivors to revisit all this almost a quarter-century later?

It was a little bit difficult because of the media treatment that a lot of them have received over the last 20 years -since ’97. Also, simultaneously for a lot of the family members, it’s just really painful. I was very grateful to Kelly Cook, who was in the show talking about how she lost both of her parents to the group, and it’s just, it’s heartbreaking. And she sat down and did a three hour interview and brought a bunch of old photos and videos that she had has in her possession, and told her story. But yeah, because the ending is so tragic, it’s a very sensitive topic. So getting people to talk could sometimes be hard, but I had to try to gain their trust and our team had to try to gain their trust and say that we’re going to do it in as respectful in there as we could.

Given the way they’ve been portrayed in the years since, and considering that there have been noteworthy documentaries released in 2020 that famously misled their subjects, is it harder to gain that kind of trust you need?

It is. I mean, as someone who has been making documentaries for awhile, it just gets harder every year, honestly. And from what I’m seeing is because documentaries are becoming more mainstream and people are watching them more, but they’re also a more sophisticated discussion to have about what’s the line between reality television and documentary. For the layman, a little bit of semantics that you have to explain, you know. “No, we’re not gonna leave you cold and half drunk and get to give us your innermost thoughts on camera and not chop it up to be as salacious as possible.”

Obviously there are some parallels with what happened with Heaven’s Gate and what’s going on in the U.S. today, politically speaking. Did you ever consider overstating those a little more than you ended up doing?

I mean, I saw the parallels early on, but I didn’t want to be super overt with it on purpose. I just thought it was a more powerful take, honestly, to have you come to those own conclusions and draw it to whatever sort of fanaticism or religion or religious extremism that you wanted to, as opposed to saying, “Well, here are the ones that you should be focused on, according to me.” I didn’t want to be too prescriptive because you know, the sort fanaticism and being a true believer in cutting off your own critical thinking in any capacity is bad. So it really, uh, is a little left a little bit open-ended, but I mean, yeah. You can draw pretty strong parallels to like what’s happening with QAnon and Trump pretty easily.

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults is currently streaming on HBO Max

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