Waco, the six-part Paramount Network TV event, tells the story of David Koresh (brilliantly played by Taylor Kitsch), the Branch Davidians, and the 51-day stand-off that resulted in the deaths of nearly 80 men, women and children. Government recklessness, religious fanaticism, conspiracy theories and cover-ups all muddied the waters, when it came to understanding what really happened on Mount Carmel in Waco, Texas, between a small religious community, the ATF and the FBI. The series also stars Michael Shannon, John Leguizamo, Melissa Benoist, Paul Sparks, Julia Garner, Shea Whigham, Andrea Riseborough, Rory Culkin and Camryn Manheim, among others.
During this interview with Collider, show creators Drew and John Erick Dowdle talked about what made them want to tell this story, how it evolved from a feature film to a TV series, what they think would most surprise people about who David Koresh was, what made Taylor Kitsch their guy, what Melissa Benoist brought to the role of Rachel Koresh, David’s wife, the biggest production challenges in pulling this off, and what they’re looking to do next.
Collider: What made you not only want to tell this story, but do so in a TV format?
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: I wish that was by design. Initially, we wrote it as a feature. It was 150 pages long and we changed the margins to try to look shorter, so that people would finance it. We were like, “It’s too bad we couldn’t tell this story and that story.” And Drew started, really early on, saying that it should be a series. It took me awhile to see it. We just had never done it.
DREW DOWDLE: The studio read the feature and they loved it, and they had the same exact reaction, saying that it had to be a series. It was in the early days of limited series, when we were setting this up, and the market wasn’t really completely there. From a writing standpoint, I really felt that we could tell so much and really bring out a lot more characters. It was very liberating.
JOHN: We had never done TV before. The freedom to not have to hit plot point one at 12 minutes, and then this at 25 minute. We could play things out and see what they were. It was so freeing to just be human with people for awhile. You don’t have to get to the next thing, like you do in features. Now, we have ten TV things and we live in TV now. It’s amazing!
This was also your first true-life story. Why was it this story, specifically?
DREW: It’s one with so many layers and so many perspectives. It’s a big one, for sure, but it was somewhat accidental. We were writing a screenplay and looking for some kind of cool real-life backstory for a character. We thought it would be interesting if they grew up in a cult and we were looking for first-hand accounts of living in a cult. John found David Thibodeau’s book, and you often read accounts of people that have left Scientology and talk about the deep programming that happens. We were expecting to see more from that perspective, but reading David’s book made us realize that the Branch Davidians were so different from what we were shown on the news. That became fascinating to us. We started calling and interviewing people, and then we met Gary Noesner. His view of the FBI’s challenges in Waco was just so much more nuanced and complex than we’d ever imagined. It just felt like all of the pieces were a really compelling show.
Did you get any good insight into how all of this went on so long?
DREW: THE FBI came into a very tricky situation, stepping into a shitstorm. How it all began and the idea of this raid is its own fascinating story.
JOHN: We were told that the ATF went to serve a search warrant, and then they were ambushed and some of them were killed. That’s how this started. I accepted that. I remember watching this on the news from the student union in college, thinking that’s how it started. And then, I read Tibodeau’s book and learn that that wasn’t [what happened].
DREW: There was such a national mentality that they killed these federal agents. By day 20, we were like, “Why haven’t we got them yet?!” There was a mob mentality went it came to the Branch Davidians. It really is such a misunderstood story.
What do you think would most surprise people about who David Koresh was?
DREW: I think that you might actually like David Koresh, if you knew him.
JOHN: He was funny and had a sense of humor. That was one of the things that shocked me most, doing the research. There’s sermons of his that are really funny. And the people in there were intelligent. There’s a thinking of brainwashing in cults and that everyone must be really gullible and stupid. These were Harvard grads and theologians, and not people you would peg as lemmings.
DREW: They revered David Koresh’s intellect and his interpretation of scripture. On just a personality level, they dismissed him and treated him way more like a normal human being than a Christ-like figure. He was just Dave. People on the outside thought that they just worshipped this guy, which was both true and not true, at the same time. Once you define a group of people as a cult, what happens to them is their own doing. Oklahoma City was a tragedy. 9/11 was a tragedy. All of these innocent deaths are considered tragedies that we’ve memorialized. Whereas with the Branch Davidians, there’s no memorial. It doesn’t have the same tragic aftermath, in the same way, because they were a “cult.” I feel like that’s unfair.
How did you find the actor you wanted to embody David Koresh, and what was it that made Taylor Kitsch your guy?
JOHN: How great is he?!
DREW: We won the lottery on that one. We knew we wanted to cast someone really charismatic and good looking, and who felt like the real David Koresh and not the crazy maniacal version. Jack Whigham was the first one to think of Taylor. He sent us a picture of Taylor, side by side with David Koresh, and the resemblance was incredible. We loved Taylor in Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor. We were big fans of his work, but that hadn’t occurred to us yet. We met with him and we knew he lives in Texas, knew a lot about the story and was fascinated with it. It’s a risky role for anyone to take, and he was really excited to do it and go so deep, lose weight and learn to play guitar. His commitment level was so impressive, right out of the gate. When we saw the tease of the first time he played David, we knew, right away.
JOHN: We knew, early on, that there would be a lot of actors who wouldn’t go near the role, but that there would be someone who would want it and would want to try to find his way through resistance for a dark character and make them seem normal. We knew we’d find someone out there who was up for the challenge. It’s a challenge and it’s scary. There were definitely some late-night panicked calls with Taylor, where he was like, “Are you sure we should do this?!” From a writing perspective, we had those moments amongst ourselves, where we were like, “Is this a good idea?! Should we try baby steps, before biting off something this big?” Taylor just really seemed to channel this character, to a point where I felt like I kept forgetting I was watching Taylor. It really seemed like the real guy.
There’s such an interesting dynamic between the women among the Branch Davidians, with Rachel being David Koresh’s wife, but him feeling like he needs to be with and have children with all of these other women. What did you find most interesting about that dynamic?
JOHN: [Melissa Benoist] did so much. She brought so much to every scene. With Episode 1, we loved what she was doing and gave her more stuff. That was initially not intended to be that big of a role. She was just so good. She was like, “I’m not going to play her weak, ever,” and I loved that. That’s such a great way to come into this.
DREW: Rachel Koresh was such a mama bear personality. We listened to so many of the negotiation tapes, and there were quite a few times when Rachel would get on the phone and just let the FBI have it. She was not shy. She had a bit of an, “I was here first and my children are David’s most important children,” way with the other women. Melissa perfectly channeled the real Rachel.
What were the biggest production challenges in pulling all of this off?
JOHN: The fire was really tough, and just making sure everyone is in the right emotional spaces. As the stand-off continues, there’s a lot of phone conversations and we had to make sure the sides matched up, visually and emotionally. And we really were packed into a very tight schedule. We basically shot three movies in the time we’d take to shoot one. It was full sprint, all the time.
Since you and TV are in it together now, what do you want to do next? Do you want to do more real-life stories, or do you want to do more fiction?
JOHN: Both. We have two true stories that we’re going out with shortly, and then we have a couple that are fiction.
DREW: We have a fictional piece that feels real. We’re doing a Tim O’Brien novel, called In the Lake of the Woods, which is a fictional documentary. It’s part narrative and part faux-doc, and it’s a really cool book.
Are you looking to do something with multiple seasons, unlike Waco?
JOHN: It would be great to do multiple seasons with a cast you love and a story you love. We have a few that would be multi-season fiction. It’s a fun space to play in. W
DREW: We think In the Lake of the Woods would be an anthology. And we still have features that we’re trying to do. We just want to keep trying our hand at everything.
The series finale of Waco airs on Wednesday, February 28th on the Paramount Network.