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.