How 'Waco' Is Humanizing David Koresh's Followers

"When you see a group from the inside you realize it's full of individuals, it's not just one big thing," writer-executive producer John Erick Dowdle told THR. "I think that's true from the FBI side as well. There's a lot of dissenting opinions about what to do on both sides."
Courtesy of Paramount Network

The 51-day Waco siege between the government and the David Koresh-led Branch Davidians dominated headlines in 1993. But Paramount Network's Waco series seeks to dispel some of the common assumptions about the standoff.

"When you see a group from the inside you realize it's full of individuals, it's not just one big thing. I think that's true from the FBI side as well," writer and executive producer John Erick Dowdle told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of a recent Paley Center screening and panel in New York. "There's a lot of dissenting opinions about what to do on both sides that was kind of surprising to us."

Drew Dowdle adds, "I think the Branch Davidians were kind of considered a brainwashed, mindless cult that would do anything that David Koresh asked them to do. These were very intelligent people [with] independent thought, and they were very serious about their religious beliefs. I feel like the broad strokes of suicide cults that were painted over these people after the fact was a serious mischaracterization."

The Dowdles and others involved with Waco — including FBI negotiator Gary Noesner and Branch Davidian survivor David Thibodeau, who served as consultants — hope the series sheds light on the human beings on both sides of the standoff.

Following the Paley Center screening of the premiere episode last Wednesday, Thibodeau was already thrilled and hopeful that the show would dissipate some of the "demonization" he's experienced.

"The last 25 years, the demonization was so intense. I just never thought these characters would ever come to life and be humanized to people," Thibodeau said. "They were [seen as] just cultists, just names. They were just derided. They didn't have any value. [People thought,] 'They probably deserved what they got.' And I've always known the difference, and I've had to live with that for 25 years. The fact that you're going to get to know who these people are, I'm just thrilled. They're being honored for the first time in history. They should be."

Rory Culkin, who plays Thibodeau, explains that he "picked his brain and asked a lot of questions," and hopes that the show reveals the "human" side of the "victims" in the situation.

Noesner said he was willing to be involved with the Dowdles' take on the siege, despite it already being the subject of a few documentaries, because he quickly realized that they wanted to "look at it from a human perspective."

Both Noesner and Shannon said that they spent a great deal of time together, trying to understand the negotiation process.

"Gary's truly a special human being and what he did, or attempted to do, not only in this situation but in all of the situations I'm aware of that he's been in, it's pretty miraculous and it's pretty selfless," Shannon said during the post-screening panel. "He always just wanted to get people out alive and it's a beautiful thing."

But for Andrea Riseborough, who plays Branch Davidian Judy Schneider, promoting the show brings back some bad memories.

Riseborough said Harvey Weinstein brought her to the project, produced by his eponymous company. Weinstein's name was removed from the credits after he was accused of decades' worth of sexual misconduct. Riseborough, who was wearing a Time's Up pin at the Waco screening, said promoting the series given everything that's happened with Weinstein, is "strange. It's like PTSD. It's a heavy reminder."

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