'Wild Wild Country' Filmmakers Reveal the One Person Who Refused to Be Interviewed
Brothers Chapman and Maclain Way also tell how a "quick 30-second elevator pitch" from a film archivist led them to the fascinating hit cult story.
Since Wild Wild Country's March debut, the gripping documentary series has become the latest unscripted phenomenon from Netflix. Executive produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, the series is the work of another set of filmmaking brothers, Chapman and Maclain Way, who made the 2014 documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball for the platform. Over the course of six episodes, Wild Wild Country follows controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho), his onetime personal assistant Ma Anand Sheela and the "free love" cult they led in 1980s Oregon.
The Way brothers spoke with THR about the genesis of the series, the one former cult member they couldn't get to talk and how they feel about a potential fictionalized retelling of the wild, wild story.
How did the idea for the show come about?
CHAPMAN WAY We spent a lot of time in the archives up in Oregon when we were doing The Battered Bastards of Baseball. The head film archivist at the Oregon Historical Society asked Mac and I what we were doing for our next project. He said he had this never-before-seen collection of 300 hours of archive footage on what he described as "the most bizarre story that ever happened in the history of Oregon." He gave us a quick 30-second elevator pitch and told us about this guru and his followers who built this $100 million utopian city, and that they took over the local town and then bused in thousands of homeless people and armed themselves with assault rifles and then tried to take over the county and ended up poisoning 750 people. Mac and I just kind of looked at each other, like, "There's no way this is true. Like, how could we have grown up in America and never heard about this story?" We started doing some research, and sure enough, everything he had told us actually did happen — so we jumped in.
How did you persuade the former cult members to talk to you?
CHAPMAN The main pitch was, "We're giving you a platform to speak your truth. This isn't an interrogation, this isn't a gotcha interview, we're not out to humiliate anyone, no matter how bizarre your beliefs or ideologies may be — on both sides."
MACLAIN WAY I had gotten a sense that everyone felt like they had been represented in these one-dimensional caricatures. Even Antelopians felt they had always been talked about as these redneck bigots who are conservative townsfolk that just didn't like the Rajneeshees because of their religion. And then these Sannyasins felt like they were represented as these brainwashed cult members.
Who did you try to get for the series who refused to be interviewed?
MACLAIN The one person that we really wanted was David Knapp, and his Sannyasin name was Swami Krishna Deva, the first major of Rajneeshpuram. He's the first Rajneeshee who flips and cooperates with Oregon and the federal government and spills the beans. We were really interested in hearing his perspective on the position that he was put in. But he just refused from day one to talk to us.
What did you have to leave on the cutting-room floor that you wish you could have fit in?
CHAPMAN There was a section in episode six after the Bhagwan is taking his plea deal and has left the country, and immediately after that he tried to gain access to 27 other countries, which all denied him access. The United States government was calling other countries and putting pressure on them to not allow the Bhagwan into their country. It was a really fascinating archive sequence to see what a threat the government still felt he was and other countries felt he was. There's footage of the Greek government chasing him out of the country with police cars to the airport.
It's hard to ignore the parallels to what we're seeing in the current political landscape. How much of that plays into how timely the series is right now?
MACLAIN It was really bizarre when we were editing the series just to see how timely a lot of these topics were — with immigration bias, fear of the other, religious rights. We mapped out the entire show in 2014, when Obama was president, and it was a completely different political world we were living in. So it didn't really affect how we structured the story and what we wanted to talk about. I remember when Trump was throwing around the Muslim ban, and we had these horrible shootings and these conversations about the Second Amendment — and here was this pacifist spiritual group that armed themselves to protect themselves. It was really strange to see how timely it became.
Has there been interest in a fictionalized retelling?
CHAPMAN There has, yeah. There's been like a ton of producers and actors and people reaching out to us and the Duplasses. We don't want to be too involved in a fictional remake. If that happens, it's awesome because it's such an incredible story. But as far as Mac and I are concerned, we're just more excited to move on to our next documentary project.
This story first appeared in a May stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.