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Beyond the Monster: The Creators of ‘Waco’ Talk About Re-creating David Koresh’s Infamous Standoff for TV

In conversation, Drew and John Erick Dowdle delve into the Branch Davidians, their controversial leader, and the 1993 conflict with federal law enforcement that’s at the center of their six-part miniseries

Taylor Kitsch as David Koresh in ‘Waco’ Paramount Network/Ringer illustration

“If you are a Branch Davidian, Christ lives on a threadbare piece of land 10 miles east of Waco called Mount Carmel. He has dimples, claims a ninth-grade education, married his legal wife when she was 14, enjoys a beer now and then, plays a mean guitar, reportedly packs a 9mm Glock and keeps an arsenal of military assault rifles, and willingly admits that he is a sinner without equal.”

So read the first two paragraphs of “The Sinful Messiah,” a seven-part investigative series in the Waco Tribune-Herald about David Koresh, the leader of the cult known as the Branch Davidians. Part 1 ran February 27, 1993. The next day, the ATF staged an unsuccessful raid on Mount Carmel Center, the Branch Davidians’ home, resulting in four dead officers, six dead Branch Davidians, and dozens more wounded on both sides. After a cease-fire, the ATF, later reinforced by the FBI, set up a siege of Mount Carmel Center that lasted 51 days before a fire of still-disputed origin destroyed the building and killed 75 people, including Koresh.

That is the setting for Waco, which premieres Wednesday night on the new Paramount Network. The six-part series, which stars Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon, delves into the controversy surrounding the militarization of federal law enforcement in the early 1990s and takes a close look at the lives of the Branch Davidians themselves. That includes a surprising depiction of Koresh, played as a charismatic and complex figure by Kitsch, a departure from the deluded, manipulative serial sexual predator portrayed in “The Sinful Messiah.”

Koresh’s dark side isn’t ignored so much as elided or slow-played, but it’s jarring nonetheless to see someone depicted in contemporary news coverage as a child abuser laughing on a morning jog with his son, or someone whose theological appeal was based on a complex reading of Revelation and who had a habit of waking his followers for exhausting, 15-hour Bible study sessions delivering a sermon that, in tone and content, is broad and ambiguous enough to be at home in a mainline Protestant or nondenominational church.

Waco is one of several recent films and TV series to examine issues in contemporary society by dramatizing true-crime stories from the recent past. Through its unflinching portrayal of the FBI and ATF, and its unexpected take on Koresh and the Branch Davidians, it questions conventional wisdom more than any of its predecessors. Ahead of the show’s premiere, series creators Drew and John Erick Dowdle (No Escape; As Above, So Below) talked about the show, its characters, and where truth meets fiction.

There are about 50 different places you could’ve started this story — why did you pick Ruby Ridge, the 1992 FBI standoff in Idaho?

John Erick Dowdle: We consider Ruby Ridge to be the inciting incident here. It set all the machinery in motion that led to these events, so we felt like a basic understanding of Ruby Ridge would give you a sense of how that machinery was working at this time. It gave us a chance to get to know the Branch Davidians before the siege, and to get to know the two factions of the FBI and how they were in conflict with each other. That led to a really difficult relationship at Waco that really spurred on the troubles they had there.

Drew Dowdle: The fear of the day was white separatists, domestic terrorists — that was federal law enforcement’s biggest concern in the early ’90s, and painting the Branch Davidians with that same brush was a pretty serious mischaracterization of who they were. Maybe an understandable one, because they did have guns, but in reality, that wasn’t accurate. Plus, on a structural level, the FBI don’t come into Waco until after the raid, so Ruby Ridge was a very convenient story line to tell to keep them active and present early in the series.

The reason it’s an interesting starting point is that it means you see this as a story not about a cult but about the cops.

JED: I think that’s fair. It’s a symptom of what was going on politically at that moment. At that moment, the FBI said, “Just in case we have big trouble with our citizens, let’s create a super-SWAT force.” And then they have the super-SWAT force, and it looks like they’re wasting money unless they use it, so they start using it, and that created trouble: Before Waco and Ruby Ridge, there were just a handful of self-described militias in the U.S. Two years after, there were thousands.

DD: The answer has a really interesting element that we address in Episode 2 — the paradox of power: The more force you bring to any situation, the more likely you are to be met with resistance, and I think that certainly happened at Waco.

Just because this is a true-crime story from the mid-’90s, Waco is going to draw a lot of comparisons to The People v. O.J. Simpson, or Manhunt: Unabomber. And the reason People v. O.J. resonated so much is not just because it was telling a captivating story, but that it touched on racism in law enforcement, celebrity culture, 24-hour news, and domestic violence in sports — all issues we’re still dealing with today. You can draw the line from Ruby Ridge to Waco to Timothy McVeigh. There’s the gun-control debate, the militarization of police, white supremacy — all things we’re still grappling with. Is that why you wanted to make this show in particular — because you could find those threads in contemporary society, or did something else draw you to the story?

JED: Frankly, the essence of truth was one of the big themes that really matters to us — where truth meets fiction. When we first stumbled across [Branch Davidian survivor] David Thibodeau’s book, it was shocking to see how different the story was than what we knew. All those themes are very important to us, but once you see who a person is, it’s hard to see them as not a person. The events of the day you remember are a tank versus a building, but what if you had faces and names for people in that tank and faces and names for people in that building? How different would that look to you?

What did you learn that really stood out to you, that really changed your perspective?

DD: Meeting David Thibodeau and understanding who the Branch Davidians really were was eye-opening for us. We were told that David Koresh was a monster and everyone who followed him was a mindless drone who was just blindly willing to kill themselves at his command, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. You can debate endlessly about how bad David Koresh was — and he was guilty of some indefensible acts, no question — but who were the rest of these people, and what did they believe? What we found was these people were from all over the world, and they were extremely passionate about studying the Bible. These people were people.

One shocking thing about Waco is how sympathetic David Koresh comes off. There are writing and direction choices there, but some of that is just casting Taylor Kitsch and bringing him back to rural Texas, making Koresh into this charismatic, attractive figure, instead of this weirdo. So how do you play with making this bogeyman into someone sympathetic?

DD: It’s important to show David Koresh as they saw him, versus what was the experience of the people who were investigating him. We do talk about him taking a 12-year-old bride, which is indefensible. It’s important for us to know, “What made this guy tick? How did he become what he became, and how is he responsible for some of the things he did?” And you find out pretty quickly that David Koresh was born Vernon Howell, he was severely abused, he had a learning disability and dyslexia and was bullied at school, and his mom had him when she was 14. He really became what he grew up in. That’s not intended as an excuse, just an observation. Does that make him evil? Maybe. But filling in his backstory, it makes more sense.

JED: We wanted to see not just the monster, but the human inside. Even in the very first scenes, he gets David Thibodeau to agree to be celibate. He’s going to a dark place, but because he’s doing it with charm, it somehow seems normal. Taylor did a wonderful job of not playing a monster, but a very flawed human being.

I don’t know if you’ve grappled with this at all, but going back and reading the newspaper coverage after watching the show, it seems that the perspective is not that different on facts. C.S. Lewis had this thought exercise about the divinity of Jesus Christ — “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” — that either Jesus was crazy, a con man, or what he said he was. The question remains of how sincere Koresh was, whether he bought into it or was manipulating people. I’m curious where you fall on that question.

JED: One of the most interesting interviews we did was with David Koresh’s original second-in command, Marc Breault. When David had his “New Light” revelation, absorbing the burden of sex for everyone, Marc and Marc’s wife left. And Marc became a huge detractor, believed Koresh could potentially be dangerous, and started banging the drum for law enforcement to investigate Koresh. We interviewed him at length and we asked [Breault] that question. And he said [Koresh] believed it for sure. And then Breault said, “Well, he was a prophet.” And we said, “What?” And Breault said, “Back in Isaiah’s day there was a school for prophets, and I could never figure out in scripture why — either you have the gift or you don’t. But then I realized with David Koresh, he had the gift, but didn’t know how to keep his own desires out of his prophecy.” I found that to be a really interesting vantage point from someone who knew him well and didn’t like him, but was still adamant that he believed what he was preaching.

The title of the show — Waco — is synonymous with the siege, but Waco is a really interesting city. Between the tornado and the siege and now the Baylor football scandal, it’s developed this disaster-area vibe. How did you land on that title, since all of this really happens outside the city?

JED: It’s like Ruby Ridge — there’s actually no such place, it’s just a name given to the event. [Mount Carmel] is actually outside of Waco, but at the time that’s how it was referred to. Sometimes you’ll hear on the news, “We don’t want another Waco.” That word really evokes these events for the people old enough to remember them. And the people under 35 most likely don’t remember much, but they’ve heard the term. For us, it was a really simple, evocative title that doesn’t show a bias.

DD: John and I spent a week at the Baylor University archives, where they have the biggest collection related to this event, and they were like, “Please just don’t call your show Waco.” We were pretty honest at the time and said, “It’s pretty much the only thing we can call it, and we’re sorry.” There are people 20 years old who know Waco from [Fixer Upper], which is interesting. It has this new identity, but the word Waco is emblematic of this tragic event that’s still really misunderstood.

You’re not making a show about the Revolutionary War, where there’s no video or photographic evidence; everyone over 30 knows the sight of the compound on fire. They know what it looked like. They know what David Koresh looked and sounded like. Does that make it easier to set up a realistic-looking show, or does that constrain you from a visual and storytelling perspective?

JED: Frankly, it makes it harder in a lot of ways. If you’re talking about the Revolutionary War and say, “Bunker Hill looks like this,” who’s going to doubt you? Nobody’s like, “I was at Bunker Hill and it didn’t look like that!” But with something like Waco, people have a memory of David Koresh and remember what it was like generally. They remember the look of Mount Carmel, and we built Mount Carmel basically to scale. There are a lot of living people who went through these events. We don’t want to hurt people’s lives, and it felt like a tremendous responsibility to tell this story and do it right.

DD: On the flip side, it gives us a wealth of material to work with. So many of the FBI negotiations with the Branch Davidians — we used a lot of that dialogue. To use another example, after David Koresh is shot he calls his mom, and that’s a really interesting detail that Taylor Kitsch brought up and thought might make a good scene, so we were able to replicate that. Those things lend a real authenticity to some of the moments that frankly would be hard to just make up.

With this show, and O.J., and Manhunt: Unabomber, we’re being made to feel sympathy for someone like Koresh, or Simpson, or Kaczynski. At what point does the interest run up against concerns of taste? Could you do this about Timothy McVeigh? Could you do this about Columbine? Waco seems to be bumping up against the edge of where you start to have that discussion. Where is the line?

DD: It’d be very difficult to make a show with the intent of humanizing Timothy McVeigh. I don’t think it’d be out of bounds to make a show about Oklahoma City, but the idea of humanizing someone who killed hundreds of people doesn’t feel like it’s worth pursuing. For us, David Koresh was guilty of some indefensible things. He had a very dark side, but on the other hand, the people of Mount Carmel were good people who got painted in a very unfair light. There’s an idea that they were just a suicide cult and that was their plan all along; that’s an unfortunate and unfair mischaracterization.

JED: To pull that thread, I don’t think it’s possible to really understand somebody and stand in judgment of them at the same time. When you actually see someone tick, it helps you understand their pathology. That being said, that wasn’t what we set out to do. We stumbled across David Thibodeau’s book and found out that these people were completely different than we thought. Say what you will about Koresh, but a lot of the people at Mount Carmel were really good-natured, kind-hearted people.

DD: There are certain stories — Timothy McVeigh, and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold; those are characters who perpetrated some of the most vile and indefensible acts in American history, and there’s no real debate about that. There is a debate about Waco that’s existed for 25 years, and that makes it interesting and worth talking about.