Creators of Paramount Network’s Waco set out to dramatize the “no bad guys” version of the 1993 standoff at the Branch Davidian splinter group complex. Four government agents were killed in a botched raid by ATF, which suspected that the facility was housing a weapons arsenal.
The 51-day standoff that ensued ended when the FBI initiated a tear gas attack, during which the complex erupted in fire and about 80 people died, including cult leader David Koresh.
EP Drew Dowdle, who exec produced the limited series with John Erick Dowdle, told critics at TCA in Pasadena today that they wanted to show “both sides — how this would look from the inside instead of how this looked coming through the news, in an extreme version of itself. How this would have sounded reasonable from the inside.
“We dug into it,” he added, “and they were just people that had created a community and they felt really strong about it.”
The children who came out of the compound alive seemed like happy, nice, well-fed kids, producers said.
Producers do “fully acknowledge” that some of the women were “very young” when Koresh married them, Dowdle said, insisting “he was largely in compliance, but there was definitely the suspicion he went below that” legal age of consent. But they decided it was “wrong to show that ugliness directly.”
Actors playing the women in the cult got asked to weigh in on their characters, that issue, etc.
Andrea Riseborough said her Judy Karesh was a “dynamic woman,” a “good egg across the board,” “relateable” and the matriarch of the “situation.”
“What I related to was her loyalty,” Riseborough said. “It’s not the usual marriage model, polygamy, but there are huge advantages to it,” she said, citing sharing the “burden of” child care. “It was very difficult; they didn’t have many resources. They became very close with one another and were advocates of one another, which was satisfying to play,” she said.
Riseborough said the actresses bonded during filming. Asked how, she said they passed around all sorts of literature: “Germaine Greer.”
“That’s a joke,” she added, sensing it needed explaining — unclear if the press in the room were familiar with Greer, or had trouble wrapping their heads around the idea of actors playing Koresh’s wives reading her work on set. “I’m always re-reading’ The Female Eunuch – aren’t we all, ladies?” Riseborough asked reporters in the ballroom. Wish we could report how many of them Googled “The Female Eunuch,” but we cannot.
Taylor Kitsch, who plays cult leader Koresh, said he felt “kind of guilty” listening to other people asking him if he was going to “play crazy” – even his guitar coach for the role.
He described Koresh as “a guy who came from a terrible upbringing” and “a guy who lived with his heart on his sleeve,” was “incredibly smart, and manipulative.”
Members would “follow him around in hopes he would look up and say, ‘All right, what do you want to know,” Kitsch said.
The series is based largely on two biographies: A Place Called Waco by David Thibodeau, a Branch Davidian who is one of the nine survivors of the fire that ended the siege, and Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Negotiator by Gary Noesner, the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge of Negotiations during the ordeal.
Noesner told TV critics the first thing they teach in his field is “self-control,” and he blamed his commander for the conflagration. “I could not get David and my commander to act reasonable at the same time,” he said.
Noesher said his commander, who presumably also had been taught “self-control,” instead “lost self-control” and took actions that only “ratcheted things up with David,” he said, calling that a “very tragic set of circumstances that contributed to the negative outcome.”
Thibodeau told TV critics that, 25 years later, he sees things a “little broader” than in the immediate aftermath. He said he did not expect them to understand how Koresh’s followers “stayed up late hoping he would come down” to interact with him. “You stayed up because that was the most unbelievable talk you ever had.”
He explained of his thinking now: “I think religion is energy. The universal truth is an energy. I don’t think this is it for the human spirit. I feel the universe is eternal … and everyone is going to have to face their maker, including David Koresh.”
Waco premieres January 24 on Paramount Network.