Interview: Clay Tweel on Taking the High Road to “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults”

When Clay Tweel spoke to Robert Balch, a sociologist at the University of Montana who had been an observer of the Heaven’s Gate cult, the longtime observer had tried to answer the question that so many had asked in the wake of their mass suicide in 1997 that garnered international attention as to what held them in thrall to their leader Marshall Applewhite the point of taking their own lives?

“It’s a very complicated issue, but I remember one thing that Balch said to me in regards to free will, [was] what do you do with a group of people who are actively asking to be brainwashed?” recalls Tweel. “And he made the reference of people who join the Marines. The Marines absolutely shift your worldview and attune your mind, body and thinking for their express purpose. People sign up and want that, so the correlations there are fairly accurate, and there’s this grey area.”

The director of “Gleason” and “Finders Keepers” found himself diving into various shades of grey in the making of “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” a four-part miniseries that is bound to upend one’s memory of the group known for their androgynous hair cuts and Nikes, if only for the recognition that they had been around since the 1970s. Balch’s own interest had been piqued when an earlier incarnation of the cult had seemingly vanished in Oregon, though under the leadership of Applewhite, then known as Do, and Bonnie Nettles, known as Ti, they went underground to develop a belief system around experimental ideas that had become intriguing to the culture at large, pairing new age enlightenment with the advent of space exploration. Still, the ideas that the members of Heaven’s Gate would cling to would be regarded by most to be more the basis for science fiction than fact and with Nettles’ death in 1985, Tweel charts the collective’s increasing extremism, leaving members who joined in search of a spiritual awakening led down a path far more sinister.

Although Balch’s analogy to the Marines may seem unusual on its face, “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” uses its four-hour run time to explore indoctrination and the gradual power that takes hold within a group where everyone becomes afraid to stand apart from the pack, conveying a number of heartbreaking stories of those who didn’t realize what was happening to them until it was too late and the families that felt as if they lost a loved one even if they were still alive. Reduced to a punchline almost immediately after the majority of the cult killed themselves, Tweel connects their search for something they could believe in with a contemporary longing culturally where more people are drawn to tribes with shared beliefs in all facets of life and in adapting the podcast that was hosted by NPR’s Glynn Washington, he sensitively investigates the way Heaven’s Gate members were drawn in and could have their ideology reinforced by the curated supply of information that had been conveyed to them.

After the series’ recent debut on HBO Max, Tweel spoke about what led him to revisit the cult, getting to know some of its former members and setting the respectful tone for a group whose beliefs may have been outwardly ridiculous but came from a sincere place.

How did you get interested in this?

I had just come off of working on “The Innocent Man” with Ross Dinerstein at Campfire Productions and they had just acquired the rights to the podcast that Stitcher had put out. Even in “The Innocent Man,” it was a true crime piece for Netflix and there were still lots of interwoven themes of religion and small religious town that we were profiling there, so [Ross] knew I had a proclivity towards this topic, and I listened to the podcast and I really loved it. I thought it did an amazing job of really humanizing the former members, just giving a perspective that I don’t hear a lot. I was fascinated that they had this access to the former members and their families and thought it would be a good thing to try to dive deeper into.

When interviews were already conducted by the podcast, did that actually open doors or close them off when the subjects might’ve felt they said their piece?

We also came up against COVID — we were not totally done shooting [when the pandemic hit] and there were some people that were involved are older in age, so there’s some people that I just didn’t want to risk trying to go shoot and be around, and we had to figure out other ways to tell parts of that story. I really love Nancy Brown as part of the podcast and she was respectfully like, “I’ve told this story so many times I don’t really know if I’m interested to do it,” and I told my team, “This is very traumatic for this lady and we should respect her wishes. We can try to find a way to include her, but not have to bother her and make her relive this.”

We did our own [research], but we were certainly able to draft off of what they had already gathered for the podcast, which was great. There was a producer Diane Hodson, who was involved with the podcast who really helped get everything in order for us that they had. They did a lot themselves, but then when putting together visual pieces, we needed to find different types of archive and to source things a little bit differently. One of the amazing finds of the whole show was one of our editors, James, was reading a letter from one of the former members to their parents. In that letter from 1976, he mentioned “some videographer was here and he was really doing a great job,” so James looked up who this videographer was and found he had a living son in Oklahoma and contacted the son and the son said, “Oh yeah, I’ve got all these tapes that my dad shot back in 1975 and ’76 for Oklahoma Public Access.” That was some of our never-before-seen footage of the group.

You also find these beautifully detailed sketches from the ‘70s that envision what life in space was predicted to look like. Did that influence the animation that’s in the film?

Yeah, the artwork is beautifully done and I think they were done by Frank’s cousin David van Sinderen, and the texture to them did influence what ended up being our final animations. We were trying to find a style that was both organic to the story but that was not in any way cartoony and was able to live within our tone of the show, and that was hard to find. For months and months, we tried to dial in what this look would be and as we found and included more pieces of their artwork, we’re like, “Oh, this is a really great way to marry the worlds together and have this really beautiful brushstroke feel.”

You find ways to be respectful while having some fun – there are some very choice soundtrack cuts. Was that a difficult balance to strike tonally?

Yeah, I wanted to pay homage to the group in a way that the soundtrack and even some of the score, which is so amazingly done by David Wingo. We were trying to show some of the lightheartedness. They really loved each other and had fun with each other, but were really self-aware at what the public’s perception of them was. They wore their nerdy outsiderness as a badge of honor, so we wanted to be able to make it not all doom and gloom from the start because for many, many years before the belief system shifted, they’re a fairly harmless group of people that had some out-there beliefs, so we wanted to tip our cap to the fact that they had this self-deprecating sense of humor that you can see in some of their writings and even some of their videos.

In another interview, you’ve noted that your own interest was in part sparked by seeing the blind faith that Trump could command during his presidency. During this time where we’re all looking for answers about different things, was influencing how you cut this?

One of the things that jumped out to me about the podcast and that I really wanted to include in the series was this idea of new religious movements and these types of groups and people looking for answers in times of societal chaos. When we started making this in 2018, the world was already in a state of anxiety and divisiveness in this country and it has only gotten more chaotic since, so I really gravitated towards that idea there could be cults that are going to be popping up and be more in all of our lives here in the coming years and in a more prominent way, so maybe this series can do something to shed a light on how these belief systems evolve and could become dangerous. Not all end in suicide clearly, but the levels and tiers of manipulation could be explored.

With a miniseries, do you have room for it to be an evolutionary process as far as letting the story take shape as you learn it or do you have to know how many episodes you’re making and what specifically they’ll cover early on?

We are allowed to have an evolutionary process, or I fight for one, in budgeting or coming up with the schedule. My background is in editing, so I place a lot of emphasis in having the time to find some of the story and the structure in the edit. We had a pretty good idea for this about the evolution of the group and how the ideas broke down thematically and I played around a little bit with putting it out of chronological order, but it always just got a little too confusing. I always found it far more simpler and easy to track in just breaking up the episodes, using chronology and really emphasizing a fact that I didn’t know, which was that the group was around for 22 years rather than what most people think, including myself before I started this, that they were around for just a couple years before the suicides.

Frank and Sawyer seem to become the anchors of the story – how did they come to the fore?

They were some of the stories that I gravitated to from the podcast, but they also juxtaposed each other in their takeaways from their experience in Heaven’s Gate. Sawyer and Frank both left the group at the same time, around a couple years of each other, and Frank was in for 18 years, and Sawyer, 19 or 20, and they ended up in different places where Frank still feels a lot of resentment towards the group and the trauma that he feels he experienced and Sawyer still believes in most of the things the group believed in until this day, so you’re able to see how this experience affected people in two different ways.

Was there any interview that really changed your ideas of what this could be?

I don’t know if anything changed it. The interviews I did for this project are the longest interviews I’ve ever done for my career because I knew that there wasn’t going to be a ton of verite footage. It was going to be very interview-driven, so doing a seven-hour sit-down interview with Sawyer was intense. I will never forget that experience. But also talking to people like Deb Simpson, who lost her brother, [who] joined briefly in ’94 and committed suicide right after the 39, she was just so wonderfully articulate and emotionally intelligent that I could talk to her all day. Someone who could go through so much trauma in her life but could sit down and diagnose it and go through it with you from beginning to end was really just powerful to be a part of.

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is now streaming on HBO Max.