tanley Nelson has been making documentary films for a quarter-century, his reputation founded by the Emmy-winning Murder of Emmett Till, several CINE awards, and Sundance-honored The Black Press. This spring a new doc, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, premiered at Tribeca one day and then in San Francisco the next, popped up at Washington, DC’s Silver Docs, and was listed as one of ten films to see by the Los Angeles Times for that city’s festival. Off and running on the festival circuit, its impending theatrical release is novel for Nelson, who has found a quite workable niche for himself with PBS’ American Experience. Nelson spoke by phone from the West Coast recently about his work habits, how this film project gripped him, and what it might mean for today’s audiences.
I wanted to talk a little about Jonestown. It’s had a pretty enthusiastic reception at festivals. What has this been like since the summer?
We premiered simultaneously at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and San Francisco International Film Festival here, so back to back. And it went really well. We won awards at both festivals and I think those were the only festivals that we entered into the competition, so—two for two. The reaction’s been incredible. We’ve been in many more festivals than I’ve been in with any other film. Partially, that’s because we have a whole year to do festivals and other things, although I just physically can’t go to all of them.
Why do you suddenly have a year? Are you taking a year off?
No, we had a schedule that gave us a year because we wanted a window to see if we could get a theatrical distribution for the film, and it was picked up.
You’ve been producing films at about the rate of a feature documentary a year for a while. How have you maintained the consistency of getting projects done in this way?
I don’t sleep [laughs]. I’ve been very lucky. I should say that we had two or three films that were kind of bottled up together that we had been working on for a while. They were finished one after the other. The first two films that I made each took seven years to make. But most of that was spent raising money. Over the last five-six-seven years we’ve been very lucky getting funding for films. That’s really helped in being able to turn out films at this rate. Also I learned from early on that what you want to do is have one film in pre-production, one film in production, and one film in post-production. And probably if you can, one film that you’re going to festivals with—all at the same time. The way, traditionally, that documentary filmmakers are able to earn a living is to be in production. I’m able to make a living because I can draw salaries as producer and director while the film is in production, so I try to stay in production as much as I possibly can.
Do you think that affects how you see each film—is there cross-fertilization for you?
I’m not sure what you mean.
When you’re working on several films at once, do they nourish each other?
No [laughs]. I don’t think so. I think in some ways it’s really tough. When we were making Jonestown, for the first time in my life I turned down a couple projects. I don’t get a lot of people coming to me with project offers anyway. I just thought that this was going to be an extraordinary, consuming film—an all-consuming film. I really wanted to devote myself to it. I don’t know how I could possibly have made this film while I was doing something else. I think that if you’re a filmmaker or producer or director, there’s only one of you and there’s just so many hours in the day. So if you’re doing two or three films at once, something’s going to have to suffer. You’re not able to kind of sit there at night over dinner or after dinner, thinking about your one film—you know, how am I gonna do this? How am I gonna make this cut work? There may be people who can do that and do that well, but I’ve found for myself that it’s really hard and it really takes away. I guess that’s not to say it isn’t something I’m going to have to do again and have to do over and over, because it may take you a year or much more to raise the money to do the next one.
Why did this film need to be made now?
I think it was one of those stories that people thought they knew. It wasn’t a pleasant story and it wasn’t a nuanced story. It was a story of over 900 crazy fanatics who followed this crazy cult leader down to Guyana and ending up doing the craziest thing you could possibly do which was kill themselves. After some time passes, people start to look at it again. There was a play about Peoples Temple last year. There’s been an incredible amount of interest that, obviously, we found after making the film. But nobody—for whatever reason—had taken the time to really stop and look at the story in a very different way.
One of the things that was shocking watching the film is how many people connected with the Peoples Temple are still alive.
Yeah, that was really how it was seen—that they all died. People are always saying to me, well, who’s in the film? How did you find people to interview? But something like 80 to 100 people survived. There were only five who actually walked out of the suicides in the jungle. But Peoples Temple had a number of people still in San Francisco, in L.A., in Georgetown, the capitol of Guyana. A number escaped just because they were on a basketball team and they had a game that night in Georgetown. The players, the coaches and anybody who wanted to go to watch—they were gone.
Was there a time you said, okay, now it’s time to make this film?
I think from our coming upon the idea to our making the film was probably the quickest turn-around that I’ve ever had here at Firelight. We had completed The Murder of Emmett Till for American Experience and we came up with the idea for Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Right away, they were like, “Oh my God! Has anybody done anything before?” Not really, not since a year or two after it happened. Even then nobody really took a long look at it. Right away, they said, we think it’s great. So much to their credit, they came in really soon and we started in pre-production very quickly.
How long have you been interested in this?
I heard Peoples Temple members on the radio three years ago at the 25th anniversary and was just fascinated with their story and fascinated that they were very rational. They talked about Peoples Temple in a very different way than I had ever heard anybody talk about it. They talked about the social action. They talked about their fellow members with a great deal of love and fondness. They didn’t sound crazy at all to me. And that’s when I really got interested.
Will this change your career so that you’re making more films for theatrical release?
I don’t think so. You know, it’s just another door that’s opened in the last few years for documentary filmmakers. But the vast majority of documentary films don’t make money, ever—we’re going to get a week at the Quad Cinema. We’re in a bunch of other cities, but they’re each for a week. It’s gonna be nice, to see my name in lights, go to the first screening, go out to dinner—but will it change my filmmaking career? I doubt it. That’s not what we’re looking for. But it’s nice to see it in theaters. I don’t want to belittle that I any way. It’s great.
Do you think people will draw any parallels between this story and a range of things that are post-9/11?
I hope so!
One of the things I’m thinking is, here is a story out of the heartland of America, really.
And it’s people who are willing to die for something.
What does that tell us about others in the world, suicide bombers and people who are attached to causes that some people want to say are foreign to some American way of life?
No, I don’t think that it’s foreign to any way of life. One of the things that is so heart-breaking about this film is that we understand what the people who joined the Peoples Temple—we understand what they were looking for. They were looking for something really good, and honorable. They were looking to try to make the world a better place and I think that’s what so many people are looking for. We really cannot overestimate the need that people have for community, and the lengths that people will go to, to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves. You know, it’s kind of a lonely existence on planet Earth—you’re by yourself. I think what Peoples Temple offered, and some other movements offer, is a chance to be part of something that you feel is bigger than you. I think we’re seeing that all over the world now. We’ve gone from these small societies where you were rock solid and centered in a community to where you’re really by yourself. What I learned from doing this film was that one of the most dangerous things is when you join these communities and they deliver on their promise. I think Peoples Temple delivered on what it promised people. It promised them that they would be part of a big family and live in a new way. And it delivered. That’s why they stayed. You know, they didn’t stay because they saw it was a crazy man and his crazy people. They stayed because it gave them what they wanted, so – that’s a scary thing. They loved in some ways being part of the community, even as they themselves talked about seeing it all unravel—seeing Jim Jones unravel before their eyes. They still were there with the young, the old people, the people that they knew and loved. They still wanted it to work, so they kept excusing things in the name of something bigger.
What are you working on next?
We’ve just started another project with American Experience. They’re doing this huge, five-part series on Native American history, starting in 1615 and going all the way up until the present. We’re working on the last piece, the fifth show, on the Native American movement in the late 60s and the 70s—culminating in the shoot-out at Wounded Knee.