Stanley Nelson on the Jonestown Tragedy

Susan Gerhard October 30, 2006

Of the many surreal moments that make up “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple,” some of the most surprising come courtesy of esteemed left-of-center politicians of the City and country in the ’70s. Willie Brown, Jimmy Carter, and George Moscone all courted the Reverend Jim Jones and his supporters. In a few short years, the church leader, who talked the talk of the times — socialism and racial integration — had become a part of the infrastructure of San Francisco. When his group imploded in the jungles of South America Nov. 18, 1978, it took a giant piece of SF’s idealism down with it. Less than 10 days later, the City would go completely haywire: ex-City Supervisor Dan White took the lives of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. Within a year, gays and lesbians rioted on the streets, and a year after that, SF’s era of neighborhood activism via District Elections would come to a close.

While other “era” documentaries drape themselves in pop music for easy novelty and nostalgia effects, Stanley Nelson’s “Jonestown” shares the more serious approach of a film like “Waco: The Rules of Engagement,” which eschews the overused “cult” clichés in favor of an earnest examination of the subjectivities of the group’s members. Nelson unearthed a vast amount of documentation on the group — original music, archival footage — that he’s carefully matched to talking heads interviews and woven into the narrative arc of the film. It’s a richly rendered story in which old traditions of African American churchgoing meet new traditions of collectivism misguided by a paranoid mind. On a busy morning a week before the film opens in the Bay Area, Stanley Nelson (who’s since moved to Oakland) spoke with SF360 over the phone from Los Angeles.

SF360: When I saw the film six months ago, one of the things that really struck me was the party thrown for Congressman Leo Ryan’s delegation the night before the massacre — just how much fun people were having. That one moment seemed to encapsulate all the contradictions of this story, the way you told it — the mixture of ecstasy and fear — felt by group members. Can you talk about your visual approach to that?

Stanley Nelson: It was mostly done through footage shot by NBC. They sent a camera crew, and they were actually shooting for that last 24 hours or so. We got the footage from NBC early on in the production. I remember that day really vividly. Everybody on the production team was sitting there with our mouths wide open, because everybody looks so happy at Jonestown! They’re putting on this show for Leo Ryan, where they’re singing Earth Wind & Fire songs — “Hearts of Fire” — a full band with a horn section, dancing. But you know that 24 hours later, everybody is going to be dead. It’s this really weird footage. It does, in some ways, encapsulate the Peoples Temple experience.

SF360: My partner grew up in SF, around corner from Peoples Temple, in co-op union housing that was also a multi-racial, multi-class social experiment of sorts, minus the religion. That was the zeitgeist here. Where were you at the time, 1978, and what was your scene?

Nelson: I had just gotten out of film school in 1976, and was trying to build a career making films. I was in New York City, doing anything I could to grab onto the film world. I’ve talked to so many people in screening the film who can tell me exactly where they were at the moment they heard about the deaths. I can’t do that. I remember hearing, and I remember being shocked like everybody else, but I can’t tell you were I was.

SF360: I’d like to talk about your own timeline in getting involved with the project.. What was the reigning paradigm about Jim Jones when you first starting working on this, and what were your earliest suspicions that it was a little askew?

Nelson: I became involved about three years ago, on the 25th anniversary of the deaths in Guyana. I had innocently heard Peoples Temple members on the radio. They were so different than what I thought they would be like. All I knew about the story was that 900 or so crazy people had followed this madman to Guyana and, for some inexplicable reason, had committed suicide. On the radio they sounded so sane. They talked about a Peoples Temple that was different than what I’d known, a Peoples Temple that wanted to change the world. They still talked about Peoples Temple members with a great deal of love. Preliminary research — through the web and pictures — made me more and more intrigued and interested in the story. You see the Peoples Temple members; it’s largely African American. A good deal of the people were older — they don’t look like they’d join any kind of cult. There are young white hippies, African Americans with afros. I was wondering what could possibly bring all these people together. There were pictures of Jim Jones, this white guy from rural Indiana looking like Elvis in these sunglasses, and the story just got more and more fascinating.

SF360: What was different about making this movie from the making of ‘The Murder of Emmett Till’ (2003) and ‘A Place of Our Own’ (2004)?

Nelson: One of the main differences in the making of ‘Jonestown’ was that it was much more of an emotional experience than any of the other films I’ve made. Each film has its own problems and challenges, but with ‘Jonestown,’ so many of the people who survived, and members of Peoples Temple, are surrounded by so much tragedy, so much sadness that it’s almost something that’s real and physical. To enter into their world, to enter into their lives, at times, was really painful for me and for other members of the team that worked on the film. We got part of that in ‘Emmett Till’ — but it was mainly his mother, and she had really come to grips with it and in some ways moved on with her life. In some ways, there was something positive that came out of the murder of Emmett Till. In ‘Jonestown,’ it was impossible to put that kind of positive spin on it. It was a real tragedy, and it’s a tragedy when you look at it from afar. But when you get closer to it, it becomes even more of a tragedy. The personal tragedy is even more devastating than the larger tragedy. It was an emotional rollercoaster.

SF360: Have you learned anything compelling since finishing the film? Have people stepped forward to add to the story?

Nelson: I went into it knowing so little about it. I didn’t know that Jim Jones was such a part of the political social establishment of the Bay Area. I didn’t understand how he was coddled and courted by politicians. In the bigger pictures: I learned why and how people would join Peoples Temple, and why and how they would stay and hold on to this thing, even thought they saw it going wrong. They wanted to hold onto this dream — they held on as it led to disaster. That’s why for me, it’s so emotionally devastating.

SF360: The textures — the music and images — of this film are exceptional. Where did the footage come from?

Nelson: We found so much documentation of Peoples Temple — we found Peoples Temple members who had footage of Peoples Temple in their closets, footage of them interviewing each other and talking on the mic down in Guyana about how much they loved Jonestown. We found a guy who had shot at Peoples Temple for a couple days in the early ’70s. You see Jim Jones preaching, doing a healing ceremony, making a woman walk, a woman see. There was the NBC footage of the last two days. We also found a recording — a record they made of their music, which is just incredible. This rollicking gospel music — it’s great music! It’s lively, they’re jumping around, it really gives you a sense of Peoples Temple. We also had 400 audio tapes of Jim Jones preaching that we were able to whittle down to give an idea of Jim Jones’ message from his own mouth. We realized we could do it with the tapes of him preaching rather than people talking about his preaching. California Historical Society gave us access to over 4,000 photos. There was the tape of the last few hours, audiotape, which is just an amazing document. As they were taking the poison, Jim Jones is encouraging people to take the poison, and they’re arguing. You hear the men, women, children screaming and dying. There’s audio of this whole thing. It’s an incredible document. We had much more footage, music, stills than I ever thought was available when we started in. We were able to construct the film without narration, without historians, because we had so much.

SF360: Did you get to see Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “The People’s Temple”?

Nelson: They were producing theirs at same time we were doing ours. That was really hepful, because a number of people had come forward to talk to Berkeley Rep. Some people already realized this was something they could talk about and the world wouldn’t collapse. It would be cathartic. Other people who hadn’t talked to Berkeley Rep, who thought maybe they should have. In some ways, we benefited from the production.

SF360: The stories of the survivors — how they actually came to survive — isn’t shown in your film. Why?

Nelson: That’s a real film, another film. The story of what people have gone through is just incredible. So many people were stranded in Guyana. Everybody they knew and loved had died. They had no money to get home. They were thought of as crazy and the U.S.. government wasn’t helping them get out. We ended at the deaths in Guyana. We felt that early on that was where our film should end. We only had a certain amount of time: We did film stories where people explained how they got out, and how they survived, which we will put on the DVD. We had some of those stories in some of the cuts. As soon as you heard one story, you wanted to hear more, not less. We decided the film should end after the people die in Guyana, so that’s what we did.

SF360: And what about the alternate theories of Jim Jones? CIA involvement? Soviets?

Nelson: We pursued them a little bit, but I thought the story that we told was fascinating enough and more than enough of a story. I think that maybe somehow somehow, there’s a way to pursue them and those stories can be another film. There are all sorts of unsubstantiated claims floating around. I thought that we could make a film that was exciting and entertaining and solely rooted in fact hat would be surprising. All the other stuff, as far as I can figure out, is just kind of conjecture.

SF360: You recently moved to the Bay Area?

Nelson: I moved here last September, and am living in Oakland, with offices in Berkeley. My brother lives in Berkeley, and my wife’s brother lives in Oakland. We were right in the middle of editing when we moved. The only thing that relates to the film in the move is that I find that a lot of times the audiences in the Bay Area know a little more about the Peoples Temple, and I find that that helps with their intrigue in the story. The story has been a revelation to people in the Bay Area. We had five sold out shows in the San Francisco International Film Festival. It won a Golden Gate award there. This audience who knows a little bit more about it, and is more connected.

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