—I go on statewide radio around lunchtime today (Monday, June 26) to talk with the public radio program "Texas Standard" about reaction to the upcoming mini-series "Waco" and the yet-untitled film about the same subject.
The subject in question for those two projects isn't the city, culture or people of Waco, but the 1993 Branch Davidian shootout, siege and fire that killed more than 70.
Just the fact that you can't sum up that complicated event in a single word tells a lot how Waco became shorthand for whatever it was.
As "Texas Standard" producer Jillian Ament can attest, I had to be persuaded to be interviewed. As much as I love the medium of radio, I get antsy about being interviewed and more than just I hate to hear how thin and high-pitched my voice sounds. I much prefer the security of writing, which can be cooled, edited and checked for public sharing - and after hearing me today, you might understand why.
I didn't bring much to the plate about the two productions, the Weinstein Television mini-series starring Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon nor the Annapurna Pictures film with director Jaume Collet-Serra, other than what I've read elsewhere.I don't get calls from location scouts or scriptwriters looking for local flavor or detail and apparently not many in town get those calls, either.
That sort of goes to the heart of the issue: Waco seems to be whatever you want it to, even if it's only partially recognizable to those of us who live here. As host David Brown astutely observes, Waco seems to be a Rorschach test where there's an element of whatever you want it to be.
That was true of the Branch Davidian shootout/siege/fire. For those on the Trib who worked on a months-long investigation, particularly lead reporters Mark England and Darlene McCormick, it was a story that came from former members who left, bothered by the dominance of leader Vernon Howell, who took the name David Koresh. They spoke of multiple wives that Koresh shared among members, abuse of children and stockpiling of weapons seemingly in conjunction with Koresh's preaching of a soon-to-come apocalyptic showdown.
That context, captured in our reporting, soon changed once the shootout occurred, the international press descended and, eventually, the horrific aftermath of the deadly fire that followed the government's tear gassing of the compound.
To some, the context wasn't sexual or religious, but an oppressive government out to crack down on weapon possessions, a follow to the FBI resolution of the Ruby Ridge standoff. To others, it was an issue of religious liberty. And to some, it was just another example of that wacky place called Waco.
As Waco residents unfailingly point out, the Branch Davidian building complex — compound, like cult, became charged words during the siege — wasn't in Waco, but several miles outside city limits and near the community of Elk.
No matter. Waco was close enough. I remember the piece that ran in a London tabloid during the siege that called Waco "a one-horse town where the horse had died." It mortified some residents, but a second reading of the column showed the writer was confusing the outer edge of Bellmead with Waco proper.
The geographical fuzziness continued. The 1993 mini-series on the Branch Davidian event was filmed in Oklahoma — the upcoming mini-series is being shot in New Mexico, that mirror image of Central Texas — and when Texas Governor George Bush became President George Bush, the White House communications office pointedly told the press that Crawford, not Waco, should be the dateline for any stories coming from Bush and his ranch near Crawford.
An aside: Oliver Stone's movie about George Bush, "W.," had its Crawford ranch scenes filmed in Louisiana, not Crawford, Waco or Elk.
A lot has happened since 1993 — the Oklahoma City bombing, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the 9-11 terrorist attack, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and however the current presidential election/shootout/siege/fire plays out.
Why Waco and why now? My guess, as I told Brown, was the ratings success of last year's mini-series "The People vs. O.J. Simpson." That story had it all: murder, celebrity, sports, race, policing, legal maneuvering, media craziness. When other producers started to search for something similarity rich and juicy, another story from the 1990s popped up: Waco.
How will these "Wacos" pan out locally? News of these two productions brought comments of irritation and resignation from Waco readers and I think reaction will depend on ratings, viewership and how much social media buzz they get.
Judging from its casting, the mini-series may offer a more complex view of the complex story, although the Trib's and KWTX's roles in initial coverage merit only generic "editor," "reporter" and "cameraman" characters. The untitled movie looks to have more of a Second Amendment spin with scriptwriter Mark Boal seeing it as a pivotal moment between the far right and the FBI.
Another context has changed, too. Waco now has a tourist boom of 20,000 or so visitors a week coming, in part, because of the positive Waco they see in the hugely popular HGTV television series "Fixer Upper."
Host Chip and Joanna Gaines' view of their city as a comfortable place of natural beauty, history, friendly people and comfortable living has rubbed off on a lot of people.
For residents who once worried — too much, perhaps - on how others viewed their city, there's now a positive image of Waco to offset Waco's past outsider tags of too-conservative Baptists, gun-toting Texans, lynching ex-southerners or small-minded big city.
That's a markedly different environment. (Speaking of different environments, can you imagine how the Branch Davidian standoff would play these days if Koresh had a Twitter account? Yeesh.)
How will Waco feel about yet another "Waco?"
As always, what Waco are you talking about?