John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, the brothers who created the six-part miniseries “Waco” that debuts Wednesday night on the Paramount Network, confess they were asked to name their series on the 1993 Branch Davidian raid, siege and fire anything but “Waco.”
“I have a heavy burden of guilt for titling it ‘Waco,’ ” Drew Dowdle said, half jokingly. “We spent a week in the Baylor libraries … and when we’d leave, the librarians would say, ‘Please don’t call this Waco.’ I told them we can’t promise you that, that it wasn’t totally our decision. … But what else do you call it?”
He co-wrote and co-produced the dramatization of the 51-day event that drew global attention with his brother John, who also directed four of the six episodes.
“I do think it was unfortunate that the incident was labeled Waco,” Drew Dowdle said. “We loved our time in Waco and hope they appreciate the show.”
The debut of “Waco” on the new Paramount Network, formerly Spike TV, completes four years of work on the project for the Dowdle brothers, interviewed by phone this week as they were preparing for a preview screening at Lincoln Center in New York City. It is the filmmakers’ most ambitious project, coming after films including “Devil,” “As Above / So Below” and “No Escape.”
The series stars Taylor Kitsch (“Friday Night Lights”) as Branch Davidian leader David Koresh, whose interpretation of the Bible allowed him multiple wives, some underage, and predicted an apocalyptic battle with non-believers. Michael Shannon (“Nocturnal Animals,” “The Shape Of Water”) portrays FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner with John Leguizamo as ATF agent Jacob Vasquez, Rory Culkin as Branch Davidian David Thibodeau and Melissa Benoist as Koresh’s first wife Rachel.
In 1993, John Erick Dowdle was a 19-year-old student at the University of Iowa and remembers watching the daily news coverage on the televisions in the student center.
“I watched the final fire and remember having this reaction, ‘Oh my God, people just died there,’ “ he said. “Deep down, I always wanted to explore this further.”
A state away, Drew, two years younger and a high schooler at St. Thomas Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, remembers the predominant reaction to the siege’s fiery end: “It was sad that people died, but people had to do what they had to do. … (The Branch Davidians) did this to themselves.”
The federal trials and Congressional hearings that followed suggested other sides to the story, but it wasn’t until some 20 years later when John Erick Dowdle, researching a character’s backstory for a script, came across “A Place Called Waco,” the memoir of Branch Davidian David Thibodeau.
An insider’s look at life under Koresh at the Mount Carmel compound from a survivor of the siege and fire opened a different way of looking at the event. It also gave John Erick Dowdle the idea of a new film project.
He called his brother, and they eventually visited Thibodeau at his home in Bangor, Maine, and talked with him about his experience.
“It was such a change from the way I had (learned the story), just having faces and names for people,” John Erick Dowdle said.
As they realized more complexity and viewpoints from the Branch Davidians, they also found diversity and nuance on the FBI side.
With Koresh the dominant Branch Davidian figure, the Dowdles found a counterpart in FBI negotiator Gary Noesner, who tried during the siege to persuade Koresh to bring himself and his followers out.
“From the start, we wanted to tell what we considered the human part of the story: people trying to understand the other side … but pitted against each other and unable to speak the same language,” John Erick Dowdle said. “There’s an us versus them mentality in our culture. We wanted to show the effects when people refuse to see the other side.”
Focusing on Koresh and Noesner provided a dramatic momentum that Drew Dowdle said seemed intrinsic to the story.
“There was almost a surreal inevitability to how it ended,” he said.
The brothers intentionally broadened their script to include stories of Branch Davidians other than Koresh. Thibodeau, a drummer who met Koresh after a Waco gig then became a follower, was one, as well as Koresh’s wives Rachel and Michele Jones, the latter married to Thibodeau in name to provide legal cover. Steve and Judy Schneider, and attorney Wayne Martin also make appearances.
“We wanted to show more nuance. What were people like between the moments?” John Erick Dowdle said.
Even with the comparative luxury of a six-part series, the Dowdles had to leave out things.
“This could have been 12 episodes. But who exactly do you focus on? Between the Branch Davidians and FBI and ATF, where do you focus, exactly?” Drew Dowdle said.
The Dowdles praised the work of their production crew, particularly production designer Arvinder Grewal and costume designer Karyn Wagner for their attention to detail, not only in the replica of the Mount Carmel compound, but its interior and the appearance of individual Branch Davidians.
“Every Branch Davidian (in “Waco”) had a nickname. Even the extras had a name and backstory,” John Erick Dowdle said.
Both Thibodeau and Noesner provided their insights during the film shoot in New Mexico.
“When we finished building the set, David Thibodeau started crying. It was really powerful,” Drew Dowdle said.
The detail went down to a replica of the drum kit Thibodeau brought to Mount Carmel and set up in its chapel — a detail real enough that Thibodeau sat down and started drumming while filming was elsewhere on the set, John Dowdle added.
The fateful ATF raid comes in episode three with the siege playing out over the next three. While Salvatore Stabile and Sarah Nicole Jones wrote episodes 3, 4 and 5, the Dowdles made sure they did the finale, when an FBI tear-gas assault by armored vehicles gave way to the fire that consumed the compound and killed 76 Branch Davidians, including 24 children.
Don’t expect the final episode to answer the question that has followed for 25 years: Who started the fire?
“It’s unknowable,” John Dowdle said. “The things that led up to the fire were way more interesting. A lot of people died before the fire. … I believe the fire could have started nine different ways, and it probably did.”