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February 09, 2018

Going Back to Waco

The Dowdle brothers shine a bright light on a dark chapter in U.S. history.

Graham Flashner
  • Drew ( left ) and John Erick Dowdle on the set of Waco.

    Ursula Coyote

The Dowdle brothers — Drew (who writes and produces) and John Erick (who writes and directs) — made their mark with dark genre films like Quarantine (2008) and No Escape (2015).

For their first true-story adaptation, they take on the controversial history of Waco, a six-episode limited series for Paramount Network about the 1993 standoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidians, a religious sect led by the charismatic David Koresh.

The series — which premiered January 24  and is available at and on the network app — is based on two books: A Place Called Waco, coauthored by BD member David Thibodeau (one of nine survivors of the fire that killed 76 members of the group) and Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator by Gary Noesner, former head of the FBI’s crisis negotiation unit.

Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) stars as Koresh, Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) as Noesner, Rory Culkin (Scream 4) as Thibodeau and John Leguizamo (Moulin Rouge!) as an ATF agent who infiltrates the Branch Davidians. The Dowdles executive-produce along with Kitsch, Shannon and Salvatore Stabile.

How did Waco come together?

John Erick Dowdle: We were writing something totally unrelated, trying to flesh out a “bad guy” character, and we said, what if he grew up in the Branch Davidians? What if he grew up in a cult like [the one made famous at] Waco? We went online, found David’s book. There was something about seeing these events from the inside, not the outside, that was a revelation.

Drew Dowdle: We tried for a year to push a feature version and get a screenplay that was less than 160 pages, but it’s an impossible story to tell in that amount of time. Once we expanded it to a limited series, there was suddenly a ton more interest.

What’s the biggest misperception about Waco you’d like to correct?

JED: That the Branch Davidians were all monsters, that they were torturing children, that they were demonic. These were good people. There were theologians, Harvard grads, intelligent people who thought they had found something special there.

DD: Most people believe that the Branch Davidians jerked the FBI around for 51 days and were planning to commit mass suicide all along. This is false. They never planned to do it. They saw the standoff as the ultimate test of their faith, and they weren’t going to be moved by force.

How did Taylor Kitsch immerse himself in the role of David Koresh?

JED: Taylor lost 30 pounds, learned to play guitar, took vocal lessons, studied Scripture. To play someone like Koresh, there’s a lot of resistance to work through. There’s an ugly side to that character. You have to act that character without judgment, and try to understand where that ugliness comes from.

Like the Coen brothers, you both grew up in Minneapolis. How did you come to make films?

JED: I studied writing at the University of Iowa  and transferred to NYU to study film. Joel [Coen]  went to NYU and slowly lured Ethan in. We sort of copied their playbook.

DD: I went to business school at the University of Michigan. Once John transferred to NYU, he tried  to get his hooks in me, going down the film path.

I loved the idea but thought, was there a living to be made? A few years later, I had done my time on Wall Street and was tired of that.… We made our first film together, a $40,000 movie [The Dry Spell] that premiered at Slamdance in 2005. I quit my job in New York and moved to L.A. Our second film, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, went to the Tribeca Film Festival and sold to MGM. That film really helped us get in.

What do you hope audiences take away from Waco ?

JED: That these lives mattered. Instead of rushing to judgment, take a moment to realize these are human beings.

DD: We feel this telling of Waco is not something you’ve seen before. I hope the takeaway is: you can’t believe everything the TV tells you. [They laugh.] Except for this show. 

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2018

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