J. Clay Tweel interview: ‘Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults’ documentary

Like many people, J. Clay Tweel, director of “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” first heard of Heaven’s Gate when the bodies of 39 members of the group were discovered in March 1997. “I was in high school at the time in 1997. I grew up in a household that watched a lot of news, so I was inundated with it for about a two-, three-week basis. It just sort of took over the whole 24-hour news cycle back then,” Tweel recalls during Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Documentary panel (watch above). “I think I saw it through the lens of a lot of Americans back then, which was it quickly became a joke, something to be exploited and laughed at. I watched all the nightly news clips about it, the monologues for all the late-night shows.”

Tweel didn’t really think about Heaven’s Gate again until the opportunity came up to adapt Glynn Washington‘s podcast about the cult into a docuseries. “I listened to the podcast and really loved it,” he shares. “What I loved about it was that you not only got to hear from former members, but you got to hear from family members who lost loved ones, people who were in the cult for various amounts of time. You got to hear from psychologists and sociologists, so it really gave a 360-degree view of what it was like to be a part of Heaven’s Gate.”

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During research and production, Tweel interviewed some of the same people who appeared on the podcast and even got his hands on home video footage of former members doing very normal things, like putting on talent shows and celebrating the holidays together. One thing he learned that he never knew before was Bonnie Nettles, one of the founding members, known as Ti, who died of cancer in 1985. “[She] had died 10 years into the group’s existence and just seeing that evolution of how an ideology changes over time and gets more and more dangerous,” Tweel says.

One of Tweel’s goals with the four-part HBO series was to humanize the members of a group that has become a punchline. One of the common misconceptions about cults is that only unhinged weirdos join, but as sociologists and experts explain in the show, cults recruit smart, educated people because you want highly functional people to continue the cult. What the series also shows is many members were lonely and seeking connection, a place to belong.

“We talked about it a lot when we started interviewing people: how can we frame the narrative around them in an elegant way, in a way that’s not banging you over the head with it but just making the audience care about these people?” Tweel states. “And bringing in their life before they joined the cult and by the end, get you to care about them as a person. I think if the audience comes away doing that, then I’ve done my job. But really trying to get the audience to engage on an emotional level in a way that breaks down a lot of the stereotypes.”

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UPLOADED May 17, 2021 12:14 pm