It's no secret that pop culture has had a long-standing fascination with the story of Charles Manson and his Family, in part because there are so many layers to the twisted story. And while most Manson experts thought we'd hit the end of the road in terms of new information about Crazy Charlie and his followers, Fox's new documentary, Inside the Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes, is proof that there are still a lot of missing pieces to be reckoned with.
As executive producer Simon Andreae says, Manson exploited and defiled "many of the most fundamental pieces of what we would consider [integral to our] humanity"—sex, violence, individualism, loyalty, children—his corrupt action culminating in his most notorious crime: the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and four of her friends. And though it's a horrific story that's been told countless times, with this particular film, we finally get a look from the inside out and find surprising answers to some of the big questions still lingering around the case.
Kicked off by Andreae's discovery of the "lost tapes" filmed by Robert Hendrickson during the Family's pivotal years at Spahn Ranch, Inside the Manson Cult is an intimate look and analysis of what exactly inspired these horrific acts. These tapes include over 100 hours of footage, countless photographs, audio recordings, and an interview with Manson himself, and are a verifiable treasure trove of information lending insight into the Family's dynamic, the eventual disintegration of their "peace and love" ethos, and Manson's methods of manipulation. Combined with first-person interviews with former members of the Family—including Catherine “Gypsy” Share and Dianne “Snake” Lake, as well as an exclusive interview from prison with associate Bobby Beausoleil—Inside the Manson Cult provides further perspective, not only into the Family's motivations but also into why we continue to be obsessed with the Family's crimes.
Ahead of the documentary's premiere on Fox, we spoke to Andreae to get a little more insight into the making of this film, as well as what exactly sets it apart from the dozens of other Manson-related projects already out there. Read our Q&A, below.
Were you always a Manson enthusiast or was this kind of an accident? How did you stumble upon all this undiscovered footage in the first place?
I've always been fascinated by the Manson story, and the Family in particular. I made a number of films about people who came to be serial or spree killers, but never about Manson, because I never really felt like I had an angle where there was anything new. Then I noticed the 50th anniversary of the murders was approaching in 2019, and I revisited Vince Bugliosi [and Curt Gentry]'s seminal book, Helter Skelter. I read it—including all the footnotes and the index and the appendices—to hunt for clues as to whether there might be any footage that had been filmed by the family. Footage that would allow us a window into their world. Also, from a cultural and pathological perspective, [if they did film things themselves, that] might shed some light on the big questions we still have around the Family—were they truly brainwashed? Did they really mean to kill Sharon Tate?—all the things that had been debated.
While reading, I noticed a small mention of a young filmmaker who had been allowed inside Spahn Ranch in 1969. We had his name, and I hired a private investigator to see if she could track him down. I wasn't sure whether anything would come of it, but a few weeks later, I was sent about half a dozen images by text message, showing these peculiar, rusting, 16-millimeter cans of film. About 50 or 60 of them, all with decaying labels, saying, “Manson,” “Manson trials,” and so on. It turned out that those were 100 or so hours of film that Robert Hendrickson and his team had filmed between 1969 and 1973, but they hadn't been cataloged or anything like that.
It also turned out that Robert Hendrickson had passed away just about two or three weeks before my private investigator had made contact with the family. And his son knew the subject of what was in the film cams, but he didn’t know details... Remarkably, nearly all the films were in really pretty good condition, and the content included the 100 hours of mostly 60-millimeter film of the family between '69 and '72, a private interview with Manson himself in his prison cell before he was found guilty, and probably between 80 to 100 hours of audio tape that had never been listened to. There were some extraordinary details from family members, and then hundreds and hundreds of really beautiful photographs from his time on the run.
Hendrickson did compile and consolidate some of the material into a documentary called Manson in 1973, but it was banned two years later and never received wide distribution. It was banned because one member of the Family, Squeaky Fromme, was going on trial for trying to assassinate President Ford. She felt that, if people had seen this film, it would prejudice them against her, so she couldn't get a fair trial. The film was banned, and they never really showed it to the public again. In fact, it's never been officially unbanned. Those were the two things that came together and made me think, It's time for me to try and make my Manson documentary.
What else really surprised you about what you had found?
When we looked through it, there was an opportunity to do a couple of things, really. The first was to tell the full story of the Manson family—from its inception, the moment when Charlie was released from prison in the spring of '57 to the moment when he was found guilty of murder and received the death sentence—in the most authoritative, gripping way. From the inside. With the family members at the time talking about what's happening.
The other thing was to provide a window into the process of brainwashing, which has a lot of contemporary resonance as well. With Manson, you have young, white, middle-class kids seduced by charismatic extremists into a cult-like environment, and then they’re slowly brainwashed so that they abandon all the morals and ethical beliefs they had before—in favor of a mindset of suicidal extremism. It's obviously quite a contemporary story. This was the first instance I knew of where you could see that brainwashing happen from the inside. In the present tense, in the words and images of the people who were being brainwashed at the time.
What was it like parsing through all this material?
We had a very good archivist who went through all of it. I had a number of very specific questions that allowed him to know what would be of most interest to me: “Were there any clues that Manson knew that they were going to unleash hell in early August of '69 beforehand, or was it just random? Is anyone talking about that?” “Did they know that this was the home of Tate and Polanski, or did they not know?” “Did Manson genuinely try to kill members of the prosecution and his own defense team during the trial, as has been claimed?” “Do we see these people being brainwashed, and under a state of brainwashing? And do they willingly talk about it?” And it turned out that the answer to those questions, the key to answering those questions, was everywhere.
I did end up looking through probably 30 or 40 hours of the material that the archivist had preselected. And it was amazing, because—especially in the material where they’re talking about life in '68—you get the feeling that the family was kind of happy, and liberated. Free of the sort of injunctions and restrictions of American mainstream culture that entered towards the end of the '60s. They set up a commune where they really loved each other—were physically and emotionally attracted to each other, shared their food, their beds, their innermost secrets. You see them dancing around together, embracing, talking super-openly. You wouldn't really know what was going to happen in the early material. All you get is a sense of a family at peace, having fun.
When you read about the Manson story, you think, Oh my god, they were these crazy, brainwashed killers. But you get a sense from the film of there was a moment in time when it was a happy, bucolic, fascinating, exciting, liberating place to live. And then you notice that there's a period when it starts to get dark—after they moved to Spahn Ranch. There's a relatively seminal moment when Charlie is rejected by the music producer Terry Melcher… At that point, Hollywood turns from being his dream to the object of his sort of pain, really.
And then, of course, the Beatles' White Album comes out, and the family speaks about how he would play it again and again and again, backward and forward and inside and out. And he was obsessed with the idea that the Beatles were speaking directly to him, and wanting him to ignite a race war. And then you have a number of incidents in the Manson family. In particular, the intended execution of Bernard Crowe [the black drug dealer whose death they believed would be the beginning of the race war].
Charlie is really redirecting what used to be his happy followers into would-be assassins, whose job is going to be to ignite a race war themselves. So you get this horrible sense of foreboding when you watch the material about 1969. By that time, you look into the eyes of most of the people in the film, and they're gone. They're not the same people. They look sort of... I don't know whether spaced-out would be the right thing, but they have this kind of distant stare in their eyes that you sometimes see on the faces of terrorists, suicide bombers. It's exacerbated by the fact that very often they're high as well, but you see an extraordinary difference. You just sense this move from happiness and light to darkness and terror.
What was the most terrifying thing you uncovered?
The thing that I found the most... When I heard it, my hair stood on end, was actually a piece of never-before-heard audio where Paul Watkins, I think, believes the tape is not rolling. And he says something along the lines of, "Charlie said that one day there would be a terrible massacre in Beverly Hills, and there would be blood all over the walls, and bodies all over the floor."
Then there's a pause because the filmmaker is like, "Holy fuck." And then you hear him say, "How long before the Tate murders did Charlie say this?" And then there's a pause, and Watkins says, "About three months."
So that's the moment when you realize that it wasn't a terrible accident. It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. It wasn't an attempt to kill Sharon Tate in particular, but it was an attempt to create something so shocking in the privileged white Hollywood community that the race war would be ignited.
As you know, when they committed the murders, they were then writing, “Pigs” and “Rise” and so on in blood on the walls to try and imply that the Black Panthers, in particular, were responsible for the murders. [The plan was that] white America would be so outraged and appalled that they would immediately clash with the black community and so on, and then there would be a massive race war, and Armageddon, and so on and so on.
But he had probably chosen the house because (a) it was a beautiful house in the Hollywood Hills that was symbolic of the parts of society that he had grown to hate but (b) it also happened to be the home that had been rented by Terry Melcher, who had rejected him personally.
Again, a lot of this has been debated, but from what you found, do you believe he knew full well that Terry Melcher was gone from the place?
Most of the books about Manson concur that he knew that Terry Melcher had moved out because Manson had been to 10050 Cielo Drive a couple of times since he moved out, and must have known that he'd moved out. And some sources say that he knew that Sharon Tate had moved in because he had once knocked on the door and Tate had come to the door.
I don't believe that he knew that. I believe that he didn't firmly know that Melcher had moved out, and he didn't know who Sharon Tate was. I think it's just as likely that he was trying to have Terry Melcher killed as it was symbolic revenge.
I’m curious to know what you think about the pop culture notoriety the Tate-LaBianca murders still possess, even after all these years. Like, just look at Quentin Tarantino’s new film that literally cast every A-lister under the sun.
It's amusing because a lot of the most memorable people in our culture are people who all probably have done things to extreme levels. Sometimes they're good, and sometimes they're bad. And Manson crossed the boundary of normality into extremity for many of the most fundamental pieces of what we would consider [integral to our] humanity.
Sexually, he was very extreme. He had sex with men, women, children. That's another thing you'll discover in the film—the minors he had sex with, consensually and non-consensually. He had sex with individuals and with groups. In terms of violence, he was also very, very extreme. In terms of the exercising of power and control, even amidst a small community, he was very, very extreme. He's fascinating to people because, like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, when you cross so many boundaries in such an extreme way, your life becomes memorable. It just does, because people want to know what it looks like to turn the dial up to 11 in all the fundamental aspects that haunt our fears and our dreams. Love, sex, loyalty, children, morals, violence...
He wasn't just a violent guy with a normal sex life. He was everything. On top of that, he desecrated one of the most sacred symbols of post-war American culture: a beautiful white, young actress. In the most sacred enclave of America: Hollywood, the dream factory. He didn't just commit violence against her, he committed a real desecration—cutting open stomachs, hanging them from the ceiling, shooting them, blood all over the walls, blood all over the floor, messages written in blood. You could hardly imagine a more horrific desecration of a more sacred altar, in a non-religious way, right?
And on top of all that, for better or worse, he was a very charismatic individual. He had an aura about him. We know he persuaded many people to follow him, literally, to the death. But if you hear his voice, even Crazy Charlie from prison later on...
Actually, we have the only interview from him before he was found guilty and became Crazy Charlie. We have him when he was charismatic Charlie, and you really can sense the electricity, metaphorically, coming off him and the power he must have had. So I think it's a combination of those three things. The extremity of his behavior in so many realms; the pure desecration of a sacred symbol; and his personal charisma. Therefore his name, and his voice, and his story lives in pop culture more profoundly than many others.
I also wanted to ask about how you independently got access to [Family associate Bobby Beausoleil]?
Bobby is still in touch with some former members of the Family, and it became clear to some former members of the Family that they felt this was an interesting—and responsible—documentary film. And that maybe cooperation in interviews wouldn't be a bad thing. They didn't need to treat us with the same skepticism or alarm that they have with other news outlets and documentaries.
So, word got to Bobby. And he's permitted telephone calls every now and then. So he called us… I think it was helped by the fact that he's had quite a big change of heart, in terms of the degree to which he can accept responsibility for the murder he committed.
So he just became very open with us and shared his story, and it's become an interesting theme of the film. Obviously, we're looking for as many first-hand reports as possible to corroborate evidence and standout aspects of the tale. But [it’s also interesting] because there's been lots of talk about... Bobby technically committed the first known murder of that lengthy murder spree of the summer of '69. And people haven't really known whether that was mandated by Charlie or whether he did it off his own bat. What was the whole deal? We get to the bottom of that as well.
Inside the Manson Cult: The Lost Tapes airs September 17 at 8pm EST on FOX.