Last year we had Going Clear, a documentary that took us inside the world of Scientology. This year, we have Holy Hell. William Allen was just a young man who enjoyed filmmaking when he when he was introduced to a man who went by the name of Michel, the leader of a cult called Buddhafield. For much of his life, Allen was involved in the cult. He eventually left and took his footage with him.
In the brand new documentary, Holy Hell, Allen unveils his experience in the cult and talks to us about why he chose to tell his story.
AD: How did you get involved in the cult, for those who don’t know?
WA: Thank you! Well, it was very easy to get involved because my sister invited me. I was at a crisis moment when my mother had kicked me out of the house and I was so upset. She told me, in a voice I had never heard from her, it was very calm and loving, that I don’t have to do it all on my own. I didn’t ever realize that I could have support in my life and she told me to come to the meeting that night. I didn’t want to come because I was too emotional, but she was like “no, no come,” so I went. I had this really beautiful experience with peace and connection and everyone was meditating and I just thought that it was so beautiful and had never seen anything like this. It really resonated with me. It felt non-dogmatic. The leader would talk about all different types of religions and the source of all religions and then kind of throw it all away and create a new version of it. It was really appealing to me because I was raised Catholic so I was looking for anything that wasn’t guilt-ridden [laughs] and guided by do’s and don’ts. It was appealing to me.
AD: You have a lot of footage that goes way back, so when did you start filming? Have you always been a filmmaker?
WA: I started filming my life when I was younger, you know, making movies, and when I went to college my dramatic films were all very self-reflective of what was life about and why are we here and what is death and what happens when we die. I was trying to get on top of it all and understand what everyone was doing here. I was using my films for that. When I got into the group, even though he discouraged anyone from following their careers and encouraged us to give up all our ambition, I couldn’t give up that part of myself that had to document my life so I kept doing it. But, it changed for me; my films were not coming from angst or confusion, I was now coming from joy and I’d found a certain answer that I liked and so my films became very expressive of beauty which was new for me. I started to document pretty much the first year or so after I was there. I would just pick my camera up and start filming whatever we were doing. I would just eventually start making movies for the group. I would film us and edit it into movies and we would watch them on Christmas. It was a big event, but just for us. No one else.
AD: When did you become disillusioned?
WA: The truth of the matter is that I became disillusioned very early on, but something happens when you commit to something you believe in. This is, in part, what the film tries to explore. Once you say, “yes” it is really hard to back out and say, “no” and change your mind. Any disillusionment that I experienced or other people experienced would be pointed back to you like you had this problem that you needed to get passed. My problem happened when he came on to me sexually and forced a sexual relationship. Everything changed for me at that point. It ruined my spiritual innocence and so for the longest time after that, I kept trying to maintain this sense of innocence, in spite of everything. The closer I got to him, when I was younger, the more I didn’t like him, but he also used to say that no one is supposed to like the teacher and that the teacher is here to make you uncomfortable and break your ego. Of course you’re not going to like him so we thought that it was normal [laughs]. We thought we were supposed to be angry at him here and there because he’s telling us things we don’t want to hear. It was part of the universe that he was teaching us that inadvertently helped us stay.
AD: That is mindblowing. At what point did you think to tell your story?
WA: That happened years later. It took me a while. I left with much of my footage when the group broke up and I honestly never felt I was going to look at this footage again or maybe in 20 years I’d look at it. But there was nothing on there that I wanted to see. I just wanted to create a new life and to run and run and run. That was my style, to run away and create new memories and meet new people. We all tried to forget what happened to us, but was five year after that that I wasn’t healing very well and I hadn’t been able to process what happened, I didn’t understand it. I went to Sundance and while there I decided I was going to turn my footage into a film.
AD: That’s such an inspiration, to be at Sundance with all these filmmakers.
WA: I know, I know [laughs]! It sounds so stereotyped, but it’s true. I went there just to try to meet people and try to start my life and try to be a filmmaker and I realized that I have to make a film. If you want to be a filmmaker, you have to do it. You can’t just talk about it. That’s what I’ve done. I would always direct and write and produce and edit and film so that’s when I knew. And then, I thought, “what movie would you rather make than something that’s complicated and meaningful and would bring purpose to your life and others?” It was this story for me.
AD: Wow. How much footage did you leave with? I know sometimes it’s like 200 hours.
WA: Yeah. Luckily for me, and thank God, I would edit these movies every few years and I’d throw away all the footage I didn’t use and just keep my masters. I left with a lot of pre-cut films that were already made and then a lot of raw footage. I think I got out with about 25 or 30 hours of footage. It’s a lot, but it’s also condensed. It’s all the best footage because I had already gone through it all because I’d done so many years of work. Then, we had like ten hours of his interviews when he’s talking to us and then I did like 50 hours of interviews, at least.
AD: What were the struggles in making this?
WA: It’s true, it was very hard to do. I would say that all of it was a struggle to revisit this stuff and to look at this footage and to look at this man that I have such a deep confusion and hatred towards. To listen and look at him over and over and over for the next four years, to listen to my friends’ interviews and to put everything together was painful. I had to put my emotions in it and I had to make sure the emotions were on the screen and so that was something you’d have to feel all the time. It was confusing how to tell the story because I’d done propaganda for so many years and only been shown the good things and actually only filmed the good things. I didn’t film the bad things. So, I had this challenge of how do I show the good and the bad when I didn’t capture the bad on camera. That was really interesting to layer in the negative on top because I didn’t have any clear-cut negative footage that was obvious [laughs]. I never had him saying that he was going to fuck me or any of that stuff so we had to layer all that and explain all that. Luckily, everything married together perfectly because both things existed so you could see an image of him and he might be laughing and you could hear someone talk about how bad he was and it works because you can see it even though it’s happy or this other thing going on. The duality was always present.
AD: You feel it as well as see it. I don’t know if creepy is the right word, but there’s a feeling of “oh my gosh.”
WA: Yeah, your human nature and intuition is feeling like the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up and you know when to be alarmed.
AD: When you’re sitting back and looking at the footage, were there moments when you think “why didn’t I get out sooner?”
WA: I do. One of my goals in the film was to try to answer that question for people and why people stay in these situations and why people stay in not just cults, that has a religious and spiritual significance that keeps people bound, but why do people stay in troubled relationships and bad jobs for so long. We have to have reasons for doing it and so ours was that he was a hypnotherapist, first of all. Anytime we wanted to leave he would talk us out of it and anytime we wanted to fight we would be put down and suppressed and we were told be more humble. The more humble you are, the more you let go of your ego and the more you get over your critical thinking, the less power you have to make these independent choices that are better for you, but you might not be taking care of yourself and you’re serving a bigger whole and you get sacrificed. All these things were happening at once.
AD: You’ve finished it and you’ve screened it and everyone is saying that it’s such a great documentary. What has happened since you finished it? Have you had contact with any current members?
WA: Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes. Unfortunately, yes, one of the individuals who is in the film received a death threat in Hawaii where the teacher still lives. Someone came up to him in person and threatened his life if the movie comes there. And my friend went to the police, there’s a warrant out for his arrest, they found out that the man lives at the same house the teacher lives in. So we finally made things change because the film just documented our story and is continuing in their story. Of course, who knows what they’re going to do to me. They’re slandering me all over the place, secretly though. That’s what they do. It’s all very subversive, but it doesn’t matter because it still isn’t about me or about 100 people. It’s for everyone. If 100 people don’t see it and 100 people hate me and whatever, it’s okay.
AD: It’s educational to watch as well.
WA: Even now when people are still defending him when they hear the truth. Why? What are you protecting? How long are going to go one protecting and hiding him? I love privacy and think it’s very important, but there’s also transparency that people need when people are devoting their life to something. People devote their lives to a lot of different things and many times they don’t know what it was until years later when they see all the different pieces to the thing they were involved in because there’s not transparency all the time.
AD: When you’re in something, you don’t see it. When you step away, you suddenly have a clearer vision.
WA: Exactly. He wouldn’t allow people to step away. He wouldn’t allow people to get that distance. I wasn’t allowed to go see my parents. People weren’t allowed to have friends outside because in cults, the dangerous thing about them is that they become very singular and want you to only be around like-minded people. Only listen to him and only spend time with them; the outside people don’t understand and are going to take you away. So, once he establishes that then it’s really hard to have outside people that you listen to.
AD: It’s dangerous as well because like you said, that influence of somebody external realizing you sound completely crazy and he’s crazy.
WA: We heard that and would say that they don’t understand and we know it looks funny, but its not. We would have these answers [laughs]. There’s a comment someone in the group in the film that says “we used to say that we know we look like a cult, but we’re not one.”
AD: Denial is always good as well.
WA: Yeah, yeah. I love denial and compartmentalization too.
AD: Anytime we do something or say something about these cults and whatever they choose to mark themselvesas, they’re always going to come off to you and say something negative about you.
WA: Oh yeah, they demonize you if you leave. I would even do it to some of my friends when they would want to leave. I would be very angry at them and my mentality was very much in sync with the teacher because we were all emulating him and his thoughts that we adopted. If someone left the group, it was like they were against the group. It works, though, because why would you leave [laughs].
AD: Right. And now here you are in 2016. You’ve made it and you’ve done it for the world to see. How long did it take to edit all the footage?
WA: I went to Sundance in February of 2012 and I finished it at Sundance in 2016. It was literally four years, like I got to Sundance and was like, “it was four years ago since I had the thought.” But it took four years to raise money and to research and logging, so I didn’t keep track of all the months the whole editing process took. I was constantly creating the film and eventually we cut down from a five hour cut to three hour cut. There were so many great outtakes that we had to lose because people can only take 90 minutes of anything.
AD: I know, we’ve got such a short attention span. We need a director’s cut to come out.
WA: I think small sound bites of like two and half minute films sounds kind of fun. Now that we know the universe it takes place in, we can have more fun looking at the footage in context.
AD: So what are you doing next after this?
WA: Well, it’s not completely done yet. We’re still doing marketing and pushing it and making sure it has a successful theatrical run. Then, it’ll be on video-on-demand in July and we’ll be on CNN at the end of summer and on Netflix later. I think I have another month or two because we have some festivals I get to go to which are fun, in Poland and Belfast and some other places. I just got back from Spain and Toronto. You want other people in the world to hear about it and they don’t all just know about it magically. You have to go out there and put it out there. I’ll be doing that for a little bit. I really would love to take a break, honestly, and there’s part of me that would love to do a scripted television show, very Six Feet Under meets Big Love. You can’t write this stuff and you can’t make it up and there’s so much to it that really you can’t put into a documentary. I also love fiction and sci-fi and normal movies, not just documentaries only.
AD: Oh, I think we all love the normal movies.
WA: I think if I like the subject of a film, I’ll go see it no matter what it is. Documentaries have a lot to compete with. They have to entertaining and keep people’s attention and do something new. But, I love blockbusters and I’ll see all of them. I love everything.
AD: Jared Leto is involved as an Executive producer.
WA: Yes! He’s fantastic. He came in early when we had done a really rough cut back in September so he saw the potential of where we were headed with it. It was nice and he’s an artist and everyone respects him so much.
Holy Hell is in wide release