Lesley Chilcott is the director of the TV docuseries Helter Skelter: An American Myth on Epix ,taking a cultural and historical look at the Charlie Manson killings. She has been involved in documentaries her entire career. Here, in a conversation with Awards Daily, she dives into what interested in the Manson case and what it revealed to her, not just about the crimes, but why it has stayed with us. Plus, she reveals what motivates her when it comes to any of her subjects and why it is the medium she adores.
AD: What made you want to tackle the Charles Manson case? It’s a case that has interested people for a while but what specifically got you interested?
Lesley Chilcott: Because I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand the crime but I also didn’t understand why people are still talking about it over fifty years later. That made me want to do an anthropological dig around the topic and the time period to understand the why of it all.
AD: You got some of Charles Manson’s former “family” to talk to you. How did you go about getting them to sit down and talk to you about this?
LC: You know that was one of the toughest things because it’s such well-trod territory, just about everybody has been contacted multiple times. So you have to start out by saying, ‘Hey, we’re trying to do a fact-based deep dive into the whole story and stay away from the tabloidesque coverage.’ And that was hard. It took months. We had a couple of great research producers and we were writing letters to people in prison like Bobby Beausoleil, for example, and it took a long time to convince people that we wanted to do something more serious. Luckily a fair amount of people have paved the way. There are a number of authors like Jeff Guinn, who devoted several years of his life trying to talk to anybody and everybody, or Ivor Davis who was there at the time and wrote some excellent books. So that was pretty helpful too. There were also a number of family members that I talked to just as background and aren’t even in the project but gave me lots of helpful information.
AD: Going back to the first answer when you said you wanted to understand. What was that journey like for you? Do you feel you have a better sense of it now?
LC: I feel I have a much better sense of it. But I also learned that I can never finish the puzzle. There are a bunch of pieces that are on the wrong side and they don’t fit. The crimes were so horrific no matter what kind of understanding you have of a cult or the time period of the late 60s, early 70s. The crimes that emerged really didn’t have a motive, like an acceptable motive or any motive. I think this happens sometimes in life, and I think it’s really hard to come to terms with. And I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re still talking about it. Charlie was a classic cult leader, he repeated a couple of key phrases over and over and over. He isolated the men and women out at Spahn Ranch, he kept clocks and the news and newspapers away. He then alternated sex and love with fear and abuse. He gave everyone new names, he role played.
Now we look at it and say, ‘Oh, these are the classic things that make up a cult.’ But back then those tools, the terminology and analysis, wasn’t there for people to turn to and figure it out. So I tried with the series with the producers and the wonderful editors on this project to really dial into the cultural currency of the time and say, Look, some of these things are present in society now, and take a look at this, and learn from this. Charlie is not that different from some people that we see today. Which is a scary thought.
AD: One part that you focused on that I had not heard as much about was the suffering of the women that Charlie had under his control. The rapes, making the women crawl, the sign of devotion when he was on trial. Was that a special interest to you?
LC: It was, because there is this thing, can you feel sorry or feel concern for someone, who later commits a crime. That is why episode 2 is devoted entirely to Charlie’s childhood. Because you have this battle when you see someone like him and you wonder, why was he born that way? Did something make him that way? Is it both? Age-old nature-versus-nurture question. Is it okay to feel bad because Charlie was raped in prison when he was younger and he had a terrible upbringing? I think it is okay to feel that way because that is human, and it’s important to understand that laid the groundwork for what he turned into later. By the same token, there are number of people in the family who never committed a single murder and we need to acknowledge that. But the ones who did were desperate enough to do some of those things.
A number of the family members who weren’t involved say, ‘Thank God Charlie didn’t ask me to go that night because I would have gone.’ They were trying to get back to the bliss that they felt at the beginning of the cult and they were so removed and they weren’t eating well and they were doing tons of LSD. They were in this dangerous cycle, and I think it’s okay to go back and see why they weren’t in their right minds at that time, even those who did commit the murders. Charlie is different; he was actively manipulating people. He would explain monstrous acts, placing them in philosophical terms, distractions, and justifying them. And his followers didn’t know up from down. Some of them thought, Oh, this is just campfire talk, and others hung on every word. So I think it was important to look at what these people felt for two reasons. One, it could still happen today, and the second reason is Charlie was not a mastermind. People talk about him like he’s this mastermind criminal but a friend of the family described it best, that he failed from one desperate act to another, from one paranoid blunder after another.
AD: Yeah, his success was more at creating fear and making us wonder about it. A lot was because of the high-profile of the people attacked.
LC: Yeah, and you have to think, he attracted his first few girls by playing his guitar and singing. Which people have been doing throughout history, and they’re still doing now. It was all kind of innocent at first and some of the girls just thought, he was singing to me and I think he wrote this song just for me. It wasn’t true but it felt that way.
AD: One part that shocked me was when we did get to see the crime photos. And I was curious what the discussion was about whether or not to show them. Was that something you always wanted to do to show the brutality, or did you wonder if it was going to be too much?
LC: I didn’t want to show them initially because they are so horrific. We were going to great lengths to give the viewer the tools to understand how this horrible thing could happen in this time and place. We started to feel that you had to see the brutality of it. It felt like if we didn’t show it and, granted there is only one photo at each murder, shown in complete silence and that is it. It might feel like more but that’s it, there is just one. It felt like if we didn’t do it it would be letting them off the hook and that didn’t feel right. Francy Kachler edited it in a number of ways, and she’s an amazing editor, but she said it’s one of the toughest things she’s had to do as an editor. We had four different approaches so the one we picked we felt that it most importantly didn’t shortchange the victims and, while they are gory, we wanted to avoid them being excessive so as not to play into the tabloidesque coverage that has happened in the past. Whether it be with reenactments or showing photos that are actually worse. So we picked one per photo so you could see how brutal it was but nothing more than that. Does that make sense?
AD: It does. I’ve listened to a podcast about Charlie Manson and seen a few things about him and the photos were a way to really bring back that it isn’t just a true crime thing that you’re hearing about abstractly. It really did bring home this is the terrible thing these people did.
LC: Yeah, and it is a tough episode but to see what people were driven to do, and if we didn’t show the photo it might not feel as horrible. That is one of the reasons we are still talking about it; because the crimes were particularly brutal and they really surprised people at that time. I wanted that accuracy, but I didn’t want anything added. The photos aren’t even color corrected. They are not treated, they are just the crime photo and that is it.
AD: You have solely worked in the documentary field. What is it about that genre that appeals to you as a creative person?
LC: It is kind of like a virus. Once you have experienced it you have it and it sticks with you. I think being able to use all the tools available to scripted or narrative filmmaking and then apply those to a documentary, you are constantly on standby listening, whether it is interviewing someone, verity, or constructed original photography you are just constantly editing in your head while you are doing it. When you are interviewing people like Dianne Lake and Catherine Share, who are particularly good at this, you really get to feel their essence, I think. You then feel a responsibility, I have to translate that correctly for people. I have to do my best to capture their truth, whether it’s lovely, brutal, musical, historical, whatever it is you want to capture that accurately. It becomes a privilege to be able to do that. So I think you kind of fall in love with it. For me it’s the most rewarding of all the formats for that reason.
AD: How did you break into the field?
LC: Well, I was making commercials and a lot of times we’d volunteer a couple times a year to do public service announcements. It was such an interesting thing because it was always for a cause, but you still kind of make it commercial and tell a story around it. I thought this is such a great thing and I had been doing a series of PSAs and the same people involved in that had seen Al Gore’s slideshow. Then, separately, two of them called me and said, you’ve got to come to this meeting tomorrow, not knowing the other one had called. I went and I learned about Al Gore’s slideshow so actually An Inconvenient Truth was the first documentary that I produced. I thought, this is so magical because this is Al Gore who everybody thought they knew, yet if you followed him dragging his suitcase to the airport at 2 in the morning going along with his slideshow to China or the UK or wherever it was, I got the privilege of showing the real Al Gore, and I was hooked after that.
AD: You have dealt with many different subjects in your career, both producing and directing. What sparks your interest in diverse topics like these?
LC: Oh, that’s a good question! For Helter Skelter it was unusual, it was really because I didn’t at the time understand the continued fifty plus years fascination with the Manson family. So I was, like, I have to dig into this. I have to find out what was going on and why we’re still talking about it. So that drew me there. I am developing a project about wolves and how vital they are to the ecosystem and how people are killing them for no reason in 2021. That interests me on an ontological level. I think if there is a good human story combined with a fascinating subject matter then I am interested. Generally I like social justice stories and environmental issues, but then with Helter Skelter and another project I’m doing right now, something that grabs ahold of people out of all of the things out there in popular culture and why do we talk about this one thing–that really fascinates me too.
AD: Is there anything you want to leave our readers with?
LC: I think what is fascinating to look at right now is tribalism and I say that partly because the Manson family members were in a cult they were like a tribe against the world with their own belief system. But this isn’t something that can happen in just the late 60s, whether it’s the political tribes we are in now: wear a mask, don’t wear a mask. I think really in this modern interconnected world we get stuck in our own feedback loop. I really like thinking about what happens when we get too tribal, and it just applies to so many things. For me that’s a really interesting topic right now, and one that I imagine a lot of people are thinking about.
AD: Yes I think about that daily.
LC: Do you?
AD: Yes, I pay attention to a lot of political stuff and I’m disturbed by a lot of the untruths that are motivating people.
LC: Yeah, I do not want to get preachy or anything, but what makes the world so exciting is that not everyone’s the same. You can’t get into your own little feedback loop, I think even with binging certain types of shows. I’ve been absolutely obsessed for the last few years with Nordic Noir. There are so many great foreign shows that I’ve been able to go into these worlds that are so fantastic but at the same time I don’t want to forget about all these other great subjects, just because I’ve gotten too into one thing. So I think there are pluses and minuses.