Finding The Scope of Peoples Temple

by David A. Berdass

At this time last year, I had just started to conceptualize a film script which I envision as a cinematic retelling of Peoples Temple activity from 1976 to1978, mostly culled from Tim Reiterman’s Raven. I knew the three-hour film would have to condense, merge, and at times, fictionalize characters and events for dramatic purposes. Half of the dialogue will be taken from actual audio, half of it written for story purposes. Ideally I anticipate a budget of between $3m-$5m – an optimistic figure I realize – with a major talent standing in for Jim Jones.

At this point, I have listened to hundreds and hundreds of hours of recorded Peoples Temple history that I obtained from this site. More than spanning the complete time period I’m covering, these tapes reach back to the late 1960s and even earlier. As I discuss here, some of the sessions captured at Jonestown – like the White Nights – have such a ferocious intensity, that a cinephile like myself easily imagines one of those tapes re-created on film with a charismatic actor filling in for Jones. I’m probably halfway through all tapes, all the while making footnotes to revisit many of them. It’s an ungainly task, and I’m loving every analogue-sourced moment of it.

I have also obtained the unedited video of the NBC/Don Brown crew shot from Georgetown all the way to the landing strip shooting. While documenting a lot of the boredom of people waiting around for something to happen, it simultaneously captures much of the atmosphere and tension that was so inherent in that fateful trip. Also included is an unedited NBC interview with Jones – a snippet of which was played on PBS’ Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple which reveals an obviously strung-out Jones besieged within his crumbling commune. If I can manage to recreate a fraction of this tension in my translation to the screen, the film will be a success.

For the purpose of research and gaining different perspectives, I have been reading Jonestown books on a continuous basis. Though Raven has been the backbone of my script, other works, such as Rebecca Moore’s Understanding Jonestown And Peoples Temple and Denice Stephenson’s Dear People: Remembering Jonestown have helped to give a human voice to some of the 918 people who died that day in Guyana.

But perhaps what has been the most invigorating and creative jolt throughout my production has simply been music, both of the period and from Peoples Temple itself. I noted in last year’s report that I would include choice soundtrack cuts within the delivered script, and this list of songs keeps growing jointly with my concept narrative of the film. The more I listen to artists such as Janis Joplin, Dusty Springfield, Earth Wind & Fire, Wynona Carr, and various ‘70s soul groups, the better idea I have for what the characters are about and what they bring to the Peoples Temple narrative.

The sole album Peoples Temple produced, He’s Able (1973), has also provided me with some inspiration. The album is surprisingly full of life and soul. Tracks like “Set Them Free” and “Because of Him” have provided me with some character background and framing mechanism ideas to bring some Peoples Temple members to life – much as their music did all by itself – specifically that of a Deanna (Diana) Wilkinson-inspired lead character. I would be remiss if I did not have any part of this album involved in my “Jonestown” screenplay.

Similarly the Jonestown Express has some recordings I have yet to delve in to, but I am guessing will provide me with answers I am seeking to character development.

Screenwriting and Character Development

I am not a professional screenwriter nor do I have any contacts in Hollywood. This is being created from my sheer love of film along with my fascination of the subject matter. A competent screenplay will not be good enough here; this is going to be a pulverizing experience for the audience, much like I (and others) felt after first watching the PBS documentary. To be effective, I need to deliver a solid project, which then leads to thorough researching, when then leads to characterization.

Of course, we have the givens of the story, the Jim Joneses, the Leo Ryans, the Stoens: all characters that most identify with Jonestown. These people will of course be major characters in my “Jonestown” script, but it’s important to me to represent a good amount of a Peoples Temple contingent. It is here that I decided to match the era’s music and styles with different Peoples Temple members, with each character associated with a genre of the time. This accomplishes two things at once: 1) adds character shading from their roots through where they are now and 2) keeps the film pulsating with music. I grasped this concept through steady diet of the era’s music, imagining characters, scenarios, motivations, etc.

So, like a puzzle, I have the borders completed and now need to work my way to the center. It is here that I’m condensing some members into one or two persons or – in another instance – creating a person out of whole cloth to propel the story forward. How I’d like to handle the Peoples Temple contingent (as I call it) is to have about a dozen characters who represent a good cross-section of its members. I can accomplish this perhaps by having a band similar to Jonestown Express make up the center of the film’s characters: how their relationships evolve and ultimately dissolve through Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and Jonestown; this is the direction I think makes the most narrative sense.

This is the point of my greatest challenge: to find the right balance of being true to Peoples Temple, true to the time period, and true to the dramatic narrative.

Future

The completion date of this film dropped back, as they often do on projects of this magnitude, from 2010 to 2011. This works out in my favor as there are hundreds of hours of real audio of Jones and Peoples Temple to absorb, as well as possibly interviewing some survivors in the near future.

I am happy with the progress made thus far and am confident in the end product next year. God willing if something comes of it, I’d be content knowing I introduced the Jonestown saga to a new generation and did so in a entertaining and captivating fashion rather than any monetary rewards.

I want to thank John Brackett at the Department of Music at the University of North Carolina for his assistance with the music.

(A second article by David Berdass in this edition of the jonestown report is here. He can be reached at David.Berdass@bermo.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on December 27th, 2013.
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