The Definitive Cinematic “Jonestown”
…coming soon to a theater near you

by David Berdass

I am in the process of writing a fully-researched screenplay loosely based on Tim Reiterman’s Raven that follows the final the years of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. This will be neither an apology nor a swift judgment of Jim Jones’ actions. I believe the best screenplay I can deliver will be the honest truth, one that places the audience into a Peoples Temple congregant’s POV. I believe the horrific end and acts that precede it will speak for themselves from actual sermons, actual events, actual murders, and actual brother/sisterhood amongst its members. What starts seemingly innocuous at the outset will have obviously turned dark and perverse at the end. This I believe is the basis on which to tell a compelling story.

One of the challenges thus far is how to pick and choose the major players, apart from Jones, both within and outside Peoples Temple to draw from. Because Peoples Temple had hundreds of members, there were opportunities to find select members from the 1975-1978 period and make them major characters in this particular script. Condensing of characters/events and other “creative liberties” will not betray the reality or the essence of Peoples Temple’s story. Research thus far includes multiple books, hours of raw PT audio, and interviews of survivors and family members of some of those who perished.

From a technical standpoint, I am adding music cues as I write, both reflecting the era and the actual talent performing (e.g. Jonestown Express); a full soundtrack list will be noted throughout script. I also plan to use different film styles, again reflecting the era and the tools various media used to bring the outside world in; script annotations will note filmed format. The look of the film is inspired by cinematographer Robert Richardson’s work with Oliver Stone, specifically Nixon (1995) and Natural Born Killers (1994). Jonestown will convey the cinematic energy of these films as well. Shot-by-shot analysis and specific edits will also be embedded within script.

With an R-rating born in the horrific details which will be played out as they occurred, and a running time f three hours necessary to do the story justice, this will not be a safe made-for-TV film, or a bland Dateline-like reenactment. I believe a feature film (with known actors and proper locations) with a budget within $15 million is the only way to accomplish this. While I also realize I need to keep this “digestible” for a relatively mass audience, this is not an effort to throw the story against the wall and see what sticks, but one of careful structure in three well-articulated acts capturing the three years.

Is it a long shot of it becoming a reality? Sure. My final product will indeed be the reality and one of thorough quality and (admittedly) some entertainment value, as far as biopics go. Personal financial gain is not the object here; the knowledge I helped create a solid big-screen retelling of Peoples Temple/Jonestown is satisfactory for me.

The film will be as non-judgmental as possible. It will let the horrific acts speak for themselves. No one is portrayed as hero/villain. I do not believe that any Temple member of the era felt what he or she were doing was wrong or that their Fatherwas the “bad guy” of their story, and I do not wish to convince those members – or my future audience – otherwise. My research and craft, and the structure of this film, will capture audiences’ attention, whether they are familiar with the Jonestown story or not. To be sure, even though there have been many artistic works with the word “Jonestown” in the title, that does not discourage me from wanting to create a definitive cinematic retelling of events of Jim Jones and his followers.

(David Berdass can be reached at David.Berdass@bermo.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on January 23rd, 2014.
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