The ten-year anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre in 1988 at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland was a major story, carried by local news stations in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was fifteen years old and a freshman in high school living in the city of Richmond when I watched those news reports and first learned of Jonestown. Immediately intrigued, I asked my parents and teachers about it and was struck by the emotional chord it hit with each, regardless of their background. This was to be expected, since that was the San Francisco Bay Area, a region more affected than anywhere in the country, but what surprised me was that most people didn’t want to talk about it. In a part of the country which prides itself on being open-minded and progressive, instilling critical thinking skills into its youth, the “don’t talk about it” reactions struck me as odd.
I moved to Los Angeles five years later to pursue a career in acting and screenwriting. I didn’t give the subject matter much thought until I attended the premiere screening of the Stanley Nelson’s documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. During the audience talkback session afterwards, Nelson was asked why he chose the subject of Jonestown and Peoples Temple. He replied that he thought there was more to be told than the popular understanding of the tragedy than a bunch of people went with that crazy guy to the jungle and all drank poison and died. No one from the Bay Area would ever say that to me, but my twelve years in Los Angeles with people from all over the country told me that Nelson had a pretty good idea of what the mainstream consensus about Jonestown was.
I began to research Jonestown and build files in hopes of writing a script in which I could explore the subject. Although I am a represented screenwriter in Hollywood with some small awards for my short films under my belt – and have a few connections to go with them – I was warned not to waste too much time on material that wasn’t marketable. Economically, this was sound advice. But I never set out to write this for economic success (though I’ll take it if it comes) I wrote this script to have a film, and if I could pool my connections and resources together, I could shoot on digital for a micro-budget for 60K. Once completed the plan was to screen it on the art-house circuit and at small film festivals. More importantly was the story I intended to tell.
Naturally, my first goal was to tell an intense, gripping, and thought-provoking drama that was different from the other films about Jonestown. While taking place in the present day, I wanted it rooted in the reality of vivid Jonestown memories from the point of view of several survivors. This would hopefully bring forth a new interest in this already forgotten or unknown piece of history from a younger generation. I also wanted to reiterate some of the crucial facts of Jim Jones’ rise to power and the role of the political establishment in that ascent. The results from this are obvious, but for many this part of the story is either omitted or unknown.
My research included hours of research on the internet, viewing several documentaries, attendance at the 29th annual memorial in Oakland, and of course reading Tim Reiterman’s excellent book, Raven. With this foundation I went to work on a fictional account of several survivors whose past comes to affect their present day life. I wove as much history as possible without diluting the story, bringing in facts like the suspicious murder of a railroad worker and Temple dissenter, Jones’ influence on the election of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, Jones’ malicious and sexual deviant behavior that was ignored, the horrendous handling of bodies and autopsies after the massacre, and the lack of governmental support in general for a thorough investigation. I also felt the story should have a diverse cast and explore race relations, as it’s back-dropped in LA and because Jones encouraged such diversity in his church. The main characters are African-American and white, and the surviving children are mixed racially. My one-page pitch is below. Please keep in mind this is fiction and entertainment. It’s called show business, not show art. In other words, in order to get material read, I must put a Hollywood spin on a serious subject matter.
Survivors of Jonestown
Two half-siblings who survived the Peoples Temple murder/suicide in Guyana as young children, now adults, struggle with the imminent death of Melanie Sloane, their schizophrenic mother. For Lindsey, disturbing memories of the past recur in her dreams. For Jason, unanswered questions and pain he has suppressed with the bottle linger. Unable to go to the police for fear of implication in a revenge murder against a man who raped their mother, they seek out the answers.
City Councilman Russ Devlin is on the fast-track to LA Mayor. He is also Melanie Sloane’s ex-lover. A well-accomplished African-American community activist and former cop, with a beautiful family and house in the hills, Russ Devlin is destined for greatness. His political rival seeks to falsify his respectable image and dig up a checkered past long forgotten. Russ’ early 20’s had him high up in the Peoples Temple Cult/church led by Rev, Jim Jones. A private detective is put on his tail to extricate the skeletons from his closet.
Before Melanie Sloane dies, she reveals the true identity of Jason’s father who was wrongly believed to be dead in the suicide. Instead, it’s Russ Devlin. As both children piece together their past and pursue Councilman Devlin, the sleazy PI hungry for a payday enters the mix. With a lowlife’s code of ethics and a drive to crack a 30-year-old cold case that involves Lindsey, Russ and the late Peoples Temple, he’s the last thing the Councilman needs.
Desperate and torn, Councilman Russ Devlin kicks into survival mode in an attempt to save his family and political career. But Lindsey, the ultimate survivor cursed with the same mental illness that afflicted her mom, is out for truth, revenge, and blood.
I wrote the script WHITE NIGHT in February and decided to get my preliminary crew together in March. In the process, I met a producer who read and loved the script, but when I told him I wanted to do it for 60K, he laughed. He agreed to option the script and seek out investors based on the strength of the material and convinced me to do the same. By mid-June he had knocked on all the doors and I had done the same. Although feedback on the material was excellent, nobody was interested in investing money. I prepared to hunker down again and get ready to shoot a micro-budget film, but once again was told I didn’t have enough money. This time the assessment came from a friend and working actor/producer who recently had two films distributed by SONY and has connections to some big name actors who would be just right for the parts in this film. He had agreed to read the script and liked it but said up front, “It’s a tough sale.” Still, he offered to work with me on it if I made it more a thriller than a drama and attached him as a producer.
As it stands now, I’m working on a second version of the same script with the same characters. In an effort to generate more interest, we are moving into production of a trailer (2-minute preview) slated to begin in Los Angeles in October. This should be an intense week of production that can only help this project come to fruition. It is my hope White Night will develop into a respectable feature film that generates interest in the true history of Jonestown for young and old alike.
(Alex Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)