Mark Duplass admits that he can identify a bit with Ma Anand Sheela, the focus of Netflix’s buzzworthy docuseries “Wild Wild Country.” (Well, except for perhaps the part where she tried to poison people across Oregon by sprinkling salmonella over restaurant salad bars.)
The personal secretary to cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Sheela didn’t initially come to Oregon in the early 1980s to cause trouble. But after her attempts to build Rajneeshpuram — a multi-million dollar utopia in a remote part of the state — were met with resistance, she went on the offensive.
For Duplass, who executive produced “Wild Wild Country,” Sheela’s resolve kind of reminds him of his early days in filmmaking.
“Sheela started with ideological love and excitement to build this community, which is very similar to how I came into independent cinema,” Duplass told IndieWire’s TURN IT ON podcast. “I just want to make my creative stuff and make it good. But then Sheela started to get threatened and she accidentally realized that she was an incredible game player and an incredible political maneuverer. Maybe didn’t even know that until she got in that position, which is exactly what happened to me.
“I went and made some studio movies, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to do what I want to do,’ and I started to feel threatened, and then I tried to build a whole new system that worked for me,” he said. “I started lashing out and pushing away people and saying, ‘F–k you guys, I’m going to do things my way.’ I totally identify with Sheela. I haven’t had to poison anybody yet. But I really feel that thing. When I get threatened, I turn, and people who work with me see that. Mark’s such a nice guy, but if you tell him he can’t do something the way he wants to do it, watch the f–k out!”
Directors Chapman Way and Maclain Way stumbled across the story of Sheela while going through hundreds of hours of footage (saved by local TV stations and archived at the Oregon Historical Society) about the Rajneesh’s controversial attempts to build a commune city in the middle of the state. What began as an attempt to build utopia turned dark when Oregon land use laws threatened their new community. With Sheela leading the way, the Rajneeshees decided to fight back by taking over a nearby town, and from there, things got even uglier. Cult leaders, mass poisonings, assassination attempts, bombings, this story had it all.
The Way brothers eventually hooked up with the Duplass Brothers, and Mark Duplass joined the project as an executive producer to help ferry it through and serve as a bit of a mentor. Since its premiere on Netflix, “Wild Wild Country” has become a phenomenon, and viewers can’t get enough of the debate over whether Sheela was doing what she needed to do to protect her community, or if she was a psychopath.
Wild Wild Country also feels timely as it touches on issues of immigration, voter surpression, religious freedom, and much more. IndieWire’s TURN IT ON recently met up with Chapman and Maclain Way, along with Mark Duplass, to discuss how “Wild Wild Country” was made, their take on the reactions so far, what they left out of the series, how they got Sheela to open up, and what’s next. Listen below!
In joining “Wild Wild Country,” Duplass said he was attracted to the energy of the Way brothers, who reminded him of “me and [his brother] Jay, 15 years ago.”
Maclain Way called Duplass “the guardian angel on the project.” Added Duplass: “I can offer something that I accidentally built over the past 15 years, which is, a brand that a place like Netflix can trust and a model of making things cheaply so you could do whatever you want creatively.”
In mapping out the bible to the series, Maclain Way said six episodes made sense to tell the story of the Rajneesh. They also had a pretty good idea of who they wanted to interview, but there were plenty of surprises along the way — including John Silvertooth, the former mayor of nearby Antelope, Ore.
“We were only going to interview him for one day, and then we added a second day because the material was so great,” Chapman Way said. Added Duplass: “We want to remake ‘Columbo’ with John Silvertooth in the lead!”
Of course, the holy grail was Sheela, and “we knew right away if we were doing this longform we had to feel from her what happened,” Chapman Way said. “To our surprise, she felt like she had never been give an opportunity, to explain this whole saga from her lens, her perspective. So we took the time to get to knew her, we took multiple trips our to Switzerland participation.”
The Ways ended up shooting Sheela over five days, for four hours a day.
“Day 1 wasn’t anything that interesting or special,” Maclain Way said. “She walked us through a little bit of her childhood, how her father was part of the independence movement with Gandhi. It wasn’t until we started showing her all the footage that we acquired that I think for her a flood of memories came back over those old feelings she had probably pushed away.”
Among the portions of the interview not seen in the docuseries, Maclain Way said Sheela expressed real regret: “Sheela actually said in an interview, if she had to do it all over again, she definitely wouldn’t come to Oregon and she definitely wouldn’t even come to America.”
Another tidbit not included on screen: “Sheela was an accomplished chess player,” Maclain Way said. “Her father taught her chess and loved to play chess. And she would often talk about this battle was chess. All was fair in love and war. And at a certain point I think Sheela felt, ‘gloves are off, you’re going to bomb my hotel, you’re going to come after me, I’m not playing nice guy anymore.'”
Beyond the tale of what happened to Rajneeshpuram, the Ways wanted to explore how “this group got to that point. That was something a lot of people didn’t want to dive into over the years. They just wanted to label this group these terrorist sex cult without doing the work of what led them to this moment. These were successful highly intelligent people who were looking for something more in their life.”
Ultimately, the depiction of voter suppression is relatable to 2018 viewers, as various local and state governments are actively engaged in attempts to limit voting by minorities.
“One of the most terrifying components of the whole thing that not a lot of people are talking about was maybe for the first time in American history, we couldn’t find any other examples, the government refused the right for people to vote,” Chapman Way said. “They shut down these voter registrations for homeless people who had been bused to the ranch. You expect the Rajneeshis to bend the law and you expect the East Oregonians to bend the law to their advantage but when the government does it, that’s the biggest threat to our democracy.”
The Ways and Duplass have been monitoring reaction to “Wild Wild Country” and how some viewers believe Sheela showed psychopathic behavior, while others are sympathetic.
“I follow it closely on Twitter,” Duplass said. “Because it’s fun and you see people writing, ‘#TeamSheela’ at Episode 2 and then by Episode 4 they’re like, ‘No Don’t Do It!'”
Maclain Way noted it’s hard to pick a side because at times, both of them did awful things to each other.
“I think that Sheela in a lot of ways found herself very quickly in a situation where she would not be able to retreat from,” he said. “I don’t know if this is a story that lends itself to quick easy knee jerk answers that are black and white.”
“Wild Wild Country” has become enough of a phenomenon that it was even recently parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” Said Duplass: “They’re watching it in numbers like it’s a bubble gum Marvel movie. A niche sociopolitical documentary about Eastern Oregon is literally playing like a Marvel movie!”
“Wild Wild Country” is now streaming on Netflix.
IndieWire’s “TURN IT ON with Michael Schneider” is a weekly dive into what’s new and what’s now on TV — no matter what you’re watching or where you’re watching it. With an enormous amount of choices overwhelming even the most sophisticated viewer, “TURN IT ON” is a must-listen for TV fans looking to make sense of what to watch and where to watch it.