In putting together Paramount Network's captivating miniseries Waco, the filmmakers John Erick and Drew Dowdle wanted to tell the Branch Davidians standoff story from the inside, as opposed to how it was covered by news networks at the time. What better way is there than talking to people who were actually involved, including survivor David Thibodeau, who wrote the biographical account A Place Called Waco that serves as half of the miniseries' source material? CinemaBlend recently spoke with the Dowdle brothers about Waco, and when I asked if Thibodeau offered any further assistance, John revealed he helped out across all areas of the production.
So much. David Thibodeau, specifically, every department called him and talked to him for hours and hours. The art department was like, 'Okay, what kind of ceiling did you guys have? Was it wood or was it...? What were the doors like on the men's floor?' He'd be like, 'Oh, men didn't have doors. They had sheets hanging in front.' It was just all these little details that made it really real. And then every actor, on the Branch Davidian side at least, would sit with Thibodeau, and [say], 'Okay, what was my character like?' And he'd say, 'Your character, this guy loved the sound of nature and spent all this time watching birds and listening.' Or whatever it was, really, his memory of these people was so specific and so real, it gave everyone a lot to work with. 'Rachel, she was really strong. Lead wife and head mother, and she would give it back to David as much as she would take.' You know, there's key things that helped in the script, but for the actors also, and production design and wardrobe and just everything.
When putting together a dramatic take on a real-life tragedy like this, one should never aim to half-ass anything, and it was extremely important to John Erick and Drew Dowdle to make sure Waco was as genuine and authentic as possible. Luckily, David Thibodeau was not only available to offer his extremely unique insight into David Koresh's world, but he was also willing to really let all sides of the production team pick his brain for a fairly astonishing array of details that many people would have either forgotten or suppressed.
For Waco, the production team basically rebuilt the Mount Carmel Center that served as ground zero for the highly controversial conflict between the FBI and David Koresh's Branch Davidians group. It's a massive set that really gives Waco a sense of place for its troublesome characters to populate, and one of those characters is Rory Culkin, who portrays David Thibodeau himself. One imagines that Culkin and Thibodeau had some incredibly intense and interesting conversations as Waco was getting made, too. (Fun fact: of all the amazing cast members that star in Waco, Culkin was the one actor that John Erick and Drew Dowdle pursued, specifically for the David role.)
Not that David Thibodeau was the only person involved with the Mount Carmel fiasco that aided Waco's production. Former FBI negotiator Gary Noesner also played a big part in making sure everyone was on the right page, at least as far as the FBI elements were concerned. Noesner wrote the other book that Waco is based on, titled Stalling For Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, and Drew Dowdle explained to me the ways the ex-agent, who was removed from duty in the middle of the standoff, advised the cast and crew.
Gary Noesner was very valuable on the FBI side, too, in particular for things that we would write. Gary was not shy about telling us; he'd say things like, 'The sentiment is right, but I'd never say it like that.' And we'd have to ask him, 'So, what would you say exactly?' And he would look at the dialogue and make sure that it felt like it would be how the negotiator would speak in these moments. And we also had the benefit of having all the negotiations' recordings, thousands and thousands of hours of the real negotiations that were tried. In many cases, a lot of those conversations in the show are real conversations between David Koresh and Steve Schneider and the FBI.
For everybody that watched Waco's premiere episode, it was obvious that everyone involved was invested in making it as close to the real thing as possible. Check out what the Dowdles told me about Taylor Kitsch's preparation process.