In 1981, red- and purple-garbed devotees of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (later known as Osho) descended upon Oregon with the hopes of establishing a utopian society—Rajneeshpuram. They purchased acres of land, espoused free love, and, eventually, in an effort to expand their commune, amended the charter and changed the city name from Antelope to Rajneesh.
For Oregonians, that’s when it became personal.
Directors (and brothers) Chapman and Maclain Way’s Wild Wild Country uncovers the unbelievable true story behind Bhagwan’s controversial arrival in Oregon and his return to India in 1985. Produced by Jay and Mark Duplass (also brothers), the six-part docuseries earnestly explores this little-known facet of American history. For the nearly five years the Rajneeshees occupied Oregon, they suffered religious persecution and media condemnation. However, they did much, much more than meditate, committing acts of bioterrorism, plotting the assassination of United States Attorney Charles Turner, and housing countless homeless people in exchange for their votes (they were kept sedated with tranquilizer-spiked beer).
Without a hint of condemnation, Chapman and Maclain Way objectively interviewed high-ranking current and former Rajneeshees such as the complex and charismatic Ma Anand Sheela (who managed the commune until her unceremonious departure), Bhagwan’s devoted attorney Swami Prem Niren, and would-be assassin Jane Stork (known then as Ma Shanti B). The Ways also sat down with several Oregonians (including Jon Bowerman, son of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman) who are still recovering from the impact of the mysterious Bhagwan and his sannyasins.
When speaking with mxdwn Movies, the Ways discuss shaping a narrative from over three hundred hours of archive and interview footage, balancing two opposing sides, and empathizing with the allure of a surrogate family.
When and how were you first exposed to Bhagwan and his sannyasins?
Chapman: It wasn’t until about four years ago that a film archivist in the Portland (Oregon) area told us he had this incredible selection of archive film on what he called “the most bizarre story in the history of Oregon.” So, our first access into the story was going through that footage. We came across this incredible story of a guru and his followers who built this utopian city in the desert—and then politically took over the local town of Antelope, bussed in homeless people, and ended up poisoning over 750 locals. It was a very, very strange story at first—but as we dug in, we uncovered a more complex story about religious rights and fear of the other. It became a fascinating topic for us, and we became excited to share it in a long series format.
How did you find the narrative for Wild Wild Country?
Maclain: We’re attracted to almost forgotten historical stories. In 2014, we did a feature documentary for Netflix (The Battered Bastards of Baseball) on a baseball team that played in Portland, Oregon during the 1970s. And through that, we got introduced to the story of Rajneeshpuram. In a certain sense, you can do the research and put together the plot points of the story. On another level—what we did with Wild Wild Country—we focused on who our talking heads are going to be. They’re like a cast of characters. As we started to reach out to our cast, what we were hearing back from them—for better or worse—was that this was the most important thing that has happened to them in their entire lives. As documentary filmmakers, having characters that have such high stakes in the story helped. In terms of finding the story, it’s something, too, in the edit room—as you’re piecing things together, focusing on pacing, what to include, what to edit down and truncate, what to explore—were all decisions we sometimes mapped out ahead of time and we sometimes found in the edit room.
How much were you working with in the edit room, with the archive footage and the interviews? It must have been overwhelming.
Chapman: We had 300 hours of archive footage and we shot an additional 100 hours of interviews with all of our characters. So, the scope of the project was massive, and we were a small team: Mac and I co-directed, my wife Juliana (Lembi) was the producer, and then there was our editor Neil (Meiklejohn). Basically, the four of us dug in over the last year and half editing this thing. Hopefully, something that makes the series special is that we get these intimate interviews with our characters because we spent so much time with them. Most of them we interviewed over multiple days. For example, we spent five days interviewing Sheela at about four hours a day. We ended up with about 20 hours of interview footage with her alone. We really dove in, got to know the characters, and spent a lot of time interviewing them.
Given that this is still a controversial story, were the interviewees forthcoming or hesitant to speak with you?
Maclain: We knew that Rajneeshees—whether they identify as current or former followers—would be hesitant because this is a story that they definitely feel has been written about as a “terrorist sex cult that went to war with the state of Oregon for five years.” But we were also surprised by these ranchers and Antelopians in Wasco County (Oregon) who were hesitant to speak with us. Ultimately, both sides ended up participating because they both saw Rajneeshpuram as a warning of some kind. Granted, each side sees the warning differently. If you ask a Rajneeshee what the warning of Rajneeshpuram would be, they would say it’s a story of what could happen when a religious minority group is persecuted by neighbors and the government. If you ask Antelopians or Wasco County residents, it’s the dangers of cults and brainwashing. For us, both sides ultimately decided they did not want the story to remain completely forgotten.
I am amazed by how neutral and unbiased Wild Wild Country is. Was it difficult not to take a side?
Chapman: We’ve been doing screenings and Q&As and a lot of people bring up the objectivity. It’s interesting because it’s something Mac and I never talked about. We weren’t trying to be objective in some morally righteous way. When we started, we genuinely saw this as a story of two different sides. The only way to do that was to spend time with both sides and give them a platform to tell their version of events—how they saw it—and the audience gets to go on this thrilling ride where they have to be detectives, determining who’s a reliable narrative.
Wild Wild Country has some shocking revelations such as the assassination attempts and the salmonella attack on Wasco County. For you two, however, what was the most surprising revelation in speaking to your characters?
Maclain: It wasn’t a revelation because we already knew it but the day we interviewed Jane Stork (formerly known as Ma Shanti B), she so matter-of-factly and rationally walked us through her process of trying to murder Bhagwan’s doctor (Devaraj, also known as George Meredith). It was a bone-chilling moment because she’s such a “normal” person. She seems like everyone’s grandma. She has her wits about her and she’s clearly not an “evil” person. She thought she was doing something good, she thought she was a Joan of Arc, a savior protecting her guru, her master. She talked about it for 45 minutes and we condensed it down to four or five minutes, but that was still extraordinary for a documentary filmmaker, to have someone walk you through such a moment.
In speaking with Rajneeshees over twenty years after Rajneeshpuram, how have their relationships with the movement changed?
Chapman: We also interviewed a lot of sannyasins and ex-sannyasins during the pre-production stage that didn’t end up in the series. We were initially dismissive of cults but the first thing we discovered was that many of these followers are intelligent and thoughtful. They didn’t fit the bill of a “brainwashed follower.” All of them were consenting adults who joined this spiritual movement to build this utopia. The majority of followers and ex-followers we spoked to truly felt these were the most profound years of their lives. They felt they were part of something important in trying to transform consciousness and create a utopia where they could live out their lives. We’ve all heard cult stories that end with a lot of regret and resentment—and there are some of those sannyasins—but for the most part, they still have a positive outlook on their experiences.
Did you have any realizations of your own in regard to faith or cults?
Maclain: In getting to know sannyasins, their devotion to Osho is something that’s hard to intellectualize, but the thing I could grasp was the feeling of family these people had with each other. A common theme that ran through a lot of sannyasins was that they were dissatisfied before joining the movement. One of our interviewees even says, “I felt like I finally arrived. I felt like I had never belonged in society, including my family.” It’s one thing to feel like you don’t belong in the world or the city you live in, but, at least for me, I couldn’t imagine feeling like I’ve never had a family—or a feeling of family. I totally empathize with and understand why people would fill that with something that could replicate that feeling.
What’s the future for you two? Are you interested in directing more documentary series?
Chapman: We made one feature before, and we felt like we were going to make a lot of those. Then we stumbled on this story, which fit into a longer story format. And this was right after The Jinx had come out and pre-Making a Murderer and O.J.: Made in America. We were excited by the possibilities of working with a bigger canvas. And it was just the most remarkable experience for us. As storytellers, if you have a story that can fit along episodic lines, you’re given the opportunity to develop characters more, to dive deeper into issues that you’d normally only have 30 seconds to talk about. In Wild Wild Country, we have things that I know would have ended up on the cutting room floor if it was a feature. Moving forward, there are definitely some stories that we’re attracted to that don’t fill up the canvas of a six and half hour documentary series, so those will still be features, but the documentary series has been an incredibly rewarding process and something that we’re excited to continue pursuing.
Wild Wild Country is streaming now on Netflix.