The occurrence of seemingly unbelievable events often captures the world’s attention, but the reason why and how they happened often specifically engage both casual and serious conspiracy theorists alike. That need to take a comprehensive delve into a shocking event drove seasoned documentarian, Clay Tweel to explore the journey of the titular cult from its inception to it’s tragic end in his latest project, ‘Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults.’
The director-executive producer brings viewers into a previously inaccessible world through archival footage and interviews with ex-members and their families in his latest project, which is currently streaming on HBO Max as one of the platform’s original crime documentary series. ‘Heaven’s Gate features four episodes, the first of which is now available to stream for free on HBO Max’s official website.
‘Heaven’s Gate’ is a thorough examination of the infamous eponymous UFO cult through the eyes of its former members and loved ones. What started in 1975 with the disappearance of 20 people from a small town in Oregon ended in 1997 with the largest suicide on US soil and changed the face of modern new age religion forever. The docuseries uses never-before-seen footage and first-person accounts to explore the infamous UFO cult that shocked the nation with their out-of-this-world beliefs.
Tweel generously took the time recently to talk about ‘Heaven’s Gate’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the documentarian discussed that he was in part driven to helm and produce the docuseries in part because he remembered when the cult dismantled in 1997, which drove him to want him to find out what really happened in the cult members’ lives that led them to their tragic end. He also divulged that it wasn’t an easy task to secure interviews with the cult’s surviving members, but he appreciated that some followers willingly spoke about their experiences, in an effort to dispel mischaracterizations about them.
The conversation began with Tweel explaining why he was interested in directing ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ and what his overall helming style was like throughout the production. “What inspired me (to make the docuseries) was having a recollection of what happened in 1997. I saw the mass suicide play out on TV when I was in high school at the time, so seeing the circus coverage of what happened was in my brain,” he revealed.
“So I decided to do a deeper dive, and see what really happened in these people’s lives that led them to that tragic end,” the director also shared. “I then set out to show the evolution of the group.
“The show is based on a Stitcher podcast from 2016. The podcast was able to offer a perspective from former members, and family members of former members of Heaven’s Gate. I thought that was a great way to emotionally connect to the story in a way that I hadn’t seen before,” Tweel divulged.
“So I wanted to do something similar, and utilize those voices to create a visual series that’s compelling, and would draw the audience. I want viewers to really connect them with these people, for this journey they go on through a course of over 20 years,” the documentarian added.
Once Tweel began production on the docuseries, he began doing more research into the title cult, in order to better understand their motivations and background. “We looked into what tools would be in our tool kits to tell the story. One of the things that was really important to us early on was showing how the group was unique in the fact that it had a co-leader who was a woman (Bonnie Nettles), which is very rare,” he revealed.
“We were trying to find a way to bring Bonnie Nettles, who called herself Ti in the group, to life, and show what she was really like. We tried to understand her the best we could,” the helmer shared. “Knowing that we had access to her daughter really helped us, including getting photographs of her.
“We also tried to compile the audio tapes from the members from the ’70s and ’80s. We also tried to find what videos existed from that time, when they got their first burst of media coverage. They had some meetings in Oregon, Texas and Oklahoma at that time,” Tweel continued.
“Since we’re a visual medium, we also had to do a deep dive into the Getty archive for photos. That archival hunting was pretty significant,” the director added. “They got New York Times headlines, because they were a well-known group.
“It was exciting to see that play out in the footage that we were able to compile. That made their drop-off from society even more dramatic. They went into hiding, and didn’t resurface again until 1991,” Tweel noted.
Further speaking of the archival footage, ‘Hell’s Gate’ features never-before-seen footage about the cult. The documentarian then delved into what the process of deciding which footage would be included in the docuseries was like during the production.
“There were two things that jumped out to us. One was the context for the time that Heaven’s Gate was born, and the other was being able to hear first-hand accounts,” Tweel revealed.
“In the early ’70s, there was a boom in the New Age movement, which included Eastern gurus, and the counterculture blending with societal chaos. There was the impeachment of the president (Richard Nixon), and the Vietnam War was ending, so there was anxiety. People were looking for something that was going to bring some order and meaning to that chaos,” the helmer noted.
“So we combined that with the idea of UFOs, which were also prominent at the time. Those were the two ideologies that Heaven’s Gate was combining, and I found that to be very fascinating,” Tweel divulged. “Doing the research around how ufology and religion blended at the time was fascinating.
“Going through the archival footage of the first-hand accounts was amazing. We found the never-before-seen footage from meetings that were held in 1975 and 1976 in Oklahoma, and one of them was a public access show. Seeing what some of the members said about what inspired them to join the group, and also publicly defending some of the (group’s) beliefs, really gave us insight into what they were thinking at the time,” the director also shared.
‘Heaven’s Gate’ also features first-person accounts from people who were involved in the cult. Tweel then delved into what the process of securing the interviews for the docuseries, and deciding what he would discuss during those conversations, was like during the production.
“A little bit of that was based on the Sticher podcast (which is hosted by Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment). Hearing (cult members) Sawyer and Frank Lyford talk about their experiences joining Heaven’s Gate, and their trajectory over the course of time they were in the cult, really stood out to me,” the documentarian admitted. “So I knew that I wanted to feature them in the series as much as I could.
“Sawyer is someone who’s still a believer in a lot of the ideas of Heaven’s Gate. I thought that was a powerful counterpoint to Frank, who has now rejected a lot of those ideas. So seeing how one is still a believer, and the other one isn’t anymore, and how that affects their lives now, is fascinating,” Tweel noted.
“Getting some of these people to talk wasn’t always easy. Frank and Sawyer were definitely game to talk to us, but they’ve also been through the ringer of the media cycle that hasn’t treated the group very kindly,” the helmer pointed out. “So a lot of the people from this world have felt mischaracterized, so we tried to be careful not to do that.”
‘Heaven’s Gate’ was filmed by directors of photography, Jeff Powers and Hillary Spera. Tweel embraced the experience of working with the cinematographers while they were shooting the docuseries.
“That’s an interesting question; I haven’t really talked to anyone about this before! Jeff Powers and Hillary were the co-cinematographers on the series. We came up with the idea when we were shooting to film the interviews on anamorphic lenses, to make them feel cinematic,” the director shared.
“Something that I came up with before we started shooting was to try to do something that was cinematic, particularly with the interview setup. So we decided to have people look directly down the lens of the camera, but I placed them in different distances from the lens, depending on how emotionally connected to the cult they were,” Tweel revealed.
“So the former members sat much closer to the lens, and the experts were much further away. I based that on an article that I read many years ago that focused on the psychological idea that the bigger someone’s head is in an image, the more you believe them,” the documentarian shared. “I want viewers to believe the former members and their family members more than the experts.
“So while talking to Jeff and Hillary about that, we decided that that idea would inform our lens, as well as a lot of our locations. We tried to find a lot of these beautiful, ornate locations, which the viewers would know was our intention,” Tweel added.
Once all of the interviews were filmed and the archived footage, the helmer embraced the process of editing ‘Heaven’s Gate’s four episodes, in order to create the overall finalized version of the docuseries. But he also admitted that “The edit was really difficult. I love our editors-Michelle M. Witten, James Leche and Giacomo Ambrosini-so much. They did an amazing job.
“But working with them to create the final version of the show was difficult because of the pandemic. To me, filmmaking is a very collaborative art form; my process is feeling the room, in order to figure out if something’s dragging or not working,” Tweel divulged.
“But we weren’t really able to do that during the pandemic. So that put a lot of pressure on the editors and myself to try to figure that out through Zoom conversations. But they’re all super professional and really good at what they do. Their instincts from the beginning were right on, and they fit the tone and style of what I wanted to do,” the director added. “So I’m very proud of how it ended up.
In addition to helming ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ Tweel also worked diligently as one of the docuseries’ executive producers in order to get the project made. He then explained how he balanced his directorial and producing duties during the documentary’s production.
“Being the executive producer and director of all the episodes was tough. But film is really a collaborative art form, so I had a lot of amazing producers who I worked with everyday. I have a production company with Shannon Riggs,” who also served as one of ‘Heaven’s Gate’s executive producers, Tweel shared.
“So being able to track everything, and having both logistical and creative conversations with the team of producers we had on the project, was thrilling, but hard; there was a lot to balance,” the producer admitted. “So Shannon and our other producers, including Mark McCune and Ross Dinerstein, were the people who I talked to all the time to help figure out everything that came up…I’m very grateful for the entire team; everyone had their heart in the right place in telling the story.”
With ‘Heaven’s Gate’ now streaming all four of its episodes on HBO Max, the documentarian expressed his appreciation that the streaming service picked up the docuseries. “I’m pretty excited about it because HBO Max launched in May. We understood that it was going to be a new platform that combines (projects) that the public is very familiar with, like the whole slate of HBO shows, with new programs, all in one app.
“I think the content in its library is great, so our show is benefiting from that. We also launched the same week that HBO Max announced that they’re putting a bunch of theatrical films out at the same time on the platform. So there’s a whirlwind of media around HBO Max, right when our show (was) coming out. It’s pretty cool to see how many people are now able to watch (‘Heaven’s Gate’), and see what their reactions are,” Tweel concluded.