Sometimes real life is far stranger than fiction. Such is the tale of the Rajneeshees – disciples of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – who moved to Wasco County, Oregon in the 1980s. Their goal was to establish a self-contained, sustainable, utopian community of spiritual followers, but the story quickly took a dark turn. Conflicts with the local Oregon community escalated, including the first and single, largest bioterror attack in the United States, when a group of followers poisoned 751 guests at ten local restaurants through intentional salmonella contamination.
Additional criminal activities included attempted murder, conspiracy to assassinate the U. S. Attorney for the District of Oregon, arson, and wiretapping. The community was largely controlled by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s personal secretary, Sheela Silverman (Ma Anand Sheela), who served 29 months in federal prison on related charges. She moved to Switzerland upon her release. Although the Rajneeshpuram community is no more and its namesake is now deceased, the community of followers lives on as the Osho International Foundation. This slice of history has now been chronicled in the six-part Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, directed by Chapman and Maclain Way.
Documentaries are truly an editor’s medium. More so than any other cinematic genre, the final draft of the script is written in the cutting room. I recently interviewed Wild Wild Country’s editor, Neil Meiklejohn, about putting this fascinating tale together.
Treasure in the archives
Neil Meiklejohn explains, “I had worked with the directors before to help them get The Battered Bastards of Baseball ready for Sundance. That is also an Oregon story. While doing their research at the Oregon Historical Society, the archivist turned them on to this story and the footage available. The 1980s was an interesting time in local broadcast news, because that was a transition from film to video. Often stories were shot on film and then transferred to videotape for editing and airing. Many times stations would simply erase the tape after broadcast and reuse the stock. The film would be destroyed. But in this case, the local stations realized that they had something of value and held onto the footage. Eventually it was donated to the historical society.”
“The Rajneeshees on the ranch were also very proud of what they were doing – farming and building a utopian city – so, they would constantly invite visitors and media organizations onto the ranch. They also had their own film crews documenting this, although we didn’t have as much access to that material. Ultimately, we accumulated approximately 300 hours of archival media in all manner of formats, including Beta-SP videotape, ripped DVDs, and the internet. It also came in different frame rates, since some of the sources were international. On top of the archival footage, the Ways also recorded another 100 hours of new interviews with many of the principals involved on both sides of this story. That was RED Dragon 6K footage, shot in two-camera, multi-cam set-ups. So, pretty much every combination you can think of went into this series. We just embraced the aesthetic defects and differences – creating an interesting visual texture.”
Balancing both sides of the story
“Documentaries are an editor’s time to shine,” continues Meiklejohn. “We started by wanting to tell the story of the battle between the cult and the local community without picking sides. This really meant that each scene had to be edited twice. Once from each perspective. Then those two would be combined to show both sides as point-counterpoint. Originally we thought about jumping around in time. But, it quickly became apparent that the best way to tell the story was as a linear progression, so that viewers could see why people did what they did. We avoided getting tricky.”
“In order to determine a structure to our episodes, we first decided the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ for each and then the story points to hit within. Once that was established, we could look for ‘extra gold’ that might be added to an episode. We would share edits with our executive producers and Netflix. On a large research-based project like this, their input was crucial to making sure that the story had clarity.”
Managing the post production
Meiklejohn normally works as an editor at LA post facility Rock Paper Scissors. For Wild Wild Country, he spent ten months in 2017 at an ad hoc cutting room located at the offices of the film’s executive producers, Jay and Mark Duplass. His set-up included Apple iMacs running Adobe Creative Cloud software, connected to an Avid ISIS shared storage network. Premiere Pro was the editing tool of choice.
Meiklejohn says, “The crew was largely the directors and myself. Assistant editors helped at the front end to get all of the media organized and loaded, and then again when it came time to export files for final mastering. They also helped to take my temp motion graphics – done in Premiere – and then polish them in After Effects. These were then linked back into the timeline using Dynamic Link between Premiere and After Effects. Chapman and Maclain [Way] were very hands-on throughout, including scanning in stills and prepping them in Photoshop for the edit. We would discuss each new segment to sort out the best direction the story was taking and to help set the tone for each scene.”
“Premiere Pro was the ideal tool for this project, because we had so many different formats to deal with. It dealt well with the mess. All of the archival footage was imported and used natively – no transcoding. The 6K RED interview footage was transcoded to ProRes for the ‘offline’ editing phase. A lot of temp mixing and color correction was done within Premiere, because we always wanted the rough cuts to look smooth with all of the different archival footage. Nothing should be jarring. For the ‘online’ edit, the assistants would relink to the full-resolution RED raw files. The archival footage was already linked at its native resolution, because I had been cutting with that all along. Then the Premiere sequences were exported as DPX image sequences with notched EDLs and sent to E-Film, where color correction was handled by Mitch Paulson. Unbridled Sound handled the sound design and mix – and then Encore handled mastering and 1080p deliverables.”
Working with 400 hours of material and six hour-long episodes in Premiere might be a concern for some, but it was flawless for Meiklejohn. He continues, “We worked the whole series as one large project, so that at any given time, we could go back to scenes from an earlier episode and review and compare. The archival material was organized by topic and story order, with corresponding ‘selects’ sequences. As the project became bigger, I would pare it down by deleting unnecessary sequences and saving a newer, updated version. So, no real issue by keeping everything in a single project.”
As with any real-life event, where many of the people involved are still alive, opinions will vary as to how balanced the storytelling is. Former Rajneeshees have both praised and criticized the focus of the story. Meiklejohn says, “Sheela is one of our main interview subjects and in many ways, she is both the hero and the villain of this story. So, it was interesting to see how well she has been received on social media and in the public screenings we’ve done.”
Wild Wild Country shares a pointed look into one of the most bizarre clashes in the past few decades. Meiklejohn says, “Our creative process was really focused on the standoff between these two groups and the big inflection points. I tried to let the raw emotions that you see in these interviews come through and linger a bit on-screen to help inform the events that were unfolding. The story is sensational in and of itself, and I didn’t want to distract from that.”
©2018 Oliver Peters