WILLIAM GAZECKI UNDER FIRE
Nothing could have prepared filmmaker William Gazecki for his experience making WACO: The Rules Of Engagement. Not 20 years of experience in music, records, radio, film, film sound, video, video sweetening, and television. Nothing. “It wasn’t my previous documentary film experiences but my previous feature film experiences that prepared me for WACO,” says Gazecki. “It was the work I did in studying feature film story structure and dramatic story structure. There is a lot of talk now about applying feature film story structure components, dramatic components, to the documentary genre, which is one of my specialties; Applying narrative dramatic story structure to documentary films so that they play as compelling stories.”
As a documentary filmmaker, Gazecki has been awarded the International Documentary Association’s Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award. His film WACO: The Rules of Engagement premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won awards at both the Atlanta Film Festival and the Charleston International Film Festival, was nominated for an Academy Award of Merit by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism.
Gazecki came to documentary filmmaking from an accomplished career as an Emmy Award-winning motion picture sound mixer and record producer. Raised in San Francisco, he began exploring an interest in music as a teenager during the 1970s. Extensive study in music recording and producing led to employment with leading recording companies including Electra/Asylum/Nonesuch and Rhino Records. He worked with such major recording artists as Fleetwood Mac, Leo Sayer and Joe Cocker.
In the late 70s, Gazecki and record producer and pioneer, Paul Rothchild produced a number of Gold and Platinum albums, including The Rose with Bette Midler and two record albums by The Doors. In the 1980s Gazecki segued into film post-production sound. Despite growing success in the Hollywood, Gazecki began to turn his attention to documentary filmmaking. This was borne largely out of personal convictions: a need for greater voice in the pressing social problems of the day and the desire to make a contribution within the community. What brought Gazecki to WACO he describes as a fluke.
Film Threat caught up with the award-winning filmmaker to discuss docs, WACO and shooting film under fire:
What led you to make a film about WACO? A typical fluke. Somebody showed up on my doorstep with demo in hand and pitched me on whether I’d want to do it and it turned into a project. It was not about my personal belief system or my political interests. It really began just like any other potential job would begin. I knew nothing about WACO before I started. Sometimes projects just fall in your lap and you follow that. That’s perfectly typical of the film business. People have all these ideas of what they think they’re going to do, and what they want to do, and that’s great. But sometimes things fall into you lap and they turn into meaningful things. The great thing about any creative endeavor is it exposes you to new avenues — things you didn’t know before.
Were you shocked to learn how the ATF acted toward David Koresh? I wasn’t shocked. I was fascinated by it, and I also didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know anything about federal law enforcement. Like most showbiz wonks, my concern in life was show business. I wasn’t that concerned about rights, freedoms, all the things that are a part of the genre of WACO. I didn’t know anything about conservative politics or the conservative world. But I do now. My first day on the job was at the Congressional hearings. I didn’t know anything about media spin, or how things worked inside the halls of Congress. One of the things about WACO that was shocking was actually being in the hearing room and seeing what was really going down and what people really had to say. Looking at what the press wrote the next day, there was no comparison. What the press had to say had nothing to do with what I saw going on inside the hearing room. Not at all. The press were spinning it like crazy. What the WACO hearings were really about was the Republicans and Democrats trying to go after Clinton or protect Clinton. Usually the conservative side is the law enforcement side, and the liberal side is the civil rights side. In this instance, it was reversed. The Democrats were screaming about FBI and ATF mishaps, and the Republicans just wanted to nail Clinton.
Did you receive any cooperation from the agencies? Did we receive any cooperation? None. Zero. Zip.
How did you get such access to rare footage? It was rare, but really the footage was not perceived as valuable to anyone. Everyone laughed at us when we told them we were working on a piece about WACO. They said, “Everyone knows what happened at WACO, why are you doing a film on that?” But they were misinformed. The footage came from the defense attorneys. All of the footage — the infrared footage and the video of the Branch Dividians inside the house during the siege — which were the two rarest pieces of footage — came from the defense attorneys who were defending the Branch Dividians right after the siege. It was given to them as part of discovery. Whenever you prosecute, the defense has to have all of the materials that the prosecution is using, which in this case was the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice. So those materials were in the hands of the defense team and that’s how they came to us. The main items were: the sound of the negotiations tapes, the bug tapes which were hard to get, (we used a private investigator for that,) the video of the Branch Dividians inside the compound, and the infrared that came form the attorneys. Thank God for the justice system.
During the course of the documentary, several officials are clearly caught in embarrassing lies. After the film was released, how did they react? They ignored it. The government’s position on this was duck and cover. All the way through. From Sundance, all the way through to the Academy Awards, the government never said one word. Which to me implies some form of culpability. If what the film portrays was false, I would expect someone from the government to have stood up and said ‘This is an absolute outrage, this is a lie, this is untrue.” They did nothing. There was no response. For a film such as WACO: The Rules of Engagement, a statement that indicts them to such a severe degree, I’m surprised that they didn’t say anything. The lack of a response is really what the response was.
Now that the film has been released, has anything changed with regard to the ATF or the media in terms of how they view this event? I think a lot has changed with how people view the event. When we made the film we were in a search for the truth. We were fortunate in that we had complete creative control. There were three people on the core of the production team. We were all very concerned about details and confirming everything. We pretty much knew when we were done with the film that we had accurate material in the can. What we didn’t know was, would anybody believe it or even be interested in it? And what we found was that people were interested in it and in what we had to say. I think this film has played a significant role in changing people’s perspectives on this event on both sides of the political spectrum. That’s one thing I’m very proud of, is that it bridges the political camps. Both conservatives and liberals responded to this. And this was built into the project. We talked at length about liberal and conservative ideology while we were making it. I tried very much to not put things in the film that were indicative of either the conservative or liberal philosophy. I tried to stay with sort of universal morals, precepts or ideas, that transcended political ideology. And it worked. People did respond. What has not changed is that the mainstream media is still only willing to go so far. People like O’Reilly at MSNBC. They saw the show but they wouldn’t cover it in their shows. They wouldn’t go the distance. They would rather make a novelty out of the whole thing than look at the real issues or implications.
After having seen so much information about David Koresh and his so-called cult, do you have a personal opinion about him? Why do you think he had all those weapons? I think that Koresh was no different than many, many people in this world — there have been a lot of David Koresh’s around. I think he was a shit-kicking manipulative Texas evangelist. I think he believed his own rap as well. He believed his own fantasy about who he was. The people around him believed in him. One of the opinions we came to was that they were all true believers. The two things that stood out in the press about him were sex with under aged girls, and the weapons. They are both really hot buttons in terms of the media. Weapons-wise, they were weapons dealers- they sold weapons at gun shows. And in Texas, everybody’s got guns. They were steeped in the political ideology we now call the “patriot movement”, with a heavy emphasis on individual liberty and the constitution (as seen through the ideology of the Bible). In terms of the sex, Koresh’s whole thing was: from his seed would come the inheritors of the new world. The parents of these young girls thought that what they were doing what was their religious obligation. That’s how much they believed. If you look at history, globally and in a very broad sense, in many cultures it’s not that outrageous. Not that what happened was healthy or moral- it just wasn’t that unprecedented (but it could be hammered on daily by the FBI press officers). The other thing about Koresh is that it wasn’t really all about Koresh. The focus on him as a “cult leader” was to a certain degree a media fabrication. The group of people who were with him were very bright, and not anywhere near the glassy-eyed cult followers so commonly portrayed in the media. These people were smart and had minds of their own. (one Wayne Martin- killed in the fire- was the first black graduate of the Harvard School of law) The real core motivator for them was as much their personal Christian beliefs as it was David Koresh. They were all true believers.
Why do you think the mainstream national news media so blindly accepted the ATF’s vilification of Koresh without even questioning it? It was the easiest route. The mainstream media jumped on this because it was a salacious novelty. The underlying issues didn’t come out until way later. “Federal law enforcement officers killed.” It was a big deal with the tanks and the FBI and all that drama. But the FBI also kicked out of the news conferences anybody who dissented, or raised any questions that might be embarrassing to law enforcement. That’s really the point. It looks like the mainstream media accepted it. If they objected, they were ejected out of the news conferences and denied access to the FBI.
What was the budget and how long did it take you to make it? The budget was about $450,000 and it took a year and a half to make.
How did you raise the funding for such an ambitious project? We got lucky, someone came forward who had the money, and I believed in the project.
What are some of the scenes you had to cut? The scenes we cut that I was the most attached to were a series of events that took place during the 51 day siege. They showed how the FBI psychologically manipulated the Branch Davidians and psychologically abused them. There was a whole long litany of events that took place over the 51 days of deception and betrayal on the part of the FBI that helped to explain why the Branch Davidians were so afraid to come out on the last day. Why they wouldn’t come out when they were tear gassed. Those scenes were cut out for length.
What advice might you give to young filmmakers considering getting into documentary filmmaking? You have to follow your passion. And you have to go after stories that have scope and relevance, unless you want to make films just for yourself, which is perfectly fine. There are many reasons people get into documentaries. Some are not that interested in the whole entertainment world, they’re more fascinated by real life. There are people who make documentaries about their cats, and about their dogs, and that’s great. Filmmaking itself is a very satisfying endeavor. ^ But if you want to do it as a business, you have to pick big stories, stories that somehow people will identify with on a larger scale. So you have to look at what kinds of stories you’re going after and why. What difference will it make to anybody’s life and how can people use it for their own growth or learning?
Tell me what you’re working on right now. I’m making a theatrical documentary about Crop Circles because I think that Crop Circles are one of the most unrecognized significant unexplained phenomena in the world. I think there’s something going on there that’s more than just a natural anomaly. It is unprecedented, and of major significance, and it deserves more attention. Despite the occasional hoaxer, it’s absolutely true and truly important to humanity as a whole. I think it’s that big. The premise of the second film (about the history of psychedelics) is that for thousands of years, in pretty much every indigenous culture throughout history, sacred psychotropic plants have been utilized to help guide and manage society. To put that in contemporary terms, what a psychedelic experience can offer to a properly prepared, properly educated individual, is an opportunity for innovative thinking or insight. And I think that we’re in a place in history, in terms of how the western world is leading the planet, that innovation is something that we really need to start focusing on for the next hundred years. Our future is going to really require innovative thinking. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that that there are many issues — in terms of how we manage ourselves with the environment, use our resources, handle politics, and consider social problems. There’s a lot of things that call for innovative thinking. Too often today, psychedelics are considered a pariah, and I think that’s completely inappropriate and completely incorrect. That kind of thinking is a product of very narrow, uninformed social ideology. The Orphans of Duplessis, the third documentary I’m in production on is very much like WACO, in that it’s the unraveling of an major unknown injustice. It involves the Catholic Church in a very fundamental way. It involves the misapplication of a lot of very fundamental religious practices. It shows how power corrupts. Children were involved and children were severely abused. Those children are now grown adults and their plight has gone unrecognized. They have had no closure, or even an apology from either the Canadian government or the Catholic Church. That’s all they really want. ^ The way we’re approaching The Orphans of Duplessis is to take the most compassionate, highest road with it. We’re not looking to vilify the Church. We’re not looking to do your typical hit piece on the abuse of the Catholic Church. That’s the usual route. What we’re trying to do is a much more empathetic piece to show where love went wrong. And how much harm greed can cause. And it’s great drama – a really dramatic story.