Jim Meredith caught up with Neil …. Director of Sympathy for the Devil to talk human psyche, 1960’s counter-culture & creative freedom.
Sympathy for the Devil follows The Process Church of the Final Judgment who have been associated with a long list of lurid conspiracy theories including the inspiration for Charles Manson’s ‘crimes of the century’, influencing the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, and being the root of the notorious Son of Sam serial killings.
1. How did you first become involved in documentary film making?
I’ve worked in television for the best part of 20 years directing and producing a mixture of documentary and factual entertainment. It’s obviously a really creative industry, but ultimately we are restricted to producing programmes to a broadcaster’s brief. I wanted a project that would allow me much more creative freedom, let me indulge my passion for subjects that aren’t exactly ‘mainstream’, and challenge myself – so that I no longer had to sit in a cinema, watching a feature doc and thinking ‘I’d love to something like that – I wonder if I could?’ Hence this, my first film, and the subsequent vanishing of all my spare time and savings!
2. How did you first hear of ‘The Process Church of the Final Judgement’?
I’ve always been interested in the counter-culture of the 1960’s. I suppose I must have heard of The Process, they were certainly mentioned in books that I had read, but somehow they had passed me by. However, my interest in them was well and truly piqued when I was making a true crime documentary series. I was chatting with a writer who had been approached in the early 70’s by unincarcerated members of the infamous Manson Family to write their biography. Manson disciple Squeaky Fromme (later jailed for an assassination attempt on US president Gerald Ford) would often telephone him. I asked the author if he was ever scared of Squeaky and the gang, after all, they had committed some dreadfully savage crimes and engaged in some downright weird and unnerving behaviour (I challenge you to sleep soundly after reading about their ‘creepy crawling’). “I was never scared of The Manson Family”, he replied, “but I’ll tell you who I was really scared of…The Process. They really freaked me out!.
3. Why did you decide to make a feature length documentary about The Process?
See above. How could I resist?
4. Was it difficult to obtain interviews with former members of the Church? Was anyone suspicious of your motives?
The Process had been burned by the media, so it was pretty inevitable that the former members would be suspicious of my motives. So, it was a slow and gentle ‘Process’ and, as much as I was desperate to interview them, I tried very hard not to be too pushy. But these are very bright people, and I think it didn’t take long for them to intuit that I was sincere. I also sense that they’re confident enough in themselves that, when they make a decision, they go for it with gusto – as illustrated by what they got up to in the days of The Process. I’ve always felt it was a collaborative project too, and think of it as ‘our film’ rather than mine. I hope they feel the same way.
5. What has been the response to the film from those who have seen it?
The general public or the former members? Either way, it’s been fanstastic! I’m so glad people turn up and are interested. Of course, I know that if I find the story interesting, others will too, but you can’t help but worry and wonder…
I love chatting to people about it too, and getting feedback. Up until the moment of general release, I continue to make tweaks based on audience feedback, so I’m always interested to hear what people think.
Most satisfying has been the response of the former members featured. It’s a profound period in their lives that I am shining a light on, and I was acutely aware that I wanted them to feel fairly represented and to enjoy the experience of watching it. Of course, it was terrifying each and every time I showed it to an interviewee. I’m thrilled and not a little relieved by this small selection of their generous responses:
“Fucking brilliant!”, “Brilliant. Loved it!”, “Wonderful!”, “as honest and fair account of our antics, and impact on our time, as we’re likely to see”.
It’s taken years to make, but their endorsement makes it more than worthwhile.
6. You developed and produced the massively successful TV Series ‘Born to Kill?’ as well as directed some episodes. Is it fair to say you’re fascinated by the darker aspects of the human psyche?
I’m interested in the human psyche, light or dark. I’d never read a book about serial killers or paid much attention to them before I began making ‘Born to Kill?’ It has been a fascinating journey and has taken on me on a number of uniquely dark road trips around the US. I’ve stumbled around in forests, deserts, and swamps searching for places where terrible things have happened. I’ve cried in my motel room after interviewing the bereaved. These stories are literally life and death tales. They vividly evidence the far extremes of human behaviour. They cannot help but be interesting. Serial killers themselves, however, are anything but interesting, and I have nothing but distain for them. They are inevitably banal, selfish people who cause untold misery in pursuit of their own sordid satisfaction.