"We all wanted to do an anthropological dig into the time," declares Lesley Chilcott about the Epix documentary series "Helter Skelter: An American Myth." The series is an in-depth examination of Charles Manson and his followers culminating in the brutal murders of several people — including the actress Sharon Tate — in 1969. Chilcott, producer of acclaimed documentaries such as "Waiting for Superman" and the Oscar-winning "An Inconvenient Truth," acts as director of the six-episode series and is one of the show’s executive producers. In our exclusive video interview (watch above) Chilcott explains why it was important to avoid what she calls "the tabloid-esque coverage" of the Manson family.
Chilcott says that she took on the project in part because she never understood the public’s fascination with Manson, who died in 2017 while serving a life sentence. The director now says that it is the nature of the crimes that explains Manson’s continued presence in pop culture rather than the man himself. "I think it’s because the puzzle pieces don’t fit," she explains. "What possessed these seemingly normal boys ad girls from down the road to join what was most assuredly a cult, and some of them commit these horrific unspeakable crimes? And it’s still not understandable."
Chilcott spoke to some of those "family members" who followed Manson and readily admits that she will never fully understand the hold that Manson had on them. "On the one hand, it makes me think that it could have happened to a fair amount of people," she says. "On the other hand, it was a very unique time in history." Chilcott points to the Vietnam War, racial unrest and the invention of LSD as the perfect atmosphere for Manson’s ability to bring young people into his orbit. "You isolate [his followers] out on Spawn Ranch," she explains. "You give each person a new name. You alternate with sex and love and abuse. You keep the news and time and television away from the people. That’s what we know now as a classic cult."
In examining the political and social undercurrents of Manson’s era, Chilcott sees disturbing parallels with current society. "What we have now that we had then was that we have a lot of mayhem," she declares. "After a while, people don’t have the tools to process all of this mayhem, so they fall in and they follow a person who could be lying to them day after day but they repeat the same phrases over and over again. That’s not that different from now."
However, Chilcott emphasizes that Manson wasn’t worthy of the mythology that surrounded him in his life. "I kind of wanted to knock him off of that pedestal," she exclaims. "Number one because he doesn’t deserve a pedestal. And number two, he was a small time con artist with some really good raps and these desperate acts got out of control. He did a lot of horrible things, but was he a mastermind planner that should be idolized in that way? No."