'Waco: American Apocalypse' director explains how the debate over the 51-day siege continues to be 'weaponized'

Tiller Russell discusses his timely Netflix docuseries on the 30th anniversary of the Waco siege.

Branch Davidian leader, David Koresh, seen in an archival photo featured in the Netflix series, Waco: American Apocalypse. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)
Branch Davidian leader David Koresh is seen in an archival photo featured in the Netflix series Waco: American Apocalypse. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)

Thirty years ago, America's collective gaze was locked on a small compound in Waco, Tex. where federal agents were locked in a tense stand-off with the Branch Davidians and their enigmatic leader, David Koresh. The stalemate lasted 51 days, starting with the deaths of four ATF agents and six members of the religious sect in an exchange of gunfire on Feb. 28, 1993 and coming to a head on April 19 when the FBI used tear gas to flush the Davidians out of their home, only to watch the compound go up in flames. Seventy-six men, women and children lost their lives that day, and images of the deadly blaze circulated around the globe.

Three decades later, Waco remains a flash point in the national conversation, one that's frequently seized up on as evidence to buttress all manner of political arguments. In conservative circles, it's often cited as a textbook case of government overreach stepping on the toes of individual liberties, whereas progressives tend to regard the Davidians as a chilling example of isolated religious cults that place equal emphasis on God and guns. And the unyielding tension between those two sides has resulted in its own stalemate whenever Waco is discussed.

"I've always heard about this story in a finger-pointing way," confirms Tiller Russell, the director of Netflix's new three-part docuseries, Waco: American Apocalypse. "It's always like, 'Who is to blame for this?' From my perspective, Waco has never been looked at apart from assigning blame as opposed to describing the humanist experience of it without a political agenda grinding on it."

American Apocalypse is one of many Waco-themed histories arriving in time for the 30th anniversary, and it joins an ever-expanding catalogue of books, documentaries and dramatizations that seek to relitigate the events of those 51 days from a plethora of perspectives. The hook to Russell's series is that it features never-before-seen footage from inside the FBI's crisis negotiation unit as well previously unreleased news footage and photographs taken at the scene.

"All of the FBI footage was shot early on, because they assumed it would be over in a day or two," the director says. "We'll blow in there, we'll negotiate, it'll be over and we can use the footage as a teaching tool back at Quantico." But when that timeline failed to materialize, the footage was archived until the American Apocalypse producers unearthed it. Russell says that he was fascinated to watch the "mechanics" of how that unit went about its task.

"We have these notions of the lone negotiator on the phone, like that Sam Jackson movie The Negotiator," he says. "But it's actually a very complex group of diverse people that are kind of acting like a hive mind groupthinking what to do. There's a level of empathy and manipulation that's involved where you're looking for the pressure points in people that will cause them to leave. That's the job, and it's arguably noble because you're trying to save lives."

The unearthed archival footage is contextualized by some of the federal agents that lived through it. Meanwhile, Russell also spoke with surviving members of the Branch Davidians — including Koresh's niece, Heather Jones, who was one of the few children to make it out alive — to get their perspectives on what was happening inside the compound. "We found that there was all sorts of [unheard] material that was nominally in the public record," he notes, citing the final call between Jones and her father, David Jones, as one such example.

"It had been in the public record, but nobody had heard it because there's thousands of hours of FBI recordings. And I was very cautious about sharing it with her. But she said, 'I absolutely want to hear it — it's the last time I spoke with my father.' Even though it's just a little piece of audio, it's intensely emotional. For me, the whole series became about anchoring these personal stories around the larger story."

ATF agents outside of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)
ATF agents outside of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)

You cover a lot of ground across the three episodes of American Apocalypse, but the unifying idea seems to be that miscommunication was at the root cause of the tragedy.

I think there was a profound failure to communicate on all sides: the FBI, the negotiators and the hostage team, the press and the Branch Davidians. It's like that line from Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here is a failure to communicate." That's what animated this entire story from the very beginning: You can look at Waco as the beginning of the "deep state" conspiracy and the overstepping of government or you can look at it as a moment when we started to question foundational American ideas like the right to bear arms and the freedom of religion. To this day, those arguments continue to be weaponized and continue to roil our culture.

You make a conscious choice not to overemphasize David Koresh himself in the series. What was your approach to placing him in your telling of the story?

Koresh is a very complex character who had many sides to him, and different people had fundamentally different relationships with him. You've got the deeply religious Branch Davidians engaging with him in one way, while the FBI are engaging with him the other way. And then you also have people outside the situation talking about him as a charlatan and a con artist.

In a weird way, it's like all of those things can be true. I didn't want to make it reductive and say that he was one simple thing. He was a weird, complex guy who had diverse and divergent relationships with different people, some of them absolutely predatory and horrifying and some of them weirdly inspirational, almost verging on the divine. Making it more than just a one-dimensional "cult of personality" film felt to me like the most compelling way to go.

Was it hard to remain objective when you heard some of the former Branch Davidians talk about him in positive terms?

There was a profound kind of cognitive dissonance for me all the way through the film in the sense that a lot of what people said was not what I expected them to say. Like the sniper, Chris Whitcomb, who talked about staring through a rifle at Koresh and considered pulling the trigger and murdering him. I didn't expect that guy to deeply engage with his theology and try to understand what he was saying. Or when I'm talking to Kathy Schroeder — who was one of Koresh's spiritual wives — about what he was like as a lover and she had such a humanist approach to her answer. I was constantly surprised by all of their perspectives, and I found them all very complex.

Chris Whitcomb in the Netflix series, Waco: American Apocalypse. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)
Chris Whitcomb in the Netflix series Waco: American Apocalypse. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)

Did you find that the law enforcement officers you spoke with were willing to be reflective of the mistakes that were made?

We tend to think of institutions like the FBI as monolithic, but they're actually composed of a lot of agents, each of whom has their own biography, personal politics and religious beliefs. So I wanted to make each of them more than just FBI agents — I wanted to know who they were as human beings. This is a story that's defining for everyone, and they're all still living with the ghost of it in a very profound way. I found people to be shockingly open about saying, "We blew it here," or "This could have happened here" or "We did our very best." The goal was always to make it as nuanced as possible.

As you mentioned, Waco profoundly changed the image of the FBI in a lot of conservative circles and you can see its impact in later incidents, like the Bundy standoff in Oregon.

Yes, this is very much a flashpoint for many of these intense cultural conversations that are happening today. There is a direct legacy of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City happening one-to-one because of Waco. You could even potentially tie it to January 6 and what happened there. Many people have used what happened in Waco to justify their political beliefs and ideologies. My hope is that instead of just reaffirming what people already think, maybe by looking at the Waco story again will make them ask how exactly it happened and what was it like to be a human being in that moment watching friends [in law enforcement] die or being a young kid on the compound whose room was getting shot up.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 1:  US Attorney General Janet Reno testifies to a House subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington about the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Amid claims of being
Attorney General Janet Reno testifies to a House subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington about the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex. (Photo: J. David Ake/AFP via Getty Images)

You touch on this in the series, but then-Attorney General Janet Reno became a controversial figure in the '90s because of incidents like Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing and the return of Elián González to Cuba. What do you think is her legacy now?

People become lightning rods like that whenever the story is a lightning rod, because people always read it differently based on what their politics are. Janet Reno kind of stumbled into the middle of the story. She was not the attorney general when it happened: She had just been appointed and then had to deal with this impossible scenario. What I thought was interesting about the way she handled it — whether you support her or not — is that she owned her decisions and accepted the consequences of them. That's interesting and admirable regardless of what happened. She made the call and was very honest in accepting the admiration and blame. [Reno died in 2016.]

One of the questions posed in the documentary is who started the fire that consumed the compound. You offer a lot of different perspectives, but no definitive answer.

There are two massive historical questions that will surround this story forever: Who shot first in the beginning and who set the fires at the end? Any reporter who deeply covered the story or any agent of an institution like the FBI will pretty categorically tell you that the Davidians started the fire. I wasn't there, and I didn't live through it so I don't know. It's my job as a storyteller to empower the different voices and perspectives, but I knew it was really important to include audio recordings where the Davidians talk about pouring the fuel. To me, that left it as pretty undeniable. You're hearing the words of the people who set the blaze. It's not fair for me to be the person to say what happened or what didn't happen, but that evidence was pretty profound and overwhelming.

You also chose to elide Koresh's final moments: He died from a gunshot wound to the head that was presumably fired by one of his followers.

There's a companion podcast that we're releasing at the same time as the series that goes into that in some detail. There's so many riveting aspects to the story, and there's only so much you can fit into a three-episode series. But it is fascinating, because he did die from a bullet to the brain. So the podcast became an interesting place to explore that.

Waco survivor, Heather Jones, is interviewed extensively in Waco: American Apocalypse. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)
Waco survivor Heather Jones is interviewed extensively in Waco: American Apocalypse. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)

You give the first words and the final words of the series to Heather Jones, one of the children who survived the siege. How does her voice in particular speak to what you wanted to achieve with the series?

It's interesting, because there are many other people in the series that speak more than she does. But all politics aside, these children were at the center of this story and the rest of their lives were determined in one way or another by the adults that surrounded them. Putting Heather front and center and let her be a central voice reminds us that the kids were at the beating heart of this. Also, those memories are seared into her consciousness: I know she's spoken about some of them, but never with the kind of depth and detail that she does here.

I was very careful about that as well, because you are entering into people's trauma in a direct and real way, and that needs to be done very carefully and consensually by everyone involved. I wanted her to be herself and evoke the most vivid memories for her. David Koresh was her uncle and almost her parent — she was born and raised on that compound and it was her entire world. So her story is an important one.

The aftermath of the fire that destroyed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, claiming 76 lives. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)
The aftermath of the fire that destroyed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, claiming 76 lives. (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix)

Thirty years later, what lessons do you feel we've learned — or haven't learned — in the aftermath of Waco?

Well, the questions about God and guns in America have only continued. They've existed since this country was founded, and they're affecting our would as intensely now as they were back then. There are no simple answer to any of them: They are defining elements of what it means to be American, and we'll forever be wrestling with them. And, frankly, we should be, because they are complicated subjects.

But I also think the legacy is the profound failure to communicate on all sides and we're very much in that same spot today only now it's happening via Twitter and other places. People are so polarized and divided and unwilling to listen to divergent perspectives or recognize the humanity in others. By looking at this story and treating everyone involved as individual human beings, hopefully there's a message about remembering that we're more than just vessels of our politics and ideologies. We're human beings and we're trying our best. All we can do is learn from each other and listen to teach other.

Waco: American Apocalypse premieres Wednesday, March 22 on Netflix.