After a year of working on a documentary that investigates the original claims made about Charles Manson’s crimes, mind control, and the Helter Skelter narrative, director Buddy Day was confronted with the sudden death of his subject—none of other than the most famous convicted serial killer in America.
The piece, which attempts to present an alternative version of the events by giving voice to those often excluded from the conversation, instantly became the final document created during Manson’s life, thus it was re-titled: Charles Manson: The Final Words. Narrated by musician and horror filmmaker, Rob Zombie, Day’s reconstruction of the summer of ’69 and its aftermath raises provocative inquires about the case that put the notorious villain behind bars for his entire life. Ahead of its television debut on Reelz December 3, the true crime expert spoke with MovieMaker about his first conversation with Manson and creating a controversial film.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker magazine (MM): How did you make your initial contact with Charles Manson and what was that initial conversation like?
Buddy Day (BD): I live in the true crime world and I met some people who were researching the case and that had talked to him personally, and that kind of put the seed of the idea in my head. I wrote him some letters on a whim and then months later I was at an Applebee’s having wrapped for the day and he just called me out of the blue. It was surreal at first. He was not shy about talking about his crimes, so talking to a famous “serial killer” about his crimes was pretty intense. My heart was racing and I tried to keep my wits about me and ask him as many questions as I could because I thought that would the only time I ever talked to him, but then he kept calling over the course of a year.
MM: How did his sudden passing affected the production of the film or the release plans you had for it?
BD: The documentary took about a year to make from start to finish. When we set out to make it, we were trying to investigate the validity of this alternative narrative to see if the was another reason for those murders outside of the Helter Skelter race war theory that’s been commonly put forward. Our intention was never to document the last year of Charles Manson’s life, but when he died on November 19, that’s exactly what it turned into. It didn’t change the focus of our documentary and it didn’t change the movie from a practical sense, but it definitely changed the context of it. We re-titled it and decided to get it out quicker than we anticipated because of its relevance. We were literally finishing it the week before he died.
MM: As a documentarian, how do you make a film about someone who’s been considered the personification of evil for some many years and keep it objective, not siding with the alternative version but also nor perpetuating the official narrative as truth?
BD: He’s literally been labeled the most evil, dangerous man of all time—the personification of evil. And what we found fascinating was the idea that the narrative that was put forward to convict him and to keep him in prison for his entire life, if there was flaws in that narrative, if it wasn’t 100 percent true, that raises all sorts of questions. Not to his innocence, he was guilty of many crimes for sure, but the question it raised was, “Is it ever appropriate for someone in law enforcement or an authority to do the wrong thing for the right reasons?” because everyone deserve a fair trial, even if you are Charles Manson. To make something controversial wasn’t the intent but whenever you are trying to determine whether such a long held belief is true or not, it’s ultimately controversial.
MM: How did Rob Zombie come on board as a narrator? It definitely feels like something in his wheelhouse because of the nature of his work as a musician and filmmaker.
BD: I’m a huge Rob Zombie fan personally, and it does not go unnoticed by me that he makes a lot of references to Charles Manson and the Charles Manson family murders in his music and his movies. So when we sat down as we were near the end of it, we said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get someone with name recognition that is also invested on a controversial take on the Charles Manson story?” The first person on our list was Rob Zombie. We contacted him and we contacted a number of other people we thought might be interested. We were getting turned down left and right, probably because of the subject matter. Months later I got a call from his manager saying that he’d reviewed what we’d sent him. They asked for more information, we sent it in and as soon as he saw what we were doing in the early excerpts of the documentary, he was 100 percent on board. He was incredibly gracious with his time. He even took a day out of recording his new album to come and record the voice over. It was an incredible experience to work with him.
MM: Logistically, can you describe the process of getting access to people who knew Manson and materials to construct the documentary?
BD: We scoured the earth for anyone that would have some sort of first-hand account of what happened in the summer of ’69. We also were really opened to people who have maybe been dismissed by the more mainstream media. We are independent and we are working with an independent channel, Reelz, which is not part of a conglomerate and they were just really invested in us telling a high quality story. They allowed us to talk to all sorts of people like George Simpson or Michael Channels who are incredibly knowledgeable about Manson’s story. We had a phenomenal art director, so all the images we got from mainstream sources he treated and did a great job to make them look original and fresh. We also dug deep into some of the lesser-known places. We contacted the Sacramento History Society, that’s where we got the Susan Atkins video. For the audio recordings that you hear in the doc, we contacted researcher who has digitally restored audio recording from the original investigation that were restored from discarded reel-to-reel that was thrown out by the Inyo County sheriff department. MM
Charles Manson: The Final Words will premiere on Reelz December 3. Photos courtesy of Reelz. Watch the trailer for the documentary below.