SN Peoples Temple was part of the mainstream politics of the Bay Area. I'm from New York. I had no idea that Jim Jones was head of the Housing Commission in San Francisco or that politicians came to Peoples Temple events and gave incredible speeches praising Jim Jones. That was something I discovered while making the film.
It's part of the history of Peoples Temple, but it was also like a birthday cake–times-12 to the politicians. The politicians didn't look too far behind this gift horse, because [Peoples Temple] was highly organized. People did what Jim Jones said. At one point they had 13 buses. They'd fill up the buses and —
MG — a politician could have an instant press conference.
SN Just one phone call and Jim Jones could come with buses. You'd have 500 people at your march.
MG Do you get a sense that what happened in Jonestown reverberates politically today? The players then aren't necessarily in politics. Jackie Speier still is, but Moscone, Willie Brown, and others are not holding political office. Still, do you see any aftereffects?
SN I'm not sure on a local level, but one thing I think it did was help kill the idea of communes in this country [at a time] when there was a strong movement saying, "Let's live together; let's live on the land; let's pool our resources." All of a sudden that was associated with "look at what happened in Guyana."
MG As I understand it, there are about five survivors who were there when the massacre took place.
SN There were about five people actually there [who survived], and of those, there are, to my knowledge, three left alive. Two of them are in the film.
MG People closely associated with Peoples Temple spoke to you and revealed some, I would think, very difficult, personal stories about sexual assault or the use of authority to express dominance. Was it difficult to get people to talk honestly?
SN It was surprisingly easy for us to get people to talk honestly. Time has passed. Partly because of a play [Berkeley Rep's The People's Temple] that was produced here in the Bay Area, I think people understood that maybe we were ready to hear a different version of the story that was much deeper.
MG In the film you see that Jones is abusing prescription drugs and probably has a mounting paranoia that's associated with some mental condition. Is there a sense that he changed while he was in San Francisco, or was Peoples Temple headed toward this sort of cultlike finality from its inception?