SN We interviewed people who knew Jim Jones when he was a kid, and they talk about the fact that he was not normal even as a six- or seven-year-old boy. But I think that his behavior did get more extreme as time went on. He had this incredible power within the church, and he was this warped individual, and the combination affected his behavior. In the end, when they [Peoples Temple members] are isolated in the jungle, that's [a reflection of] who he is.
MG Tell me about the wealth of material you have. There is film footage of a healing that is rather dramatic and recordings of his various sermons.
SN Going in, I had no idea that there was so much film footage. But we found a guy in LA who had shot in Peoples Temple over two days using three cameras and 16-millimeter film and had lit the whole church. His footage is just incredibly beautiful. The healing service, Jim Jones preaching, and the congregation singing and dancing are all part of that. He'd sold off bits and pieces to places like NBC, but we came along at a time when he felt that the film he wanted to make would never get made, so he agreed to sell us some footage.
We found members of Peoples Temple who had footage that had never been seen before. There are actually shots from the plane of them going down [to Guyana] — you can hear Jim Jones describing what he's going to do — and shots of Jones cutting through the jungle with machetes.
Also, we were working very closely with the California Historical Society library, which has a Peoples Temple collection.
MG There was a recent book [Dear People: Remembering Jonestown] that compiled some of that material.
SN Also, Jim Jones recorded himself and his sermons at Peoples Temple. They actually audio-recorded the night of the suicides. As the people are dying, Jim Jones is encouraging them to drink the poison. There are audiotapes of the children and the women and men screaming and dying.
MG As a filmmaker going into a project like this, are you trying to present the truth? Are you trying to present an alternative reading of what happened? Are you trying to warn people?
SN I'm not trying to warn people or tell an alternative history, although obviously what we did turns out to be an alternative history. I was just trying to tell this incredible story and tell it with as much honesty as I can. Everybody in the film had a part to play in Peoples Temple. We really wanted it to be a film told in the voices of the people who lived through it.
MG In my notes I have a reference to the various CIA-related theories [about what happened in Guyana]. You don't pick that up in the film, and I wonder if you might say something about that.
SN There are different theories that Jim Jones was a CIA agent and this was all a scary mind-control experiment. You know, we found nothing to back that up, and it just didn't make sense for us to go down that road.