Everybody thinks they know Charles Manon’s story – Helter Skelter, serial killer, the face of evil – but what if all that we were led to believe wasn’t true? Not saying that Charlie was a good guy because obviously, he wasn’t. But what happens if the way it supposedly went down was just a storyline put together by an ambitious and fame-obsessed prosecutor?
When Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered in 1969, Vincent Bugliosi was assigned the case. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office was under a tremendous amount of pressure to solve this case, and Bugliosi was on the spot, but unfortunately, he had no leads.
The only reason he found out about the Manson Family was because Susan Atkins, who was in prison on an unrelated charge, couldn’t help but boast of her crimes. The investigation had gone nowhere in the preceding months and the crazy hippie commune angle presented Bugliosi a unique opportunity to seize upon a convoluted, but compelling theory for the bizarre killings. When you watch the news coverage from 1969, before the Manson Family was ever arrested, they refer to the murders as a religious ritual gone wrong. Bugliosi, who had well-known political aspirations, ran with that mischaracterisation, and before the trial even began he hired Curt Gentry to write what would become Helter Skelter, the book that rocketed Bugliosi to fame and fortune.
In a recently released riveting two-hour documentary, Charles Manson: The Final Words, [the release coincided with Manson’s death] filmmaker Buddy Day takes an in-depth look at Charles Manson, the man who convicted him, and the true story behind one of criminal history's most disturbing characters. Manson has been talking about a conspiracy since day one. But not in the way you might think. Day reconstructs the narrative, capturing the true events as they really occurred. No one is making the case the Manson is innocent, but this film shows that the paths that prosecutors take to get a conviction don’t always match up with the truth. We talked to the director to find out why Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter theory is some straight up BS, how he got Rob Zombie to narrate the film, and why he thinks the world will remember Charles Manson. Here’s what he had to say:
The way you lay out Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter theory on the Manson Family murders makes it look some straight up BS, how did he sell his sensational story to the world?
We kept getting feedback that viewers couldn’t follow the Helter Skelter theory. What I came back with was, yeah, I know – that’s the point. People said, I know, but I can’t follow it. I sat down with the art director and said what if we made this big chart and we laid it all out and have Rob Zombie just read it in like a two-minute voiceover. The art director said yeah, it’s a good idea.
He puts together this great graphic sequence, and when you really sit there and listen to the whole theory laid out, you kind of see how full of holes it is. Bugliosi sold it to the jury in 1969 by parsing it out one piece at a time. You can kind of except those little parts. Like yeah, Manson resented the establishment, well, that kind of makes sense. Manson might have been a racist, well, that makes sense. But when you look at it as a whole and see how they’re actually connecting the dots it really starts to fall apart and goes to these bigger questions. Like if they were trying to start a race war why didn’t they just write kill white people on the walls? Why did they write Beatle references that were so obscure it was even hard for the prosecution to understand it?
How did you get Rob Zombie to narrate it?
We were kind of late in the editing of the film. We sat down and said, what would make this perfect would be if we could recruit a high profile person who a vested interest in helping us get this story out to the mainstream. We made a list of people and number one on the list was Rob Zombie. We had a whole bunch of names under that. We put out feelers. We called agents and things like that. I just kept calling and tried to forward him information through his management company. We started getting turned down by a lot of really cool people. Then months after that I got a call from Rob’s manager. He said Rob looked at it and he’s really interested. He was incredibly gracious with his time and even took a day out of recording his album to record the voiceover. It was amazing. He understood what we were trying to do.
The narrative from Rob Zombie is first-person too, from your perspective. Why did you decide to tell the story that way?
I spoke with Charles Manson over the phone through the course of making this documentary to get him to validate things. I asked him questions to get his perspective on things. We definitely wanted the audience to feel what it was like to talk to him on the phone. That’s why we included that first-person narration and also why you can hear the operator from the prison talking and see the phone. We did all that perfectly because we wanted people who watched it to understand what it felt like to get a call from prison.
What did you think of Manson going into the project and did your opinion of him change over the course of making the documentary?
Going in I knew a bit about him. I probably had some of the same bias that everybody going in has. That Charles Manson was the shorthand for evil. He’s the most famous infamous mass murderer of all times. He was very often described as a serial killer. So going in that’s what I knew. In talking to a person regardless of their reputation you kind of start to see that they’re more than that. That they are a person underneath all that. They’re a human being regardless of who they are. They have thoughts and feelings and all that. It changed my opinion in that I actually got to know him as a person. That kind of reduced that bias I went in with.
I guess the biggest change I had is that he’s been saying these things for many years. The fact that things have been made up about him in regards to the Helter Skelter theory. I started to see that when you look back at all his interviews over the last 50 years, he kind of says the same things over and over again. I started to see that there may be some truth there. He’s often dismissed as just being a rambling maniac, but when you really dig down, when you really try to find out what happened, and talk to all the other people that were there you start to see that, yeah, he can ramble and say all these crazy things, but there’s also truth in some of the things he says.
How did you feel when he died right before the film was slated to come out?
He was 82 when we started and we understood that he was getting up there in age, but we never intended to document his final year, although, that’s what turned out to be, but that wasn’t our intent going into the documentary. It turned out that that was the last year of his life, which kind of reframed the documentary in a whole new context. He was famous for the entirety of his life. He was the most famous inmate of all time. He’s literally won Emmys for interviews and things like that over the years.
people were talking about. I had questions about Helter Skelter, the whole prosecution of Charles Manson and we sought to speak with him and speak with anyone else that was involved to answer those questions.
How do you think the world will remember Charles Manson?
I think the thing about Charles Manson that people don’t understand is that he was like a mirror. He would reflect things back at you. If you went in there looking for a crazy rambling mass murderer, that’s what he’d give back to you. If you went in there looking for a father figure, that’s what he’d give back to you. If you went in looking for a hippie-guru-cult leader, that’s what he’d give back to you. That’s how he survived his whole life. By kind of reflecting back what people brought to him. Whatever people wanted to hear he would tell it to them. I think that was truly who he was.
As far as him being evil, he liked the fact that people were afraid of him, he liked the fact that he was Charles Manson. A lot of that comes from being in prison because in prison you want people to be afraid of you. They’ll kill you over a cup of soup. He was saying something to me once, trying to be intimidating. I remember telling him, hey Charlie, do you find that people are afraid of you? He kind of paused, it took him aback, and he was like oh yeah, I would imagine so. I was like why, and he said I’ve lived quite a life in the criminal underworld. He kind of almost took offence to the idea that someone wouldn’t be afraid of him.