How Accurate Is ‘Waco’? David Koresh & The Branch Davidians Are The Subject Of A New, Compelling Miniseries
A new miniseries on the Paramount network focuses on the lethal 51-day standoff in Waco, Texas between the FBI and the religious fringe group, the Branch Davidians. Waco (costume design: Karyn Wagner) will also go inside the compound to show how Koresh's followers lived, worked, and worshipped. Audiences will want to know if Waco is accurate as they watch the limited TV event, premiering Jan. 24.
The ATF's raid of the compound and subsequent siege resulted in a total of 86 deaths, including the majority of the Branch Davidian sect, limiting access to eyewitness accounts. The miniseries is based on two such recollections. A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story is by David Thibodeau, who was living at the Koresh compound during the standoff and is played by Rory Culkin in the series. To account for the other side of the conflict, Waco (production executive: Megan Spanjian) also sources from the autobiography Stalling for Time: My Life As An FBI Hostage Negotiator by FBI negotiator Gary Noesner, played by Michael Shannon. Per TIME, the two men met for the first time on the show's set, as they both served as advisers to the production. The arguments over which side escalated the standoff into deadly territory continues, making this a somewhat unprecedented collaboration.
Thibodeau told The Dallas Observer, "The show got some small details wrong," though he understood that moments of creative license were "necessary to create drama." According to SmithMountainLake.com, Noesner told an audience of friends at a preview screening that he'd been approached about several projects having to do with Waco over the years, and that he "was delighted with this outcome.” He also said that his opinion was sought and often — though not always — taken. Noesner spent time with Shannon as well, and claimed that much of the dialogue between FBI agents was taken directly from his book.
Waco's dedication to its source material was a boon for Taylor Kitsch, who plays Koresh, in his discovering the infamous religious reader. He tells Bustle that he was in direct and constant contact with Thibodeau, emailing him about even minor details about Koresh and life in the compound that would help him understand his character. "He helped a lot in the sense of just validating certain choices or vice versa," Kitsch says. The actor also did extensive work on his own, reading scripture and Koresh's writings and losing weight to look the part.
And according to his costar Julia Garner, who plays Branch Davidian Michelle Jones, Kitsch's preparation really paid off. "From the first time I met him, which was in the makeup trailer, I didn’t even recognize him," Garner tells Bustle. "He looked like David Koresh."
Garner's character was also a real person, and she represents a faction of the Branch Davidian sect that has been largely voiceless: the women, some of whom were Koresh's "spiritual wives" and child bearers. It was much easier to find information about Koresh, but the actor was looking for something else. "I just wanted to look at a lot of pictures of the women," Garner says. "What their expression was, how they were kind of standing or walking — just random details."
The Waco standoff occurred 25 years ago, but Kitsch understands why people continue to consume stories about Branch Davidians and similar groups. "I think it’s the unknown," he says. "I think there’s a fear there, a fascination. Like a what, or why, or how? How does this even begin? Where is the root of this?I’m fascinated. It’s like a character study truly. Religion’s been around forever and it’s a big part of it. And it’s these variables that come into play and in this end result, it’s just a terrible tragedy."
Additional reporting by Sage Young.