Thirty years later, Tiller Russell knew any documentary revisiting the Branch Dividian siege in Waco had to find a fresh perspective.
In his new Netflix docuseries Waco: American Apocalypse, the Park Cities-born Russell found that while the historical facts of the tragic 51-day standoff in 1993 haven’t changed, the context in which we view it has evolved.
“History is something that’s not static. We’re always retelling it and reiterating different versions of it,” Russell said. “America is haunted by the ghost of Waco in a fairly profound sense. This was the biggest news story in the world, and it unfolded in real time on national television. Right from the get-go, it was this very politicized blame game that went around. How did we get into this mess? What was it like to be trapped in the maws of history? I wanted to find the humanity.”
As part of that approach, Russell wanted to frame the three-part series as a vivid and immersive thriller, incorporating 3D graphics to reconstruct the compound where the tense standoff matched religious leaders and acolytes with federal officials.
Producers uncovered unseen footage inside the on-site hostage negotiation room that was originally intended to be used an FBI training tool but was later stashed away. They also secured raw footage from local television stations that had never been aired. Those discoveries galvanized Russell.
“I was hesitant to tackle it. I didn’t know what I could add to it,” he said. “That was a way to take the story and electrify it, so it seems like it’s unfolding before your eyes.”
The filmmaker also weaves in new interviews with lawyers for cult leader David Koresh, one of his spiritual wives, the drummer from his band, and more.
“Everybody I sat down with was different from my preconceived notions about what I expected them to be. It kept transforming my understanding of the story,” Russell said. “It’s a very diverse cross-section of people. Rather than pushing an agenda from one side or another, I just wanted to understand the human experience.”
Russell grew up in University Park, where he worked at a video store so he could rent movies for free. He never fit in at either Highland Park High School or St. Mark’s School of Texas, and instead graduated from an East Coast boarding school on a wrestling scholarship.
His interest in true-crime storytelling stems from his father, who worked in the Dallas County District Attorney’s office. Russell worked as a crime reporter in Northern California before shifting gears after writing a profile on Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, whose The Thin Blue Line helped exonerate a Dallas man.
“I was a bit of a wild child and a reprobate, but I found that world uniquely fascinating,” Russell said. “The stakes, whether you’re a cop or a crook, are life-or-death every time you walk out the door.”
Russell’s recent projects including the docuseries Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer as well as the 2021 narrative feature Silk Road. He is an executive producer on a project revisiting the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that debuted on Netflix in April.
As for Waco, Russell said it’s important to revisit and reconsider the tragedy, which still resonates an examination of religious freedom, gun rights, and government intervention.
“Waco is a story about God and guns in America, and how it affects our children. These are issues that are burning today like they were 30 years ago,” he said. “History is most relevant when it’s speaking about today.”