'Helter Skelter' revisits violent Manson case, carefully

Associated Press/May 14, 2004
By Lynn Elber

Los Angeles -- "Helter Skelter," CBS' Sunday movie about the 1969 murders committed by Charles Manson's followers, is more tell than show when it comes to the brutal crimes.

In a time of increased scrutiny of TV standards, that isn't the result of network caution alone. The producer said he didn't need CBS to tell him to toe the line in the three-hour film.

"We know there's going to be issues. The whole country's having issues," said Mark Wolper, a TV veteran ("The Mists of Avalon" and Penn & Teller's Showtime series) who's well aware of the Janet Jackson backlash.

Furor over Jackson's flash of nudity during this year's Super Bowl halftime show has led to a federal crackdown on radio and TV content and increased fines for indecency.

"We still do what we think is appropriate. But we have to think that if it looks to us like society as a whole wants to see less, than we as providers have to provide less," said Wolper.

But he said he has serious concerns about the chilling effect of congressional reaction to the Jackson incident.

The film's writer-director, John Gray ("Martin and Lewis"), said discretion and creative valor manage to co-exist in "Helter Skelter."

"There was definitely heightened concern from the network's point of view. As a filmmaker, you've got to understand that," Gray said. "They're dealing with the same problems we're all dealing with.

"At the same time," he added, "we wanted to protect the integrity of the storytelling."

"Helter Skelter" (8 p.m. EDT Sunday) relies on a fair amount of blood but only brief flashes of violence, stopping well short of graphic depictions of stabbings or shootings.

"There's always a fine line, because on the one hand you don't want to sanitize and sugarcoat what happened," Gray said. "On the other hand, there's no need to be all that drastically visceral about it.

"I think we found a way to suggest the horror of what went on in those houses .... There's very, very quick and stylized scenes that I think are disturbing, but not so graphic that people will want to turn away."

Jeremy Davies ("Saving Private Ryan") plays Manson and bears a striking resemblance to the slight, fierce-eyed figure. The cast includes Bruno Kirby, Clea DuVall and Allison Smith.

"Helter Skelter" was conceived when Wolper saw a 2002 news report on Manson's latest unsuccessful effort to gain parole. The producer was struck by the continuing fascination with the case, which was detailed in prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's best-selling book, "Helter Skelter."

Manson was convicted of masterminding two nights of terror in August 1969. On the first night, his followers killed pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others at her home. Wealthy store owners Leno and Rosemary La Bianca were slain in their home the next evening.

Manson has said he was trying to start a race war that he thought was foreshadowed in the Beatles' song "Helter Skelter."

His chief lieutenant Charles "Tex" Watson and three women -- Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkle -- were convicted and sentenced to death.

The sentences later were commuted to life when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty.

The police investigation of the crimes and trial were dramatized in a 1976 miniseries, also titled "Helter Skelter," starring Steve Railsback as Manson.

After screening the '70s project, Wolper saw an opportunity to revisit Manson and his brutal crimes from another angle, as a psychological study of a man's vicious influence on lost, impressionable young people.

"Who is Charles Manson? How did he manipulate these women? How does a man get people to kill for him?" Wolper said.

The result reflects not only the current climate but longstanding broadcast sensitivity to violence, the producer said. But the ante was upped after the Jackson incident.

At an early screening of the film for CBS, some minor cuts were suggested to make the film's scenes of violence less "intense," Wolper recalled, adding that he agreed the changes were sound.

But there was ironic acknowledgment of the new climate, he said.

"We all laughed and joked, `All because of a nipple, now we're making the scene a little less intense."'

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.