The Australian cult that fed children LSD: Guy Pearce on the ‘disturbing’ true story behind The Clearing

The Guardian, UK/May 23, 2023

By Katie Cunningham

As soon as he put down the script, Jeffrey Walker knew he wanted to work on the Disney+ series The Clearing. “It was one of those reads that you just couldn’t stop thinking about,” the show’s co-director says. “It affected me emotionally and psychologically.”

This might ring as hyperbole if it weren’t for the disturbing real-life story behind the script. The new eight-part series, adapted from JP Pomare’s novel In the Clearing, is based on the true story of the Family, the cult who operated in the shadows of regional Victoria from the 1960s to the 80s.

Among its various cruelties across two decades, the Family obtained 28 children, mostly through shonky adoptions or as “gifts” from unwed mothers, and housed them in a sprawling property at the secluded Lake Eildon. There they were subject to beatings and starvation, given daily doses of benzodiazepines to keep them docile and forced to begin taking psychedelic drugs, escalating to the point of days-long trips once they turned 14. To look like the “family” they were told they were, the children’s hair was bleached blonde and they were dressed in matching outfits.

Those involved in The Clearing are keen to stress that viewers should not expect a to-the-letter retelling of the real-life case (for that, watch the 2019 documentary The Cult of the Family). But the series is still rich with details that echo the facts, like those matching platinum hairdos – a subtly chilling sight – as well as the filming locations, which included Lake Eildon.

While the early episodes are a largely faithful adaptation of Pomare’s book, Walker says the story quickly expands beyond that source material “to take on a cinematic life of its own”. The exact plot details are being closely guarded – the Guardian was only given access to the first two episodes in advance – but it broadly tells the story of the cult, renamed the Kindred, in present-day scenes and flashbacks to the 80s as Freya (Teresa Palmer) reckons with her past and her connections to the cult.

Guy Pearce had heard vague details of the Family cult when he came onboard, but preferred to keep it that way, having been drawn in by the “really compelling and disturbing” story. “I’ve done things before where things are based on exact occurrences … I find I’ve got to be very careful in how much of the original source material I delve into,” he says.

Pearce’s character, Dr Bryce Latham, is also clearly sketched from real life: the Family’s co-founder, Dr Raynor Johnson, was a physicist whose presence lent the group an intellectual authority that helped them recruit members, often handpicked from Melbourne’s wealthy elite. Joining for the promise of spiritual fulfilment, they were made to take dangerous amounts of LSD and had every aspect of their lives controlled.

“I’m always nervous about how much research I do,” Pearce says. “It can be helpful sometimes, but it can also open up cans of worms that convolute what it is I’m initially picking up from in the script.”

Walker, who co-directed The Clearing with Gracie Otto, says the goal was to capture the trauma that young people raised in cults experience. “Your past is with you all the time – you carry it with you in the present constantly,” he says.

Palmer’s character could stand in for the dozens of children who suffered at the hands of the Family. But one character indisputably based on a real individual is Adrienne Beaufort (played by Miranda Otto) a stand-in for Anne Hamilton-Byrne. Hamilton-Byrne, who died aged 98 in 2019, led the Family and holds the dubious honour of being one of history’s few female cult leaders.

The self-appointed guru claimed to be Jesus reborn as a woman and told the children raised in her clutches she was their birth mother, and that together they would survive the end of the world to become a new master race.

He regards Latham as “highly intelligent” but also “socially inept, quite the hermit”; a man who believes that if we could access more of our brain through the use of psychedelic drugs, humans could create a more efficient and fulfilled society. But that vision carried with it a cruel myopia.

“He really is lacking in the sort of usual humanity that we might find would kick in if we saw children being abused – to him, it’s all for the greater good,” Pearce says.

The Clearing’s A-list cast in Otto, Palmer and Pearce will be obvious draw cards (another legend of Australian screen, Claudia Karvan, also appears in later episodes). But Walker feels the true standouts are the two child leads, Lily La Torre and Julia Savage, through whom we experience the inhumanity of young life in the cult. He was impressed by their talent and ability to handle the script’s “heavy material” – something the behind-the-scenes team were conscious of making as low-impact as possible for the young performers. Kids were only brought on set for “a really short period of time”, the parents were always nearby, and efforts were made to keep the mood on set as light as possible until the moment cameras rolled.

At times, The Clearing can be upsetting viewing, particularly knowing how few consequences the Family’s leaders faced. Johnson died in 1987, a few months before the Family’s compound was raided by police and all the children removed. Hamilton-Byrne fled overseas and – while eventually arrested on minor fraud charges – never served any jail time.

But Walker is excited for audiences to see the finished product which, in what feels “pretty special” for an Australian production, is airing in the UK on Disney+ and the US on Hulu in tandem with its local release. He thinks the show is “brave” for keeping viewers guessing.

“It doesn’t feed you every little bit of information in the first episode,” Walker says. “You’re given all these little pieces to the puzzle that ultimately you’ll only fully form in the finale. Every single thing pays off.”

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