Cult Hit

Here’s What Netflix Left Out of Wild Wild Country

The Emmy-winning doc turned the absurd chaos of Oregon's Rajneeshpuram into a pop culture phenomenon. We followed up.

By Michelle Harris Illustrations by Michael Byers November 20, 2018 Published in the December 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

Let’s be honest: 2018 was a collective national episode of The Twilight Zone. Perhaps it was the moment when Kanye put on a MAGA hat or when Russia appointed Steven Seagal a special envoy to the US that the weird took an even weirder turn.

But one of the year’s defining moments in weirdness hit a lot closer to home, and time-traveled back nearly four decades: Neflix’s Wild Wild Country, the bingeable six-part documentary series centered on the Rajneesh compound outside Antelope, Oregon, in the 1980s. Fraternal filmmakers Chapman and Maclain Way first charmed locals in 2014 with their documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball, which chronicled scrappy, loveable, and ultimately doomed ’70s-era baseball team the Portland Mavericks. On Rajneeshpuram, the duo went deep, with new interviews, unearthed news footage, and forgotten film reels. Yes, most Oregonians, even if they were foggy on the details, had heard of the eccentric, red-clad, Uzi-wielding Rajneeshees, who, along with their Rolls-Royce-obsessed guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, claimed a corner of Central Oregon in 1981. The cult’s story is as much a piece of Oregon lore as Bigfoot or the exploding whale. Nevertheless, whatever we knew (or thought we knew), Wild Wild Country blew us away with its peek at the infighting, the planned assassinations, the secret footage of naked scream therapy, and the cold-blooded machinations of the cult’s second-in-command (and the film’s prime antagonist), Ma Anand Sheela. 

Fair to say, we—and a large subset of the American people desperately attempting to block out political realities—were hooked. In September, Wild Wild Country won the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary Series. But, as with any narrative, it left some stories untold. Hungry for one last hit of the saga before 2018 draws to a close, we tracked down some eyewitnesses (many of whom made appearances in the series) as well as the filmmakers themselves, and asked what was missing.

The Critic

Former Antelope resident Rosemary McGreer’s outspoken opposition to the Rajneesh in a 1982 episode of The Merv Griffin Show resulted in a lawsuit and an alleged plot to poison her. More so, McGreer says Wild Wild Country paints the Rajneeshees a bit too favorably, often glossing over details that would portray them as corrupt:

The documentary never mentioned all the problems going on at their ashram in Pune, India. They were about to be raided, which is probably one of the reasons they left. It wasn’t just to evade taxes.”

The Rescuer

White-haired, mustached John Silvertooth (who appears in the documentary wearing his signature pair of overalls) says he once picked up an escaping Rajneeshee, a young German man, and drove him away from town.

There were always people trying to escape the ranch. They didn’t like people leaving,” says Silvertooth.

According to Silvertooth (who says he’s now often bombarded by fans seeking selfies) the film’s biggest flaw was the impression it gave that the Rajneesh only acquired guns after the 1983 bombing of Hotel Rajneesh. “They had guns before that,” he says.

But his greatest revelation: “Allegedly, the Rajneesh leaders dosed strawberries with MDMA. That’s how they manipulated unsuspecting people into feeling good right from the start. I was invited to [Sheela’s] wedding at Hotel Rajneesh. It was a political marriage. Right on the table was a big pile of strawberries.”

The Cowboy Poet

Rancher Jon Bowerman, who appeared in the doc (and who gets a lot of selfie requests, too), is also a man of letters, and often read his poetry aloud at the community grange dances.

There were a couple of Rajneesh followers at a grange dance who reported my poem to Sheela. She asked me to come and do a reading for the higher-ups.”

As their closest neighbor, Bowerman had a number of encounters with the Rajneesh. “When they first came over and introduced themselves, they drank up all my beer,” he says. He remembers Sheela as “very outgoing, friendly, and beautiful—but so is a cobra” and went on to describe a time when she made no effort to hide an extramarital affair: “Sheela decided she wanted to shack up with one of the Bhagwan’s pilots. She was running her hand up and down the pilot’s leg in court while her husband, John Shelfer, was present. I felt sorry for him.”

The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (middle) and Ma Anand Sheela (right) in 1982

Image: Courtesy Netflix 

The Sannyasin

Despite the, er, drama, some followers who lived at Rajneeshpuram describe their time there as a positive experience overall. Take Andrea, a sannyasin who lived at Rajneeshpuram for three years starting in 1983, and now lives in Hillsboro and works at a food cooperative.

I think most who were at the ranch and who saw the documentary wish there were more stories from people who were worker bees. I knew someone who was an opera singer and he would sing to the cows when he worked in the ranch’s dairy barn. On a typical day at Rajneeshpuram, you would have gone to work, had three meals and a couple of tea times. You would have seen your guru at the daily drive-by and been around some amazing people.”

The Helper

In a memorable scandal included in the documentary, the Rajneesh leaders recruited homeless people with the promise of food and shelter, busing them into town from around the country to stuff ballot boxes in a ploy to take over the town government. Most were bused out once the voting plot fell through, and the plot became something of a mini crisis. Kricket Nicholson, who worked as a Salvation Army caseworker at the time, was in The Dalles when the Rajneesh unleashed busloads of homeless people on the streets.

I remember it was extremely cold out. We were able to feed the first few waves with leftovers from a Thanksgiving potluck, then started cooking. The community started delivering food and other donations. There were about 300 of them and we knew we couldn’t accommodate that many homeless in The Dalles, so people started donating money for bus tickets to send them back to where they were recruited. They were all very courteous and grateful.”

The Cat

Gary Kopperud, who shot video for the Associated Press and who’d also assisted the homeless in The Dalles, recalls his favorite Rajneesh follower: a large orange cat named Popcorn. Kopperud was granted an insider look into the commune, which is how he met the beloved cat, who wore a gold necklace and diamond earring.

The Rajneeshees inherited the cat when they bought the ranch. He knew which bus went to the cafeteria and always took it. That cat must’ve been over 20 pounds.”

Kopperud says he rescued Popcorn after the fall of Rajneeshpuram and renamed the cat Swami. Swami lived to be 23 years old and, according to Kopperud, had a three-paragraph obituary written about him in The Dalles Chronicle.

The Filmmakers

Brothers Chapman and Maclain Way dug into archived video at the Oregon Historical Society for much of what became Wild Wild Country.

A lot of this footage was on old U-matic tapes and they were in really bad condition. We had to go through a special process to transfer the footage. So, I think we came in at the right time and helped save a lot of it,” Chapman says. Anything left on the cutting room floor? “We had a ton of footage of  what life on the ranch was like ... farming, eating together, hanging out on the river, just a lot of really beautiful footage of their community when there wasn’t a lot of turmoil or controversy going on.”

“We felt like we were making this niche, like, sociopolitical thriller on a story not a lot of people remembered," Chapman says. “We were just hoping that some people would watch it.” They certainly didn’t anticipate the response. “Mandy Moore threw a Rajneesh-themed bachelorette party, and then SNL spoofed it,” adds Maclain. “You don’t usually see documentaries cut through the pop culture noise like that.”

QUIZ: Which Other 2018 Movie or TV Show Filmed or Set in Oregon Should You Watch Next?

Did you think the original Overboard could be topped? Anna Faris’s Overboard remake

Do you like ambiguous endings? Leave No Trace

How about extended, philosophical poop jokes? American Vandal (Season 2)

Do you remember the ’90s fondly? Netflix high school show Everything Sucks set in Boring, Oregon (now-cancelled, but still streaming)

Hmmm, think horrific acid accidents are good fodder for a western/comedy? The Sisters Brothers

Or do you yearn for a time before “political correctness”? Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Ever wonder what Dr. Who would be like as a rich serial killer? David Tennant thriller Bad Samaritan

Do you miss the days of romantic snail mail? To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

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