Exploring ‘An American Myth’

Lesley Chilcott (left) filming near Death Valley for the “Helter Skelter” series with drone operator Trevor Bryson

Lesley Chilcott, Malibu resident and successful documentary filmmaker, just finished directing and executive producing her first miniseries for television—”Helter Skelter: An American Myth.” The six-part series takes a deep, detailed look at the people involved in what some call the “crime of the century”—seven people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, brutally murdered over two nights in LA, just more than 50 years ago, by members of the Manson Family cult.

In the decades since the murders, at least 40 books have been written about those grisly crimes and at least 10 films have been made. With that volume of information, it’s hard to believe there could be anything new to say about the Manson murders, and yet Chilcott paints a uniquely revealing and detailed picture.

“No one had done a deep dive on Manson,” Chilcott said in a recent interview. “There had never been someone showing the humanity of both the perpetrators and the victims.” Chilcott’s miniseries contains plenty of new information; in fact, the series declares: “You Think You Know the Story—You Don’t.”

Chilcott and her team managed to get film footage that had never been seen by anyone—tapes and recordings that had only been heard by the reporters who made them, photos that had never been published, and interviews with relatives, friends and Manson Family members that had never agreed to be interviewed before. And all of it is woven together in a fascinating way—infused into changes in U.S. society at the time, the scene in LA in 1969 and footage of the actual places where Charles Manson lived from the time he was a child, including prisons. 

“We looked at it as an anthropological dig,” Chilcott said. “NBC gave us a box of film taken outside the courtroom that had never been transferred and was never before seen.”  In addition, Chilcott’s team tracked down Manson’s relatives back in the small towns of Ohio and West Virginia where he grew up, read 25 of the books written about him, and scanned film and photo archives from around the world.

“Charlie has been given way too much attention as a mastermind or a Svengali, and he’s not that—he’s a con man,” Chilcott said, “And that’s the story I wanted to tell … I also want viewers to answer the question, ‘Are killers born or made?’”

Chilcott said she hopes viewers see how some elements of social unrest in the ‘60s have similarities to what we’re experiencing today and how those elements may have influenced Manson and his followers—smog, drugs, Black power, police brutality, riots, music, Vietnam and LA traffic set the scene. And she explores how, in a milieu that caused young people to feel alienated, it might have been easy to fall for a cult leader like Manson.

“The late ‘60s was the first time people took LSD, and it was a unique place in time,” she noted. “It’s easy to say we would never fall for a cult leader, but it could’ve been any of us.”

Manson fancied himself a singer/songwriter and was intent on getting a recording contract. When Chilcott’s team unearthed recordings of his music, with him singing and playing guitar, “I was relieved that some of his songs were actually decent. In fact, he was kind of a poet—it helped me see how you could be drawn in,” she said.

Because the Manson family frequented Topanga Canyon, Malibu and Pacific Palisades in addition to the Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, the series contains film footage of Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu and Topanga Beach from 50 years ago, along with the estate of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson off Sunset Boulevard where the Manson Family lived for a time.

Author and journalist Ivor Davis, a former Malibu resident who covered the Manson trial inside the courtroom and wrote his own book about the experience, is interviewed in the documentary.  

“I have watched every episode [of Lesley’s miniseries] and think it’s the best thing ever done on the Manson case,” he described in an email to The Malibu Times.

Chilcott, a native of the LA area, has lived in Malibu for eight years. She likes to say she supports her documentary habit by making commercials, and works with well-known corporate clients. Some of her best known documentary film credits besides the award-winning “An Inconvenient Truth” include “Watson,” “Code Girls” and “Waiting for Superman.”

“Helter Skelter: An American Myth” will premiere on EPIX on July 26 at 10 p.m.