How did you hook up with Charles Manson?
It’s not a question you ever expect to get to ask someone — not someone you particularly want an answer from, anyway.
But when you’ve spent the entire last year-plus of your life speaking with him on the phone, talking about him with others and researching a man considered by some to be the shorthand for evil, well, you likely have a pretty excellent answer for that.
So it is with Calgary filmmaker James “Buddy” Day, the director behind the fascinating new documentary Manson: The Voice of Madness, which screens Thursday, Nov. 16 as one of the opening films for CUFF.Docs.
How did he hook up with Charles Manson?
“On the advice of some other people that knew him, I wrote him a few letters — not thinking in a million years that he was going to call me,” Day says before laughing.
“I don’t know how wise it was, but I gave him my cell number.”
Day had been interested in Manson for some time, especially having heard that there was an “untold story out there” about what could be an alternate truth to the reasons behind the infamous murders that kept the L.A. area in terror during the summer of ’69 and built the legend of Manson.
Day had met a couple of authors who were working on a manuscript telling that alternate story — one that was less about Helter Skelter than it was revenge and covering up crimes — and he was encouraged to reach out to the man who’s serving life in the California State Prison.
It was one night when Day was filming another show in Florida, the true crime series The Shocking Truth, that Manson reached back. He and the rest of the crew had just wrapped for the day and were unwinding in a bar, watching Monday Night Football, when the filmmaker’s cell phone rang.
“It had a number I didn’t recognize and I just picked it up and it said, ‘You have a collect call from’ and his voice comes on: ‘Charles Manson.’ I jumped out of my chair ran outside and … just started talking to him.’ ”
That started a year-long, 15-or-less-minutes-at-a-time conversation with the convicted killer, Manson calling him over that period, giving him interviews, providing him with some information, and passing Day’s numbers along to others who might be able to help piece together something that challenged the Helter Skelter narrative — one that’s long been a difficult one to fully buy, despite the jurors doing just that.
“At the time I first read it and re-reading it now all these years later, Helter Skelter never made a lot of sense to me. It’s about a race war and hiding in a hole in the desert and all of these really bizarre elements,” says Day of the best-selling “true” crime novel written by late Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and named after the theory of the crimes.
“And how Charles Manson became a Svengali, guru, hippie cult leader that was able to use mind control on teenagers is never really explained, it’s kind of laid out as fact. I had always suspected, as most people that read that book do, that there’s something more to that story.”
That proved to be the case as he dug deeper into it and met more people with something different to say including those who reportedly did those crimes with him, friends and others familiar with the story.
Day notes that the two biggest moments in furthering the doc were when he was able to track down the lawyer for Linda Kasabian, the key witness for the D.A.’s case against Manson, and also gain the help of fellow “Manson Family” member Bobby Beausoleil.
“That was huge, that really filled in a lot of gaps” he says, noting that members of the so-called Manson Family dispute they were anything other than a close-knit community and not a mindless cult merely doing Charlie’s bidding.
There was still a great deal of research that needed to be done to complete the film, with Day explaining how shocked he was to see how some of that original “misreporting” was still being used as source material and treated as gospel in the intervening years by biographers and others revisiting it.
And then, after putting the story together — by stitching together archival footage, snippets from the many phone calls with Manson, new interviews with other characters involved and recreations filmed in Calgary with local actors and crews — the one thing that they needed to put a nice, credible bow on the project was a narrator that related to the subject matter.
Enter rocker and horror filmmaker Rob Zombie.
And how did that come to be, how did Day get him onboard?
“Persistence,” Day says with a laugh. “We wanted someone really cool to do the narration,” he says, explaining they had a wishlist with Zombie being the one they considered near the top and fitting the film.
There was a chasing period, reaching out to agents and publicists before soon near film completion, he called back. They sent Zombie some material and creative and “from then on he was in.”
“And he was incredible. He even took a day out of recording his album to record the voiceover when we really needed it,” Day says. “He was just unbelievably gracious with his time and presentation.”
As for the presentation of Manson: The Voice of Madness, itself, it’s a pretty slick and superbly paced alternate whydunit doc that should have people rethinking what they thought they knew about a pretty macabre chapter in American history.
“I hope it changes the narrative,” Day says. “I hope it gets people talking.”
It already has in its handful screenings thus far. In September, it screened at the Atlanta International Documentary Film Festival winning the award for best international doc, and the film also recently competed in the Red Rock Film Festival in Cedar City, Utah.
And Day says, due to some other private screenings, “in January there’s going to be a big announcement about the national rollout” for the doc with an ambitious plan in place to get it seen and further discussed.
Now, though, the film, which was produced by local company Pyramid Productions — owned and run by his parents Larry and Kirstie McLellan Day — will have its Canadian premiere helping open CUFF.Docs in the city where much of it came to be.
“Everyone’s going,” he says of the cast and crew. “They’re incredibly excited to see it in our hometown.”
Manson: The Voice of Madness screens Thursday, Nov. 16 at the Globe Cinema as part of this year’s CUFF.Docs. Director Buddy Day will be in attendance. For tickets and more information, please click here.