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“The Charismatic Leader Leads People, But What Toward?”: Rory Kennedy and Mark Bailey on Their HBO Docuseries The Synanon Fix

The Synanon Fix (Photo courtesy HBO)

Currently unspooling across four episodes on HBO and continuing to stream on Max is The Synanon Fix, the latest true-crime catnip from the cable channel that’s not a juggernaut of the genre. And while the Sundance-debuting docuseries does involve the usual “suspects” (a cult, a cache of weapons, attempted murder via a venomous snake), it’s also the latest HBO Original from director Rory Kennedy and writer Mark Bailey (Ethel, Downfall: The Case Against Boeing). Which means it’s less interested in lurid details and more focused on actual individuals with an optimistic vision who are drawn into — and failed by — a larger system.

In this case the system was Synanon, an organization that was a drug rehab program, a New Age-y community and finally violent cult, founded by Charles “Chuck” Dederich, a former adman and Alcoholics Anonymous acolyte who in the ’60s welcomed “dopefiends” into his Santa Monica storefront. He then proceeded to experiment mentally and emotionally on these fragile recovering addicts with a scarily confrontational talk therapy he branded “The Game.” (Un)fortunately, it often worked, at least for awhile, and long enough to attract fawning media attention, celebrity visits and non-addicted “lifestylers” who just wanted to be part of this ever-expanding, model communal community. And then things got, well, really weird.

Soon after the April 2nd premiere of episode one (“Here Come the Dope Fiends”), Filmmaker reached out over email to the veteran director along with her co-EP and writer (and husband), to learn all about The Synanon Fix and the risk of looking to quick fix a long-broken society.

Filmmaker: So how did this project originate? Was HBO involved from the start?

Kennedy and Bailey: Mark read about Synanon in the terrific autobiography Straight Life by jazz saxophonist Art Pepper and his wife Laurie, both of whom had spent many years at Synanon. It was instantly intriguing — this organization or community or cult, whatever you want to call it. Men and women who engaged in “The Game,” confronting each other, working through issues with a fierce honesty; men and women with shaved heads, thousands over the years, living together right there on the beach in Santa Monica. And yet it all seemed to have somehow completely disappeared, just vanished.

So together we discussed the idea and let it marinate. We struggled because we felt there were so many characters, such a vast archive, and just too much story to fit into a feature-length film. Synanon was epic in nature.

It was only later, several years later, when interest increased among streamers and audiences for documentary series that we knew the time had finally come. So we approached HBO with the idea and then began developing it together.
Filmmaker: How did you connect with all the participants, and how did you decide whose stories to include (and not)? Did any — or many — folks you reached out to decline?

Kennedy and Bailey: Not surprisingly, there is a strong network of former Synanon residents; you reach out to one person and they know another, and another. But one thing to bear in mind, Synanon spanned 30 years and was incredibly diverse. So we needed an array of participants who could bring different perspectives: old-time “dopefiends,” as they called them, who were there in the early days; hippies and radicals that arrived during the psychedelic ’60s; men and women, different races, kids who were born into Synanon and others who had moved there.

And in truth, all of them, every single one, were incredibly articulate and honest and raw. For a typical documentary an interview might be two to three hours; these interviews all ran seven, eight, even nine hours long. Every minute was fascinating. So yes, we ended up with a lot of stories and could only incorporate a small portion, but we did include every former member that we interviewed — more than 20. And we think, like a mosaic built out of these thrilling, tender, weird little ceramic tiles, that when you stand back and take in all four episodes, The Synanon Fix does provide a powerful portrait of a radical social experiment. And how that experiment changed lives for the better and for the worse. (And yes, a few of the folks we reached out to did decline to participate, but very few. We of course understood. Some wanted to tell their stories themselves. Others wanted to leave it all in the past.)

Filmmaker: The rise of Synanon in the ’60s coincided with Rory’s own family’s rise in American history, a fact that you certainly don’t shy away from. (One former member even reflects on the three assassinations that ultimately defined the decade right in the first episode.) Which makes me wonder how this intimacy with the era, and perhaps even personally with its tragedies, might have impacted your approach to the material and the characters. Did you get the sense that this played a role in building trust?

Kennedy: I do feel a connection to and an affinity for the ’60s because of my family’s role in so many important events; my father [the late attorney general Robert Kennedy] and my Uncle Jack, but others too. And part of what we wanted to do with the series is show how many of the changes in Synanon either anticipated some of the broader changes in American society or were provoked by them.

For example, in the late ’60s, when Synanon began to let in non-addicts or so-called “lifestylers,” communal living was very much in the larger cultural zeitgeist. People were exploring alternative ways to organize themselves. Folks were looking for self-liberation. They were taking big swings at different lifestyles through communes, through psychedelics, through Eastern religion, through new therapeutic ideas.

Then, with the Manson murders and later on into the ’70s with the People’s Temple Jonestown massacre, people began to question some of these groups, these experiments. At that point Synanon too was becoming more extreme and those changes were being noticed; and so the organization was coming under a different, more critical lens.

So our goal was not just to make a series about Synanon, but to also make a series about America and California during such incredibly dynamic times. And I do think because so many of our interview subjects are older and really lived through those decades, they do feel a certain connection to my family; and probably that did help me to build trust, or at the very least to get my foot in the door.

Filmmaker: Can you discuss working with such a wide-ranging archive, from news and home movie-style footage to Chuck’s audio recordings? How did you gain access to all this content? What was left on the cutting room floor?

Kennedy and Bailey: Very few documentary subjects have this rich and thrilling an archive — a virtual treasure trove. Over the course of the project we collected over 35,000 stills and 3,000 different pieces of archival video. Some of it is public, a lot of it is private — the work of groundbreaking documentarians like D.A. Pennebaker or masterful photographers like Helen Brush, Paul Fusco and Bruce Levine — and then a ton of archive is actually owned by Synanon itself.

It was over four years ago that we first reached out to the Synanon Trustees about licensing their archive, Jady Dederich Montgomery (Chuck’s daughter) amongst them. At that point no material from the archive had ever been licensed out for commercial use, and the trustees were understandably cautious. There was a feeling of responsibility for their fellow members – men, women and children that might appear in the footage. Additionally, nobody seemed very happy with how the story of Synanon had been told in the past and they did not want a sensationalistic or unbalanced telling now.

It was clear that they understood there were dark times and terrible acts; and they owned the damaging, and in some instances criminal, behavior. But it took a lot of time for us to build trust. Only after three-and-a-half years of conversation, when we were a month away from picture lock, did they finally agree to make the archive available to us.

Talk about an avalanche of material! In an instant we and our editors were delightfully overwhelmed by the weight of this remarkable, almost endless archive. We were given unique access to both raw footage and outtakes, as well as a great deal of material never before digitized. And it was not just photographs and footage but hundreds and hundreds of hours of audio as well.

Of course a great amount of material ended up on the cutting room floor. But for us, we had already laid out what we believed to be the major events, the extraordinary highs and lows, the wild twists and turns. And though we found some crazy exceptions, we primarily focused on archive that helped bring those moments to life.

Filmmaker: It’s pretty clear that you’re interested in the failure of any system of checks and balances to control Chuck Dederich, as well as with the unwitting enablers that allowed him to amass such power. So do you see this series as a sort of cautionary tale in this political year, one in which both Trump and Rory’s own brother now have cultish followings?

Kennedy and Bailey: We do see The Synanon Fix as very much a cautionary tale. Currently, we are witnessing an increase in the public’s appetite for cult stories. It seems in times of loneliness, of alienation, these kinds of groups grow in their appeal. And here we are — coming off COVID, transitioning to remote work, living on Zooms and through social media, perhaps feeling adrift in a digital world.

You can imagine how that might make people long for human connection, long for community. And what do so-called charismatic leaders do? They attract people to them. They bring people together. They create community. But there are some big-time dangers here.

For one, charisma in and of itself is not necessarily a good thing, at least in regard to bettering the world. The charismatic leader leads people, but what does he or she lead them toward? Light or darkness? Because that’s what really matters. Martin Luther King or Donald Trump?

Synanon, as a community, was tethered to Chuck Dederich; just as MAGA is tethered to Trump. And so yes, a cautionary tale, because when Chuck became mentally ill, when Chuck drove off a cliff, he absolutely took Synanon with him. The head shaving, child abuse, vasectomies, abortions, changing husbands and wives — it got dark. And good men and women, smart men and women, they followed Chuck; and they compromised themselves and their own moral compasses.

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