The 52nd season premiere (the third, really) of Documentary Now! opens like all episodes of the show: on Helen Mirren, stateliest of dames, bracing you for the madness.
“Now, what causes someone to start a cult? And what causes someone to join one?” she ponders. “In 1980, a man called Ra-Shawbard and his followers descended upon a small town in Oregon to build a utopian community. What followed is one of the strangest stories in American law-enforcement history.”
With that, Batsh*t Valley, a two-part episode parodying the Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country, begins to unfold.
Directed by Alex Buono and written by Seth Meyers, the “documentary”—premiering on Feb. 20—chronicles the rise of the Shawbardites, a cult led by the bearded Father Ra-Shawbard (Owen Wilson). Thousands of these yellow-and-black-clad acolytes have invaded the tiny rural town of Chinook, Oregon, setting up shop on a large plot of land they call Shawbard Valley Ranch. The Shawbardites’ strange habits—only eating fruits and vegetables “after they’ve given permission,” a process which requites holding the food up to your ear and listening; conducting loud orgies in a room hooked up to a gigantic speaker system; installing speed bumps all over town—soon rub the local townsfolk the wrong way, as does Ra-Sharir (Necar Zadegan), Father Ra-Shawbard’s militant second in command (“Maybe I would’ve been nicer to the townspeople had they not been so fat and stupid,” she recalls).
Over the summer, I—along with a handful of other journalists—spent some time on the set of Batsh*t Valley in Portland, Oregon, and had the pleasure to chat with Wilson about his transformation into the bearded, robed Bhagwan…I mean, Father Ra-Shawbard. “I just tried to find the part of myself that could be a cult leader,” Wilson says, chuckling. “And I didn’t have to dig that deep!”
“It all comes from the power of the gaze—not unlike acting,” he adds. “Your powers as an actor come from your eyes. That guy Osho really had some eyes, or Rasputin, when you look at him it’s unbelievable. And they just had a charisma that makes people want to follow them. And… the glorious beard!
“You need a good look! And come on, just get a picture of this,” Wilson says, pointing to his flowing yellow robe. “It’s a good look.”
Father Ra-Shawbard is a comically obvious grifter. In his first address to his followers, he announces, “This is your home. But in order for it to truly be your home, you have to abandon all the trappings of your former life. So I ask all of you to write the names of your family members that you are leaving behind and put them in this basket—along with their Social Security numbers and banking information—and you will be free.”
It’s Wilson’s first time back in the Portland area in over twenty years (“I was last here 20 years ago visiting Ben Stiller on Zero Effect…We went to see the Trailblazers play the Lakers and I met Shaquille O’Neal,” he remembers) and, in addition to the setting, he got into the role of his cult leader by watching Wild Wild Country over and over, and taking inspiration from Meyers’ “very funny” script. “Those cults that we’re all fascinated by are from the ‘80s and ‘70s, but I guess there’s just something in human nature that sometimes wants to follow a charismatic leader,” he muses.
There are plenty of wild, wild twists to this saga that we mustn’t give away, but Father Ra-Shawbard does get into some serious cocaine while on the Ranch, and administers something called “Heliumtopic Meditation” to the Shawbardites—wherein followers will suck on helium and then admit to things they did that they were ashamed of, then be beaten by pool noodles, then have sex until they reach orgasm, then scream said orgasms into jars so they can be saved.
In addition to the cult weirdness, the Shawbardites are being investigated by the FBI, led by Agent Bill Doss (Michael Keaton). Wilson, who’d come fresh from shooting a scene with Keaton, appears genuinely in awe. “It’s insane to just be with someone you’d watched so much,” he says, cracking a big smile.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Wilson has played a mystic—that would be Hansel, his iconic dazed-and-confused male fashion model from Zoolander. And filming the role of Father Ra-Shawbard on Documentary Now! definitely stirred up memories of his Hansel days.
“There have been times, because we’ve been doing so many photographs, that they’re asking for expressions and it’s hard not to fall back on smoldering Hansel expressions,” he says, laughing. “[Hansel] certainly was interested and open to the occult, the spiritual, and eastern philosophies and teachings, so I think if you did one of those circle-graphs between Hansel and this guy…”