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Academy Award-nominated star and acclaimed character actor Jake Gyllenhaal has announced that he is currently developing a new television series that will explore cults for the A&E Network in association with his production company Nine Stories Productions.
The first season of his proposed show will explore the life of cult leader Jim Jones and his followers, who all committed mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana in November 1978. Over nine hundred members of his Peoples Temple group took their own lives after drinking a poisonous mixture commonly referred to as Kool-Aid, which would also include Jones’ wife Marceline, following the murder of US Congressman Leo Ryan, who had attempted to take several members of the cult to safety.
‘He was very charismatic and attracted people who were feeling vulnerable or disenfranchised for whatever reason,’ explained former member Teri Buford O’Shea in a 2011 interview with the Atlantic. ‘If you wanted religion, Jim Jones could give it to you. If you wanted socialism, he could give it to you. If you were looking for a father figure, he’d be your father. He always homed in on what you needed and managed to bring you in emotionally.’
In many ways, O’Shea’s description of Jones is somewhat reminiscent of how Charles Manson seduced the young and lost into his own cult, known as the Family, in the 1960s. But while Manson’s influence would result in the brutal murders of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and several of her friends, Jones would succeed in convincing almost a thousand individuals into committing suicide.
‘While other children liked to role-play teacher-student or doctor-patient scenarios with their friends, Jones chose preacher-congregant games,’ explained biographer Julia Scheeres in her book A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown. ‘By age ten, he was holding pretend services in the loft of the barn behind his house, a white sheet draped over his shoulders for a robe as he read from the Bible or pretended to heal chickens.’
Over the years the horror of the Peoples Temple has been documented in a variety of adaptations, the first of which, Guyana: Cult of the Damned, was released a little over a year after the tragic events. Among the actors to portray Jones over the years were then-newcomer Powers Boothe in 1980’s Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, Cory Peterson in the documentary-drama Seconds from Disaster and Rick Roberts in the 2007 made-for-television film Jonestown: Paradise Lost.Gyllenhaal, whose production company took its name from J.D. Salinger’s 1953 anthology Nine Stories, will develop the series alongside business partner Riva Marker. ‘Riva and I founded Nine Stories to push creative limits, and have found a wonderful partner in A&E with this fascinating series,’ says Gyllenhaal in a recent press release.
‘Jim Jones is a complex character – one who has found his way into the collective unconscious. We want to focus on the undeniable magnatism of zealots and the danger of that kind of charisma. A notion not only pertinent to cult leaders but to the geo-political climate of today.’
Since his breakout performance in the titular role of Richard Kelly’s cult drama Donnie Darko in 2001, Gyllenhaal has gained considerable acclaim through his appearances in such renowned works as Brokeback Mountain, David Fincher’s serial killer account Zodiac and, more recently, as a psychopath obsessed with becoming a freelance news cameraman in the 2014 thriller Nightcrawler.