Why Making Netflix's The Family Helped Director Jesse Moss Understand America In 2019

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
What if we told you that an extremely private Christian sect believed Donald Trump was chosen by God to rule, and even helped get him elected? What if we said this sect wielded enormous influence in governments around the world? What if this wasn’t a conspiracy theory, but a provable phenomenon?
The Family, a shocking six-part documentary series on Netflix, delves into this group, called the Fellowship. Religion writer Jeff Sharlet first heard of the Fellowship after joining Ivanwald, a house in Arlington, VA where young men live, pray, and tend to the Fellowship’s D.C. connections. After witnessing the Fellowship’s blurring of church and state first-hand, Sharlet went full undercover and wrote a book, now turned into a Netflix documentary. Ever since The Family’s release on August 7, audiences have been reeling about its findings — and what they mean for understanding America’s current political climate.
We spoke to Jesse Moss, the creator of The Family, about casting Oliver Cromwell, Donald Trump as a "Wolf King," and what The Family might illuminate about America in 2019.
Refinery29: What made you want to adapt Jeff Sharlet’s book, The Family, into a series?
Jesse Moss: “The book completely escaped my attention when it came out, though I don’t know how. When I read the book two years ago, I was floored. I couldn't believe it. I was impressed by the reporting and Jeff’s personal experience. Both of those things suggested that there was a challenging but possible way to adapt it as a documentary. What I liked about the project was that it was terrifying to me. The story was terrifying and the challenge of trying to adapt it was terrifying. That’s where the important work is — and what I want to be doing. It was, from that point, about two years start to finish.”
The book came out in 2009. The story has taken on greater urgency now. Netflix has an enormous reach. Why is now the right time for millions to be seeing this story?
“A big motivating question for me in taking on the project was to understand the relationship between the Evangelical Christian right and Donald Trump. How to explain the faithful embrace of someone who’s so seemingly not pious. Is that explained in transactional politics or is that about theology?
“The theology of the Fellowship might explain the moment we find ourselves in. Someone who seems to evoke the worst authoritarian tendencies, and yet seems to have enjoyed the wholehearted embrace of Evangelical voters. That was the answer to the question I thought might be lurking in the story — and that’s what people are responding to, in part.”
What does the theology of the Fellowship help you understand about Donald Trump?
“The idea that leaders are chosen by God. That they are instruments of God’s will. Does the theology of the Fellowship, where you preach to the up and out, and not the down and out, present an inherent challenge to transparency, accountability, and democracy? The Fellowship embraces, and have made an intentional purpose, of reaching out to some of the worst despots, dictators, and murders of the 20th century.
“There’s an argument to be made, and the Fellowship makes it, that you can do more work if you preach to the powerful. They in turn would do more work that would trickle down to the masses. We’ve seen that philosophy as it plays out in economics. Does it work? I think the verdict is pretty clear in in that case.”
I imagine access was a challenge. The documentary features interviews from people in the Fellowship, and its stringent critics. How did you recruit people for interviews?
"When I started the project I sent the Fellowship a clear letter of my intentions: Here’s who I am, here's the work I’ve done. I’d like to know the work that your organization does, I’d like to come over to the Cedars and visit. They wrote back politely, 'No, we do our best work invisibly.' And yet we persist, as we do. We were able to get people around the periphery of the Fellowship to talk. Eventually the Fellowship put forward Larry Ross and former congressman Zach Wamp. Those were really good conversations. Not gotchas.
"The series allows [Fellowship members] to tell both the story of the Fellowship and their involvement in it in their own words. There’s no narration. We’ve allowed these conflicting points of views to come through strongly. We’re trusting our audiences to parse this for themselves and come to their own conclusions about what is the nature of this organization.
The Family starts the way so many stories do: An outsider finds himself in a new situation, and we follow along for the ride. Can you talk about creating those Ivanwald segments? They seem like a warped CW show.
“The easy choice, but the wrong choice, would be to paint Ivanwald like a horror film. But there was an innocence and wholesomeness Jeff’s experience. I wanted the male culture that Jeff found himself in to not be cast in a sinister way — at least initially. We’re going to get to the shadows, but we’re going to bring people in the light way. We made some compressions and consolidations, but Jeff provided a ready-made screenplay for this story.
“David Rysdahl played the young Jeff. He was raised in an Evangelical family and was very faithful through his 20s. He brought a real sensitivity to the role. James Cromwell, someone who was in both Babe and LA Confidential, came to embody the contradictions of Doug Coe. Is he benevolent or is he sinister? The series works it out and allows the audience to come to their own conclusions.”
How did making this change your perspective on the current moment? There’s so much you can take away from this documentary. What did you?
“Before, I did not intellectually understand a theology that would see people like our current president as instruments of God’s will. But this transcends the story of the Fellowship. We find ourselves on the precipice of a crisis of democracy — the destabilization of Europe and the rise of Christian nationalism and ethnic nationalism. Is faith going to be a bulwark against authoritarianism,or accelerate that moment? That’s the profound question we need to be asking. What’s the role of the faith community? Is it sheltering immigrants who have come to this country illegally, or is it justifying a president whose policies demonize them? How the faith community responds to political leadership and those social challenges is of enormous importance regardless of how you feel about the fellowship itself.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series