A Fascination with What Happened to Those People

Pandemonium Interview with Matthew Duriez, Screenwriter of "SET THEM FREE"

Matthew Duriez is a screenwriter from the United Kingdom, with a passion for history and for telling human stories. Whether he’s writing about the tragic events of the Peoples Temple massacre, the treacherous Arctic convoys of World War II or the striking miners in Colorado, almost all of his work revolves around true events. Matthew has been a member of the British Armed Forces for the past eleven years and has served all over the world, including two combat tours in Afghanistan.

PNDM: What was the first screenplay you ever read?

MD: When I was fifteen years old, around the year 2000, with a painfully slow dial-up connection, I scoured the internet and managed to track down an early draft of the script to my favorite film, “Saving Private Ryan”.

Tom Hanks, Matt Damon & Ed Burns in "Saving Private Ryan"   DreamWorks ,   Paramount Pictures

Tom Hanks, Matt Damon & Ed Burns in "Saving Private Ryan"  DreamWorks,  Paramount Pictures

I remember it taking hours to print all 160 pages on my old inkjet printer. There was something magical about the experience of sitting and reading a script. I understood the genesis and development, and saw how much influence a director has over a project. It was fascinating to re-direct the movie in my head, and it’s lasting effect, was my enthusiasm for screenplays. I just fell in love with the 12 point Courier type, the sparse nature of the page, the visual storytelling, the fact that what you are reading is a blueprint for a movie, a piece of cinema——art. Finding screenplays back then, was nearly impossible.

PNDM: Did reading that script start you writing? 

MD: I’m not sure if it was that experience that started me writing, but it was certainly around that time in my life that I tried my hand at a screenplay. As with most new writers, the early experiences were badly written messes. Recently, I had a look through my file-box of early scripts in the attic. Terrible! But we all have to start somewhere, we all learn our craft by experimenting. By writing shit.

Now, sixteen years later, I’m still writing. It’s still my key ambition but it’s not that easy to get your projects off the ground. I’m determined, though, to get my work out there——find an audience, find people to bite.

PNDM: What is your most successful screenplay?

My most successful script so far, the one that's been best received, has the most praise and accolades is “Set Them Free”, the pilot episode of a mini-series about a tragic event in Jonestown, Guyana. In 1978, the Jonestown Massacre was the single largest loss of American lives before September 11th, 2001——nearly a thousand people died. It's a dark and fascinating piece of American history. I’m British, and up until recently, it’s not something that many people over here have heard about. But who knows, maybe my script could change that?

Mass Suicide at Jonestown Cult, November 18, 1978

Mass Suicide at Jonestown Cult, November 18, 1978

PNDM: How did you come to write about this subject?

The path to writing this screenplay was not a straightforward one. It actually started out as something entirely different. I was brought on as a writer for a cult-based horror film and, as part of my research, I watched the PBS documentary on Peoples Temple. That documentary changed my life; it hit me hard in my chest and gripped me tight. It created a fascination with what happened to those people. I wanted to know-- and the writer in me wanted to tell their story. I needed to know what force could drive these people to drink that Kool Aid. I thought such a wild story would have been told over and over, but discovered that there wasn’t much out there. 

PNDM: Why a mini-series over a feature film? 

Initially, I did start writing this as a feature, but soon realized this was a hell of a deep story I was getting into. It was too big for a 120, or even 180 minute film. I also couldn’t see this spanning 5 seasons of a TV series either and that dismayed me enough to abandon the project. Later I rejuvenated it when realized I could tell it in 6 to 10 hour-long episodes.

PNDM: What was your creative process like?

Countless hours of research, taking in hundreds or maybe thousands of pages of information, watching documentaries, listening to Jim Jones’ sermons and reading FBI files informed my writing. I wanted to tell this story from the Point Of View of an outsider, someone trying to find their way inside Peoples Temple. I needed to highlight all of the good that went on there, and contrast that with the evil that befell the followers. So I created Amelia Mooney, an investigator for the San Francisco District Attorney, who's looking into allegations of a Jim Jones connection to election fraud. And, of course, this investigation quickly turns dark and dangerous.

PNDM: Do you recommend that people, who have never read a script before, pick one up?

MD: Absolutely! Unlike my early days of reading scripts, getting your hands on “Set Them Free” and other original scripts is much easier with sites like Pandemonium Screenplays, where you can read exciting new scripts and get the word out, to help those projects find their way to the small and the big screen.

Experience the final moments of the Jonestown Massacre by listening to this live audio of Jim Jones convincing his Peoples Temple followers to drink the poisoned Kool Aid during the cult's mass suicide and murder.