Interview with Robert Hendrickson

By Ronnie

Right: Robert circa 1970

Robert Hendrickson is best known for directing the 1973 film "Manson", which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Starting in 1969, Hendrickson spent two and a half years filming the Manson Family for the documentary.

Now after all these years, Hendrickson has a new film AND a new book on Manson. The book, "Charles Manson - An American Nightmare - Death To Pigs" is a transcription of all the interviews that were filmed while "Inside The Manson Gang" is the companion DVD. While most new Manson "products" simply repeat the fabricated "Helter Skelter" motive, Hendrickson's book and DVD actually provide NEW insight into the murders. While reading the transcripts, new facts emerge that put a new spin on the "trial of the century": There were conflicts of interest in regards to the lawyers; there were staged police photos; there is a Black Muslim influence; and the possibility that the murders could be a "performance art" commentary on the Vietnam War.

Robert Hendrickson graciously consented to an interview and what follows is our chat on the interesting points that he brings up in his new book/film.

EC: "Charles Manson - An American Nightmare - Death To Pigs" book and the "Inside The Manson Gang" DVD are a perfect set – you get to see many of the scenes that take place in the book. When did the idea for the book and the film come about?

Robert: Back in the late 1990’s, I had all the original 30 year old film transferred, in sequence, to Beta high speed videotape. From that I realized, with some editing, I had a complete mini-series. Thus a 5-hour MANSON movie was created (except certain sounds like the narration was missing).

Then, in 1999, all the piracy of the original 1973 MANSON film erupted on eBay. After a couple of years in Federal Court, a “first impression” decision was rendered in Hendrickson vs eBay, et al. – that establishes if and when internet service providers will be liable for the infringement activity by their “users”. Thus, I realized that before I complete and release the mini-series, I’d better test the “pirate communities” reaction with an edited down (85 minute) movie – now known as “Inside the MANSON Gang.” As expected, the new 2007 movie was pirated immediately.

Then, in the summer of 2008 there was talk of “dead bodies” to be found at the Manson Gang’s Barker Ranch hide-out. The TV show 48 Hours was interested in doing a special on the subject and offered to transcribe all the audio for me. When no bodies were discovered, they became disinterested in the Manson Family exploits, but I became re-interested in discovering what all was on the tape recordings. As I started to listen to the tapes, I started to type (transcribe) and a couple of years later, the Book was born. I guess, ideas just happen.

EC: Was every single piece of film transcribed for the book? Or was anything left out?

Robert: Most all the significant sync-sound dialogue was transcribed, but there are sounds (like the 1970 Family Jams) and a lot of the first night’s filming that was not. Some other audio recordings (like those of Author Wizzin) of an LA commission who explained how police harassment of hippies was rampant at the time, was also not.

EC: With two and a half years of filming, is there enough for a sequel to “Inside The Manson Gang”?

Robert: I guess the sequel would be the 5-hour mini-series, but at this point in my life, it is more likely that all the Manson related materials will be sold-off. Because, after months of discussions with the Copyright Office, I was finally granted an exclusive copyright in “Death To Pigs”, that includes the transcribed dialogue with the Manson Family, I can legally transfer and assign those exclusive rights to a buyer. In other words, I can transfer the authenticity to the Manson Family Story and the Crime of the Century. Of course, “authenticity” may not be of any value to certain media types.

EC: Paul Watkins and Brook Poston have 6 songs in the “Manson” movie. Did you ever think of releasing a soundtrack?

Robert: YES, all the time, but IF I did, it would be pirated immediately upon release. This is very disturbing and sad, because Paul and Brooks would want their music out, but I simply can’t afford to make albums, without some fair enumeration.

EC: Your film project with actor Mark Ross, "Well, Here I Am" about the second coming of Jesus in modern times jogged my memory. Supposedly, in 1967 Charlie was hired as a "technical advisor" at Universal Studios for a project about the 2nd coming of Christ in modern times. Was this just a coincidence or did Charlie “advise” you as well?

Robert: Coincidence, but there are also several versions to the story of Charlie’s connection to Universal.

EC: As for the Charlie interview in the “Manson” film - you helped put the camera in the briefcase to film Charlie's interview for the film, correct? Who actually recorded it? Was echo added? Or was that from the natural surroundings?

Robert: Yes, but I’d prefer not to name the person, for legal reasons. The recording was very primitive, with an overhead fan making a lot of noise, so we had MGM sound laboratories do the best they could to clean up the sound. Thus, the distorted sound. For “Inside the Manson Gang”, I went back to the original recording and used a Mack Pro-sound computer program to re-clean the sound, as best I could.

EC: Other than the summer of '68 coke machine incident at Spahn, did you meet Charlie any other times before his incarceration for the murders?

Robert: Not that I know of.

EC: What was the source of Charlie singing, "Helter Skelter" (the film states, "the voice of Charles Manson")? I’ve only heard a recording of Charlie singing one other Beatles song, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”.

Robert: It is actually Steve “Clem Grogan talk-singing “Helter-Skelter”.

EC: The scene from "Inside The Manson Gang" where you and Craig visit Barker ranch by yourself and smell the dead body is downright chilling! Had you mentioned this to anyone else, police or otherwise?

Robert: The first I mentioned it was on my website ExlusiveFilms.com when the Barker Ranch “dead bodies” issue came up. And YES Buster, the cadaver dog “hit” very near upon the same place where Craig and I were sitting when we smelled “death”. Understand, other than Sgt. Dotsie and Buster, nobody really wants to know about more dead bodies connected to the Manson story, especially law enforcement.

EC: In November of 1969, Zero commited "suicide" a Mark Ross's home. Did Mark ever convincingly explain to you what really happened?

Robert: Because Mark wasn’t actually there at the time, he could only voice his concerns and move out of the house. But he remained strangely associated with the notorious Manson Family. In this case, it was far better for me to NOT realize the truth concerning the death of “Zero”.

EC: Was Ouisch (Ruth Ann Moorehouse) ever around when you were filming? She is conspicuously absent from any scenes (in both movies).

Robert: We only filmed her at the courthouse when the girls stood vigil on the street corner. I believe she had been in hiding most of the time.

EC: I really like how you just present possible motives without forcing them down your throat! But, there is a lot to process: the Muslim angle, the Vietnam War angle, the strike against law enforcement angle, etc. Did all of these become apparent to you when you were transcribing the film? Or did any of these realizations occur when you were actually filming?

Right: Robert at Spahn Ranch 2008

Robert: The Muslim connection did not become significantly relevant to me until after 9/11, when in 2007, I was putting “Inside the MANSON Gang” together and came across a copy of Clark Howard’s “Zebra”. Then, in 2008-10, the “transcribing” process became a series of “ah-ha” moments. I remembered Phil Phillips talking about his and Charlie’s relationship with Muslims in prison, but it was certain dialogue in “Zebra”, combined with specific “transcriptions” that really blew the Manson case wide open for me.

There are specific keywords, phrases and beliefs that Charles Manson could only have picked-up from the Black Muslims in prison, which are also expressed by the Black Muslims in “Zebra”. Thus, if Manson talked to Family members about a Black and White race war, he got the idea from the Black Muslims in prison. With regards to the Vietnam War, the Family and I discussed the issue at length. As for law enforcement threats and harassment, back then the friction was always apparent to me, but the issue of an actual violent conflict did not come to a full realization until I understood the transcriptions, more clearly.

EC: You also point out some big mistakes by law enforcement during the case. From Barker ranch in early 1970, you have film of Gypsy, Kevin and Clem going through a bunch of clothes, outside of the old school bus. But in November of 1969 Bugliosi went to Barker and supposedly had ALL the clothes taken back to LA for the lab – and he stated this in public record. Then you have Sadie’s confession to Ronnie Howard about her missing knife in the couch cushions at the Tate house. After two and a half months the police go back and find the knife there, so the official crime scene photo was staged! Why do you think these two incidences were “covered up”?

Robert: I don’t think the police actually “thought” they were covering anything up. They probably thought they were just doing everyone a favor by “fixing” crime scenes. That’s their job, prepare the evidence for the DA in order for him to get a conviction. In the OJ case you even had cops lying about who discovered certain evidence. In the Michael Jackson death case a CSI detective admitted to moving evidence at the crime scene in order to get better pictures.

EC: Then you also present the legal problems in the case. Judge Keene decided Manson was not allowed the fundamental Constitutional right of representing himself. There was the obvious conflict of interest since Shinn was Charlie's business representative, while being Susan Atkin's attorney of record! But, Merrick also told you that it was he and Shinn who arranged access for Manson to grab the newspaper and show the jury the headline, "Manson Guilty Nixon Declares"? What could have been Merrick’s motive for this? Was he trying to “get in good” with Manson?

Robert: There are usually two reasons why anyone does something like that: (1) They want to get in on the act and (2) they hope to gain something for their own benefit. But here, Merrick was also being sucked into being, not just a filmmaker, but also a participant in a historical event. That, combined with Merrick understandably trying to protect his financial investment, by making sure Manson was convicted, and you have a very dangerous situation in the making.

EC: You infer that the murders might be devices to draw attention to the horrors of the Vietnam war. You have Katie talking about carving ‘war’ on Leno Labianca's stomach and saying, "Here's one man who won't send his son to war". Not referring to a black and white war, but the establishment's Vietnam. I know this is a stretch, but could it be considered a bizarre sort of “performance art”?

Robert: Why would such a thought be considered a “stretch”? Almost everything we Americans do takes some form of an acted out performance. Every society, culture and civilization that ever existed, since time began, has practiced “performance art” in the form of “human sacrifice” before its public. Even “war” is considered performance art. I know that, at the time, professional “performance art” was enjoying a resurgence (IE: Andy Warhol works), but to even think that the bizarre Manson Massacre was actually some form of “performance art” is just downright plausible.

Now, here’s two relevant questions for you! (1) Did you know that in 40-plus years of dealing with this case, to my knowledge, nobody has ever associated the Tate/LaBianca massacres with “performance art”? The fact is, no matter what or which “motive” for the Manson murders you prefer to believe, the actual “massacre” was and is considered an expression of “performance art” and the Crime/Trial of the 20th Century is one big epic play/opera – without a foreseeable end. (2) Would Mitt Romney’s 1960’s physical assault on a young man’s body, which included the cutting of his hair, be considered a “criminal” expression of “performance art” today? Back then?

EC: You mention that Leslie Van Houten's lawyer Ronald Hughes - was supposed to marry Nancy Pitman at Spahn in order that she may become legally emancipated. Hughes disappeared on November 30th, 1970 – and then on Dec 2nd Bruce Davis and Nancy Pitman turned themselves in to the police. Do you think Hughes might have been murdered for not following through on this?

Robert: Of course he “might” have been? But, because he knew too much! For the “play” to be performed as planned, ALL the defendants’ attorneys had to be onboard.

EC: The biggest surprise to me was the possible influence of the Black Muslim’s on Charlie. Throughout the book, the Black Muslim was talked about by Paul Watson, Sandra Good, and Phil Phillips. Do you think that Bugliosi recognized this? Or did he think that was even too far out compared to the “Helter Skelter” motive?

Robert: At the time in the 1960’s, nobody even knew what a Black Muslim was, let alone an ordinary Muslim. First and foremost, Vincent Bugliosi was an attorney/prosecutor, who’s job was to get a jury to convict Charles Manson. That’s it! All this BS we hear today about right/wrong, Constitutionally correct, etc. is just that – BS. That Bugliosi sold a Black and White race war motive to a bunch of “moon rocks”, as the failed OJ prosecutor Marsha Clark calls jurists, may not have required a “judicial genius”, but it sure didn’t hurt to have one on-board. That said, if Bugliosi played-up the issue of “Black” Muslims, he would have had to explain the existence of Black Muslims organizing and preaching against “Whitey” and “Christians” in California prisons.

Then, if the Black Muslims taught Charlie about the coming Black/White Battle of Armageddon, why were “they” not also on trial as co-conspirators? Then you have to explain why Muslims have it in for Christians and pretty soon you need a jury made up of all college graduates with history degrees, just to comprehend an otherwise simple Black/White race war. I doubt that Bugliosi was unaware of the delicate Muslim/Christian conflict connected to his so-called Helter Skelter race war motive, but simplicity SELLS. Complicated things do not. And when a prosecutor “builds” his case, that means precisely that. He carefully builds (puts together) for the jury, ONLY the “necessary” information (evidence) needed to accomplish HIS goal, which is to get a conviction.

Otherwise, Bugliosi never even had a meaningful conversation with Sandra Good – and Phil Phillips (Manson’s best friend in prison) isn’t even mentioned in the prosecutor’s best-selling book. Paul Watkins introduced the “Black Muslims” into his Helter Skelter analogy, but nobody even pressed such an important issue further.

So, to me it seems like Bugliosi saw the writing “Death To Pigs” on the wall, but got hungry and went to the refrigerator, where “Healter Skelter” was written on the door, which caused HIM to have an “ah-ha” moment. If only we could ask Merrick and his wife what Bugliosi actually thought – they all became close friends – but Merrick was murdered and his wife is in seclusion.

To read our review of "Death To Pigs" and "Inside The Manson Gang" click here