Filmmaker and Former Cult Member Will Allen on Holy Hell, Healing, and His Sci-fi Future

“The fantastic side effect of the film was the acceptance and the healing that came from it.”

Will Allen was a young, recent film school graduate when he joined the West Hollywood cult Buddhafield. In 1985 ‐ the starting year of his exposé documentary Holy Hell that charts 22 years of his live as a member of the cult ‐ he took his sister’s advice, followed the group’s mysterious, charismatic “Teacher” Michel (who later on took the name Andreas, as Allen currently refers to him) and joined their spiritual group, after coming out as gay and getting thrown out by his mother. Having served as the group’s unofficial videographer/documentarian during his active years, Allen left the cult in 2007 with an inordinate amount of footage, which he eventually cut down to feature length and screened in Sundance just this past January, exposing details of the abuse many Buddhafield members have endured in Andreas’ hands. Not only emotional and spiritual, but also sexual.

Yet as Holy Hell tenderly shows early on, the members ‐ all extremely good looking and in great physical shape in accordance with Andreas’ prerequisites ‐ were all a part of a warm, supportive community and operated as a tight-knit family on principle. Despite all the horrific exploitation they put up with, the members had each other’s back. And according to Allen, that is precisely why they stayed for as long as they did and rationalized their ongoing nightmares under the leadership of Andreas; a former dancer and a youth-obsessed failed actor in reality.

Despite being out for almost 10 years, Will Allen’s days in Buddhafield are hardly behind him. Aiming to start a game-changing conversation about what happened to him and his friends ‐ many of whom are thoroughly profiled in the film ‐ he hopes to empower those who have blindly stayed behind with information. The cult is still operational in the Hawaiian island of Oahu, (its new home after Austin) and Allen has bigger things on his mind than to just expose Andreas and move on.

With the film’s theatrical release, I sat down with Allen and dived deep into the experience of making this movie, his newfound purpose in life and future plans as a filmmaker. One hint: he might just be done with stories set on this earth and venture outer space to make a Kubrick-ian sci-fi.

Below is an edited version of our conversation.

You left Buddhafield almost ten years ago. Why did you want to tell this story several years later?

When I left, I just turned my back on everything and ran in a different direction. I made new friends and tried to create a new life that was just all mine. I think I had thrown everything away and I had to re-integrate back into myself.

I was in a relationship at the time. I was always talking about my past. I couldn’t explain it to anyone. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it in a way they could understand it. It was just really obvious that I needed to deal with it in a different way. And so I went to Sundance, because I wanted to become a filmmaker again and come back into my career that I had given up. And it was at Sundance that I decided to make the movie. I wasn’t planning on it. I really wasn’t.

I was like, “Hmm, I want to work in film. What should I do?” It was very innocent. You tell what you know. You do what you know. And this is what I knew. I’d lived this life for twenty-two years. I filmed it for twenty-two years.

So it was therapeutic in some sense, going through that.

Yeah.

What year did you first go to Sundance?

In 2010 with a girlfriend of mine. Just for fun, just to see movies. And then I went back again in 2012, alone. My partner at the time that I had just broken up with said “You have to go and put yourself out there. Be brave and tell people.” I was looking to connect with other filmmakers and brought promotional material. I edited all my films that I could and any commercial things I had done. I made little reels, because I was just trying to present myself as a filmmaker. That was my goal, but by the end of it I realized I had to prove it. I had to make a movie that was personal.

Once you finished your movie, what was the most unexpected thing the process did for you?

The fantastic side effect was the acceptance and the healing, and allowing ourselves not to have that shame and embarrassment about what we allowed to have happen to us. I tried to understand why we stayed. So, that was surprising, the healing that came from it.

The other thing that was surprising was, as I carved down the film to the things that mattered the most in the story, it became about the community more than about him (Andreas, the teacher.) We were there for the community. If I had to be with him alone, I never would have been there. I never would have followed this man alone. I followed him with all my friends. You know?

And the third thing that was most surprising was how traumatizing it was to watch it all again.

Do you miss that community in some sense?

Yeah. It’s the close-knit family that I miss, if I’m going to miss anything. We were always there for each other, never judging and always helping each other. It was all part of our service. That’s really rare and you don’t find that just with everybody you meet on the street. We had that; it was built into our way of thinking. So, we had a really strong support system, and I didn’t have that when I got out. Most people I met in the world aren’t used to that. I had something that was special and unique. I didn’t know that most people didn’t really have that. It takes time to build that trust with other people that you become like family again.

Do you think there are some faint parallels between the experience of organized religions and cults in the way they fill a spiritual void?

Completely. [Our experience was] completely filling in for something we were all lacking. Whether it was spiritual depth, or some sort of happiness. It was giving us a purpose. To me, it would give me purpose. I really felt like I was helping other people. So I lived with the teacher and I took care of him and it gave me purpose, because I thought I was helping everyone in my group.

We also felt like, because we were in this group of strong meditators, we were uplifting the planet’s vibrations just by good feelings and thoughts. I felt like, “Everything I’m doing is good.” And I thought he was doing good things. So, in spite of all of his horrible flaws, I learned to ignore, accept, compartmentalize, rationalize, and forgive. But now I see that kind of stuff from far away. I see it was very delicate, fragile and flimsy. You scratch the surface and none of it is very sustainable.

How does it feel for you now to share this film with the world? Do you feel like a part of your purpose was eventually telling this story?

As soon as I decided to dive into this project, it just made total sense to me. It was like I had purpose again. I know that sounds weak but I was looking for purpose. It made all those things I felt meaningful. Because I thought, “Okay, that’s why I filmed this.” I thought I was filming it for [another reason], but really I was filming it for this. Everything came into purpose for me. I was able to use [my footage] instead of throw it away.

You were working yourself towards this project, knowingly or unknowingly…

For twenty-two years. And I didn’t know it. So part of me clicked like, “Oh my God this feels so right. I have to do it.” And I didn’t have a choice.

Your film has a sense of pity for Andreas. He tried to create an image of himself and then have the world admire and adore him. It’s almost like, because he failed as an actor and didn’t achieve that in Hollywood, he manufactured it in a very Sunset Boulevard/Norma Desmond kind of way.

Oh, I have that poster in my room. I love that movie.

Do you think I’m over-simplifying his motivations?

No, I think that’s actually accurate. No one has ever brought that parallel. That’s a good one. He was trying to hold onto his glory; he was trying to maintain it. Instead of being grounded and in touch with reality, he was living in this… Who knows? I always think he’s living in some astral world. And he looks at us like, “You guys are diluted. You’re the small people.” His self image took over.

And all the plastic surgeries he underwent.

He was always about looking younger. He also came from Venezuela. It’s a very pageant-oriented country. In Miss Universe, they’re always like number one, or two. It’s all about beauty and I think he came from that culture. We just kind of accepted it as not necessarily crazy or too narcissistic. It was more of an upbringing. We rationalized that.

Has it ever occurred to you to press charges, for sexual or emotional abuse? I mean, you’re not out for revenge with this movie, are you?

It has occurred to me when we all recognized it as abuse. [At first], it didn’t register as abuse. And we all suppressed it and called it something different. But when it started to register as abuse, I didn’t have that kind of power yet. I didn’t have that strength to go after something and to try to prove it. We were all of age. It makes it very difficult to say we weren’t thinking straight. So it just became more important for me to make a movie that would make more of a significant change by exposing things, than getting a lawsuit no one ever hears about it.

Is it all better? No. That doesn’t really heal anybody else. The healing comes from talking about it and exposing it. It’s like the movie, Supersize Me, you know? That changed McDonald’s completely.

And Blackfish, recently.

Absolutely. Someone could have gone in and given them lawsuits. But because the people have spoken, you have more power than just the legal system.

So, while you’re not out for revenge –and it doesn’t feel that way from your film- you still do hope to start a conversation.

I’ll tell you the truth right now.

This is a day-by-day thing for me. I don’t know what I’m going to do next week. I’m really angry with him. I’m getting more and more angry with him as this moves forward. I’m coming more into my power of acknowledging that it’s okay to feel angry and I will do something legal. I will defend myself and attack him if I need to. If he doesn’t accept this, go down with this or leave these people alone or if he starts to attack me, I will fight.

At the end of your film where you go through the (mostly former) cult members to show what they are up to currently, my heart sank when I saw there were those who chose to stay behind.

Yeah. I’ve talked to some of them lately. I had to because they know about the film and they’re opposing and angry. I have mixed feelings about it because, in our group, we were really ingrained with the idea of freedom of your First Amendment and of religious freedom and so, I was never really into … If anyone tried to tell me what to do, I’d be like, “You can’t tell me what to think” and “You can’t tell me what I believe.” So, I adopted that persona that I’m not here to tell someone else what to do. I just kind of felt like, “Who am I to tell them they shouldn’t do this?”

But I also see the damage being done to them, and I know they’re all going to have to go through the process when this thing collapses for them and I feel for them. They are not bad people, just like we weren’t bad people. So, I know they might be painted as, “Oh I’m so stupid following this man,” but you’re following like we were following him and we didn’t have all the information. But now, you have information. Now, shame on you, if you don’t step out of this and look and listen. They don’t want to see it; they don’t want to hear it.

You hope to empower them with information.

Yeah, and you can make a choice with that information. And a lot of people don’t want to hear it. The more I see him, how he’s responding to the film, what he’s doing… They had death threats. One of the disciples gave a death threat to my friend who’s in the movie and lives on the island. They came and approached him in daylight and his wife was nearby. They ended up getting two warrants for his arrest for threatening their lives.

And was that the most severe thing that happened?

That was the most severe thing that happened out in the open. I think a lot of the other stuff he does is very subversive. Imagine having a hundred people, like this, doing all your dirty work for you. He’s the Christ. It’s like you’re serving this higher thing. I do know that the island of Oahu is not going to tolerate this, because it’s a very peaceful, spiritual island. I don’t think they want people coming there and being afraid or threatened by an extreme religious group.

Through this film, you understandably still live in the past in some regard. I’m wondering, what do you do to shut all of this down every now and then?

Well, that’s my secret.

But you do have a happy place to escape, right?

Okay, I will tell you. The place I go when I need to allow everything to be the way it is and to feel good is the ocean. There is nothing like it. It’s so powerful. It’s bigger than you are. I go and swim. I have a girl friend of mine; we go together, and do a little meditating. I see my future in advance, like “what do I want my future to be?” And I nurture that inside myself. And then I go play in the water with boogie boards and laugh like children. It’s the only thing that can make me laugh like crazy. And then, nothing matters. Nothing is really a big deal when you’re in that place where you’re just a child again. You feel fresh and your whole day changes.

Also, to be honest with you, I self-medicate a little bit with pot. I think marijuana is a wonderful thing. It really helped me to disassociate with what was happening and to come more in touch with myself and see the bigger picture. So, that’s been part of my diet. It allows me to be organic and in somewhat of a meditative state.

Will you continue making films? Is there a topic you think you’d tackle next?

I definitely love making films. I love drama. [And my producer says], “I don’t think you should work on anything to do with this experience again. I think you need to get away from this.”

I’m like, “I do too.”

She says, “What would you do?”

I go, “Oh, Sci-Fi.”

We’re talking like, Kubrick Sci-Fi. Because I had this whole other universe I was living in for twenty years that I thought was non-logical. We were always talking about things that weren’t logical. If you get out in space or you get out into another universe, you write that universe and now you can talk about all the different things you want to talk about. I always find Sci-Fi very satisfying. It talks to a part of me that is true. Like, The Matrix. They are trying to become enlightened the whole time.

Has there been one recent Sci-Fi film that you loved?

I think Christopher Nolan’s brilliant. I think his Inception was great. Of course, you’re playing with time and dreams and everything that’s non-linear. I love it. I also loved Interstellar. I know a lot of people didn’t.

So glad you said that. I love it, too.

So good. Something he managed to do in that film was convincing a part of my mind grasp something I already knew was true. And usually it’s hard for your mind to catch up with stuff it can’t prove. He illustrated it. Part of me understood the vastness of the universe in a new way. And I loved Gravity, too. I don’t want to be on the planet the whole time. I want to go see what else is happening.

I look forward to watching it when you make a Sci-Fi.

After I rest a little bit, just a couple months, I’ll be really inspired, I’m sure.

Maybe you’ll go to a beach somewhere.

There are so many places I want to go, because I really was an adventurous person and I ended up in this situation. But I just missed the whole world. I was isolated from the whole world. I was in a little stagnant pond. Now, it’s one connected world. Everything’s much more accessible. So, I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be out, survive this experience, grow from it and get to explore the world and meet people.