Campfire Studios CEO Ross Dinerstein doesn’t think he’ll ever forget the moment he found out about the plane crash that killed Gwen Shamblin Lara, the central figure of the studio’s latest docuseries that recently premiered on HBO Max, The Way Down.
“It was on a Saturday morning, May 29, two days before my daughter’s birthday. My parents were in town, we were actually driving to go hiking and then I get a call about it and I had to pull over because I didn’t believe it,” Dinerstein recalls.
“We were days away from locking picture on the series, we had put everything to bed … and this happened.”
The Way Down examines Shamblin Lara’s diet program Weigh Down Workshop, and the controversial Remnant Fellowship Church. After Shamblin Lara rose to fame for her Christian-based diet program, she founded the Tennessee-based church, which has since been met with accusations of emotional, psychological and physical abuse, and allegations of exploitative cult-like practices.
The series explores Shamblin Lara’s legacy using years of investigation and extensive interviews with former members of the church and others personally impacted by it.
Remnant Fellowship’s story was first brought to Campfire in 2018, and while Dinerstein had previously explored similar territory, including in Campfire’s docuseries last year about Heaven’s Gate, he had always seen these controversial religious factions led by men.
The series’ director Marina Zenovich was interested in taking part for the same reason, and the more she saw and read about Shamblin Lara’s story, the more she felt it was an interesting story about greed, power and corruption that was worth exploring further.
For its part, Remnant Fellowship Church has issued an official statement concerning the documentary and the allegations contained within, which maintains that the organization “categorically denies the absurd, defamatory statements and accusations made in this documentary – yet another Hollywood attack on religion.” Elsewhere, the statement reads that the church “vehemently denies any accusation of child abuse in any form.”
In the days that followed Shamblin Lara’s death, Dinerstein says the production team had to re-evaluate, look at cuts of the series that were no longer relevant after the plane crash and re-adjust the series. He added several contributors who had spoken on the record at their own risk reached out to make sure the series was still moving forward after Shamblin Lara’s death.
Lizzie Fox, SVP of non-fiction at HBO Max, tells Realscreen that after a pause to process the shock of Shamblin Lara’s death and the loss of human life, it was important to continue the project.
“Often in documentary filmmaking, you don’t know the end of the story and you reassess as filming progresses. When we first heard the news of the tragic plane crash, we took a pause to process the shock of what had happened and the terrible loss of human life,” Fox says.
“Eventually, we recognized that this turn of events needed to become part of our story, and we worked closely with our creative partners at Campfire to determine how best to proceed.”
Figuring out where the crash would fit into their telling of Shamblin Lara’s story was one challenge facing Zenovich and the production team.
“It was horrible, but we had to figure out what we were going to do. You can’t make snap decisions in that moment. We processed for weeks how we were going to address it,” Zenovich says.
“We processed, pivoted as one does. That’s the beauty of documentary, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Zenovich credits the team she worked with for helping to adjust the series when the story developed so shockingly late in its production.
The project that premiered on HBO Max is now significantly different from what was pitched, but Dinerstein says this is common when working on non-fiction — a genre that is increasingly represented in Campfire’s slate.
“There is no script, there is no blueprint. We have a basic idea of story, but as we get into the weeds and go through these interviews and fact-check these interviews, there’s revelations that are made, and had we stuck to our original pitch and outline, we wouldn’t have been true to the story,” Dinerstein offers.
Dinerstein says he can’t remember another docuseries he’s done that’s garnered this much immediate feedback, and with the success of the series, both Zenovich and Dinerstein say even more people are reaching out to them. Two more episodes in the series are scheduled to be released next year to cover the events around and following Shamblin Lara’s death and the future of the church.
“What’s happening here with the success of this show is more and more people are learning about it, and more and more people have questions about how Remnant Fellowship can go on,” Zenovich says.
The series is executive produced by Zenovich, Dinerstein, journalist Nile Cappello who brought the series to Campfire originally, Luke Dillon for 3 Arts Entertainment and Chrissy Teigen. P.G. Morgan, Rebecca Evans and Ross Girard serve as co-executive producers. Gina Scarlatta worked as series producer, Natalie De Diego and Erin Perri as editors, and Nick Higgins as director of photography.