For those of us of a certain age who grew up in the 1990s, there’s no doubt you’ll remember the passing of the Comet Hale-Bopp. Glowing through the sky, the massive comet was easily spotted by the naked eye during most of 1997 even for those living in major cities with light pollution. Unfortunately, the dazzling spectacle is also synonymous with the cult Heaven’s Gate, who committed a mass-suicide believing that the once-in-a-lifetime cosmic treat was their ticket to the “Next Level” – a type of heaven beyond human life. Now, for (somehow) the first time, the story of the cult and its founders, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles will be given the scripted film treatment in The Leader with Tim Blake Nelson (Dune 2) and Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring franchise) starring as Applewhite and Nettles, respectively.
Michael Gallagher (Funny Story) directs and pens the production which will follow Applewhite, aka “Ti”, and Nettles’, aka “Do”, rise to the top of a group who wholeheartedly believed that a spaceship would remove them from this planet and take them off to a new world. Under Ti and Do’s instructions (and yes, those names are a reference to The Sound of Music), Heaven’s Gate members were to give up all worldly attachments including their family, friends, sexuality, individuality, and money – classic cult tactics! After Nettles passed away from cancer in 1985, things began to go even more off the rails, resulting in the group’s suicide in 1997.
Following Nettles’s death, Applewhite convinced his followers that an alien spaceship would pick up their souls and transport them to the next life. Over several days, groups would take down a mixture of phenobarbital and applesauce or pudding, followed by a swig of vodka, and then place plastic bags over their heads to make their deaths guaranteed. When the police received a tip and arrived at the Rancho Santa Fe home a little over one week later, they discovered a trauma-inducing scene of 39 deceased cult members wearing identical clothes: black shirts and sweatpants, armband patches with the words “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” stitched onto them, and black and white Nike Decades shoes – a line that was quickly discontinued by the manufacturer.
The Leader will hit the market at the 2023 European Film Market in Berlin via sales agent, The Exchange. Gallagher also produces on behalf of Cinemand alongside Jana Winternitz, and Michael Wormser with Balcony 9 Productions’ Joel David Moore and Max Osswald. Daniel Taborga and Rishi Bajaj of Balcony 9 Productions executive produce with Evan Silverberg, Cassian Elwes, and Entertainment 360.
If you’re looking for more information on Heaven’s Gate, there are several great documentaries and docuseries out there to check out including HBO’s Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults. If you’re really interested in some nostalgic and eerie investigations, the original website for the cult is still out there with 90s vibes all over it. As of right now, no release date has been set for The Leader, but to better familiarize yourself with the story, you can watch the trailer for Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults below.