The making of the documentary ‘Rajneeshpuram, an Experiment to Provoke God’, the events that led to it and that followed. Viramo interviewed the filmmaker, actor and stunt coordinator Deva Michael.
Deva Michael left the Ranch just before Osho was arrested in the early morning hours on October 28, 1985, in South Carolina, USA. He was one of the early arrivals at Rajneeshpuram, having passed through the gateway of Paras Rajneesh Meditation Center in Berkeley, California, in 1981. A relatively new sannyasin, he showed up with $200, an old car and a set of tools.
As the Ranch was winding down in late 1985, Michael returned to Seattle, his adopted hometown. “Osho was in custody and everything was in chaos. A few days later I found myself at a small airfield in Seattle with a dozen other sannyasins, yelling out our support to Osho as he was transferred from one plane to another during his incarceration. It was the end of the American experiment and we were all beside ourselves, yelling to this tiny figure in handcuffs a hundred yards away, surrounded by US Marshals.”
A few years later Deva Michael would create a memorable film tribute to the Ranch: “Rajneeshpuram, An Experiment to Provoke God” (see review). As a recent follow-up, he has written a full-length screenplay called ‘Nirvana Road’, which he describes as “a highly dramatic story based on a female sannyasin who gets in way over her head with the wrong people at the Ranch.” He adds that he is close to publishing a graphic novel version of “Nirvana Road” as well.
Michael feels that the WWC phenomenon will push the film version closer to production. “On a side note,” he adds, “I see Lakshen will get his film about Osho into production with an Indian company. So the time seems right.” As Osho says in The Zen Manifesto, “Existence has its own ways.” And its own timings. Perhaps all the forces that have brought Deva Michael to this point in his spiritual development will converge to make all his dreams come true. Some of them anyway…
Dreams and visions
Comfortably settled back in Seattle after the demise of Rancho Rajneesh, Michael began to pursue his passion for the performing arts. “I was acting, producing plays, hanging out with fringe filmmakers. Fringe, as in not mainstream. In Seattle there is a huge fringe community, like radical theater people, street artists, etc. ‘Grunge’ music was also rising in Seattle. Around this time I decided to document a homeless group’s effort to erect a tent city for themselves (something that had never been attempted before in Seattle).”
Michael was intrigued by the courage of this band of misfits. He had recently helped produce an art film, so “I thought I was ready to make my first film.” He did. The result was a critically acclaimed documentary, ‘Temporary Dwellings’, released around 1990 and shown on public television.
But Michael’s memories of his days at Rancho Rajneesh were never far from his consciousness. He and his then-non-sannyasin wife had visited the Ranch about two years after its last days, and “it all came flooding back.” Soon after, he and a group of sannyasins visited The Dalles, county seat of Wasco County. Someone brought a camcorder in order to film the auction of the Ranch property, which had gone into foreclosure. “We all talked about making a film of the Ranch, but no one had any real experience. Several months later I came across a copy of the auction tape, and that’s when I began to think about the film again. But I still had no film experience so I shelved it.”
It was also around that timeframe that Michael began to have a series of very vivid dreams. Two he can still recall: “I’m there at Rajneeshpuram but the city has grown, the area around the Ranch is all suburbs, complete with nice new houses built by Oregonians who wanted to have a city near ours. In this dream I drive around in an endless loop, in complete shock, trying to figure out what was the Ranch part and what was the suburbs.
“In my other dream I’m going around to all the various Ranch buildings looking for my buddies, but when I arrive everyone is hiding under their beds or in closets, worried about Sheela’s gang and what they might do if they find them. My subconscious, it seemed, was trying to preserve Rajneeshpuram for me, but it left me rattled and wondering if my (future) film about the Ranch would add yet more twisted chapters to my dreams.”
Michael continued his movie career in Seattle, becoming an established actor, stuntman, action director … and full-fledged filmmaker with his documentary on the homeless.
“But Rajneeshpuram was always lurking in the background, and when I mentioned the concept to my distributor, they said great, let us know when it’s ready! That was all the encouragement I needed. Funny thing is I misplaced the auction tape, but by then it didn’t matter as I had, at that point, read almost everything that had been printed about the Ranch, by sannyasin and non-sannyasin authors alike, so I had more than enough to get started, at least with the outline and treatment.
“I should also add it was a great ego rush to think I would be the first to do it, to put everyone back up there, Osho, the locals, sannyasins, and let them tell their stories.
And in a way that type of mind-set ultimately helped me. Because as a filmmaker, it is a bit insane to launch into a full documentary without a producer or committed funding.”
How to make a movie for almost no money
The filmmaker who had the most influence on Deva Michael at the time he set out to make his Rajneeshpuram movie was Ken Burns, notable for his use of archival footage combined with photographs and music, plus narration and clever editing. Burns and his collaborator brother Rick had made a series of memorable documentaries for Public Television, covering such subjects as the Vietnam War, America’s national parks, jazz music, and other Americana. “Ken had just released his Civil War series in 1990, which totally inspired me. The brothers’ style was the look I was after. When I look back at it now, though, that was probably a bit of an overreach, given my resources.” (Definitely an understatement. Yet Ken Burns was an excellent role model for an aspiring filmmaker.)
“I financed the initial production myself, which means I paid for all the expenses involved with collecting all the material you see onscreen. A colleague and I wrote the narration. The rest of the principal production, which I also directed, was just about logistics and scheduling and showing up to film the interviews or the exteriors or hiring the narrator, etc. Most of that archival footage was licensed to me by Osho International Foundation (OIF). Amrito, Maneesha and Anando approved my initial request for access to the archives, and in the end, when I made my edits, they granted me a license to use those specific clips in my film. There was a very high level of trust and I was really astounded at that, as I was just a worker bee on the Ranch and never really knew any of them, save for Amrito who I had met a few times at the Ranch.”
Deva Michael also got help and support from other sannyasins, including Arjuna in Washington State and several others who he talked to via telephone, trying to track down leads, verify stats or corroborate facts. Chidvilas, the former Osho book and music distribution center in Boulder, Colorado, had archival footage of the Ranch which Michael “dubbed” (to copy or transfer) while hanging out with friends. Other sannyasins who pitched in are acknowledged in the film’s end credits.
Once the footage for his movie was collected and assembled, one major step remained: post-production. “To complete the final editing,” says Michael, “which was very expensive back then, I was offered a grant from KCTS, the PBS affiliate station in Seattle, which, a few years earlier, had first broadcast ‘Temporary Dwellings’. Although it did allow me to professionally post-produce the film in a major TV studio editing suite, it came at a price: they would only donate so much time.
“I had already done a rough cut edit of the film, known back then as an “off-line edit,” a kind of prototype or blueprint used for referencing when piecing together the master or final edit. In my agreement with KCTS, that prototype was what they wanted to see replicated in the final edit – which meant I could not revisit the material and create comparative sequences and versions and pick and choose. Often it takes months to edit a film. I think I had three days.”
Going into the editing suite, Michael understandably had doubts about his rough cut. “I knew it was good enough for KCTS to broadcast, but was it the film I really wanted to make? Did I whitewash it too much? Would it hold the attention of anyone outside of the KCTS broadcast range (Washington, Oregon)? Would the Burns brothers approve? Mediocrity was my biggest concern and it hung over me every second in that editing room.
“But in the end, and in spite of all my doubts, the film got made and then went on to find audiences outside of that initial broadcast. And now, almost 25 years later, Netflix has vaulted Osho and Rajneeshpuram into pop culture again with their own Ranch TV series, inspiring yet another revival of my film and allowing me, finally, to let go of the last of those doubts.”
Doubt no more, brave filmmaker! It took Deva Michael more than three years (1991-1994) to complete ‘Rajneeshpuram, An Experiment to Provoke God’. When WWC shined its distorted light on Osho and the Ranch, Michael didn’t hesitate: he took his film to Amazon, the very peak of the capitalist-media pyramid. Michael points out that you don’t really sell an independent film to the media behemoth. The company, however, does have extremely high quality standards, and your film must pass Amazon’s internal review board. The streaming revenue percentage isn’t all that much, but the upside is that anyone can see it now.
Osho: “Existence has its own plans, it is wiser than you.” (The Hidden Harmony)
What’s past is prologue (Shakespeare)
Deva Michael grew up in the inner city of Cleveland, Ohio – Midwest USA. He left home after high school, not because of a messy family situation, but because the seeds of his future had already been sown and needed to be explored. He worked as a maintenance man at Cleveland’s WGAR, at the time a powerful AM radio station. He thought he could get into show business that way, but “I was just mopping floors, cutting the grass …” He was also “trying to get my head around a lot of teachers and practices. At 18 and 19 I was just wild, trying anything and everything.” A budding seeker!
Two teachers that stood out in his searching and seeking were Ram Dass and Stephen Gaskin, leader of The Farm, a small but successful commune in Tennessee. On a visit there, “One of the members approached me and said, ‘We’d really like to have you here.’ I wasn’t ready for that, but they could see a seeker.” He checked out other teachers of the time, but none clicked. Until one day someone gave him a book, “and I was like ‘Yaah! This is the guy!’ The book was Meditation, the Art of Ecstasy by an author named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
It’s a familiar story for many of us. Michael was on fire with Osho, and started driving across America to find a Rajneesh meditation center. A friend said there was one in Seattle. He stopped at a Rainbow Gathering in Northern New Mexico, where he met Ram Dass, who was working on the food line. “Kind of blew me away,” says Michael. The year was around 1977, and clothing was optional at the event. Michael met his first sannyasins there. “These two guys, they were buck naked, wearing their malas. They were just beaming, and I had all these questions….”
Michael made his way to Seattle, found the Rajneesh Meditation Center, took sannyas, got a mala, and found work as a handyman to save up money to go to Pune. “This is what everybody did when you became a sannyasin,” says Deva Michael. The year was 1979. Soon enough he found himself at the Gateless Gate of the (then) Shree Rajneesh Ashram, but India was not his cup of chai.
“I didn’t last long – three months – it was a short love affair. I ended up in the hospital. It was a rash that wouldn’t go away, got infected. I went to a few discourses, I think they were in Hindi. Not a very clear lens going back that far. I lived in a bamboo hut, had an arrival darshan with Osho, but don’t remember much. I was kind of freaked out. Energy darshan! I’d never experienced this sort of thing, these people – it was wild! I walked around kind of in a daze – but felt a heightened sense of awareness.”
After Pune, Deva Michael went back to Cleveland because he was rootless in Seattle. Still overflowing with Osho energy, he wrote to Laxmi and said he wanted to start a meditation center in Cleveland. He was sent a name for the center and it was made official. “My center didn’t last very long because I met a girl in Cleveland who had been in Pune; we hooked up right away. We went to Santa Cruz (California) together, but that relationship fell apart. So I decided to go to Berkeley; by that point Osho had arrived in New Jersey. Paras, the Berkeley center, became the gateway to the Ranch. That center was pivotal. We set up a mini-commune there.”
In a short time Deva Michael found himself living at Rajneeshpuram, having charmed his way past Sheela’s steely-eyed gatekeepers. And the rest, as they like to say, is history.
Not quite. Today Michael is an award-winning stuntman, actor, action director, screenwriter and filmmaker. He has worked in hundreds of films and TV shows. He has two homes, one in Seattle and the other in the South Bay suburbs of Los Angeles. But memories of his time on the Ranch are not far from his everyday life. “What I cannot deny is that, to some degree, I continue to roam the Ranch. I could make a hundred movies about that place, not documentaries but dramas. One (‘Nirvana Road’) is already scripted. The memories can still be vivid. So I will likely keep my virtual Ranch going, for now anyway, as there are just too many good stories left.”
While Deva Michael is totally immersed in his film work, loves the adrenaline rush and the thrill of seeing the raw footage of each day’s shoot, “My movie-stuntman career totally pales in comparison to the effect on my life that the whole Osho journey has had. Nothing in my career will replicate those wild wild journeys as a sannyasin. Those moments we have all shared … moments of the heart.”
‘Rajneeshpuram, An Experiment to Provoke God’ is available in most countries for streaming on Amazon TV, also known as Amazon Prime Video. You can also buy or rent a DVD of Deva Michael’s movie at Amazon. (You might even find a copy of the movie in a nearby library!)