Q&A: ‘Young Charlie’ podcast explores a different side of Manson — a kid before a murderer


When Charles Manson died Sunday night, more than four decades had passed since the murders he masterminded. But Manson’s mythology still looms large and will no doubt continue to be dissected long after his death.

The most recent exploration of Manson, a podcast called “Young Charlie,” focuses on the cult leader’s childhood. From podcast network Wondery, “Young Charlie” was written by Hollywood screenwriter and director Larry Brand and debuted Nov. 8, just 11 days before Manson’s death.

A testament to our enduring fascination with the convicted murderer, the podcast debuted on Apple at No. 1.

Brand spoke to The Times recently to help unpack Manson’s infamous legacy.

What drew you to doing a project on Charles Manson?

My producing partners, Rebecca Reynolds and Jim Carpenter, have a company called Filmmakers 8180. We’ve made several films together and they co-created “Hollywood & Crime,” the parent podcast to “Young Charlie.”

Rebecca asked me if I would be interested and my first thought was, “How do I come at this from a new angle?” After a lot of research, we settled on two timelines: from the Tate murders to the Manson family arraignment and from Charlie’s childhood through him sending his followers to Cielo Drive.

Where did you find your accounts of Manson's childhood?

I picked up a lot of stuff. Vincent Bugliosi’s book “Helter Skelter,” Jeff Guinn’s book “Manson.” Co-producer Jim Carpenter did a ton of research finding old articles. We even found the original article about the arrest of Manson’s mother and uncle for a robbery they committed by poking a ketchup bottle in someone’s back, pretending it was a gun.

Why do you think society collectively is obsessed not only with Manson but with serial killers in general?

If you look at the history of literature, it always involved human beings in extremis.

I think we're fascinated by people at the edges of what it is to be human beings. We're always drawn toward a violence and passion. This is why war is a recurrent theme throughout literature.

There's no simple answer, really, to any human question. I think somewhere in there, in between this kind of just morbid fascination, we want to understand how human beings can behave in certain ways that seem foreign to us.

If we can understand these extreme behaviors, then maybe it tells us a little bit something more about ourselves.

Actor Stephen Lang narrates the portion of the podcast about Manson's childhood. How did his involvement come about?

You have to understand, he's in a 40-foot vat of water shooting “Avatar” sequels five days a week, and because he's a good friend and a good buddy, he actually volunteered to do the podcast.

The last picture that we did together was called “Beyond Glory.” It’s a movie that I directed, and he wrote and starred in, playing eight characters.

We were thrilled that a movie star of his stature would come on board and narrate in a way that captured this interior geography of Manson's mind. It would have been very hard to replicate without a world-class actor getting really into the language and the poetry of the way a mental process expresses itself.

Screenwriter and director Larry Brand.
(Larry Brand)

Do you think Manson in particular draws people in?

Charlie Manson does not become Charlie Manson at any other point in history but the late 1960s.

About 20 years ago, they showed a brand new print of “Woodstock” at the Directors Guild in L.A., and I remember there was a moment when there's a newspaper in the background and it has a headline about the Manson murders.

I was taken aback by this astonishing juxtaposition of the cultural threads that were extant at that point in American history. On the one hand, you have this event that was advertised as four days of peace, love and music. And then at the same point you have this reminder of this other side of what it is to be human being.

You have the dark and the light. You have this dialectic of good and evil within a space of days.

Three weeks earlier, Americans walked on the moon. This astonishing achievement of everything excellent and prideful in the human species, and then you have this enormous cultural event in which a generation took as an exemplar of what their world would be like, and at the same time you have this dark underside, which is just beginning to be revealed in those early moments following those murders.

Given that Manson had been in ill health for quite some time, did you feel a sense of urgency to complete “Young Charlie”?

No, I wasn't worried about him dying prematurely. At that point, his death, his literal death, was almost an irrelevancy.

He’d been in prison for 50 years, but his crimes have the vibrancy that they have always had, again, because of the way it touches our sense of what it is to be human.

People have this sense that we're going to learn some kind of proscriptive technique to prevent events like this from happening and that's not really what you learn from these events.

There's always going to be sociopaths, there's always going to be people that go off the rails, there's always going to be murders.

I'm asked quite a bit, "Are you concerned this will humanize Charles?"

I think what the question really means is, “Will this generate sympathy for Charlie?” I think no.

There’s no humanizing Manson. He's a human already. It's just that the more we understand him as human, the more we have a real indignation.

You can listen to “Young Charlie” on Wondery’s site and Apple. (Full disclosure: Wondery also produces the Los Angeles Times’ Dirty John podcast.)