5 Realities of Being the 'True Story' a Movie is Based On
Everyone wants to be famous -- our entire modern culture is pretty much based on that premise. But people forget that some types of fame are just a proverbial shit sandwich, one in which the bread is also made of shit. Like if, for instance, you lived through a family tragedy that was exciting enough to draw the attention of the news media and, later, Hollywood producers. Mainly because said tragedy involved a hostage situation, a love triangle, and a violent shootout in a church.
Suddenly your real-life trauma is everyone else's episode. That's what happened to Margo Bennett. We talked to her and her daughter, Lindsey, about what it's like to spend years as the heart of a sensational news story:
One Day, Mom Gets Into an Action-Movie Shootout
Lindsey Bennett summarized her family's story like this when she reached out to us:
"When I was 7, my dad tried to kill my mom, and they were both former FBI agents ... it happened in the middle of the night at her church. Dad kidnapped the priest, made him call my mom, and he and my mom exchanged gunfire and stuff. Eventually she got away, and he wound up held up in his house. There was ... a bit of a siege situation. It ended with him arrested."
You know, one of those stories.
We asked the mother -- former FBI hostage negotiator Margo Bennett -- to walk us through the insanity:
"I got a phone call, and it was a series of disconnections. Finally ... my pastor was on the other end of the line when I answered, and he told me that he needed my help in an argument that a couple at the church were having."
Margo was training to be a Stephen minister herself, at the time, so that wasn't as weird a call for her as it would be for most people. Still, she took her gun and pepper spray on her way out -- you never know.
Some other items too. Really, you never know.
Margo reached her church, noting that the door was propped open with a plant. She called out to the pastor and noted that the voice sounded "odd" when he replied. Margo asked if he was all right, and he said, "No, not really."
Margo entered the church and found she had not, in fact, been called to deal with an arguing couple -- it was an ambush, set up by her soon-to-be-divorced husband, Eugene. He'd been abusive before, had threatened Margo's life and was fresh from a year in prison for defrauding the FBI for $17,000. He popped out of his hiding place in the sanctuary and said, "Margo, don't fight me on this!" She did the exact opposite, and did her level best to replace as much of the air around her estranged husband with pepper spray as possible.
He neutralized it with a wave of incense.
He retreated back, taking sanctuary in the sanctuary, while Margo dove for cover in the pastor's office and drew her gun from her purse. She could see her pastor in the secretary's office, with a hood over his head and his hands cuffed behind his back.
"Gene told me he had explosives on and he was going to kill us all," says Margo. "I told him that was fine with me, because I wasn't coming out." He wasn't lying about the bombs, by the way -- he'd made pipe bombs, and placed them around his hostage's waist.
Which sounds kind of excessive, for one hostage, but what do we know? We're not batshit crazy.
Margo felt that she needed to "keep the action level high" to stop Eugene from being able to think too much about his plans. "At some point, I realized I was only going to get out of this by shooting Gene." So, when he popped his head around the doorframe, she took her shot -- and missed. Her husband responded by tossing things into the office at her, "I think to draw additional fire ... because I only had limited bullets."
But Margo was disciplined, conserved her ammunition, and was able to hold her position and call 911. Eugene fled before the police arrived, and both Margo and the pastor escaped uninjured. His plan, it turns out, had been to murder Margo and then frame her for exploding the minister. Let us again remind you that Eugene had once been an agent for the FBI.
"He just kept yelling that line from Point Break."
Eugene was soon captured at his home after a brief standoff, and, in a world without television or the Internet, that might have been the end of the Bennett family's stress for a while. But a story you can boil down to "two FBI agents do battle in a church" is guaranteed to put asses in front of TVs on the nightly news, since several John Woo movies have ended this exact way. As a result ...
It Becomes a Media Circus
As crazy as the story itself was, there was another element at play that we haven't mentioned yet: It involved a celebrity. Sort of.
The news of the incident quickly blew up around the country. Not only was this the story of an armed fight between two FBI agents, but during the trial Gene revealed that at the time of their split, Margo had been dating the famous writer, Patricia Cornwell.
Never heard of her? Well her books have sold more than 100 million freaking copies.
Cornwell, you see, writes action crime novels -- the kind that always end with the bad guy getting blown up in a helicopter, or tense standoffs in exotic locations. The story -- that someone involved with a famous crime novelist lived out one of her plots in real life -- soon spread from local news, to national news, to Hollywood gossip rags:
Even the most venerated of publications were interested.
Cornwell's utter lack of involvement in the shootout itself didn't seem to matter -- the "Stranger Than Fiction" angle was too good to pass up. Not making that into a huge deal would've been leaving money on the table:
Apparently the phrase "main character" can mean "wasn't actually there."
Now imagine being a little kid during all this. Lindsey was just 7 at the time, and this isn't just, "Mommy and Daddy are on the news!" It's, "Mommy and Daddy are on the news for trying to brutally murder each other in a hostage standoff." So while most of our early memories focus around watching TV shows that Buzzfeed would one day turn into listicles to capitalize on our half-remembered nostalgia, Lindsey's earliest memories involve being kept away from the television. Oh, and of her parents taking steps to make sure she didn't wind up part of a broadcast herself. "I remember ... sometimes we couldn't go outside because there were news vans."
"We have an exclusive update on the Bennett situation: Raisin Bran.
We can now confirm that mother and daughter are eating Raisin Bran."
Meanwhile, Margo's battle to protect her kids from getting sucked into a media circus started at school.
"Before the trial, I had a meeting between the principal and teachers at the kid's school, told them I depended on them to insulate the kids ... the coverage was on Good Morning America, local news ... channels they watched during the school day. And the teachers were good about turning it off."
Margo eventually sent Lindsey and her sister off to live with their aunt, until things died down. But when the news media loses interest, that's right about when ...
Hollywood Picks Up the Story
The reason a show like Law & Order can keep grinding out episodes for 20 straight years (and, what is it, three dozen spinoffs?) is that the news writes their episodes for them. Many of their plots are just taken right from the headlines, only with some names switched around -- they don't have to ask permission. So, in the Law & Order that was spawned from Margo's case, she got to watch herself being (very loosely) portrayed by Linda Emond:
One of six different characters she played on four different Law & Order shows.
The 10th season episode, titled "Panic", features the wounding of a Patricia Cornwell-knockoff famous author and the murder of her business manager at the hands of a crazed FBI agent. It turns out he was gripped by a "psychosexual panic" at the thought of his wife's lesbian affair, which is the sort of plot TV shows could get away with back in the dark, misty depths of the year 2000.
"Let's work in some Lennie Briscoe butt shots. We wanna make sure we're covering all audiences."
"It was so soon," says Margo. "I felt a little unnerved. I felt exposed." Keep in mind, the shooting happened in 1996, the trial in 1997 -- this wasn't exactly a distant memory. And as for Lindsey, 11 years old is probably too young to have to watch your Mom and Dad's private affairs get investigated by Jerry Orbach (but she watched it anyway).
Hell, even if she'd missed it, she'd have plenty of other chances. The Discovery Channel made a documentary about the whole story. (Lindsey had to turn that one off. "I was like, 'I don't want to know how horrible my dad was.' I didn't really need more details.") And in 2001, some bold visionary at the USA Network either read an article about the story, or watched that Law & Order episode, and ordered this movie made:
He then presumably took an early lunch.
Rather than just base a completely fictional story loosely on Margo's life, USA coveted the ability to plaster "BASED ON A TRUE STORY" on all their advertising. They reached out to Margo for her blessing.
"The producer wanted to buy the movie rights," she says. "It was clear that there was so much public info out already that they had enough to do that anyway. But they wanted to buy exclusive rights."
Margo was a single parent working two jobs at the time, so she agreed. The movie was going to be made anyway -- why not get paid for it?
They'd just spend the money on their own damn Law & Order spinoff.
According to Lindsey, "My mom said they clearly had the attitude of 'we're throwing you a bone here.'" The producers then did their level best to seem like they cared about the details of the story while they shopped around for helicopter rentals. Lindsey recalls, "I talked to a little bit. They didn't use much from any of us beyond general characterization. They made the whole story much crazier, which I don't understand."
Stealing from the FBI, death threats, hostage-taking, and a gunfight in a church -- all that stuff clearly needed embellishing. Margo would only say that it seemed "far-fetched." We'd lament the existence of this movie more, but the casting was surprisingly good, providing jobs for both Don Davis:
You recognize him because you are a nerd.
And Michael Bowen, who played Eugene Bennett's fictional analog:
If this guy doesn't look familiar to you, well, we'll come back to that.
Meanwhile, Margo decided to get the actual story out there, relaying it to one of her colleagues from the FBI, John Hess. He wrote the draft of a book based on his research and conversations with Margo, which the publisher had punched-up by a true crime writer. Margo reports being fairly happy with the final draft, which seems to be a pretty accurate depiction of events despite having what might be the worst title a book has ever had:
From the publishers of Rhombus of Reckoning and Temptation Trapezoid.
But from that point on ...
The Reminders Are Everywhere and Never Go Away
We asked if you recognized actor Michael Bowen earlier. If not, you're more likely to recognize him from his role in Breaking Bad as noted meth purveyor and Nazi-about-town, Uncle Jack:
"Just give me one musical. I got range damnit."
Lindsey didn't realize this until the season finale, when it all clicked into place and she got a sudden reminder of a particularly crappy chapter of her life. "Hey, there's the guy who played my murderous father in a movie a few years ago!"
"It's the kinda thing you want to talk about," says Lindsey, "but you really can't, because then I'd have to share the whole story. Some people think I'm an attention hog as soon as I bring up the whole 'there was a movie' thing ... I had a co-worker at a charity I worked at say, 'we should all watch it together!' Like it's something I'd enjoy."
Trauma or no trauma, planning a get-together around a decade-old TV movie is some lame ass shit.
That's the thing -- once a part of your life has been covered and adapted that broadly, you never totally get away from it. Reminders of that moment and its pop-culture footprint can crop up at any time.
"I was browsing TV Tropes, randomly, and one of the pages was about real-life influencing authors, and obviously our story fit into that ... "
It's also on the FBIRevengeChurchShootOut page.
"Coming across references to your own life like that, at random ... it feels like I'm breaking the 4th wall."
Becoming part of a trope is bad enough, but Eugene Bennett is also doing the best he can to ensure his family never forgets. He would write Lindsey letters from prison, which she would leave unread. When she was 17, she started sending the letters back unopened. He retaliated by sending them out with no return address. "He was still using them to try and manipulate us."
Fortunately, there's only so much he can do from prison. Unfortunately, it looks like he won't be in there much longer ...
Real Stories Don't Actually End
In the nearly 20 years since that church fight, the Bennett family moved across the country, to California. Lindsey and her sister grew up, and Margo became chief of the University of California (Berkeley's) police department.
No shootouts yet. Unless you count that heated hacky sack tourney in the quad.
Hollywood's story had a beginning, a climax, and an end, as well as that helicopter for some reason, but real life doesn't tie itself up in such a neat bow. Eugene Bennett will be a free man very soon. According to Margo, "he's actually due for release in July of 2016. How do I feel about that? Well, I'm still very ... angry, would be the right word to use, at the judge for having sentenced him for such a short sentence compared to what the jury recommended."
The jury in Eugene's case decided he deserved 61 years in prison for kidnapping a man, rigging him with explosives, attempted murder, and also a parole violation. The Circuit Judge reduced this to a 23-year sentence for reasons unknown, which means a whole new cycle of worry for Margo and Lindsey. As Lindsey says, "we've been talking a lot about his release lately ... I have a 7-year-old niece, and so we've been prepping her, and that's been kind of a call-back to the preparation we had to do when we were kids. Setting up a password system to get picked up from school, etc." Yeah, it's not just about the media spotlight coming back -- it's about Eugene coming back.
It is possible that Eugene will wind up back in prison, charged for one of his other crimes immediately after release. If not, well, Lindsey makes it clear: "We're not going to go run and hide."
Robert Evans heads up the Cracked personal experience article team, and he has a Twitter.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Ways Movies Get Gunfights Wrong (Based on Experience) and The Gruesome Truth About Getting Shot (a First-Hand Account).
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