Plane Crash Complicates HBO Documentary on Diet-Inspired Church

On May 29, a single-pilot jet aircraft crashed right into a lake close to Nashville, killing all seven folks on board. Among them have been Gwen Shamblin Lara, a weight-loss guru and the founding father of the Remnant Fellowship Church of Brentwood, Tenn., and her husband, William Lara, who was often called Joe and had as soon as portrayed Tarzan in each a tv sequence and the film “Tarzan in Manhattan.”

The chief of a midsize congregation, Ms. Lara, 66, had for the previous a number of years been the primary topic of a documentary venture that sought to get past the gilded veneer of the Remnant Fellowship and examine its interior workings. Set to debut on HBO Max within the fall, the multi-episode venture, “The Way Down,” particulars the church’s origin in Ms. Lara’s religious-based weight-loss program, the Weigh Down Workshop.

The food regimen program introduced Ms. Lara fame — by way of appearances on fashionable exhibits like “Larry King Live” — and fortune, due to best-selling books touting her methods to drop a few pounds. But it additionally made her a controversial determine, with critics saying Weigh Down centered extra on unconventional theology than on wholesome consuming habits. The documentary examines these points, together with allegations that the church shunned and even harassed members who needed to depart and that it capabilities extra as a cult than a conventional spiritual establishment.

Ms. Lara in 2011. Her church grew out of the Weigh Down Workshop, a religious-based food regimen program she began in 1986.Credit…Sanford Myers/The Tennessean, by way of Imagn

At the time of the crash, the ending touches have been being put on the sequence. Suddenly, the filmmakers have been confronted with a brand new set of questions. What was the extent of Mr. Lara’s flying expertise (he was working the plane), and have been his medical data updated? What would occur to the church now that its founder and chief was lifeless? (A day after the crash, the church launched an announcement saying Ms. Lara’s daughter and son “intend to continue the dream that Gwen Shamblin Lara had of helping people find a relationship with God.”)

And what would occur within the bitter custody case, involving Mr. Lara’s daughter along with his ex-wife, which shaped an important story line within the documentary?

The filmmakers additionally mentioned that because the crash, they’d discovered that extra folks have been keen to talk to them — former congregants who mentioned they’d beforehand been unwilling to go in opposition to the church publicly as a result of they nonetheless had members of the family who’re affiliated, and kinfolk of these killed within the crash who have been skeptical of the church and now felt compelled to share their tales.

On May 29, a single-pilot jet aircraft crashed right into a lake close to Nashville, killing all seven folks on board together with Ms. Lara.Credit…George Walker IV/The Tennessean, by way of Imagn

“Within 24 hours I had heard from every single source, and the first thing everyone said was ‘I don’t want to be disrespectful, but please tell me this doesn’t change anything,’” concerning the documentary, mentioned the producer Nile Cappello, an investigative journalist who began researching Remnant Fellowship in 2018.

Ms. Cappello added that for individuals who had already spoken out in opposition to the church, some at nice private sacrifice, what she heard most incessantly was fear the documentary could be curtailed in a roundabout way, “that we have opened up these wounds for nothing.”

Though archival footage of Ms. Lara preaching and making media appearances is proven within the documentary, neither she nor any representatives from Remnant Fellowship have been interviewed on digicam by the filmmakers.

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“I never thought she would give us an interview,” the sequence director, Marina Zenovich, mentioned of Ms. Lara. “Never.”

Remnant Fellowship didn’t return calls looking for remark concerning the sequence for this text.

While the filmmakers scrambled to include information of the crash and its aftermath into the documentary, HBO Max altered its plans too. Now, relatively than launch a four-part sequence on the finish of September, the primary three episodes of “The Way Down,” will grow to be out there on Sept. 30, concluding with a “To Be Continued” message. The ultimate two episodes will debut in early 2022, giving the filmmakers time to take care of the brand new footage. The documentary now begins with native information protection of the crash.

Marina Zenovich directed “The Way Down,” which can conclude early subsequent 12 months with two episodes that may incorporate new footage.Credit…Coley Brown for The New York Times

“There is a fuller story to be told,” mentioned Lizzie Fox, senior vp of nonfiction at HBO Max. “We just want to make sure that we can allow enough time for the story to progress and the investigation to pursue some answers and give us time to interview all the subjects. With a limited docu-series, if there’s ever a chance to have a second part, I think it’s something that people tend to get excited about.”

Ms. Zenovich is a documentarian who has spent most of her profession focusing on males like Roman Polanski, Lance Armstrong and Robin Williams. But the world of evangelical faith was new terrain, one she determined to embark on due to the compelling character on the story’s heart.

“It’s deeply upsetting,” she mentioned. “But I decided to do it because I was fascinated by Gwen.”

Ms. Lara, who educated as a dietitian, started her Weigh Down Workshop in 1986. It was a food regimen plan that put aside frequent well being tips and as an alternative centered on a reliance on God, urging members that with a view to perceive true starvation they need to eat solely when their abdomen growled. By the mid-2000s, her recommendation had grow to be highly regarded inside spiritual communities, and Ms. Lara’s books bought hundreds of thousands of copies. She parlayed that success into Remnant Fellowship, a church she based in 1999 together with her husband on the time, David Shamblin, after splitting with the Church of Christ. The Weigh Down philosophies remained a central tenet of her new congregation.

Nile Cappello, proper, the producer of the documentary, began researching Remnant Fellowship in 2018.Credit…Coley Brown for The New York Times

As ex-members describe it within the documentary, the church was much less a spot of worship and extra an all-encompassing energy that took over each facet of their lives, from the place they labored and the way they dressed to whom they married. Body picture and appearances have been central elements, and the documentary chronicles Ms. Lara’s personal transformation, from a bubbly younger dietitian with girl-next-door appears to be like into a really skinny, closely made-up avatar whose hair appeared to develop in peak in relation to her energy.

Ms. Lara’s broader reputation finally started to wane partly due to her rejection of the Holy Trinity, views that prompted a Christian writer to cancel her upcoming e-book and others to cease selling her weight reduction program.

“Gwen’s whole control is using misogyny against other women,” Ms. Cappello mentioned, including that Ms. Lara was one of many few feminine spiritual leaders within the evangelical Christian motion however had a completely male management workforce. Ms. Lara additionally demanded that her congregants adhere to conventional familial gender roles with a view to preserve their standing within the church.

Among the allegations raised in “The Way Down” are accusations that people unable to drop a few pounds have been marginalized by the church neighborhood and that members have been inspired by Remnant management to cease taking prescribed treatment together with contraception and psychiatric medication.

Now the filmmakers are scrambling to inform a extra complete story of the church, its founding and its impression on Brentwood.

“It was never about not continuing,” mentioned Ms. Zenovich, who is especially compelled by the tales of those that left the church. “It’s about shifting how we were going to tell the story.”