LOS ANGELES – When filmmakers Drew and John Erick Dowdle bumped into Joel Coen at a restaurant in Santa Fe, N.M., last year, it gave the St. Paul-raised fanboys a long-awaited opportunity to drool over one of their cinematic heroes.
It may also have been destiny.
The Dowdles have emerged as the most promising Minnesota brother act to hit Hollywood since Joel and Ethan Coen became Oscar regulars, a status that’s certain to be cemented by Wednesday’s premiere of “Waco.” The ambitious six-part miniseries features Taylor Kitsch (“Friday Night Lights”) as cult leader David Koresh and Michael Shannon as the FBI mediator whose attempts at a peaceful solution to a 51-day standoff in rural Texas ended in a fiery clash that left more than 70 dead, including Koresh.
The Dowdles were just three days away from wrapping the shoot in New Mexico when they and their stars ran into Coen and his wife, Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand.
“Frances wanted to talk to Taylor so she said, ‘Here, keep my husband company.’ So we got to spend 45 minutes with him,” said John Erick Dowdle, 45, who directs the siblings’ scripts while Drew, 43, handles the bulk of production issues. “He was the nicest guy. A dream of ours.”
The Coen brothers’ films, particularly “Raising Arizona,” provided an escape for the young Dowdles in the Highland Park neighborhood as their parents bickered and eventually divorced.
“Knowing they were from St. Louis Park,” Drew said, “ something clicked. ‘Oh, these guys are really making it. It’s possible.’ ”
John Erick’s commitment deepened after taking film criticism courses at the University of Iowa and then transferring to New York University. After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles. Drew, who attended the University of Michigan and spent a few years in the financial world, soon followed suit.
They first drew notice for a string of low-budget horror films, including “Quarantine” (2008), “Devil” (2010) and “As Above/So Below” (2014), shot in the Paris catacombs. Owen Wilson starred in their 2015 thriller “No Escape.”
But “Waco” is their highest-profile project to date, with a cast that also includes Melissa Benoist (“Supergirl”), John Leguizamo (“Carlito’s Way”) and Emmy winner Camryn Manheim (“The Practice”). It is helping to launch the new Paramount Network, which has taken over the slot in cableland formerly occupied by Spike TV.
“I respect and trusted them,” said Kitsch.
Koresh led a community of Branch Davidians, an offshoot of a splinter sect that once was part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and that foresaw a violent confrontation preceding the second coming of Christ. The group began stockpiling weapons at a compound near Waco, Texas. Ten people were killed in a gun battle when federal agents tried to arrest him, leading to the 51-day siege in 1993.
Kitsch manages to make Koresh both sympathetic and scary, winning over skeptics by making them each feel like they were the only people in the compound who mattered. “I had an amazing time,” he said of his work with the Dowdles.
David Thibodeau, a Branch Davidian who survived the ordeal and whose book inspired the Dowdles’ script, also lauded the brothers for creating a fun atmosphere despite the gloomy subject matter.
“They always had smiles on their faces,” Thibodeau said. “They’re just people you really want to get to know, to put on your Christmas card list.”
Minnesota Nice isn’t the only tool the Dowdles applied during their four years of developing the project. John Erick noted that their home state and rural Texas have more in common than you might think.
“There’s a similar pride and can-do attitude — ‘We’re going to do things our way,’ ” he said.
Another Minnesotan, Dennie Gordon, was enlisted to direct the two episodes that John Erick didn’t direct himself. She also sees a comparison between the Branch Davidians and people she knew growing up in Robbinsdale.
“Some of my people were farmers and I have an enormous respect for people who work off the land and choose to live off the grid,” said Gordon. “You have to respect that desire for freedom and independence.”
During the interview process, Gordon brought in stills from other films to show the kind of cinematic look she had in mind. One shot was from the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men.” To her amazement, the brothers also had pictures from the film hanging on their office wall.
Folks often ask the Dowdles if they live together, a natural assumption seeing how comfortable they are together. But John Erick (who is married) and Drew (who’s single) have distinct personalities dating back to their childhood. While John Erick was leafing through Rolling Stone magazine, his younger brother was poring over Sports Illustrated.
Still, the two maintain adjacent offices in Los Angeles and normally spend at least six hours a day talking to each other.
“Whenever Drew leaves town and I try to leave him a little space, my wife starts saying, ‘I can’t wait until Drew comes back because you won’t shut up,’ ” said John Erick.
The two fantasize about filming closer to where they grew up, a realistic possibility. They’ve written a pilot script for a series based on “In the Lake of the Woods,” a Minnesota-set novel by award-winning author Tim O’Brien, who grew up in Worthington, Minn. O’Brien, who was heavily featured in Ken Burns’ recent “Vietnam War” documentary, has given the script a thumbs-up and Michael Shannon is in discussions to star.
The Dowdles said they quizzed Joel Coen about his experiences filming “A Serious Man” in the Twin Cities.
“He said it was tricky,” Drew said.