British Scientology Doc Maker Discusses Taking on the Church (Q&A)
Louis Theroux says he was aware his life could "get turned upside down" in making 'My Scientology Movie,' which premiered at the London Film Festival.
Just a few months after Alex Gibney’s Going Clear added a few kilograms to the outgoing mail of the Church of Scientology’s lawyers, another documentary prying into the religion’s affairs is set to kick the hornet’s nest once more.
Louis Theroux, the British broadcaster known in the U.K. for fronting a series of BBC TV documentaries for almost two decades, has taken his almost trademark non-confrontational yet powerfully disarming and frequently hilarious style of filmmaking to the big screen for the first time, with the Church as his subject.
My Scientology Movie, which had its world premiere at the London Film Festival on Oct. 14 to superb reviews, sees Theroux speak to various ex-Scientologists, including former senior executive and "Mister Fixit" Marty Rathbun, while recreating famous interviews with church leader David Miscavige, but using actors to make up for the complete lack of access. The move sees him soon become a target himself, with cameramen — revealed later to be employed by the church — recording his own activities in the U.S. and his interviewees harassed in public, all of which is included in the documentary.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Theroux about his fears about taking on the church, his relief upon seeing Going Clear and what he’d say to Miscavige should he be invited for a cigar on his veranda. [The Church did not respond to a request for comment on his claims.]
Of all the subjects that you’ve covered over the years — Ultra Zionists, Neo-Nazis and the Westboro Baptist Church, for example — did you have any fears that Scientology might be the one that would come back to haunt you, given how relentless the church can be in pursuing those who speak against it?
Absolutely. I’m well acquainted with coverage that’s happened in the past and that it has sometimes led to journalists being investigated by Scientologists. But where possible I go into subjects looking for a win-win. I’m not a sociopath, I’m a journalist. There is a difference. Most of the time I’m able to make shows where I get access and tell the truth without alienating or upsetting the people I’m with. Clearly, with Scientology, I was aware that that was a less likely scenario. Partly because the access wasn’t there, but also because they are notoriously sensitive to anything they perceive as criticism. So I didn’t just want to wantonly and gratuitously attack them. I needed to figure out if they’re saying, "no, don’t cover us because you’re a trivial tabloid-style journalist," and what’s my reason for saying, "I’m going to do it anyway." But I was aware that my life could get turned upside down if they did aggressively come after me.
Are there any skeletons in your closet you’re worried they might unearth? There was a famous doc in the U.K. with shamed PR guru Max Clifford where he got you in the papers for visiting a strip club with him. Surely Scientology is an altogether different beast?
I had shades of the Max Clifford doc in my head, which of all the things I’ve made was probably the most stressful because he sort of used my celebrity such as it is against me and I felt he was playing dirty. So I felt this could happen again. It could still happen. So far, I’ve been tailed by PIs, I’ve had people filming me that I later learned were Scientologists but at the time refused to identify themselves, and I had my contributors harassed and abused verbally. So I’ve had all that, but it’s felt manageable and in a weird way quite enjoyable because we’ve been able to document it and put it in the film. But if that were to continue I’m sure it would start to get very old. Do I have skeletons? I think everyone has skeletons and everyone has things that they wouldn’t want to have read in the papers about them. So that’s a bit worrying, but until it happens I’m trying not to lose sleep over it.
How long did it take for the legal department to go over the film?
Gosh. Quite a long time. We were finishing it off while the legal stuff was going on, but then we’d sort of felt like we’d wanted to finish it and legal stuff did slightly delay the edit. The minute we got our first letters [from the church's legal reps], in the middle of last year we referred them to our lawyers. So you could argue that it’s taken over a year of legal. Once we were in the edit, we showed it to them and there were conversations about what we should say, what we were required to say, the BBC right to reply process, which is partly legal but also related to the BBC’s reputation for impartiality.
Have you had any interaction with the Church since the screening?
One of my policies has been just to try to be as open and candid and as magnanimous as possible in our approach to the subject and to the way we release the film. We’ve always had an open door policy, insofar as that any Scientologist who wanted to talk to us I thought should be involved. As it happened, there came an offer for them to get involved at a point where we were done with the editing, but I don’t know whether it was in good faith or not. There was a guy on Twitter who I knew to be a Scientologist, who I followed and I think he followed me back. He’s a prominent British Scientologist and I happened to meet him and he said he was interested in seeing the film. I arranged for him to get a ticket but then when I emailed him asking if he was coming along he didn’t get back to me. He’s sort of gone a bit quiet on me.
Do you know if he’s seen it?
He was at the screening. Some other people saw him there. I got reliable reports that he was there. Whether there were others, I don’t know. Maybe there were. I try not to be paranoid. I don’t want to talk about Scientologists as though "oh my goodness there could be one here now"... like reds under the bed.
You’re hoping to get a U.S. theatrical release. Are there any fears that once there the response from Church could escalate?
Gosh, I hadn’t really thought about that. I guess America’s bigger, so it would be more cinemas, a higher profile. So would the reaction from the church be bigger? I think it would be.
Have you seen Going Clear?
Yes, I have. I'm a fan of Alex Gibney. Taxi to the Dark Side is one of my favorite documentaries and the Enron one I liked a lot. So I always knew that I’d enjoy it. What I was reassured by when I saw it was that I sort of felt that it did leave room for us. I was aware when we were making it that he was making his — which, naturally made us, as a production, think a lot about what we could do differently. Occasionally, I felt like Captain Scott getting to the South Pole weeks after Amundsen and seeing the Norwegian flag already there. But I don't think the analogy is that apt because what we’ve done is attempting to do it my way, and he did it his way. His way is a kind of advocacy journalism, it’s a polemical approach, which is totally valid. And ours is more of a character study and also looks into some of the comical sides of it while doing justice to the serious stuff as well. It’s subjective; it’s My Scientology Movie — a first-person account of my attempts to grapple in an open-minded way with this much discussed and rather controversial religion.
You revealed a few months ago that you’d heard – via your lawyers – that the Church of Scientology was planning to make a doc about you. Do you know what’s happened to it?
I’m not being glib about this, but I think they’re still working on it. They’re probably running it by their legal department to make sure it’s not defamatory about me. But I fully expect it to be released. But onto the internet let’s say, perhaps not into cinemas. But I wouldn’t be the first person they’ve done this to. I think there’s a little film they did about Gibney. They may be doing another one. They did a video about Marty Rathbun, who features in our film. Calling them documentaries is perhaps a little overgenerous. I guess that’s subjective in it’s own way; they are kind of moving images with sounds and voiceover. But they’re very short, about 10-15 minutes. For the Marty Rathbone one they were alleging that he was abusive and psychotic and interviewed people anonymously who would say that they’d been beaten up by Marty and stuff like that. I can’t imagine what they’re going to do on me. Whether they’d actually interview people who I’ve worked with and find things like, "he farted and then left the room." I hope it is that.
You often do follow-ups with your subjects a few years after the first encounter. Would you do another doc on Scientology?
If they do make this documentary about me, it would be nice to somehow fold that into the bigger picture, so possibly as extra material. If Scientologists ever come to a screening and ask questions in a confrontational way, or are angry about what I’ve done, it would be nice to somehow make that part of the story. But that would maybe lend itself more to an article about the experience. But in the future, if they ever opened the doors — I think it’s unlikely but not outside the realms of possibility — I think at that point everything changes.
So if you were to get, say, 30 minutes with Miscavige, what would you say to him?
You would have to address the allegations of abuse. I don’t think he’d be saying "come and smoke a cigar on my veranda and we’ll drink whisky and play Backgammon." I think he’d say, "You’ve got half an hour in a room, set your cameras up and I’ll come in and answer your questions." I don’t think he’d ever do that, but if he did I would say, "How do you explain why there are more than 20 ex-members who worked closely with you who allege that they were either on the receiving end or witnessed physical abuse?" That would be a good opener. Do you think that would make for a polite and jaunty mood?
How has your opinion of the church changed since you started out making the film?
My goal in making these programs, making programs in general, is always to try to see the human side of people who have been in someway misunderstood or viewed as controversial. And in a sense that was the case here, which is a lot harder to do because we weren’t literally inside the walls of Scientology itself. But I still think we managed to do it and I think we came to understand what Scientology is in a deep way and how it causes ordinary human beings to behave in extraordinary ways.
Where do you go next after Scientology? Wouldn’t anything else seen tame, almost vanilla by comparison?
I don’t know. It's definitely is a wonderful and fascinating and very colorful story. In terms of religious stories, maybe that is as far as you can go down a dirt road. But having said that there are other areas of life that I’m interesting that take you in a different direction. I’m interested in criminal justice, in sexuality ... I’m also interested in extreme nationalistic stories with a racial dimensions. So I think there’s still stuff out there.
But is there anything that has the same level of mystery as Scientology?
My mind is naturally going to the Freemasons and the Vatican, but to be honest with you I don’t think they do have the same mystery. I think they have slightly more banal mystery, if that’s not a total contradiction. What else has that sort of mystery? Ideas welcome ...