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A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The Church of Scientology really doesn’t want Alex Gibney to win an Oscar for his documentary Going Clear.
Since the film — a scathing critique of the controversial church and its celebrity adherents, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta, based on Lawrence Wright‘s best-selling book — won three Emmys in September, the filmmaker says he has been the subject of an increasingly hostile harassment campaign that has included a Scientology-backed “documentary” and outreach to members of the Academy’s doc branch, the group that selects the Oscar contenders.
“In the last few weeks, Scientology has dramatically ratcheted up its corporate campaign against me and those in the film,” Gibney tells THR.
The church has begun making its own film about Gibney and has reached out to several of his peers in connection with a planned profile in a Scientology magazine. Oscar nominee Rory Kennedy (Last Days in Vietnam), who, like Gibney, is a member of the Academy’s documentary branch and sits on the organization’s board of governors, says she recently was approached by a man who requested an interview about Gibney in connection with the Emmy wins. Kennedy says the man, who identified himself as Joe Taglieri, also separately contacted her husband, documentary writer Mark Bailey, and requested he participate in an article. Taglieri did not disclose his Scientology connection, although he has written for the Scientology magazine Freedom. “In this context, to not say [that he wrote for Freedom] was disingenuous, and I thought something was suspect,” says Kennedy. “He definitely had an agenda.”
Rinder, who appears in ‘Going Clear,’ was heckled at a Florida screening of the film.
Other members of the Academy’s documentary branch who have been contacted by the church include producers John Battsek (Searching for Sugar Man) and Jon Else (The Day After Trinity). While Taglieri did not initially identify what outlet he was writing for, when asked, he said he was a freelance writer working on a piece for Freedom.
Karin Pouw, a spokesperson for the church, acknowledges that “Freedom has been reaching out for some time for a piece about Alex Gibney’s propaganda film.” But, she says, “this has nothing to do with the Academy.”
Indeed, Scientology has been battling Wright and then Gibney since before the Going Clear book was published in 2013. But as the film has won accolades and taken on a trajectory toward Oscar consideration, the animosity has ramped up, and there has been increased aggression at public events where Gibney and the subjects of Going Clear have spoken. (The film, which received an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run this winter before airing on HBO in March, was rereleased in theaters in September, though church pressure contributed to at least two Florida cinemas refusing to show it.)
On Sept.?28, Gibney was entering the Linwood Dunn Theater in Los Angeles for a talk about his career to the International Documentary Association when a man named Randall Stith approached and told him he was making a movie about him. (According to IMDb, Stith has directed two films: Dead Wrong: How Psychiatric Drugs Can Kill Your Child and Making a Killing: The Untold Story of Psychotropic Drugging. Scientologists adamantly oppose psychiatry and its associated medication.) Stith stayed for the screening of Going Clear, after which he, Taglieri and another Scientologist, Norman Taylor, spoke out during the Q&A session against Taylor’s ex-wife and former Travolta handler, Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, who appears in the film.
White was found with Ambien, Percocet, Propranolol and Zofran in her L.A. home.
“What is clear to us in all of this is that Alex Gibney can dish it out, but can’t take it,” Pouw says. “He’s exceptionally thin-skinned to the point where he tried to censor and shame anyone criticizing him at public events. One would think a documentarian would be more tolerant and open minded.”
At an Oct.?2 screening of the film at the Muvico?10 in Palm Harbor, Fla., less than 30 minutes from Scientology’s spiritual headquarters in Clearwater, a heated exchange took place during a Q&A with former high-level church members Sara Goldberg and Mike Rinder, both of whom appear in the film. Goldberg’s ex-husband and another Scientologist entered into what moderator Mike Deeson calls a “screaming match,” aggressively attacking Goldberg’s and Rinder’s personal lives and saying people in the audience should visit FreedomMag.org to find out more.
“It’s really pretty bizarre to me that they just keep doing this crazy stuff that is such a clear-cut demonstration of the veracity of both Larry’s book and Alex’s film,” says Rinder.
Pouw counters that the church can’t comment on the actions of its individual members, “any more than you can assign to the Catholic Church the protest actions of any Catholic who feels strongly about an issue.” She acknowledges Norman Taylor, whom she calls “a prominent Los Angeles lawyer,” attended the L.A. event and challenged Gibney on why the filmmaker did not “check with him to confirm the lies” Spanky Taylor told in the film.
The increased hostility comes at a tenuous time for the Church of Scientology, which, in addition to dealing with Going Clear, is in the spotlight for its association with Cathriona White, a 28-year-old Irish makeup artist and girlfriend of Jim Carrey who died of a suspected suicide Sept.?28. White, who was found with pills — including Ambien, Percocet, Propranolol and Zofran — had been active in a Scientology-sponsored “Survival Rundown” therapy program, and several mysterious guards were present at her home in the days following her death (though they were gone when THR visited the home Oct. 6). According to former Scientologists, the “SRD” therapy can be destabilizing.
White and Carrey were an on-and-off couple until her apparent suicide.
“The purpose of some of those processes is to learn the ability to be controlled and to control others,” says Mark Headley, an ex-Scientologist who says he is familiar with the techniques. “You’re being indoctrinated into how to do this.” (Scientology has denied any connection between the church and White’s tragic apparent suicide.)
As Gibney and Going Clear make a run at an Oscar, the stakes are perhaps higher for Scientology. If Gibney wins and is given a worldwide stage on which to speak out against the church (with Travolta, Cruise or other Hollywood Scientologists possibly sitting in the audience), it would be a public relations nightmare for the church and its leader, David Miscavige.
“The church of Scientology stakes a claim on Hollywood, and so it’s not surprising that it would be threatened by the possibility that that community would examine the church more closely,” says Wright. “That’s what I think is causing the more feverish attention to the documentary.”
For this reason, Rinder believes the actions by Scientology members against the documentary are being “at least approved, if not dictated” by Miscavige himself.
“I guess their intention is to intimidate or to get people to think that they should be afraid of speaking out,” Rinder says. “But honestly, I think they have exactly the opposite effect.”
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