What Led Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright to Confront Scientology With 'Going Clear'

Alex Gibney Lawrence Wright - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Alex Gibney Lawrence Wright - H 2015

The Oscar-winning director and New Yorker writer, author of 'Going Clear,' sat down with THR's Janice Min to talk about their fascination with the church, the dangerous genius of L. Ron Hubbard and the time Scientology cured a case of hemorrhoids.

A day after Alex Gibney's Going Clear was shortlisted for the 2016 Oscar nomination for best documentary, the filmmaker and Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book behind the film, sat down at N.Y.C.'s 92nd Street Y to talk about the allure of Scientology — both as a subject of investigation for their own work and as a powerful belief system for its followers. The discussion was moderated by Janice Min, co-president/chief creative officer of the Entertainment Group of Guggenheim Media.

Gibney was asked to address the church's strong accusations that in making the film, he had embarked on a witch hunt to discredit a religion that like most others has an "embellished" origin story.

"They must be suppressive people," Gibney joked before then quoting the words of Spanky Taylor, a former Scientologist featured in the film." 'It's not the creed, it's the deed,' " Gibney said, pointing out that it's possible and necessary to separate the stories and belief systems of a religion from their "how they're exhibited in the real world in terms of the human rights abuses that we've seen — the physical abuse, the way that they destroy families through a process called disconnection."

He then went on to draw a parallel between the mission of Going Clear with that of Mea Maxima Culpa, his 2012 doc about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: "You can separate the belief system from the practices that are pernicious and hateful," Gibney said, citing his investigation of the Catholic Church.  You know, there are many people who identify as Catholic. I myself was raised Catholic, but that doesn't mean that, um, you need to endorse the rape of children by priests."

It was in fact working on that film that inspired Gibney to finally take on a project about Scientology. "I had been offered this project many times — it sounds like kind of a punishment in a way — but I had turned it down," Gibney said. "But when I read Larry's book, the thing that intrigued me the most was the idea of the prison of belief — the idea that when you're self-imprisoned — the cell door is open, but you don't leave. In that state of belief you can do the most appalling things that you would otherwise consider reprehensible, but you do them because under the banner of belief, you believe it's somehow OK. I had just come off that film about the Catholic Church, where I was interested in this process called noble cause corruption — the idea that in the service of a belief, you allow yourself to do terrible things." The connection was compelling to Gibney, and he decided to take on Scientology.

When it came to the appeal of the Scientology itself, and the appeal of L. Ron Hubbard, who Min pointed out was an essentially "irredeemable" person, both Gibney and Wright were somewhat gentle in their assessment of the followers and founder of the church.

Gibney pointed to the perceived and sometimes very real results of the therapeutic component of Scientology, saying that the auditors in the Church functioned essentially as therapists. "In Scientology, very often people come in off the street and they're told it's an applied philosophy. It's not a religion at all, it's just something that might make you feel good."

Wright was even a little bit sympathetic to the personal struggle with mental illness of Scientology's founder and acknowledged his brilliance as a storyteller. "I don't want to give the impression that I hated L. Ron Hubbard as a person," said the writer. "I think in many respects, he was remarkable. … But I think he was mentally disturbed and he knew it. He knew that he needed help. He at one point wrote to the veterans administration asking for psychiatric assistance and there's no evidence that he got it. I think he wrote Dianetics [Hubbard's best-selling book that was foundational to Scientology] and then later created Scientology as a form of self-healing."

Wright acknowledged that Scientology provided a kind of relief for some: "A Scientologist told me that he had a terrible problem with hemorrhoids," Wright said. "And it seemed to be tied to the military. He had been in the service and if he watched a military parade or a war movie, he would have an outbreak. So he got audited, and learned that during the Civil War, he was a boy and he a friend climbed up in a tree and a patrol came by, and as they came by, a limb cracked and then fell down and a soldier shot him in the ass, and he fell down dead. He said he hadn't had an outbreak since then because he had traced it back to this past life experience. … It's amusing to us, but to him the important thing was that he had lived before … and this was precious news."

"Going back to Hubbard," Gibney said, "I think one of the reasons that he was so remarkable was that he had a mixture of motives." Gibney pointed out that Hubbard's second wife alleged that he had created a religion to make money because it was a sure way to avoid paying taxes.

"And yet flash forward to close to the end of his life and he believes that there are couple of pesky thetans inside him that can't be expunged." He asked a fellow Scientologist to turn up the electricity on an E-meter (a device that Scientologists believe allow one to see their thoughts) to a level that would electrocute him. The other man didn't oblige, "but that gives you a sense of how the person who was running a con turned out to be conned by his own religion."