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This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Amy Berg’s sex abuse exposé An Open Secret isn’t the only new documentary likely to ruffle feathers in Hollywood.
THR has learned that Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) is putting the finishing touches on a film that tackles the Church of Scientology and its Tinseltown tentacles. HBO, no stranger to controversy, having ushered such hot-button docs as The Case Against 8 and the Paradise Lost trilogy to the screen, is eyeing a 2015 airdate for Going Clear, which is based on Lawrence Wright‘s controversial book that was also exclusively excerpted in THR.
HBO long has championed documentary filmmaking. It commissioned the Scientology project nearly two years ago, right after the book’s January 2013 publication, when frequent collaborator Gibney brought it to the network. The film, which is expected to feature new revelations about the controversial religion and its famous followers Tom Cruise and John Travolta, almost certainly will draw an aggressive response from the notoriously litigious church.
“We have probably 160 lawyers [looking at the film],” says HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins, who is bracing for protests as well. If the doc is finished in time, it likely will be submitted to the Sundance Film Festival in January.
This is not the first time HBO has tussled with the Church of Scientology. When the network aired the 1998 documentary Dead Blue: Surviving Depression, throngs of protesters converged in front of HBO’s midtown Manhattan headquarters, lambasting Nevins and the company for presenting antidepressant drugs in a positive light (Scientologists are opposed to psychiatry).
“I didn’t see what [antidepressants] had to do with Scientology until I worked on that film, until I saw these people outside the building,” recalls Nevins in an interview. “I thought they must be a union protest. But it was our film they were protesting. They’re so anti-psychiatry, anti-medicine and anti-Freud. It was really quite interesting.”
But are a throng of HBO lawyers enough to combat the church’s legal arsenal? Wright’s Going Clear, which stemmed from his 2011 New Yorker profile of filmmaker and former Scientologist Paul Haggis, prompted an all-out offensive from the church. The book’s U.K. publisher, Transworld, dropped Going Clear from its lineup on the advice of its lawyers. The title, which was a National Book Award finalist in the U.S., never was published in the U.K.
Nonetheless, HBO and Gibney (UTA, Cowan DeBaets) aren’t inclined to back down, having taken on other powerful organizations in the past including the Catholic Church (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God) and the U.S. military (Taxi to the Dark Side). And though Wright says he has received threatening letters from lawyers representing Hollywood Scientologists, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author is prevailing in the battle of wills. Thanks to HBO, his story of physical abuse and imprisonment within the church now will reach a much wider audience.
Says Nevins, “And this time, we’ll be ready.”
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