We Talked to Louis Theroux About Visiting a Trap House

We spoke to Louis about his new trio of films, legalizing weed, and accidentally playing matchmaker for the Westboro Baptist Church.
October 2, 2017, 4:00pm
Photo: BBC

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

On the October 8, English documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux returns to our screens with a new trio of films called Dark States. Within them, he explores heroin addiction in Huntington, West Virginia; sex trafficking in Houston, Texas; and murder in Milwaukee. A slam-dunk trio of harrowing misery it may seem, but in true Theroux style, he seeks to find human stories amid the seemingly inhumane backdrop.

The first of the three to air is Heroin Town, a sobering look at the impact of heroin that has ravaged a community in West Virginia. Theroux spends time with addicts—watching them shoot up, finding overdosed bodies in the street, and coming across people who the paramedics don't get to in time.

I spoke to Theroux about the three films, the history of his own work, and what the future may hold.

VICE: In one of these new films, you cover drug addiction. You've also made a film about crystal meth and one on medicated kids in the past—what's the attraction to the subject?
Louis Theroux: All the stories I'm most interested in have to do with the mind or emotion; the themes of people sabotaging themselves or making choices that, from the outside, appear misguided. So you can't really get more self-sabotaging, arguably, than being a drug addict—but then, at the same time, there's this allure to the lifestyle. Then you have issues that go deeper than that—social, cultural, and economic forces that take people into the depths of what appear to be a dead-end lifestyles. I think there's something about being with someone who is making a disastrous choice, but at the same time, they seem to be intelligent, emotionally present, likable, and relatable. Also, specifically, there were elements of the crystal-meth story that I felt we could develop more and improve on by delving further into the lifestyle. The challenge with this was to go deep into the community of substance users. This film also speaks to the scale of the phenomena, as it's taking place in America at the moment. In Huntington, it's just an ever-present problem, stumbling over heroin users and people shooting up. The whole community has been decimated by it.

The film is as much an exploration of legal prescription drugs in America, as it points out that an overwhelming majority of these heroin users are using it to replace a pain-killer addiction they can no longer feed. What are your views on Big Pharma in the US and its potential role in aiding such widespread drug addiction?
It's funny that you mention the medicated kids film because I did that after the crystal meth one and it was an eye-opener to the way in which we overemphasize the problem of illegal drugs and tend to be more blasé with the problems of legal drugs. That prefix—legal or illegal—plays a huge determining role in how we view these different substances, but in many instances, we're talking about virtually the same thing: one legal and one illegal, but the same chemical, or near as damn it the same. There's no question that there is a misguided policy of rolling out opiates for relatively trivial pain issues in large quantities. There are huge consequences for people who otherwise would never be susceptible to addiction. I'm glad that comes across, because that definitely is the story, and also in a way that intersects with a community that has a background of high rates of workplace injuries and disappearing jobs. When you stick all those things together, you have this huge epidemic of addiction that seems to spare almost no one.

Is it on your mind when you're going into these sorts of communities to avoid simply making so-called poverty porn?
Definitely, yeah—even more so when drugs are involved. Whenever I make a film about drugs, I remember Brass Eye and the episode about drugs: Shatner's bassoon, Joss Ackland's "Spunky Backpack," etc. So I always think, How do we avoid those clichés of: Here's another serious man talking about someone who is shooting up? In the end, what I try to do is be present in the scenes and dissolve the barrier between them and me. One of my favorite scenes—and the most exciting in the film—was when we drive to a trap house and we're there to score heroin, and we sort of just let the scene unfold, and we were there in a very natural way. I think also it's important to let scenes breathe and to not frame the contributors simply as victims. They aren't specimens under a microscope; they are people making all sorts of difficult choices for complicated reasons.

What were your experiences of drugs growing up? Did you dabble or find yourself a part of anything resembling a drug culture?
I basically smoked weed. That was my recreational intoxicant. Just relax a little bit and smoke a blunt, that was me. I'm in favor of legalizing cannabis; I think, by most barometers, you'd have to say it's less harmful than alcohol.

"I remember just thinking, Wow, he's going to snap my neck. He was ex-Army, too, which suggests that he might actually know how to do that."

How have you been welcomed into these worlds and communities? On the surface you may simply appear, to some people, to be a white, wealthy, middle-class TV personality—are you ever met with resistance or suspicion?
It's hard to know how I'm viewed by contributors. I know that, for the most part, they don't view me as the guy on TV, which is the reaction I often get in the UK. I think in America that's generally helpful, as I'm more of a blank. Yeah, I'm white, and I'm middle class, but I think more than that, to an American; I'm British, I'm a foreigner—but a familiar foreigner from merry old England, the country of Mr. Bean and Downton Abbey and the Queen. It feels like quite a safe thing for them. That said, I recall being in Milwaukee, and the media was viewed with suspicion. We arrived in the wake of a police killing where there had been several days of rioting. One guy from a local paper had been beaten up by a mob of people. So there was an anger directed toward the media as a whole that they weren't telling the right story and that they were victim blaming so that one was occasionally an uphill battle.

Do you look for people to latch onto who will have your back in situations like that?
Well, we do the legwork upfront and get inroads. My director will fly out and spend weeks out there before I come out. In Milwaukee, we were welcomed by someone who was a community activist, but she had also killed someone and done time for it in her teens. She had an amazing arsenal of weaponry in her home, which she wasn't shy about showing us, and she lived on one of the most crime-prone blocks of Milwaukee. Every time we went there it seemed that guns were going off, or there had been a shooting the previous night. But she projected a real sense of welcoming, and how friendly she was with us made a big difference; it gave it a human dimension.

Over 20 years of making films, you've spent time with murderers, rapists, pedophiles, Nazis, and sex traffickers. Has there ever been a moment in which you've felt true fear or been in a situation that you felt you weren't sure you could get out of it?
Knock on wood, I've largely been quite lucky. The situations that have been the most frightening tend to be off camera because you haven't reached that trust level where you feel comfortable starting to film, or the situation has broken down to the point where you no longer feel comfortable filming. One of the most nerve-racking moments I had was doing the alcohol documentary, Drinking to Oblivion, and we were in an apartment in south London. There was a guy that was mentally ill and another guy who seemed emotionally unstable. We were going to shoot a sequence, but it became clear that this was not going to go well, and the mentally ill guy was going, "I'm not having that fucking camera anywhere near me," so I said, "It's fine, we'll just quietly go," then one of them put their arm around my neck as though to choke me, and the other one said, "Oi, if anyone's going to do him, then it's going to be me," and I remember just thinking, Wow, he's going to snap my neck. He was ex-Army, too, which suggests that he might actually know how to do that. I don't remember how we got out of there, and not a frame of film was shot. I got out and thought, That was ridiculous. It's one thing to be on location in the West Bank or Lagos and to feel nervous, but the idea that I was going to meet my dreary demise in a social housing estate in south London, close to where I grew up, just felt all wrong.

You've revisited a few subjects in your films over the years, such as the porn industry, the Westboro Baptist Church, and Jimmy Saville. Is there any other subject that you would like to return to?
I'm guilty of being overly interested in my own stories. I pitched an idea of doing a magazine-style update show in which I go and catch up with various contributors. There's a guy called Alan from the show I did on gambling in Las Vegas, and he was a high roller and lost more than $200,000 in one weekend when we followed him. I then heard on social media that he was an Uber driver, having presumably lost his fortune. So I like the idea of stories moving on and how they alter people's lives massively. Very often, you find out when you leave people that their story doesn't move on that much, but occasionally it does, and I was curious about catching up with Alan. Maybe one or two of the kids that we saw transitioning in Transgender Kids, too. I really wanted to catch up with Hayley from the film I did about the brothel years ago. I wrote her a letter and sent it off into the ether, but I've heard nothing back. Some people have died, though; that's how long I've been doing this—my contributors are dying.

Given you keep track of what people get up to after you film them, is there any particularly odd or interesting examples of where people have ended up?
There was one guy who had watched my first film on the Westboro Baptist Church, a British guy, and wanted to join them and ended up flying out and marrying one of the contributors from that.

Wait, he watched that documentary and wanted to join the church?
Yeah, he thought, These guys are talking a lot of sense, and then got in touch with them. He started doing little pickets around Norwich or somewhere, a little one-man picket. They got in touch and said, "Look, buddy, don't be doing them over there—come out here and do them properly with us." He ended up marrying Jael Phelps, and they have a baby together. There was also one guy from my Miami mega jails film called Robert Shaw, who was threatened with death row, and he charmed so many of the female viewers that watched the show that he was inundated with fan mail and seems now to have a number of girlfriends who write and call him from the UK. I have quite mixed feelings about playing matchmaker like that.