We talked to the iconic BBC documentary filmmaker about his unique approach to profiling Scientology.
In the United States, most people who see Louis Theroux would likely look right past him—a lanky brown-haired brown-eyed guy donning a beard, glasses, and a warm smile. But after our interview at a NYC restaurant concluded, a quiet British couple sitting next to us jumped out of their seats to take a selfie, later gushing to me about their unbridled excitement having actually seen Louis Theroux. He may be a documentary filmmaker, but in England, he's practically a rock star.
For Theroux's new film, My Scientology Movie—the latest in a career that's found him profiling Nazis, the Westboro Baptist Church, porn stars, and late British TV personality Jimmy Savile—he had to take a different approach, knowing he wouldn't be able to use his typical strategy while covering the elusive, journalist-hating Church of Scientology. He had to be creative. So he told the story of the church's controversial leader David Miscavige by having actors recreate some of the more disturbing anecdotes offered by ex-Scientologists. Along with footage of being stalked by Scientologists, Theroux is able to give his audience a glimpse into the life of church members without infiltrating their lives outright.
VICE: What made you decide to film this movie in such a unique way?
Louis Theroux: That was one of my inspirations. When I realized I wouldn't be able to do my normal thing, we had to rethink and strategize. One of the most fascinating things about Scientologists is the way they attack people they perceive as enemies. If you're trying to depict yourself as a normal or ethical group, you've got to realize that turning up to film any reporters trying to cover you looks really odd. So I figured we could rely on the idea that they'd be filming us—but beyond that, we needed something else to wrap the film around. Then, the idea of reenactments came up—a film within a film. When I saw The Act of Killing, it made me realize how reenactments could work as emanations from the contributors themselves. They weren't my reenactments—they were the reenactments of the ex-Scientologists, and they needed to drive them.
The film not only comments on Scientology's relationship with Hollywood but on filmmaking in general. It reveals the raw side of making a documentary, from talking openly about filming b-roll to Marty Rathbun constantly complaining about repetitive questions.
One of the scenes I like is when we do the drill [the iconic Scientology "tech" practices]. Marty seems to enjoy the whole process of taking charge of this flock of young actors and imparting the bits of Scientology practice that he still regards as valuable. He thinks that he's really doing something that will be psychologically useful for them.
In the end, when I say, "Can we applaud L. Ron Hubbard?"—because in my head, we're doing a slight reenactment—he stalks off. You get that feeling—which is some of my favorite material in documentaries in general—that the wheels have come off. Someone says, "Fuck you," the set wobbles, and the mic drops down. You hear them on the mic: "I'm fucking done with this shit. Go join the cult of Louis Theroux if you want to." There's an electricity to that kind of material, where it's slightly going awry. When [Rathbun] is like, "Your questions are fucking insipid and repetitive. Ask me a real question," he's basically saying, "You're a bullshit journalist, and I'm sick of you." That crackles with the quality of real life.
After filming this movie, you made a BBC documentary revisiting your relationship with Jimmy Savile. What inspired that decision?
I made this documentary [profiling Savile] in 2000, which, at the time, was highly watched and well regarded. I felt like I did a good job. I stayed in touch with him and continued to check in with him occasionally. Then, after he died, to find out he'd been a serial sex offender of such a prolific sort for so long was a huge realization. It was very upsetting. Almost as soon as I heard about what he'd been doing secretly, I began thinking, How do I deal with this both personally and in a professional way? Do I owe it to myself, and also to his victims, to attempt to figure out how I was unable to see it?
On a personal level, do you think it was difficult to make?
Yes. I would say so. I was having to look into the worst kind of acts—child sexual abuse. You're grappling with material that's upsetting, but also the guilty party was someone I knew and had some affection for. It's one thing to keep that at arm's length—I've done documentaries about pedophiles before a couple of times—but it's so different when it's someone you know.
Are there any subjects that you want to take on next?
Loads. I think R. Kelly would be a fascinating documentary. I'm a fan. I think he's a brilliant musician, singer, songwriter. I find his whole style and sense of humor very appealing. Obviously he's had his share of ups and downs... I don't know if he'd ever agree, though.
You do a lot of work in America. Why do you choose the United States specifically?
I think there's so much going on here. There's this interesting dynamic between the two countries, where British people slightly look down on and then slightly look up to America, as having more money and more glamor, but maybe, in their view, being less sophisticated. There's a shared language; there's enough shared culture to create rapport and even be a slightly exotic friend that's visiting from overseas. But there's enough difference to make these really interesting—it's the world's only superpower at this point. It's a cradle of freedom and opportunity, but in other ways, also nearly ravished by crime and dysfunction and filled with extremes. It makes for good stories.
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