Louis Theroux: ‘I don’t want to just run up to Scientology and punch it on the nose’

In Louis Theroux’s first movie, he casts actors to play the parts of Tom Cruise and Scientology head David Miscavige, dramatises some of the church’s reputed practices, and visits Scientology HQ. Did he realise what he was getting into?

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

My Scientology Movie (2015)

My Scientology Movie (2015)

London’s Dianetics & Scientology Life Improvement Centre and the BFI’s headquarters may seem worlds apart, but they occupy the same corner of the capital – around the bottom half of Tottenham Court Road. Witnessing the hostile means by which Louis Theroux is repelled from the Scientologists’ Californian compound in his new documentary has got me wondering whether the British branch would be any more accommodating.

“If you went down there,” Theroux tells me, “and said ‘I’m curious about you’, they’d say ‘Come on in, we can really help you. Would you mind filling out this questionnaire? It could really help you in your life and when we look at the results we can recommend some courses.’

“‘L. Ron Hubbard’s a brilliant, brilliant man’” – this is still the hypothetical Scientologist speaking, Theroux is at pains to clarify – “‘and based on his teachings we could structure a series of things for you that would amazingly improve your ability to communicate, make you have better relationships in your private life, do better at work and be happier and more successful.’

“Now, if you went in there and said ‘I want to do a story on you’ – different reaction. I don’t know what would happen but I expect they’d say ‘Talk to our communications office’, and then it probably wouldn’t lead anywhere.”

Scientology’s silence

This media blackout by the church presented Theroux with a unique challenge when it came to making My Scientology Movie. David Miscavige, Scientology’s mysterious and controversial leader since the death of Hubbard in the 1980s, rarely gives interviews, and Theroux says that church members must seek sign-off before speaking to the press.

His project began with a tweet to his then million-plus followers asking for input into his prospective film from any practising Scientologists. The silence that followed was deafening. Instead came friendly warnings to be aware of what he was dabbling with – and to lawyer up.

“Can you imagine if I’d asked that of Catholics or Muslims or Buddhists?”, Theroux asks. “You’d have hundreds of thousands of people saying ‘My mate’s a Buddhist’ or ‘I’m a Buddhist, I’d love to speak to you about it.’ But Scientology was dead quiet, and I think that tells you something.”

It was Simon Chinn, producer of Oscar-winning docs Man on Wire (2008) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012), who first approached Theroux with the idea of making his debut theatrical movie. It was Chinn, too, who first mooted the idea of Scientology as its subject. A Louis Theroux topic if ever there was one. But how to do it if Theroux’s usual up-close-and-personal strategies are off-limits?

“Almost everything I do has the contributors on board and then it’s about access being granted and going in,” he acknowledges. “[Having no access] seemed to me an insurmountable obstacle.”

The making of a meta-movie

My Scientology Movie (2015)

My Scientology Movie (2015)

Then the idea of re-enactments came to him. He would cast around in Hollywood for actors to play both Miscavige and the church’s most famous disciple, Tom Cruise. The actors would rehearse transcripts of the pair’s rare Scientology interviews or on-stage appearances at the church’s Oscar-night-like ceremonies. They would also dramatise some of the brutal scenes and disciplinary practises that are alleged to have taken place in a bunker known as ‘The Hole’ at Gold Base, the church’s international mission control in Riverside County, California.

For consultancy, coaching and even stage direction on this film-within-a-film, Theroux’s Scientology movie depended on the input of Marty Rathbun, an ex-Scientologist who for more than a decade was inspector general on the top tier of the church’s hierarchy – a kind of superintendent in strong-armed spirituality.

“I was trying to get my head around how the re-enactments could be something more than a stunt,” Theroux says. “Because re-enactments can be quite cheesy.” He says that watching The Act of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary in which perpetrators of the Indonesian killings of 1965-66 gleefully re-enact their past atrocities – was a light-bulb moment.

“When I saw The Act of Killing, I thought, OK, if the contributors are first-person participants in what took place and they are absolutely on board with bringing the re-enactments to life – because [Indonesian gangster] Anwar Congo owns those re-enactments; you can see how thrilled he is to be co-directing them – if Marty comes on board and believes in the re-enactments and pilots them more than I do, then they could work.”

Rathbun also appears in Alex Gibney’s 2015 Scientology doc Going Clear, though more as a talking head than as a character study. Conversely, Theroux finds an open but often prickly protagonist in Marty. Without access to the current higher echelons of the church, it is he who becomes the focus of those first-person excavations for which Theroux is so famous.

“Rathbun doesn’t want to be interviewed about Scientology,” Theroux continues. “He came on board because we said we were going to do it with re-enactments – that part appealed to him. The bits where I’m questioning him, you can tell that he found that a bit onerous.

My Scientology Movie (2015)

My Scientology Movie (2015)

“Marty left Scientology, but Scientology hasn’t totally left Marty,” he adds. “He’d probably disagree with that and resent that I’ve said that, but I think you can still see those bullish, contrarian and wilful qualities in him that were such an asset to Scientology, and you see how he uses them against me. He’s so obstinate or self-possessed in the way he confronts me about what I’m doing, and that provides a lot of texture in the film. There’s a bit of artifice and archness in this technique of using re-enactments, it could risk being a bit frothy, but Marty grounds it both by getting totally involved, and because his relationship with me feels very honest and real.”

On dangerous ground

The restagings and this contact with lapsed church members reveal something of Scientology’s spirit, but Theroux can’t resist trying to get closer to its heart. One of the film’s edgiest moments comes when he drives out to Gold Base in an attempt to deliver a response to a threatening letter he’s received from Miscavige’s lawyers.

In one of several surreal encounters in which the church turns its own cameras on Theroux and his collaborators, he is aggressively turned away. Theroux’s cameraman films Scientology’s cameraman filming them, as a bemused policeman attempts to mediate. Theroux returns on another evening to casually show one of his actors Scientology HQ, and gets an equally antagonistic response – this time with nightfall and the compound’s perimeter floodlights adding further creepiness.

My Scientology Movie (2015)

My Scientology Movie (2015)

These incursions feel like Theroux gleefully prodding the sleeping giant, but it’s not his style to simply go looking for a fight. “I don’t want to just run up to Scientology and punch it on the nose and then see what happens,” he remembers telling a colleague early on.

“In fact, it’s in the DNA of what I do: relationship-building and trying to see human qualities in people who have been caricatured or seen as slightly cartoonish figures, whether it’s porn actors, wrestlers, criminals, gangsta rappers, neo-Nazis. They’re all people who are seen in very broad brushstrokes. By going in and seeing them in a slightly more nuanced way, or seeing that the dark things they do come from a source that’s relatably human – that’s what I’m about.

“It seems reasonable to me to get an exterior shot of a church headquarters,” he explains. “It seems reasonable to ask questions about the nature of a religion that’s fairly high profile. Even if they say no, it still seems valid to compose a documentary about it. Then the fact that they get upset about it, it’s really on them.

Marty Rathbun’s footage of being accosted at the airport by a group of Scientologists

“Having said that, of course I knew that they’d be annoyed by it and probably come after me, and there was a part of me that was looking forward to that, if I’m totally honest,” he admits. “But the key for me was that it shouldn’t absolve us of the right to behave reasonably.”

Letters of the law

Theroux was prepared for a certain amount of fire back from the church and its legal team. He even hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on himself, in order to get a headstart on any attempts to smear his name (Google ‘Alex Gibney’, and you’ll find websites dedicated to discrediting the Going Clear director).

“You should see how much correspondence came from both the lawyers for Scientology and from David Miscavige’s personal lawyers,” Theroux says. “Letter after letter. Just reams of very forthright legalese, which must have been unbelievably expensive for them to produce. It boggles the mind to think of all the donations that were being made to Scientology – this is supposed to be a religion, right? – but then the money is put towards threatening legal letters. If I were a Scientologist, I think I’d have a bit of an issue with it.

“That’s their MO though,” he explains. “One of the fascinating things about Scientology is that they believe in fighting fire with fire. They don’t believe in turning the other cheek. If they think you’re the enemy, their scripture dictates that they come and confront you and, in their words, ‘shatter’ you.

“Sounds painful, doesn’t it?”

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