Here’s how Louis Theroux baited members of the Church of Scientology into following him: He started following them. The British journalist probably best known on these shores for his documentaries about the Westboro Baptist Church (The Most Hated Family in America, America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis) says he set out to discover a “different, more positive side” to Scientology when he embarked upon his project over 10 years ago. When it was clear that his access would be limited only to ex-Scientologists like Marty Rathbun, Theroux and director John Dower changed course to stage a series of reenactments a la Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 doc The Act of Killing. Using the accounts of ex-Scientologists and a cast of actors, Theroux and Dower recreated things like the alleged abuse by Scientology head David Miscavige toward members of his church in the compound at Gold Base known as “the Hole.”
While poking around outside said base in Gilman Hot Springs, California and other Scientology properties, Theroux and his crew attracted the attention of Scientologists, who alongside hired “journalists” and private investigators, started showing up where he was making his Scientology reenactments to turn their cameras on him. That was all according to plan, Theroux told me this weekend in an interview. “My dream was that they’d come after me,” he said.
The Kaufmanesque absurdity is captured in My Scientology Movie, which is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. I talked to Theroux, Dower, and Andrew Perez, who plays Miscavige in the film’s reenactments. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation is below.
Gawker: How does the finished product of this movie compare to your conception of it?
Louis Theroux: It’s very close to what I would have dreamed of making. As much as I say my dream was to get inside the church, there was a part of me that understood that was never going to happen. It’s in the DNA of Scientology that they don’t trust journalists. L. Ron Hubbard wrote that journalists are—and I may be wrong—something like 1.1 on the tone scale, which if you’re a Scientologist, that’s the same as what they call “perverts,” which I think means gay. In other words, if you’re a journalist you’re by definition a deviant. So you’re not going to invite a deviant to come and see everything you do from the inside. Once that’s given, you have you accept you’re going to take an unconventional narrative approach. It was more than 10 years ago that I made my first approach. In the intervening years, we evolved this idea of using actors. To me, that flipped the whole thing around in a wonderful way. It’s become something that gets you inside but in an unconventional way. And my dream was that they’d come after me. That was my fear: Maybe they don’t do that.
On one hand, the church seems conniving and savvy, but they played right into your hands, giving you “negative access,” as you called it in The Guardian, by showing up to watch you thus allowing themselves to be captured on camera.
Theroux: They can’t do otherwise because it’s part of their dogma. They are required to aggressively confront “suppressive” activity. Even if someone said, “You know what? We kind of look weird and it doesn’t do anything for our public image when we turn up at airports and confront ex-members out of the blue randomly and hurl weird abuse.” But they would think, “It doesn’t really matter if it looks weird—that’s what we do.” It’s like saying it looks weird when [Muslims] pray on a rug and put their foreheads down and point to Mecca. It’s just how they worship, so it doesn’t really matter if it looks weird.*
The use of the word “suppressive” strikes me as ironic, because of how suppressive Scientologists can be to naysayers. That terminology is basically projecting.
Theroux: A lot of it is projection, and a lot if it is, in a sense, having an us-and-them view of the world, and then kind of manifesting that. If you dub the world your enemy, then you will turn it into your enemy.
Various reviews have called you out for saying in the movie that your initial impulse was to find a “different, more positive side of Scientology.”
Theroux: That struck me as well.
Dower: There’s been another film made about Scientology while we were making ours, we were conscious of it. I think the Gibney film, Going Clear, is very much campaigning against Scientology, and even if that film hadn’t been made, it’s not the kind of film we set out to make, especially not the kind of film Louis makes, anyway. He wants to understand why people get into something like Scientology. Because we take a more… “balanced” probably isn’t the right word, but a nuanced approach, some people are like, “Because you’re not saying it’s terrible, you’re advocating it.” We’re clearly not, but…
Theroux: It’s odd. I think people are so immersed in the anti-Scientology mindset by consuming tabloid media and stories about space aliens. It’s baffling. When I say I want to see a more positive side of the church, all I’m saying is I want to get past these headlines that talk about aliens and Tom Cruise jumping on a sofa. It doesn’t feel to me in any way faux-naive or tongue-in-cheek.
Dower: I don’t think you can conclude at the end of our film that it’s a good thing. It has some deeply troubling aspects to it.
Because there’s no evidence in the movie of a moderate Scientologist, I wonder if they in fact exist. Media portrayals of Scientology, including this movie, generally involve raving lunatics.
Are there reasonable people with world views that can acknowledge the existence of a panoply of beliefs that happen to be Scientologists?
Theroux: It’s a good question. “What’s true for you is true,” is a Scientology precept, so it’s this weird contradiction. Whether there are Scientolgists who can say, “This is our way, your way is just as valid”... I mean, even the Pope seems to say that from time to time. He said atheists could get to heaven. It doesn’t seem like a big ask for a Scientologist to say something like that.
Theroux: The reasonable ones were, I think, less interesting to us. The central question for us is the point at which acceptable religious practice tips over into intolerance. Another example of your projection remark is the big abuse term amongst Scientologists for their critics is that they’re “bigots.” They use that one a lot. It seems to me that the suggestion someone else is being intolerant speaks more to the sense in which Scientologists are intolerant of other practices.
Has your opinion on Scientology changed? The movie, as you say, is about nuance. We already have most of the information that the movie provides; it’s a film that is more about what Scientology does to people than what it does.
Theroux: I agree. I compare it to Titanic. When that came out, we knew the ship was going to sink. We know we’re going to arrive at a point where something will be revealed, we probably know the broad brush strokes of what will be revealed. We just don’t know the personalities, the characters, and how they go on the journey—Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, and in this case me and Marty [Rathbun].
I don’t know if I learned a lesson, but what I came out with is this heightened sense of confusion, which I think is sometimes helpful, and ambivalence about religious belief in general. The paradoxes of subscribing to faiths, which by their nature, are irrational. All religions are in some basic sense irrational. And how you separate that from becoming toxic or dangerous. In important ways, Scientology is not that different from other religions. And yet at the same time, we don’t have Anglicans doing the things that are alleged to be done in Scientology, at least in the Sea Org. So what do we do with that? What would a Scientology reformation look like? At what point can Scientology be acceptable to the broader public while at the same time still be Scientology? That question has been brought into focus, even if the answer isn’t given.
The level of patience you exhibit in this movie must come from innate character. Does the work you do tease it out of you, or have you always known yourself to be patient?
Theroux: That’s always been in my makeup, whether good or bad. I’m not a naturally confrontational person, to be honest with you. I save that for my family and my kids. Sometimes people who’ve seen my programs say, “How do you keep cool?” I don’t really have any impulse to be angry for the most part. I can bring the case and be a journalist about it, but I don’t find it that natural to get in a huff about stuff I’m debating. Having said that, this was a unique case for me.
Dower: There were moments that felt out of your control.
Theroux: Any time someone turns up to film you and they say, “I’m not gonna tell you who I am,” or shouts at you, telling you to leave, it’s no longer someone doing something weird to someone else. I had a fight or flight response, but in a basic way for the first time. I felt a little bit heated, like, “I’m having an emotional reaction, that’s interesting.” When their film comes out, there might be a few bits I look at and think, “Maybe I didn’t totally keep my cool.”
So they’re putting together a movie from the footage that we see them shooting in your movie?
Theroux: I’m sure they will put something together. I don’t think it’s going to be a 90-minute movie at the multiplex. Judging by what they’ve done in the past, it will be a sort of 10- to 20-minute kind of little webisode.
Was there any point when making this was scary? Louis, you seemed to enjoy yourself, mostly.
Andrew Perez: I didn’t know we were being filmed [outside of the Hole when a man started shouting at him and the crew to leave]. What I really was thinking was, “That guy seems like he’s in a Lars von Trier movie”: “Get out now!” I was a little startled by him barking at us out of the blue. There was a period when we were filming and a Scientology private investigator would show up on set with a camera, they would be filming us.
Theroux: I don’t think it was a private investigator filming. There were Freedom journalists, I’m not sure if they were Scientologists, but they were journalists employed by Scientology. And then the other time, they were Scientologists.
Dower: I was never scared, but I was quite anxious. I think they were following us for a few days before we realized they were following us. The fact that they would park around the corner from the hotel, you do start to think, “What if they come into the hotel room and just take our rushes?” That was the thing I was worried about—what’s to stop them popping over the balcony if they knew what room we were in. We were hiding separate drives and rushes in our room. If they take that, then they’ve really got the movie.
Theroux: In general, they obey the law. That’s my take. Leaving allegations of what takes place within the Sea Org to one side, their M.O. is to hire lawyers and private investigators and do things like search through trash, which is legal. Although didn’t one wander onto the set?
Dower: Yes! And picked up a script—allegedly. That’s not legal.
Theroux: How do you know they came onto the property?
Dower: Because they were challenged by our P.A.
Theroux: Did he say, “Please leave?”
Theroux: And they left?
Dower: Yes, but they took one of the scripts. [The P.A.] saw them do that.
*Note: Theroux sent in a note of clarification: “I didn’t mean to suggest it’s weird that Muslims pray on a rug btw - just that it’s intrinsic to the religion.”