Oct 18, 2015

My Scientology Movie by Louis Theroux: 'I felt like I’d been blooded'

The Guardian
Louis Theroux
October 14, 2015

Not counting the brand of Sunni Islam practised by the so-called Islamic State, there is probably no religion in the world that comes in for more flak than Scientology. It is, if you believe the TV shows and tabloids, the “weird religion” non-pareil: a bizarre and greedy cult that sees ex-members fleeing its allegedly ultra-controlling clutches; family members supposedly prevented from seeing each other because one of them has been “declared suppressive”; Hollywood stars reportedly blackmailed into remaining in the church via the threat of having their sexual secrets revealed.

Only last week came news that Cathriona White – Jim Carrey’s ex-girlfriend, who killed herself with a prescription drug overdose in September – had been a paid-up Scientologist and had recently been taking one of the church’s Survival Rundown courses. (I paused on reading this, wondering about the relevance of White’s faith to her death – anyone can be subject to depression; but Scientology advertises itself as the world’s leading authority on mental health, and in fact actively discourages church members from seeking non-Scientology-based psychiatric care.)

I’ve always been fascinated by Scientology – intrigued by its status as a 20th-century religion (founded by a colourful, self-mythologising science-fiction writer), and oddly beguiled by its glossy promotional videos. It’s an unlikely combination of religion, science, spirituality and a Fortune 500 corporation. Leaving ethical questions to one side, there is something wonderfully American about an organisation that uses the business model of McDonald’s to sell enlightenment and salvation. True believers of Scientology seem to know with utmost certainty that they have found the answer to the deepest riddles of all time – they may or may not be right, but that kind of self-belief is very appealing.

The church is a gold-plated example of something I’ve tried to make a central theme in my documentaries: well-meaning people making decisions that might look bizarre to the outsider, but making them for very relatable human reasons.

Over the years I’ve made repeated approaches to Scientology’s gatekeepers to be allowed inside, and repeatedly I’ve been turned down. The first was in 2003, when we got as far as being toured around the church’s Celebrity Center in Los Angeles – an Admirals Club Lounge for its spiritual frequent flyers and VIPs. But ultimately, that bid fizzled. To be honest, I don’t think the church ever saw my kind of documentary as the ideal outlet for them. But I never broke faith with the idea of doing something, and in 2011, when producer Simon Chinn (Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man) came to me with the idea of making a 90-minute feature, and mentioned Scientology as a subject, I began thinking seriously about how a non-access-based documentary might work.

With director John Dower (Thriller in Manila, Live Forever) on board, we brainstormed ways of telling the story of the church in a non-traditional way – without a predictable roundup of interviews with lapsed Scientologists intercut with archive and cheesy re-enactments – but also avoiding the rather tired formula of an “in search of” journey featuring me hanging about in lobbies and bothering receptionists.

We did have one possible foothold. While Scientologists almost never give access to the church (since 2011, when spokesman Tommy Davis left his job, they haven’t even put spokespeople up for interview on news shows), they can be relied on to provide a kind of “negative access” – in that they have a habit of tailing, filming, questioning and investigating those who do stories on them.

This kind of attention is both highly revealing – in what is says about the confrontational mindset of the dedicated Scientologist – and also rather entertaining. Committed Scientologists believe that – thanks to the efforts of their founder, L Ron Hubbard – they are in the blessed position of having all the answers to all the important questions that have plagued humanity for millennia. This, on the one hand, is exciting news: for the first time in the history of civilisation, we have foolproof ways of eradicating crime, war and insanity (and even of recovering memories from past lifetimes and acquiring superpowers); but it does also mean, by extension, that if you dare to suggest that some of those answers might be mistaken or dangerous, you are in their eyes at best deluded, and worst probably a “suppressive person” – and should be confronted and “shattered”.

So we thought we could count on the Scientologists trying to “shatter” me. But in a sense this was the easy part: the tactic of documenting the Scientologists’ “handling” of perceived critics has been a staple of docs on the subject for many years, with an honourable mention going to the 2007 Panorama film in which reporter John Sweeney was tailed and pursued and ended up going shouty-crackers during a visit to a Scientology museum.

The hard part was making our film more than a litany of accusations from a procession of “disgruntled and embittered apostates” (the church’s preferred phrasing for its unsatisfied customers). Indeed, there is a community of ex-Scientology and anti-Scientology activists, writers and bloggers for whom the supposed basic evil of official Scientology is such an article of faith that they have ended up taking on a worldview that, in its own way, is just as Manichean as the one they oppose.

In the end, we took our inspiration from the showbusiness trappings of Scientology itself, using actors and re-enactments to recreate alleged events and church practices on soundstages in Hollywood, guided by the recollections of ex-members, who helped to direct the scenes. In part, this was simply a visual way of bringing people’s memories to life. But it soon became clear that the re-enactments would also allow me to question and probe those former Scientologists’ versions of events.

I had recently seen The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary in which Indonesian genocidaires re-enact their crimes. I began to feel that using Hollywood techniques to re-enact scenes – of Scientology practices, and also of alleged abuse – might give us a chance to explore questions of culpability, and that it could end up being a kind of therapeutic role-playing for the ex-Scientologists.

In essence, the documentary became a film about me trying to make the re-enactments. If you think that sounds a little odd, I don’t blame you. It did to me to begin with. And it was only after shooting a first scene, in which I attempt to cast the role of church leader David Miscavige – with the help of one of Scientology’s most prominent defectors, Marty Rathbun – that I realised how it could work. Around 30 young actors showed up and took turns reading lines and doing improv in the role of Scientology’s volatile and unpredictable pope. Seeing how Marty – at one time a close colleague of Miscavige’s – bounced off the actors, and how it took him back to a particular time and place, was a revelation. In the process, he revealed aspects of Scientology’s belief system, its practices and his participation in it.

As filming went on, we held further auditions: we cast an actor to play Tom Cruise, then took a small band of young players through a Scientology boot camp, with Rathbun as drill sergeant, before ambitiously recreating the scenes of abuse that Rathbun and others have said took place behind closed doors in the upper echelons of Scientology. (The church denies abuse took place and refutes most of the other negative characterisations of the ex-members.)

The Scientologists’ strikeback started about two months into filming. I had begun worrying that the church might have given up counter-investigating. I’ve never been so relieved to have an unidentified pair of people show up and start filming me in a random creepy way from across the road. After studying the subject for years, watching countless YouTube videos of Scientology handlers filming critics and journalists, it felt amazing to be on the receiving end myself: I felt like I’d been blooded.

A torrent of letters from Scientology lawyers also began pouring in. The gist of them was: 1) By talking to ex-members, you are creating a skewed picture of our church (conveniently ignoring that we would have been happy to talk to active members, but none were forthcoming); and 2) Would you do this to Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury? (Answer: Yes, if 20 or more ex-colleagues were alleging that they had either seen or been on the receiving end of his physical abuse.)

I won’t give readers chapter-and-verse on the whole film and how it builds to its climax: those interested can buy a ticket for that. I’ll just say that, now it’s all wrapped and done, I’m massively proud of it – for its creativity and the way we took an idea that might have been gimmicky and gave it moral and emotional depth.

But I’m especially proud that we transcended the us-and-them paradigm of so much Scientology coverage. In the past, I’ve tried to show the human side of people involved in stigmatised or misunderstood lifestyles. I’ve tried to resist easy judgments and not pander to prejudices. That’s relatively straightforward when you have access – you just have to get to know the people at the heart of the story, which usually means getting to like them; and once you like them, you can add subtlety and a human connection to the material.

Without access, though, it’s trickier. I tended only to meet the Scientologists in charged settings – when they were filming me, or ambushing one of my contributors, or accusing me of trespassing. It’s surprisingly hard to be nice to someone when you feel they aren’t being nice to you. But we strove to be fair to Scientology. I tried to see the world from their side. And there is much to admire in Scientology: the dedication of its devotees and the world-changing character of its vision. We also questioned the motivations and credibility of our ex-Scientologists, who, it is always worth remembering, were signed up to the Scientology programme for years, and sometimes decades, before deciding to leave.

And so the picture that began to emerge was more nuanced than the one you usually see: Scientologists as soldiers for an idealistic vision of a better world; and Scientology critics who were flawed and occasionally unreliable.

Not that I don’t still fundamentally have an issue with Scientology – or rather, the orthodox Scientology that’s practised under the auspices of Miscavige. I’ve come to believe that many of the accounts of him as an unpredictable and volatile figure are true. There is something very troubling about a church leader (“Chairman of the Board, Religious Technology Center”, to give him his official title) who appears to be accountable to no one. And there is something very narrow about a worldview that fails to see that we can learn from our critics; that we can make mistakes; and that no one person or organisation has a monopoly on truth.

But I also see Scientology as not so different from other religions: a set of beliefs and practices that, at their very heart, are mysterious and have to be taken on faith – and which, for that reason, can be life-giving and offer people hope in ways that reasoning and logic cannot.

• My Scientology Movie is at the BFI London film festival on 14 and 17 October, and on wider cinematic release soon.


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