A Camera Standoff With Scientology

When the Church of Scientology threatened Louis Theroux, as he attempted to make a documentary about it, he turned the ensuing cat-and-mouse game to his advantage. The result is a reflexive work dotted with reenactments of events in Scientology and its psychological regime of horrors.

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Marty Rathbun and Louis Theroux in a scene from 'My Scientology Movie.'
Marty Rathbun and Louis Theroux in a scene from 'My Scientology Movie.'Credit: Will Pugh
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

NEW YORK – “HBO apparently had 140 lawyers, and I think we had two,” BBC presenter and documentarian Louis Theroux answers succinctly when asked about the difference between his new documentary feature, “My Scientology Movie,” and Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” which premiered on HBO last year to critical acclaim.

Over and above the budget disparities, the very titles of the films reflect a substantive difference between Gibney and Theroux. “Prison of Belief” is an ambitious project that purports to expose the emotional manipulation of one of the world’s oddest religions in two hours of in-depth interviews and clipped cutting. Whereas Theroux’s “My Scientology Movie” is a wild – and successful – experiment documenting how the attempt to make a film about the Church of Scientology became a reflexive work that blurs the boundaries between documentaries and feature films.

Theroux, who made his name in a series of BBC documentary films and TV specials in which he starred, is an Emmy-award-winning British-American documentarian and journalist who has more than 1.5 million followers on Twitter and a rich resume that includes long hours spent in the company of some of the most despised and isolated communities in the world. Among them: pedophiles doing prison terms, American neo-Nazis and an American family that is raising its young daughters as “white supremacists.” Together with his obsessive fondness for far-out subjects such as sexuality, racism and addictions, Theroux is known for his polite but disarmingly polite style. He may look like an overgrown version of Harry Potter, but beneath the sweater and the British courtesy lurks a bulldog who is quite capable of sinking his fangs into an interviewee when he least expects it.

In an interview held in New York to mark the Israeli premiere of “My Scientology Movie” on Friday at the annual Docaviv Festival, which opened on Thursday night in Tel Aviv and is on through May 28, Theroux makes frequent use of a technique that he has raised to the level of an art form. Gazing at me empathetically and inquisitively, he starts to answer a question and then pauses and asks, “But what do you think about that?” It’s a highly effective tactic, so much so that it’s easy to forget that I’m here to interview him and not to tell him about childhood traumas or analyze political developments in the Middle East.

Louis Theroux on the 'My Scientology Movie' set.Credit: Will Pugh

On the “Louis Theroux spectrum” between Israeli settlers and white supremacists, where would you position Scientology?

No sooner did Theroux tweet that he wanted to interview Scientologists, than threats of lawsuits were launched at him. But that was only the beginning.

“On my weirdometer?” Theroux laughs. “There is no formalized scientific scale for measuring outlandishness or weirdness. I need to develop one. I don’t even think it’s a spectrum, or even from naught to a hundred – more like a color map. What’s fascinating about Scientology is not so much that many of the beliefs are so outlandish, although they are. It’s the way that it is contextualized in Hollywood with Tom Cruise and branded in a sort of corporate setting and corporate style. I remember someone saying to me, ‘What’s the big fascination with Scientology?’ Members of other cults, like Heaven’s Gate, for example, all killed themselves; there was a UFO cult in the 1990s; Zen monks beat one another as part of their discipline. So in many ways other religions or cults are far more extreme. But what you don’t understand is that this is an American religion that is styled almost like a navy, that uses a McDonald’s-type business model to sell a science fiction writer’s works. In other words, it’s touching about 10
contradictory cultural nodes at the same time: capitalism, fame, the Hollywood star system, to give but a few examples.”

You are famous for gaining access to some of the world’s most notorious communities, but in this case all your interview requests were denied. As a result, “My Scientology Movie” is a documentary about the inability to make a documentary. Why did you decide to go ahead, knowing you would never be able to interview Scientology leader David Miscavige and his people?

“I definitely did not want it to feel like an ‘in search of’ documentary. It was a leap of faith, but I thought there was a good chance that the church would come and start investigating us. I did have encounters with Scientologists. They weren’t formal interviews, they were more like bizarre roadside encounters. I felt like that’s different, it feels real and fresh.”

The brilliant idea by Theroux and director John Dower – to let the Scientologists pursue them instead of the other way around – proved a highly successful gamble. No sooner did Theroux tweet that he wanted to interview Scientologists, than threats of lawsuits were launched at him. But that was only the beginning.

One of the most powerful and disturbing scenes in “My Scientology Movie” shows unplanned meetings between Theroux and Scientology devotees who were sent to keep him under surveillance and make their own documentary about him. The project quickly becomes a nutty and funny cat-and-mouse game between Theroux and intimidating men equipped with cameras, or an anonymous woman who screams at him in the middle of the night that he is trespassing by driving on a private road, even though it’s obviously a California freeway that is not owned by Scientology. Theroux goes on to film the nameless cameramen who are documenting him, and a bizarre dance develops between them: Theroux takes out his smartphone and sashays forward, as the cameraman (who refuses to identify himself or say whom he’s working for) takes a step back. “Swan Lake” meets “Big Brother” on an L.A. expressway.

From 'My Scientology Movie.'Credit: Nick Kokotakis

From this point of view, “My Scientology Movie” recalls other documentaries that succeeded in transforming the limited access to the subject they wish to explore from a drawback to an advantage. Standout examples are Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” (in fact, Moore enabled Theroux’s breakthrough into the public consciousness thanks to the regular slot the American documentary filmmaker gave him on his “TV Nation” series in the 1990s) and “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’ 2014 documentary, which includes remote shots of secret areas under the control of the U.S. National Security Agency.

In contrast to Moore, who made himself the protagonist of his films and gained fame for his aggressively provocative style, Theroux responds more creatively to the impossibility of interviewing Scientology officials. Thus, the bulk of the film consists of reenactments of key scenes in the religion’s history. To realize this fantasy, Theroux held auditions in Los Angeles, cast a charismatic young actor named Andrew Perez as Miscavige, and tested dozens of actors for the role of Tom Cruise, the No. 1 true believer and a close friend of the spiritual leader.

“I sort of felt like we could use our actors to get back into that time and place mentally, so we won’t feel like we’re missing the story,” Theroux explains. He adds that, although he never gained access to Miscavige himself, “former Scientologists like Mark Rathbun turned out to be amazing subjects and presences in the film.”

‘A tricky moment’

Tom Cruise.Credit: Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP

Rathbun, who’s known by the nickname “Marty,” is in high demand as an interviewee: He held senior positions in the Church of Scientology for 27 years and was Miscavige’s right-hand man until he left in a storm in 2004. Since then, he’s spent most of his time telling the world about Miscavige’s abuse, and verbal and physical violence. Gibney treats Rathbun’s testimony as gospel, but Theroux serves up a far more complex and problematic individual. Theroux responds in the affirmative when I ask him whether Rathbun has seen the film, and adds, “He likes some of it, and some of it he doesn’t like. Which is kind of a good reaction I think, and a reaction you would expect from Marty.”

Did he ask you to delete any of those scenes? For example, when you ask him whether he had an active part in the many instances of mental and physical abuse he now condemns, and he angrily snaps at you.

“No, he had no editorial control. In the Alex Gibney film, Marty is just a sort of conventional ‘talking head.’ In this film we ask him to be part of the process, so he’s almost a casting consultant. He writes a script that Andrew relies on at the end. It’s a quite complicated role for him, yet at the same time I constantly question his reservations, which most of the time he was up for. I’d have been disappointed if he was 100 percent happy with the film.”

Theroux befriends his subjects, and then, having gained their confidence, catches them in a moment of weakness and asks an astonishingly direct question.

Theroux’s diplomatic reply notwithstanding, the tempestuous argument between him and Rathbun reveals the secret of Theroux’s charm – but also raises ethical questions that are inherent in his approach. After decades of investigating cults, fringe cultures and weirdo groups, Theroux has made an art of feigned pretense. He befriends his subjects, talks to them about dark desires, burning passions and intimate relationships, and then, having gained their confidence, catches them in a moment of weakness and asks an astonishingly direct question that exposes the internal contradictions in their belief system.

In the case of Rathbun, Theroux seems to wait for the moment at which he is particularly shaken and vulnerable – a few minutes after a group of senior Scientology officials arrived on the set in Los Angeles and began directing sharp accusations at him, not least that Theroux was paying him “to sell out the truth and your child.” Rathbun, who tells Theroux about the incident in the hope of finding a shoulder to cry on, is stunned to discover that Theroux is taking advantage of his state in order to question him about his dark past in the organization. Theroux says that he is “not particularly proud” of what he did, even though he knows it is a “meaningful scene.”

Let’s talk about the similarities between Scientology and documentary filmmaking. I’m thinking about your relationship with Marty: You pretended or seemed to be a good friend, someone who cares about him, and then when he was most vulnerable, you decided to push him over the edge, which you could have done on many other occasions. Do you see a similarity between that and the way Scientology tries to bring people to a place of vulnerability, familiarity and friendship, only to then break them down?

“To be fair, I didn’t charge him any money to do this,” Theroux replies with a smile. “I had asked that question many times, and Marty just batted it back. I think this was the only moment where I got a genuine reaction, the moment when he was at his weakest. Yes, I think it’s right to identify that as a kind of sensitive area in the film, and when I look at it, it still makes me a little uncomfortable in the way it’s received. In the screenings I’ve been at, there is a sort of tension in the room at that point.

“To be honest with you, I still do not know how I feel about that in terms of whether I was right to ask that question. I think you can see that right after I ask it, my reaction is that I sort of wish that I hadn’t asked it. He says, ‘You’re a fucking asshole, that’s a fact, go fuck yourself,’ and I say ‘Alright, I consider myself fucked, now what do we do? How do we move on?’ So it was a tricky moment, but that question has to be asked. In the other Scientology films, we have to take everything these guys say as gospel, but hang on – you were in there for 20, 25 years.”

You and others have been targeted by the church. They tracked every step you made, threatened to sue you, managed to close a public expressway and even sent a woman in a bikini to spy on you. Did you ever feel intimidated or consider the risks you’re taking?

“I think it’s a case of not being intimidated and not being afraid to stand up and tell the truth. In the end, it’s up to people to sort out their own destiny. The FBI conducted an investigation, and after a year or two they decided there was nothing to be gained by raiding the headquarters of Scientology, because the feeling was that if they broke into the base, the followers would all say that they had willingly taken part in whatever was going on. These things are very hard to prove or document.”

Andrew Perez as Scientology leader David Miscavige in 'My Scientology Movie.'Credit: Will Pugh

Perez, too, had to cope with mental pressure in his effort to portray Miscavige credibly. He had to “abuse” his followers, smash objects on the table and intimidate other actors in a scene that reenacts the derision to which Rathbun and others were subjected when they started to call the church’s tenets into question.

“I was trying to be as ethical as possible, in the sense that you don’t want to judge the character you’re playing," Perez says. "That’s the audience’s only chance to get a truthful point of view. Obviously I’ve never met David Miscavige, though I’d have loved to talk to him. But I definitely wanted to act on his behalf. I thought it was my duty not to judge or demonize him.”

In addition to the regime of psychological horrors, Scientology makes systematic use of famous actors to draw new believers to the church.

According to “My Scientology Movie,” the secret of the religion’s attraction lies in the leader’s psychological and performative dimension. All the world’s a stage, and there is less difference between Miscavige and Tom Cruise than is generally thought. Accordingly, Theroux’s film focuses on Scientology’s manipulative training methods, which are actually not significantly different from the methods used in some acting schools. The new believers are asked to relate childhood memories and to talk about repressed anger and moments that frightened or shaped them.

As Rathbun demonstrates on camera, the training is based on the use of a kind of improvised lie detector, made of two cups and a needle. At one point, he screams at Theroux and the actors, imitating the way Miscavige yelled at his followers to immunize them mentally from enemies, and strengthen their belief. An actress playing an enthusiastic devotee of the cult also tries to “break” the tough documentarian by means of a series of emotional manipulations in the style of “Your wife is now in bed with your best friend and they’re having fantastic sex.” Despite, or because of, their primitive character, these methods are surprisingly effective.

‘Miscavige isn’t going to die’

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.Credit: AP

In addition to the regime of psychological horrors, Scientology makes systematic use of famous actors to draw new believers to the church. The founder himself, L. Ron Hubbard, launched “Project Celebrity” in the 1950s, offering prizes for members who recruited famous people. Similar initiatives were successful in the decades that followed. Over the years, celebs such as Cruise, Juliette Lewis, Elizabeth Moss, Priscilla Presley and others have acknowledged that they are believers.

“Miscavige and Tom Cruise share some disturbing similarities,” Theroux says. “I think Miscavige is a charismatic speaker, and he’s also powerful. The way he projects himself in those speeches is as someone people can get behind – someone whom Tom Cruise himself has often emulated. I heard he based his role in ‘A Few Good Men’ on a Miscavige impersonation. If you look at Cruise’s interviews, you can very easily see those influences in the degree of confrontation with whoever he is speaking to. They both communicate very directly, with very forward energy, confident. I think those are the values that they valorize as a church.”

What will happen after he dies?

“David Miscavige? Well, first of all, he probably isn’t going to die.”

Okay, sorry, when the visceral vehicle in which his soul resides will no longer be of service to him?

“I don’t know. I would suspect the church will fall apart without him, what’s left of it. But it’s very hard to speculate, since they were able to build an impressive global infrastructure that could be sustained even without Miscavige.”

How do you think Scientologists who see the film will react?

“I think it depends on their degree of commitment. One of the things we try to be clear about is there are people in the Sea Org [referring to the church’s most dedicated members] who are absolutely, totally committed – they’re diehard Scientologists – and then there are people who are just public parishioners. People, I suppose, like [film director and screenwriter] Paul Haggis was in his time.”

And Cruise?

“Tom Cruise is a little different because he’s deeper in and is so close with Miscavige. He’s almost quasi-Sea Org. I think there are guys on the periphery who would think the film is pretty fair-handed and reasonable. But I think that Sea Org members – who won’t be allowed [by church leaders] to see the film – would regard it as not very nice.”

In the months ahead, Theroux will be promoting “My Scientology Movie” at film festivals. He has also finished shooting a new series of television specials. One episode, “Drinking to Oblivion,” which follows alcoholics in Britain who are drinking themselves to death, was broadcast by the BBC last month. Asked about the difference between television and cinema, he replies that for him the major difference lies in the scope of the research and the subject.

“This is different, this is me in a different mode,” he says of the full-length documentary. “I’m more of a protagonist in this. It’s me on a journey, it’s much more multi-layered. You’ve got elements of archive which I don’t typically use in my TV work. You’ve got actors, you’ve got devices like the reenactments. You’ve got a journey with Marty. It feels more ambitious. It gives me a bigger journey to go on, in a sense, and a greater role to play in the unfolding of the narrative.”

John Dower, Louis Theroux and Andrew Perez.Credit: Neta Alexander

At 45, Louis Theroux, whose father is the noted American writer Paul Theroux, is continuing a splendid family tradition of world travels. Like his father, he is endowed with generous quantities of curiosity and boldness and a healthy sense of humor. In 2010, he came to Israel to make a film about West Bank settlements for the BBC. Titled “The Ultra Zionists,” the 60-minute film depicts, among other themes, meetings with settlers and members of the extreme-nationalist Ateret Cohanim group in the Palestinian village of Silwan, which abuts the Old City of Jerusalem (“60 Jews amid thousands of Palestinians,” in Theroux’s words), with “hilltop youth,” with members of the Jewish settlement in Hebron and with soldiers who are using tear gas to disperse demonstrators in the Palestinian village of Bil’in.

In reply to a question, Theroux says he’s not sure when he may be back in Israel. “I would very much like to go back to Israel,” he says, “but I have no specific plans. I heard they signed a peace agreement and it is very harmonious now.”

Yes, all our problems have been solved. But maybe you could make a film about urban gardening or yoga retreats.

“Yes, it could be refreshing to focus on something positive. Then again, what do you think?”