Louis Theroux is arguably the greatest documentarian of his generation. As his investigations into alcoholism and brain injury hit our screens, Jordan Bassett talks to him about his extraordinary career
What made you want to make a film about alcoholism?
“I’d come back to the UK from living in LA [he moved there in 2012] and was looking for British stories. I’m interested in forms of life and human behaviour that are in some way extreme, or that involve the deep question: as a species, why do we do this to ourselves?”
Which subjects did you consider before alcoholism and acquired brain injury?
“We looked at doing something on the growing world of ISIS sympathisers, but it didn’t pan out. People who are sympathetic to ISIS don’t trust the media in general and the BBC specifically, so it’s very hard to build trust. It’s also very hard to get into that world in an intimate way. Plus, there are various laws to do with not glorifying terrorism, so they fear that if they say the wrong thing they’ll be arrested. In fact, a couple were arrested during the period we were talking to them.”
What inspired you to make a film about people living with the after-effects of brain injury?
“If you have a serious brain injury, often you can make a physical recovery, but the after-effects mean you behave in a different way. In some cases, you’re more impulsive and less inhibited. You’re the same person in the same body – yet different. And that involves all kinds of flare-ups. It’s relatable, in that it’s about family, yet it’s also an examination of extreme stress when one of the key people in the family has changed.”
Is there a thematic link between the two shows?
“They’re about love at some extreme pull. We all make decisions about our relationships with someone when they’re behaving in a way that you don’t quite know how to deal with. If your girlfriend fell off her bike and became slightly different to the person you’d fallen in love with, what’s your obligation now? At what point is it OK to say, ‘This isn’t the person I fell in love with’? It’s not an easy question to answer because we all want to be good people, but we also have the right to happiness.”
You never fail to get people to open up. How do you do it?
“I just have an instinct of how to do interviews. It wasn’t consciously planned; I wanted to get along with people, while also satisfying my natural curiosity. People talk about me as though I was playing a character in my late ’90s programmes [such as Weird Weekends], but what comes through to me is a sort of authenticity. The people I meet may see that I’m occasionally being a bit cheeky, but underneath they recognise there’s something real there.”
You must watch a ton of documentaries. What did you make of Amy?
“It was an amazing piece of work. Amy Winehouse’s life is almost a crime scene. There’s so much blame that can be cast around, plus the whole process of celebrity itself was implicated in why she came a cropper. It’s hard for a film to do justice to all of that. Having said that, it’s beautifully put together and very subtle. Her life was so messy and so troubled that it’s hard to put all the answers together.”
Another recent documentary, Abused: The Untold Story, talked to Jimmy Savile’s victims. Having previously interviewed Savile, was that something you’d considered doing?
“I’m doing a film about Jimmy Savile at the moment. We’re just editing it.”
Did you speak to Savile’s victims for that film?
And what was that like?
“What I think we should do is not talk about that. Only because we’re at a sensitive stage. I think it’d be better to talk about that when it goes out.”
Having lived in the US, how real a threat do you think Donald Trump is?
“The threat is real. It’s a frightening symptom of some sort of weird malaise that he could be taken as seriously as he is in America. I’m sure that many well-meaning people who aren’t anything like Donald Trump for some reason see him as a solution to their fears. Some sort of deep rot has set into American society and the political process that means people don’t feel they’re being listened to. And so they go to a reality TV show star for answers.”
You were living in the US when you made the upcoming My Scientology Movie. Given they’re not fans of being put under the microscope, were you worried about them turning the tables on you?
“That was one of the reasons I felt it would be a good way of doing it. I was very near the Celebrity Centre and various other church buildings were a relatively short walk away. The idea was always to make a film from the belly of the beast, and so I went into it slightly hoping that they would engage with me, which is to say, by… taking an interest in me. I’d seen an explanation of why people wanted to leave Scientology, but I hadn’t got a sense of why they joined. I was interested in the seduction, why they would go along with the various practices that had been alleged for years, if not decades. [The film is] an attempt to create that mindset of being conditioned in behaviours outside of the norm.”
Your documentaries are pretty heavy these days. How do you decompress after immersing yourself in such difficult subjects?
“I just try to spend time with my kids and enjoy normal things like music, cooking, drinking, going to the movies with my wife and getting into a family routine.”
Louis Theroux: Drinking To Oblivion is on BBC Two at 9pm on April 24