Louis Theroux’s first ever feature film sees him attempting to gain access to the super-secretive Church of Scientology. Here he tells Leonie Cooper the story behind My Scientology Movie – one of the most hilarious but harrowing films of the year
Louis Theroux first tried to make a documentary about the Church of Scientology in 2002. Despite a meeting with their press department and a tour of the religion’s famous-people-only Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles, they were far from co-operative. “I was like, ‘This is leading nowhere,’ and sacked it off for 10 years,” he explains when we meet at a pub in the wilds of north-west London. But Theroux’s obsession with the religion gnawed away at him and he decided to give it another go. He joined forces with old pal and two-time Oscar-winning producer Simon Chinn (Man On Wire) and decided no access was no excuse for not making a film, especially at a time when allegations of physical abuse – all denied – were being made by former members against Scientology’s head honcho David Miscavige. So Theroux and Chinn enlisted whistleblower and former senior Church member Marty Rathbun to give an insider look at their practices, as well as casting actors to re-enact key moments from Rathbun’s memory. It’s weird, unsettling and very, very funny.
Why a film and not TV like your usual projects?
“The nature of Scientology as a subject necessitated a different approach. Normally I get access to the stories I do and go to places where I’m invited in.”
Do you remember when you first heard of Scientology?
“It might have been when I visited Los Angeles when I was 18, before I went to university. I was staying with my uncle and he told me about this really unusual religious group. It was something I gravitated towards, both the weirdness and secretiveness – the idea that stuff goes on but we’re not allowed to know what it is.”
Did you do any research at UK Scientology centres or was it all US-based?
“I was living in LA when I made the documentary. I nipped into a local ‘org’, which is kind of an odd term. They like acronyms and jargon. So David Miscavige, the head of Scientology, isn’t called the ‘Pope’ or the ‘supreme religious leader’ – he’s called ‘COB RTC’ which is ‘Chairman of the Board of Religious Technology Center’. It’s also slightly military. There’s a lot of naval discipline.”
What happened in there?
“They’re very friendly and smiley but the vibe is, ‘Come in and have fun and please don’t leave without buying something.’ It’s like going into a phone shop.”
Which aspect of Scientology did you find the most fascinating?
“That’s a hard question to answer. I think in the end, it’s a film about fundamentalism and the point at which religious practice becomes borderline abusive. The fact that there were allegations of physical violence, the fact that people were saying they were physically assaulted on multiple occasions by the leader of Scientology.”
What is it that sets it apart from other religions?
“All religions have weird beliefs and actually there’s nothing that’s very controversial when you get past the surface – other than the fact that it’s a gateway to an allegedly abusive regimen. You like Tom Cruise, you wanna be in Scientology and you wanna say that you’re a naval cadet? It’s a little odd, but you have the right to do that.”
Despite coming up against access barriers throughout the film, you still keep ploughing away – why?
“I first approached them in 2002. When we re-approached, it was very cautiously, attentively. I was very conscious of the fact that I would almost always get access to places and I was working on a story where there was no access to speak of – which was sort of in violation of the first principle of how I operate.”
Why do you think Scientology is so secretive?
“They’ve never given full access to any documentary that I’m aware of. They’ve allowed little glimpses into the things they do, but in a very controlled way. It’s quite common for them, when being interviewed, to point cameras at the interviewer.”
Which is what happens to you in the film…
“It’s a basic precept of Scientology that the media is antagonistic. They really do believe that they’re on a galaxy-saving mission – to save humanity from annihilation, to save us from ourselves. The stakes are so high for them that they don’t really trust the media to get the message right. I was never under any illusion that they would allow us in. I went into it knowing that we would very likely have to make it without their cooperation. So it became more about what can we do without them on board and how much can we reveal.”
At any point did you think ‘I can see why people are getting involved with this’?
“Totally. I’ve always been drawn in by the sumptuous quality of the material they put out. And actually, if you ever go into a mission, they’re extremely well run. It’s not like going into a building run by Quakers or a village church with yellowing leaflets. I used to play Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, so I understand that whole thing of wanting to be in a secret guild and having an alternate identity where you’ve got superpowers.”
Have you sent the film to the Church?
“Well, funnily enough, when we had our first screening at London Film Festival, a British Scientologist got in touch with me and said, ‘Can I come along?’ I said, ‘Absolutely, and let’s talk about what you think.’ He came, but after that he never replied to any of my messages. I think he just wanted to come and report back to HQ.”
Do you feel that they still have tabs on you and the film?
“I’m sure they have some sort of Google Alerts. I think they’re closely watching what I say about the film when it comes out. I’m told Miscavige is very interested in coverage of the Church. I think he’ll be really curious to see it.”
If by an incredible stroke of luck Miscavige said, ‘OK, you can have half an hour with me,’ what would you ask him?
“It would be, ‘How would you respond to the fact that there are multiple credible allegations of physical abuse by yourself against your underlings and your co-workers inside Scientology?’”
Just straight in?