My Scientology Movie: How Louis Theroux documented the church (and it documented him)
The British journalist talks about his Tribeca-screening documentary
TV journalist Louis Theroux is well known in the UK for embedding himself with controversial people and organizations, such as the Westboro Baptist Church, the focus of his 2007 film, The Most Hated Family in America. But Theroux was forced to change his modus operandi for My Scientology Movie after the titular church refused to grant what he regarded as a necessary amount of access.
Unable to spend time with members of the organization, Theroux instead staged reenactments of alleged Scientology training techniques and of an incident in which it is claimed the church’s leader, David Miscavige, lost his temper with subordinates. Theroux was assisted in his mission by church member-turned critic Marty Rathbun, actor Andrew Perez — who plays Miscavige in the film — and the movie’s director, John Dower.
Below, Theroux, Perez, and Dower talk about making My Scientology Movie and how they, in turn, found themselves being tracked by the organization they were attempting to document. The project is now screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I thought My Scientology Movie was informative, and funny, and disturbing. Having said which, I should point out that you make a number of allegations in the film whose veracity the church has denied.
Louis Theroux: Well, if you weren’t saying it, I think we would have to be saying it.
John Dower: We do it ourselves in the film.
Louis, you’ve been wanting to make a film about this subject for a long time, right?
LT: A long time, yes. I first heard about Scientology in my late teens. I had an uncle who lived in Los Angeles. He told me about the Celebrity Center. A secretive religion that had celebrities and actors amongst its adherents, and allegedly used very hard-sell tactics to bring people onboard and to keep them inside the church. Time went by. I did stories about offbeat types of pursuits. I, in 2002, thought, maybe I could do something on Scientology.
We made contact, went round the Celebrity Center, negotiations stalled. At a certain point, it became clear that actually, if this ever led to any kind of access, it would be very superficial access of heavily-chaperoned, heavily-managed visits and maybe heavily-managed interviews with a couple of celebrities. Then, literally, about 10 years went by. Simon Chinn [producer of Searching for Sugar Man and The Imposter, among documentaries], who’s an old friend, came up to me at the Sheffield Documentary Festival and said, “Have you ever thought of doing something on Scientology?” We started thinking about. Is there a way we can do it that is fresh and different? And the idea of reenactments came up.
John, how did you come onboard?
John Dower: I, bizarrely, stupidly said “No.” Three times.
JD: Sorry, have I never told you this? [Laughs] I love Louis’ stuff, so that was tantalizing, but I’ve never worked with someone in front of the camera. And everyone says, “Don’t work with someone in front of the camera, you’ll end up doing twice the amount of work, and you get no credit for the film.” Also, there was no access and Louis’ stuff thrives on access. It was actually my wife [who] said, “It’s f—ing Louis, he’s not a presenter, he’s different.” Then I read Going Clear [Lawrence Wright’s 2013 history of the church and its alleged misdeeds] and I was like, “F—ing hell, this is extraordinary.”
Andrew, what did you think when you auditioned for the role of David Miscavige? It must have seemed like a strange situation and I know actors in Hollywood often audition for projects that turn out to be dubious in a some way. Either the project doesn’t really exist or there’s…
LT: A sexual dimension.
Exactly. So, my question really is, How worried were you that this was in fact a porn movie?
Andrew Perez: [Laughs] I didn’t totally know what to expect. It was a surprise, the entire thing. I didn’t go in with a whole load of expectations [but] I was ready to play a role like this. I was excited, because I’d never been exposed to David Miscavige before, I didn’t know who he was. So I got to watch some of his interview [footage] and I was like, “Oh, okay, I could see myself getting into this.”
I now want to see a full biopic starring yourself.
JD: Let’s do it!
AP: Maybe Scientology will hire me for that.
Louis, in the film, Marty Rathbun is essentially both the documentary’s subject — or at least its principal interviewee — and your sidekick.
LT: Yes. Or am I his sidekick, maybe?
Regardless, there are certainly times in the movie when the relationship between the two of you becomes strained.
Has he seen the finished film?
What did he think of it?
LT: I think he really liked some parts of it and I think there were parts that he didn’t like. I have to say he put himself out a lot to make it. He’s deeply intelligent, thoughtful, somewhat mercurial, and kind of holds the whole thing together, to my mind. His willingness to take me on means that I’m kind of put in my place and you have this shifting partnership. But does he unabashedly endorse the finished product? I don’t know.
JD: I think I’d be disappointed if he loved the whole film. [But] don’t get me wrong, I have so much respect [for him]. He put himself out on a limb for us.
How did you become aware that the church was monitoring the progress of the documentary?
LT: The first interaction was letters that said they knew what we were doing. The second thing was, we visited the base, and they came out, and began filming us, and saying we were trespassing. A day or two after that, when we were shooting [in a studio], this woman and a cameraman turned up, filmed us from across the road. And it was around then that Marty said, “Actually, I’m pretty sure I’ve identified a private investigator as well.” And then, after that, it became that any time we filmed we had the feeling that we were being followed.
The irony, of course, is that without this monitoring you would have a much thinner film. The footage of a Scientology member warning you away from the church’s property is not only fascinating in its own right but also helps to validate the claims made by Rathbun and other ex-members.
JD: It would have been a much weaker film without those moments.
LT: I was relieved. When they turned up the first time, I was so relieved.
JD: Unashamedly. Because we had been told, “They don’t do this any more, they’ve dialed it down.”
Louis, at one point in the documentary, the church announces that it is planning to make a documentary about you. Is there any news about that? At next year’s Tribeca will I be interviewing someone about their Louis Theroux doc?
LT: That would be exciting, wouldn’t it? I suspect, as much as I would like to believe that it is a 90-minute extravaganza, that it will end up being — if it does see the light of day — a 15-minute, Internet-only hatchet job. They didn’t film that much. And, as a sort-of interviewer myself, the fact that they didn’t actually ask me any questions, I find a bit of a curious choice.
My Scientology Movie screens at the Bow Ties Cinemas Chelsea 5 Monday at 9:45 p.m. ET as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. You can see a clip from the movie, below.