Louis Theroux’s Scientology Movie is his most daring work yet
‘They’re making a documentary on me now – I’m a bit worried’
The most surprising thing about 2016’s best documentary is that it didn’t happen sooner. After all, Louis Theroux and Scientology are a perfect pairing: one’s a cult figure who revels in exposing the wackiest, most secretive subcultures there are; the other is the most secretive cult the world has to offer.
Still, 20 years since Theroux first had the idea to make a film about the religion, it’s finally here – so we headed down to Greenwich Picturehouse to see what he’d come up with, and for a satellite Q&A with the man himself.
Needless to say, the film is worth the wait. Oozing with menace and yet somehow still laugh-out-loud funny, it perfectly captures the laughably strange-yet-sinister way in which the Church of Scientology operates. From the moment it begins with the church’s orientation video, which asks followers if they’d rather spend their “next trillion years” in “shivering agonised darkness” or “in the light,” you know you’re in store for something rather dramatic.
One of the cleverest things about the movie is the way it blends documentary and drama, using the premise of Louis making a movie to draft in young actors to play bit parts as Tom Cruise and church-leader-cum-pantomime-villain David Miscavige. Miscavige is played with bug-eyed intensity by jobbing actor Andrew Perez, and he’s pretty damn terrifying.
Of course, Louis himself is the main event here – and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s as ballsy as always, with one particularly well-timed question causing the entire theatre to audibly gasp. A highlight is when he’s trying to personally deliver Miscavige a letter at Scientology HQ, but is shooed offsite by furious security: “There’s a bloke there,” he says, “but he seems enturbulated.”
Laughs aside, Theroux is even more intense than normal: his chemistry with volatile ex-Scientologist Marty Rathbun is electric, and it came as no surprise when he told the crowd afterwards they’d had a dramatic falling out since the film was released. In one scene, Marty flies off the handle when Louis’ auditioning actors ignore his pleas not to applaud a portrait of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. “It’s like they’re in a cult of their own,” Rathbun carps: “The Cult of Louis Theroux.”
Theroux himself is different in person – when he tells the audience about the documentary the Church of Scientology are planning to release about him, he giggles nervously. “I’m a little bit worried,” he say, and he genuinely looks it. Most of the questions from the audience are about his own messianic properties: director John Dower explains how they wanted to recreate the spirit of his famous Weird Weekends for a whole new generation of what he calls “Louis Therouxists.”
We also learn what was left out of the film – amid all the allegations of brutal violence and psychopathy against church leader David Miscavige, it’s comical to hear the claims that he dresses his dog up in naval uniform and forces church members to salute it. Unsurprisingly, this detail didn’t make it into the movie’s final cut.
One question is asked about the film’s most obvious flaw: the fact that Louis fails to talk to any current Scientologists. He explains that he knew it would be the case – he’d been trying for 10 years, and realised pretty quickly that they don’t take kindly to the media. L. Ron Hubbard once described journalists as a “1.1 on the tone scale.” In Scientology terms, that’s the equivalent level of “perverts.”
The most interesting question came from host Adam Buxton, who suggested Louis’ characteristic stare-filled silences were a classic Scientologist technique. Having done documentaries on the likes of Jimmy Savile and now David Miscavige, Buxton asks whether Louis thinks there’s a similarity in the way he grooms his victims. “I don’t want to be part of that triangle,” Louis laughs, but you can tell it’s a question that gets to him: “People know what they’re getting into when they agree to do an interview with Louis Theroux,” he argues.
Whatever you think of his interview techniques, the results are undeniably extraordinary – and My Scientology Movie is the latest in a long line of triumphs for Theroux. Buxton suggests that he “gives people enough rope to hang themselves,” while an audience member argues he “gives them a platform to tell their own stories.”
Which is the truth? That depends if you’re a member of the Cult of Louis Theroux.