In recent years, the media’s interest in exposing the ins and outs of what Scientology really could have left audiences fatigued. Going Clear went in-depth and meticulously, while Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath looks at it from a more personal perspective of those who have left.
My Scientology Movie takes a very different, outsider view of what the mysterious religion really is. Louis Theroux, the British journalist responsible for numerous TV documentaries including his series Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends and When Louis Met…is a professional outsider and persistently open-minded in his investigations of the worlds he’s unfamiliar. Partnered with director John Dower, the documentarian behind Slaying the Badger, When Boris Met Dave, and Live Forever: The Rise and Fall of British Pop, they wanted to get an outsider’s inside view of what Scientology was…but were shut out. So they pursued getting that outsider’s understanding by recreating (at points even casting the roles) some of what happened according to former Inspector General Marty Rathbun.
While far from a fluff piece (his interviews with former members are consistently revealing) Theroux and Dower turn the documentary into a comedy of discomfort and awkward interactions, including multiple confrontations about property lines, strange car rides, and weird role playing games. I spoke with Theroux, Dower, and actor Andrew Perez (cast as David Miscavige) about getting My Scientology Movie made.
The Interrobang: What is the benefit of taking a lighter, comedic approach to a subject in a documentary?
Louis Theroux: The fact is, life is funny. And you can’t take humor out of it, even if you’d want to. My own background is coming up through Michael Moore, he gave me my first job. And he always said, file my movies under comedy. He wanted Blockbuster to take Roger & Me out of the documentaries section and put it in comedies. And I’ve always seen humor as a really important flavor in my own work. But it’s not just about the laughs.
John Dower: We didn’t set out to make a comedy about Scientology. But if you’re going to make a movie where you hold castings for Tom Cruise, you are doing that with a little wink. And Scientology is funny, L. Ron Hubbard had a great sense of humor I’m told. So it was intrinsically going to be funny.
Theroux: Although in my own interactions with Scientologist while making this, they seemed humorless.
Dower: Which is odd because it’s hard to sell something that way. In the research we did, L. Ron Hubbard was somewhat whimsical. Of course, we didn’t do much on Hubbard, but if you do some reading, he’s almost Orson Welles like. He’s like that crazy guy at the bar you want to listen to.
Perez: I always think of Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master, I think he had some of his funniest moments in that movie.
Theroux: That movie has some really funny moments. But the other thing to remember is, humor often arises as a release of tension from conflict. So sometimes the funny thing is two people having an argument because there’s something so awkward and embarrassing about watching that interaction. I think of that Woody Allen movie Husbands and Wives, when they are shouting at each other, and I just find those scenes hilarious. A lot of the projects I do are about human relationships at their most real and unvarnished. The Office was a bit like that too. There’s a bit where Marty stomped off because he disliked how I did the drills. And there is a humorous dimension to that reaction. Or when we’re in the car and he says “I don’t think you have a clue what you’re doing.” I knew that would come across as funny when we were editing it.
Dower: And like The Office, we just allow that tension to play out. We let things run particularly long when things felt tense. And Louie’s awkwardness is funny too, you can feel him squirming a bit. And I think Louie is one of the best at playing off the camera. When people came up to him with their cameras and Louie took out his camera to film them it becomes this Mexican stand-off between digital cameras. There’s no two ways about it, that is funny.
The Interrobang: I have to say, I can see the Michael Moore influence on your work, but your styles couldn’t seem less alike. He’s known for being confrontational, and you can seem so passive and polite with people. Do you find that’s a more productive approach to take?
Theroux: Well, first of all, that’s my natural state. Even if I wanted to be Michael Moore, I couldn’t. When I was in my early 20s and working at a TV station, I perhaps thought I should be more like Michael Moore, but I never felt comfortable. I don’t have his campaigning zeal. But I’m also just aware that I always want to be fair and reasonable with people. And if I’m too in their face, I know I’m just playing their game and want to short circuit that by being the reasonable person in the conversation. Not to get too pretentious, but Niche had a couple of relevant quotes, which are basically, if you’re confronting a bully, just be aware not to become a bully yourself. That’s why I’m always saying let’s keep the conversation going, this is an opportunity to talk human-to-human. We’re just two humans on the side of the road talking with phone cameras.
The Interrobang: Arguing about property lines on a map.
Dower: It was public property. Categorically, we were right about the property line.
The Interrobang: That probably got the biggest laugh when you brought that back up at the end of the film because when you know someone’s absolutely wrong, but they won’t listen, it’s just so frustrating to get shouted down.
Dower: That was one of the strangest moments because at a point, the film seemed to just be about an exchange of letters and fighting about a public road. It felt absurd.
The Interrobang: (to Andrew Perez) Did you know Louie or John before getting cast or were you really found and cast at an open call?
Perez: I’d never met them before. I found the audition on my own.
The Interrobang: And the scenes you shot were all scripted?
Perez: They were all scripted, but it was like doing a part written by two different playwrights. We had a monologue David Miscavige wrote himself and one written by Marty, and they were so completely different. Marty’s script was so long. He had this long tirade, and I had it memorized, but at a certain point, I just went off script.
Theroux: And during the auditions, when you put Marty in a chokehold that was all improvised
Perez: Yeah, that just kind of happened (at this point, Louie Theroux burst into a fit of laughter)
The Interrobang: You have a line in the film where you said “I can tap into rage easily.”
Perez: Sometimes the right role comes at the right time. It was great to play Miscavige at that point in my life.
The Interrobang: What were the most interesting things you discovered about David Miscavige’s personality that other documentaries about Scientology overlooked?
Theroux: He takes a personal interest. He’s running a church with this massive staff and many buildings. And yet, I’m told he takes a personal interest in things being made about Scientology. So if that’s to be believed, he would have been personally interested in the fact that we were making this. So it’s fascinating to feel so close to him, despite never meeting him. I got a letter from him and was told, he definitely wrote that. Whether he did or not, I’m not sure…
Dower: But it was tantalizing, that feeling while making the film, that we were in this long distance game of tennis.
Theroux: It was, with balls going back and forth between us and his offices. And the other thing is, he apparently sits down and records everything. Even when sipping his whiskey, playing Backgammon, watching movies, he’s always recording. But Scientology is interesting because it combines this touchy-feely new age beliefs with this very hard-nosed, street-fighting, figuratively of course, take no prisoners attitude. And he very much embodies that. Most leaders of religions wear white robes and drift around, but Scientologists wear almost military outfits or suits.
The Interrobang: Have you heard anything from them since making the film and premiering it?
Dower: When the film played at the London Film Festival, they actually sent a letter objecting to the way the film had been written up in the festival brochure. And we were just like, that’s not us, we didn’t write it.
Theroux: But what that tells us is, they are minutely interested in how the film is rolled out.
Dower: And if they do show up, they’re more than welcome to come in and watch. But they seem to have so many fires to fight at this point. It reminds me of that bit in one of The Lord of the Rings episodes when the “Eye of Sauron” is gazing down on Frodo and Sam and then swivels around to something else. It seems they have this intense interest in the film, but they have to be concerned with us, Going Clear, his father Ron Miscavige’s book, whatever Leah Remini is doing, and what Marty’s doing. They just have too many plates spinning.
The Interrobang: The scenes of you casting Tom Cruise in the film are fun, but why was it so important to have that section in the film?
Dower: Louie needs to answer that because he was so passionate about that.
Theroux: If you ask a random person what is Scientology, they’ll say “it’s that religion Tom Cruise is involved in.” He’s their poster boy and their access point for people of influence. In their own church materials, they boost that 1.37 billion people have been exposed to Scientology’s teachings through Tom Cruise. So whatever happens within Scientology, it carries an association to Tom Cruise. So I felt very strongly to keep that in mind. He’s the most visible.
Dower: He really is their poster boy.
Theroux: So as much as it is about people doing weird things in the desert outside of L.A., it’s also a faith practiced, or however you categorize doing Scientology, it is something endorsed by the number one movie star on the planet. That’s something important to remember.
The Interrobang: Was Tom Cruise your introduction to Scientology?
Theroux: I was probably interested before Tom Cruise.
Dower: Your interest goes way back.
Theroux: In 1991, I visited the L. Ron Hubbard life exhibit in Hollywood, and I don’t think Tom Cruise was a Scientologist back then.
Dower: And if he were, it wasn’t as well known.
Theroux: I had an uncle in L.A. who told me about the celebrity center and myths about Scientology. He seemed both enormously attracted and repelled by the mystic of a religion founded by a science fiction writer.