The Church of Scientology believes in an alien dictator called Xenu, recruit Hollywood A-listers (including prominent proselytizer Tom Cruise) for their cause, and can spiritually “progress” up to powers of extrasensory perception with the swipe of a credit card. They’re also incredibly private and aggressive in the maintenance of that privacy, and as such, are not shy about surveilling perceived opponents. That’s exactly what happened to filmmaker Louis Theroux during the course of making his latest documentary My Scientology Movie, which premieres at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
During the production, Theroux was denied access to the Church of Scientology’s HQ, but remained undeterred. Inspired by the Church’s own lavish film productions, Theroux decided to stage reenactments of scenes based on the memories of ex-Scientology members like Marty Rathbun, who once served as Inspector General, and Mark Headley. These rather chilling scenes reveal brainwashing rituals by the Sea Org. — the group of the most dedicated clergy members — as well as terrifying abuse and intimidation on part of chairman David Miscavige (played by actor Andrew Perez) in “The Hole” of Scientology’s Gold Base compound.
Inverse chatted to Theroux, Perez, and director John Dower about what it was like collaborating with Rathbun, and the bizarre atmosphere of their Scientology re-enactments — including the Tom Cruise scene that was left out:
Louis, you’ve often placed yourself in sticky situations while shooting documentaries. How did this one rate in terms of fear for your safety?
LT: I’ve made documentaries where I felt that I was physically in danger, and this was not one of those. Basically, I wasn’t in a riot or dealing with a criminal gang. But there is a different kind of feeling of jeopardy which has to do with knowing that these guys don’t play around when it comes to bringing lawsuits, and also in terms of attempting to make life uncomfortable for you. The other thing is that I am very much aware that the rubber is hitting the road, as we speak. Because the more real the film seems to Scientology, in terms of getting distribution, I suspect that they will engage even more. The film that they were making about me hasn’t come out yet, so ask me again when it’s released.
How did it feel to become an object of investigation yourself?
LT: I remember when I did a TV documentary about the Westboro Baptist Church, and Pastor Phelps, who is since deceased, issued a long press release in which he’d clearly read up on me, and it was kind of a mini-Biblical attack piece. And they made a sign about me: “Louie is going to hell.” All the things you might worry about. This is not one of them. Its like the rap song. I’ve got 99 problems, but Pastor Phelps is not one.
With the Scientology re-enactments, what were you trying to achieve besides baiting the Church of Scientology into a kind of confrontation?
LT: It was about putting Marty [Rathbun], and to a lesser extent Mark [Headley] back into a headspace, a time and place, and sort of using theatrical and dramatic technique to bring up talking points. That first day when we met Andrew, I saw how Marty was kind of re-energized. And he absolutely loved it. You can see him laughing with pleasure. When you [Andrew] shout at him: You like that shit. Dont look away, he’s just like This is exactly what it was like.
Is there anything you wouldve done differently in the film, given a second chance?
LT: In general, I was pushing to do more reenactments. I just think its an amazing device, and it works incredibly well. So I’m curious to know what would have happened if we’d maybe used one more.
LT: Steve Mango, who’s the character who wants to be the next Tom Cruise. He’s a young actor who gets involved with Scientology and spends $50,000. I thought, we need to reenact the scene where Steve Mango was locked in a room - and this is his allegation against the Church, and I’m sure Scientology would deny it - and more or less coerced or pressured into giving more money, and maxing out his credit cards. I thought, well, that’s a great scene to reenact. Looking back now I’m not sure it would have worked in the film, but I did like the idea of it - Steve playing himself or the Scientology sales person. We had another re-enactment that we didn’t put in the film. We had a scene where David Miscavige and Tom Cruise go out skeet shooting, which is something that they used to enjoy doing. In the background, there are these young members of the Sea Org doing this Scientology running drill, running around a tree. It was kind of an amazing scene, but it felt like it was being pushed more by me, or us as a production, rather than by Marc Headley. It didn’t feel real.
Were there any legal restrictions that you were made of before you started shooting the film - and was there any self-censorship involved?
LT: The only thing was that we couldn’t use the Mission Impossible music during one scene. That was the only thing that I felt crimped our style a little bit.
The format of your previous films usually involves a guide with whom you develop a relationship of trust who leads you into a subculture. Your relationship with Marty seems quite strained. Do you feel that that in any way compromised the quality of this documentary?
LT: Au contraire! I think that’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the documentary.
AP: There’s just something compelling about how Marty was both energized in the creative aspect of it, and then also at various points, just closed off and reluctant to get into certain things. If Tom Cruise was brought up, the auditing, stuff like that, he would completely back off. Or the clapping at L. Ron Hubbard.
LT: He didn’t like that. That was interesting.
JD: In all the films you’ve ever made, it struck me that he’s possibly one of your trickiest quarries because of the way he comes back at you.
LT: The first day we started filming I realized, wow, this guy is a robust, intelligent, highly perceptive and very complicated individual, and I thought “That’s fantastic.” I really thought I could go on a journey with this guy, because he’s going to call me out every time he smells bullshit, and I’ll really have to be on my toes in how I interact with him. To me, that’s much more interesting than someone who is just going to roll over and let me rub their belly. With hindsight, maybe I would’ve found me irritating if I was Marty. You know what I mean? His life has been absolutely turned upside down by this religious group that he was a part of. He’s been investigated, harassed, and heres this irritating British journalist who’s asking Scientology 101 questions.
Do you ever regret the way you handled questioning Marty? I’m thinking specifically of the scene where Marty complains that the Church has started mentioning his adopted child to harass him, and you basically allude to him having done the same kind of thing to other people in the past.
LT: To me, one of the most basic questions is that the whistleblowers were absolutely fine with Scientology until they left, and suddenly, everything’s dreadful and awful. Well, hang on. If it was that so dreadful and awful, why did you take twenty years to figure it out? It’s something that needs to be addressed and explained, because there’s an apparent contradiction. In hindsight it was a tense moment, and it’s an open question whether or not it was fair of me to ask him [Marty] at a moment of intense emotional vulnerability about him doing that to other people.