Review: Louis Theroux’s ‘My Scientology Movie’
‘My Scientology Movie’ is out in cinemas now. Below are my thoughts on the film and some coverage of the post-screening Q&A session with Louis Theroux and the Director John Dower. Spoliers will follow.
Louis Theroux is the master of documentary film making. His softly-spoken, Socratic style has yielded unique and entertaining insight from many dark and unusual worlds.
The Church of Scientology is certainly dark and unusual, as well as being notoriously aggressive in pursuing those who attempt to pull back the curtain on their organisation. This usually takes two forms; intimidation and litigation.
The idea of a collision between Scientology and Louis Theroux is a tantalising proposition, with just one stumbling block: how will Theroux gain access to one of the most secretive and uncooperative religious organisations on the planet? Well, he won’t as it turns out.
Theroux tells the audience at the post-screening Q&A that “They [the church] have a track record of not engaging with journalists, or engaging with them in very limited, circumscribed ways, in fact, L. Ron Hubbard is on record as saying Journalists are 1.1 on the tone scale, which is the same as being a sexual deviant or pervert. So journalists are essentially perverts”.
“There was no access and it’s like, well, what are we going to be doing?” reflects director John Dower. “ We needed to come up with something, and I think we did…eventually”.
That ‘something’ was scripting and filming re-enactments of alleged incidents involving Scientology’s leader David Miscavige. Actors would come in to audition for Miscavige and other roles (including Tom Cruise) under the guidance of Scientology apostate Marty Rathbun.
Marty Rathbun joined the church of Scientology in 1978, making his way up the ranks to ‘Inspector General’ until leaving the church in 2004. He’s since used his voice to publicly criticise and expose some of Scientology’s nefarious practices.
One audition sees a hopeful actor pinning Rathbun to the wall after unleashing a torrent of foul-mouthed abuse. “He’s got it!” exclaims an excited Rathbun of actor Andrew Perez’s performance. To give you a feel of what Miscavige is allegedly like, it’s Perez’s ability to be very angry and very intimidating that lands him the part.
The lure was cast and the Church’s location and popularity among Hollywood stars ensured it was only a matter of time before word of Theroux’s activities made it back to Scientology HQ. Predictably, threatening letters and uninvited visitors followed.
Theroux had taken an interest in Scientology as early as the 90s. “It’s such an amazing story, combining religious weirdness, American consumer culture, celebrity, Hollywood and fundamentalism”.
But why Scientology at a time when the league table of religious fundamentalism is currently dominated by others?
“If we wanted to do the worst thing in the world, right, I mean, we’ve got ISIS and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.” notes Theroux.
“There’s plenty of more hideous, more extreme religious phenomena in the world. That’s not what scientology is. What Scientology represents is certain elements where there’s allegations of physical violence and abuse, but combined with things that are really incongruent and wacky. The fact that it’s based on the writings of a sci-fi writer. The fact that they have naval uniforms. One of the allegations against David Miscavige is that he dresses his dog in a naval uniform and when members of the Sea Org see the dog, they have to salute the dog! It’s just the sheer weirdness and comedy of the subject”.
“You wanted to do that as a re-enactment didn’t you?” says Dower. “I did, yes!” is the response from Theroux before slipping into Miscavige mode: “You gonna salute my goddam dog or not?!”
Why would anyone want to join such a notoriously sinister religion though? “You are talking about sincere people who are dedicated to the idea of saving the planet” offers Theroux.
“People don’t get into Scientology thinking ‘hey, I want to wear a uniform and be weird and chase people around with a camera on my head”.
Regardless of whether the Church’s members ever planned to chase people around with cameras on their heads, that’s certainly what we end up witnessing in ‘My Scientology Movie’. People would turn up to film Theroux filming in a weird sort of docuception. Endless arguments would ensue between Theroux and members of the church as to whether particular roads were public or not (a riddle which is solved by the end of the film).
“Are you making a documentary too?” Theroux would ask the miniature film crew dispatched to keep an eye on him. “What’s yours about?”. The chances, as we’ve seen with others who dared to challenge the church, is that an anti-Theroux video will make its way online at some point.
“I don’t think they are doing a full-born 90 min documentary about me. I think they are doing a 10-15 minute webisode. I don’t know what it’s going to have in it. All joking aside, I am a little worried about it”.
Dower reminds Louis that they actually managed to get under his skin at one point. “They got my dander up. And you don’t want to see my dander when it’s up! I did get a little heated with Catherine Fraser” admits Theroux.
Catherine Fraser is the director of public affairs for the Church of Scientology, and would instantly appear like a genie, cameraman in tow, each time Louis got within the vicinity of Church headquarters.
Besides the legal threats and surprise camera crews, did they have any other concerns?
“We were worried they might just steal the rushes (raw footage)” explained Dower. “So we just kept copying them, multiple times, then hiding them under the mattress. What we went through is nothing compared to what the likes of Marty [Rathbun] went through”.
Dower is referring to the prolonged intimidation and harassment Marty Rathbun has endured before, during and after the production of the documentary.
The church of Scientology are also famous for being incredibly litigious. Being a wealthy organisation, they are able to throw the full force of the legal system at anyone who would attempt to bring the ethics or their organisation into question.
This led to a very lengthy consultation period between the filmmakers and their own legal team. Closing down, and ironing out sections of the film which may leave them vulnerable to court action. This was a period longer than the edit of the actual film according to Dower, and this film was his longest edit to date.
“6 months of legal stuff” remarks Theroux.
“BBC guidelines require that you give them the right to reply and then they come back and say ‘this is outrageous and it’s defamatory and you can’t possibly say that!’ and then it becomes a case of how do you incorporate that into the film?”
This explains the many static cards throughout, and at the end of the film with statements such as ‘The church of Scientology disputes these allegations’.
“The biggest debates for some reason were around the actor playing Tom Cruise and whether he could be playing backgammon with David Miscavige. There were literally weeks of conversations about that! Conversations with our Lawyers about what was reasonable to do”.
“Our lawyer’s not here either, so we should be careful!” warns Dower.
As well as being there to provide his experience for the re-enactment sequences, Marty Rathbun also became a focal point of the documentary in his own right. Other ex-members of the church would imply Rathbun was being less then forthcoming about some of the more sinister behaviour he himself was responsible for during his time as inspector general.
Numerous times throughout the movie, Theroux would try to prise this information from him.
“Marty is a clever, bright guy and each time Louis tried to go in to detail about what exactly he had done in the church, he would bat him away” Dower tells us.
Throughout the film, Rathbun’s response to this type of questioning varies between boredom and outright hostility. “He was emotionally labile, he was up and down. He would sometimes be grumpy and I would seem to rub him the wrong way, then he would be alright” reflects Theroux. He goes on: “I think part of the issue with Marty was, it wasn’t as though he didn’t think he hadn’t done terrible things in Scientology. I’m sure he does. He just resented me asking him. On another day if it had been unsolicited, he might have been ready to go there. I think he has a lot of sense of guilt about the things he’s done, but he’s just a complicated guy”.
This sparring between Rathbun and Theroux finally comes to a head near the end of the film. Rathbun is once again confronted by a camera-toting squad of Scientologists, except it’s more personal this time – they bring Rathbun’s family into it. To Rathbun’s credit, he does not react to this shameful goading, but is visibly perturbed after they leave. It’s at this moment Theroux once again questions Rathbun on whether he had once behaved in this way himself. It does not go well.
Rathbun explodes into a furious rant. Theroux is called a “fucking asshole” more than once.
It’s difficult to know whether this indignation on Rathbun’s part is sincere, or whether it was yet another distraction technique to avoid having a light shone on his past wrongs.
Could Theroux have timed that question better? “Answer? Yes! I think I could have timed it better!” says Theroux.
“Some people have an issue or a problem with that moment, and some people think it’s spot-on” remarks Dower on the scene in question. “Marty was an integral part of the way we got this film up and running. He’s more than just a traditional contributor. He’s like a sort of informal consultant, and yet as we go through the film, Louis as he should do, and does brilliantly, explores the nuances of Marty”.
“In hindsight..” says Theroux “It’s a very tough call whether I was unfair raising it when he was upset. It probably was a little bit actually”
But what of their relationship now? Has Rathbun seen the finished movie? What did he think?
After a number of logistical reasons (family commitments) prevented Rathbun from travelling to a UK festival premiere over a year ago, an alternative was decided upon.
“We sent him a link to the film, because we wanted him to see it first” explains Dower. “He was initially very complimentary. He was also very proud of his work with Andrew [Perez]. Over the months, I think it would be fair to say his attitude towards the film has changed. We’ve kept in contact. I wouldn’t now describe it as a great relationship” He pauses, looks at Theroux and asks “would you?”
“No” is the terse reply.
Louis notes there is some speculation (that he doesn’t believe himself) that Rathbun is actually trying to get back in to Scientology at the moment. “He’s almost more anti-anti-scientology than with scientology at this point”
“Recently on his blog, he called me a ‘rimless zero’” reveals Dower to laughter from the audience as moderator Adam Buxton ponders whether it has sexual connotations, or simply means less than zero.
Having seen previous exposes on the church of Scientology, most notably ‘Going Clear’, there isn’t really a whole lot of new insight into the church in ‘My Scientology’. Strangely, this doesn’t stop the movie from being an incredibly entertaining, and often hilarious piece of filmmaking.
Those going in with little knowledge of the church of Scientology will get the most from it. For everyone else, we have yet another fantastic addition to the Louis Theroux collection and some new insight into the intriguing character of Marty Rathbun and David Miscavige.
You can also hear me review the movie on The #GSPodcast below.