On a recent Sunday morning in London, BBC documentary host Louis Theroux was cooking pancakes for his children in his pajamas when local police came to his home to look into a reported threat on his life.
Then things got stranger. The police said they learned of the threat because the Church of Scientology had reached out to them … to pass along word of someone else purportedly out to harm Theroux.
“Maybe, thanks to them, I was saved from having some deranged Louis Theroux-hater coming around and whacking me around the head,” said Theroux, whose latest documentary, “My Scientology Movie,” opens in theaters today. “I just thought, this is vaguely comical.”
A certain amount of strange behavior is to be expected when making a movie about Scientology. The organization is well known for responding aggressively to anyone who attempts to cover it. That hasn’t stopped the likes of Alex Gibney and ex-Scientologist Leah Remini from coming out with documentaries and TV series investigating the organization with a critical eye and highlighting the abuse claims of many members.
“My Scientology Movie” takes a more offbeat approach. At first, Theroux wanted to make a film that would focus on more positive aspects of Scientology. But when the organization denied him access, he improvised: With the help of prominent ex-Scientologists, he and director John Dower auditioned actors to play leader David Miscavige, prominent member Tom Cruise, and other members in staged reenactments.
Scientology did not respond to IndieWire’s request for comment, but the organization’s documented reaction to the film illustrates why filmmakers planning to tackle controversial subjects should steel themselves for any number of outcomes. Members showed up to the audition and subsequent shoots, filming Theroux’s crew and promising to make their own documentary on him. They harassed ex-member Marty Rathbun, who has a large role in the movie guiding the actors — at one point, three high-ranking members accosted him at an airport. (Rathbun has since spoken out against the movie.) And they sent mountains of legal letters to the producers questioning Theroux’s aims and methods.
All the attention was good for the film, at least in the eyes of its makers. The final cut is full of bizarre moments in which Theroux and Scientology members stand on the street, pointing cameras at each other.
“We did [the recreations] because we weren’t getting access,” Dower said. “And yet by them tailing us, confronting us, standing outside and filming us, sending us letters, it suddenly felt like we did have access with them — they had a voice in our film.”
The BBC, which produced the film, provided legal assistance. In addition, the filmmakers brought on a freelance legal team, London-based Abbas Media Law, which is well-versed in handling media about controversial subjects. Lawyers pored over any legal communication the Scientologists sent the movie during filming.
“When making films about litigious individuals and companies, filmmakers must do their research and seek legal advice early on, well before filming [begins],” firm founder Nigel Abbas wrote to IndieWire in an email. “And think about and be careful about everything you record in notebooks and on camera. Notebooks, rushes … they are disclosable in legal proceedings.”
Abbas also recommends that filmmakers obtain Errors and Omissions insurance before any public exhibitions, while noting that insurance companies will often ask lawyers to sign off on the film beforehand.
For the “My Scientology Movie” team, the adventure wasn’t over after the movie wrapped. Theroux’s team reached out to several additional ex-Scientologists to ask if they’d be willing to testify to some of the movie’s allegations if things ever spilled over into court.
So far it hasn’t come to that, and Theroux said the organization’s litigious reputation is exaggerated. “They actually don’t sue people very often,” he said. “But what they do is send scary letters that make it look as if they are going to sue.”
Still, the group has a tendency to define any coverage it doesn’t like as “harassment,” so filmmakers and journalists have to develop a tough hide in order to cover them.
“I don’t think Scientology should be allowed to define what’s reasonable and unreasonable in terms of how they are covered,” Theroux said. “By their light, they have all the answers to all the problems that have plagued humanity for years. Well, we don’t need to believe that, we members of the fourth estate.”
Ironically, one of the best training sources for how to deal with Scientology-level intimidation may come from … Scientology. One of the techniques members rehearse in training seminars is “bullbaiting,” which refers to being able to withstand someone else’s attempts to provoke with insults and threats. In the film, Theroux subjects himself to a bullbaiting session, and the famously stoic interviewer proves impervious to his actors’ efforts to break him.
That skill may come in handy if the police ever knock at his door again.