Louis Theroux is a man who is used to getting access. Over the years, the BBC journalist and documentary filmmaker has spent time with members of the Westboro Baptist Church, pedophiles in Coalinga State Hospital, inmates in San Quentin State Prison and neo-Nazis.
But the Church of Scientology does not allow access to journalists, no matter how nicely you ask or how many fringe groups you’ve managed to document in the past. But the church can be relied on to provide a “kind of negative access” Theroux told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. That negative access ― the tactics the Church of Scientology is known for deploying against those they see as their enemies ― is the basis for Theroux’s latest documentary, “My Scientology Movie,” which first screened in the U.S. at the Tribeca Film Festival last April and hits theaters and on-demand services on March 10.
The doc includes names that should be familiar to those even slightly versed in the world of Scientology, including outspoken former high-ranking church officials Marty Rathbun and Marc Headley, but it differentiates itself from other films on the subject by being strangely comical. Because of the lack of direct access, some of the film relies on reenactments of horrific alleged events that are said to have taken place at the church’s international headquarters near Hemet, Calif., and casts young actors in the roles of church leader David Miscavige and Tom Cruise.
The film, which Theroux made with director John Dower, ended up being a documentary about what happens when you try to make a documentary about Scientology, which is what he anticipated.
“There was a bit we didn’t use in the film. We did a bit of filming in and around [Clearwater, Fla., where the church’s spiritual headquarters are located] in 2012 and I was followed by one of their private investigators on that occasion,”Theroux explained. “I also got a message from my email provider saying that someone in Clearwater had attempted to access my messages.”
Shot mostly in Los Angeles, Theroux said that he “wanted to give the Scientology people somewhere to come to in a sense.” That is exactly what they did ― in fact, they do most of the heavy lifting in the film just by being themselves. By the time a woman and a camera man show up across the street from where Theroux and the crew were filming, he’s visibly excited.
“I had seen so many videos online of Scientologists going after people they regarded as enemies of the church,” Theroux said. “So when it happened to me, and I secretly hoped it would happen for the film to work, it was a sense of excitement, relief and a little bit of nervousness as well.
Nervousness he said, because he wanted to handle it correctly, which is how he said he wanted to make sure he handled the film as a whole.
“I’m under no illusion that Scientologists enjoy objective journalistic scrutiny. In other words, I went into it with my eyes open, knowing that they might regard or would regard my intentions as probably unwelcome. But I also feel I tried to be fair-minded and I tried to resist that sense of gratuitously provoking Scientologists,” he said when asked outright if it’s fair to say he was trying provoke a response from the church.
Theroux added,”I feel like all the normal religious respect and regard should be extended to Scientology ― in other words, I don’t want to be rude. And I tried to do this test in my head where I thought, ‘You know how we exercise sensitivities to other religions?’ Of course we do. And another controversial subject in this current climate is Islam. I think, by and large, if a responsible journalist wouldn’t do it to Islam, why would we do it to Scientology?”
Of course, that nervousness Theroux spoke of earlier could be for a lot of reasons.
“I know they’ll be paying close attention to the film,” he said when asked about the last time he heard from the church. “The letters that arrived during the course of filming continued through the process of editing. We followed BBC guidelines, we did engage with them to let them know what’s in it, to give them the kind of responsible journalistic right of reply, and incorporated it in the film in various ways.”
He continued, “A couple months ago, police came around and said they’d had threats that someone had seen my film and wanted to hurt me, because they didn’t like it. They had seen it at the London Film Festival and then threatened to do me harm. So police saying that in your front room on a Sunday morning with your kids around, that certainly wakes you up with a start.”
According to Theroux, police said they knew this because someone at the Church of Scientology at East Grinstead told them they received the threat.
“To me it seemed that it was a phantom threat and it was actually just a way to wind me up,” he said, adding:”The legal stuff is ongoing, basically. As long as the film has legs in theaters or at festivals they will be keeping a close watch.”
Request for comment made to reps for the Church of Scientology have yet to be returned at this time.
Note: This post was originally published in April 2016 and has been updated to include that “My Scientology Movie” will be released in theaters and on-demand on March 10, 2017.