Following a long fascination with the religion, and with a lot of experience dealing with eccentric human behaviour, British broadcaster Louis Theroux won’t take no for an answer when his request to enter the Church of Scientology’s Los Angeles headquarters is turned down. Theroux’s insatiable curiosity motivates him to understand what life inside the Church is really like, and with the aid of former second-in-command at the Church, Mark ‘Marty’ Rathbun, he uses actors to replay incidents people claim they experienced with high profile members such as Tom Cruise and leader David Miscavige.
Having interviewed paedophiles, porn stars and gay-hating Christians, documentary presenter Louis Theroux describes himself as a ‘student of bizarre organisations and eccentric people’. It’s no wonder that he’s wanted to make a film about Scientology for more than 10 years. After all, this is a religion invented by L. Ron Hubbard, a sci-fi writer and wannabe film director, and favoured by gullible actors and out of work entertainers. It’s also a notoriously secretive organisation, and all Theroux’s polite requests for access were answered with slammed doors and stern legal letters. Undaunted, Theroux teamed up with producer Simon Chinn (Searching for Sugar Man, Man on Wire) and director John Dower (Thriller in Manila) to make a film that tries to turn this lack of access into its own kind of virtue. The results are often funny and frequently insightful, if a little patchy.
Inspired by Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, where the Indonesian subjects were convinced to make astonishing movie recreations of their genocidal acts, Theroux tries a similar approach. Aided by ex-Scientology bigwig Marty Rathbun, they undertake casting sessions for the film’s head honcho, David Miscavige and other key Scientology figures. (The scenes involving Tom Cruise lookalikes are particularly delicious and reveal much about the Hollywood milieu in which Scientology thrives.) Once cast, these actors are made to perform publicly available speeches as well as recreating private meetings and typical ‘auditing sessions’ where members are brainwashed in the name of personal development. These involve practicing intimidation techniques, and speaking to an ashtray ‘with authority’.
Disgruntled ex-Scientologist Rathbun coaches the performers, honing their delivery until it matches his memories. ‘I was the baddest-ass dude in Scientology and the hierarchy of the church was absolutely at the beck and call of me,’ he says, with some pride. And while he’s intent on exposing and ridiculing the church, the film’s main achievement is in showing how deeply scarred he remains. One moment he’s boasting about his former power, the next he’s bristling with aggression when Theroux mildly prods for details.
"Scenes involving Tom Cruise lookalikes are particularly delicious"
In the course of filming, it becomes clear the church leadership is trying to obstruct Theroux’s project. A big white car with blacked out windows starts trailing them through the flat streets of LA, and mysterious strangers with video cameras (clearly underemployed actors and cameramen) reveal when questioned, that they’re making their own film about Theroux. It’s all slightly silly, but also sinister, painting a picture of a controlling organisation that is very hard to leave once you’re a part of it. The funniest moments occur when Theroux visits the publicly owned nature strip outside the barbed wire-fenced Scientology headquarters in southern California. He’s met with a barrage of angry security men bearing video cameras alongside senior member Catherine Fraser, who insists robotically that they’re on private property. Theroux’s dogged responses and stubborn British demeanour are at their best here, and it’s a joy to see him eventually employing the very same psychological techniques he’s learnt from the recreations to mirror back the church’s aggression. As the title suggests, this is very much Theroux’s own idiosyncratic coverage of the topic. For a more comprehensive and sober exposé, see Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015), but Theroux’s film works well as an entertaining and thought-provoking companion piece.