A couple of years ago, BBC presenter Louis Theroux made an appeal on Twitter for Scientologists to reach out to him for the new film he was making about the church. We couldn’t help rolling our eyes at the time, wondering if Theroux knew what he was getting himself into. But his method was sound. He wanted to come at the story with an entirely fresh start. He asked Scientology for access, and he genuinely wanted to hear from Scientologists about their organization.
Early in My Scientology Movie, the film he premiered last night at the London Film Festival, Theroux says that he relished the idea of being the first journalist who would find something positive to say about Scientology. If you know his excellent body of work, you know that such a counter-intuitive take is just like Theroux. And of course he’s right — it really would have been remarkable if he’d been able to pull that off.
But then, reality sunk in. He soon realized that Scientology wasn’t going to give him any access at all. And the only church members he then ran into tended to be carrying cameras or were in some other way stalking him.
How then would Theroux make a film about Scientology without the interviews he’s known for, and when he was aware that Alex Gibney and HBO were going to get to market first with Going Clear, a super-serious and devastating takedown of the church using the recollections of some of its most remarkable former members? (Disclosure: Your proprietor appears in Going Clear, and also is thanked at the end of My Scientology Movie for providing some minor help answering background questions about Scientology. We received no payment in either project.)
Facing that daunting challenge, producer Simon Chinn and director John Dower conspired with Theroux to come up with a completely off-the-wall idea. They would explore some of the main themes about Scientology’s reputation by hiring actors to recreate key scenes, using dialogue from actual court documents or past interviews. And, to make sure that they were re-creating scenes as accurately as possible, they’d use the expertise of Mark “Marty” Rathbun, a man who was once the second-highest ranking official in the organization. They even had Rathbun write some scenes and dialogue for the actors in order to re-create what life was like in Scientology’s hellish private prison, “the Hole.”
We have to admit, we didn’t see that coming. And it soon became obvious it was an approach that was going to raise some excellent questions about the nature of Scientology, the challenges of understanding the church from the outside, and also the credibility of Rathbun and other former members who have so often been quoted by the press.
And all that while being a laugh riot.
With Marty’s help, Theroux casts an actor as Scientology leader David Miscavige, and another as Tom Cruise. With other young people playing Sea Org members, Theroux and Rathbun set out to re-create on a Hollywood sound stage the Scientology experience where it is at its most hardcore: Int Base in the California desert about 90 miles east of Los Angeles.
In Going Clear, where Lawrence Wright and Mike Rinder simply talk about what Scientology auditing is like, here Marty Rathbun actually takes Theroux into an auditing session using an e-meter. Rathbun also puts the young actors through some of Scientology’s beginning exercises, including “bullbaiting,” which has one Scientologist screaming and gesturing to make his subject flinch. With Rathbun bullbaiting Theroux and then having Theroux yell at an ashtray in another infamous Scientology exercise, the film reaches a level of absurdity that even an e-meter couldn’t measure, but we couldn’t look away or stop laughing.
And almost from the start, there’s a palpable tension that grows between Rathbun and Theroux. If you know Theroux’s interviewing style, you know that his deadpan delivery really isn’t an act. It’s how he questions anyone, but it often means that the person he’s interviewing is eventually going to look foolish. Here, Rathbun mostly seems to be in on the joke, but over time he begins to have less and less patience with Theroux as Louis keeps bringing up why Rathbun’s own role in the church as an enforcer doesn’t taint his testimony now, as a whistleblower.
In the meantime, as that notion simmers, Theroux makes excellent use of other former church members. Steven Mango talks about how Scientology lures in young aspiring Hollywood types. Tom DeVocht relates his personal experience as David Miscavige’s drinking partner. Marc Headley twice takes Theroux to visit Int Base, and also helps him cast his Tom Cruise. Jefferson Hawkins, meanwhile, gives some of the best testimony in the film, explaining why someone could stay in Scientology for so long despite the abuses in the Sea Org.
And we have to give special praise to Andrew Perez, the actor who was selected to play David Miscavige. It was electric to see Rathbun react to Andrew’s reading of lines from the 1992 Nightline interview Miscavige gave to Ted Koppel. “Did you see that? He’s got it, he’s got that edge,” Rathbun says excitedly to Theroux, like it’s extremely satisfying to him to see Miscavige brought to life in his presence. And it’s a little otherworldly to watch Rathbun beaming as, later in the movie, he observes Perez channeling Miscavige in a re-creation of “The Hole,” screaming at actors playing Sea Org members, smashing things, and pushing people around.
Rathbun seems to love it. But he’s less happy when Theroux wants his actors to applaud in the direction of an L. Ron Hubbard portrait. Suddenly, Rathbun seems completely out of sorts, and, like the look on Theroux’s face, we were dumbstruck. What’s Marty’s problem?
Meanwhile, the actual Church of Scientology keeps butting in, confirming its long-earned reputation by sending private investigators and freelance cameramen and nosy church members to get in Theroux’s face while the preternaturally calm Englishman takes the piss out of them, adroitly filming the people who have been sent to film him.
Finally, there’s a climactic moment when a visit by creepy Scientologists combines with Theroux’s penetrating (but entirely fair) questions to send Rathbun over the edge.
And what do we learn from it? We’re not entirely sure what our fellow film-goers, particularly those new to the world of Scientology, will take away. We’re seeing some press reviews suggesting that they liked this film because it was more charitable to Scientology than Going Clear, but that’s hard to support with what actually takes place on the screen. By the end of the movie, Theroux has come to understand that, yes, Scientology and its hardcore believers really are that humorless and extreme in their worldview. And he seems to have great respect for the likes of Headley, Mango, and Hawkins, even if he also wants us to see Rathbun as a deeply troubled character who is more complex than other press accounts have revealed.
As much as Theroux is known for not taking sides, in the end he seems all but convinced that the Hole and its horrific conditions actually did exist, and that Scientology’s outright denials just aren’t credible. And this is a Louis Theroux film, so he’s taken you on this journey while making you crack up simply by the way he pauses when you’re dying for him to say something. His comedic timing is truly incredible.
My Scientology Movie also entertained us with its gorgeous soundtrack and the repeated denials from the church that look comical spelled out on the big screen. In the end, Simon Chinn and John Dower and Louis Theroux have produced a penetrating look at Scientologists — current and former — and they found a way to introduce Scientology’s many wacky concepts while being downright hilarious. We enjoyed this film a great deal, and we think you will too.
OK, now a couple of criticisms. If the movie’s strength is located in the way Theroux puts Marty Rathbun on the spot while, at the same time, Scientology itself keeps trying to barge in with its camera-wielding crazies, we found that this also limited the film’s impact. Boiling things down to whether Marty Rathbun is reliable or not made for some good drama, but it does a real disservice to the many people who share stories similar to Rathbun but who were not themselves enforcers or spies.
Where, for example, are the women? Theroux claims that only members of the Sea Org go through the worst that Scientology can dish out. But that’s just not true. Talk to Cindy Plahuta. Or Lori Hodgson. Or Sara Goldberg. Or Karen de la Carriere. None of them were in the Sea Org when their families were ripped apart because they fell afoul of David Miscavige.
Theroux amply proves that you can get Scientology to follow you if you start pointing cameras at its facilities. But repeatedly while watching the film we wanted to scream: Scientology’s worst abuses have nothing to do with tailing journalists!
Not once are Scientology’s most controversial practices even brought up: Disconnection, which destroys families. Forcing Sea Org women to have abortions from about 1982 to 2010. Pressuring members to bankrupt themselves in order to pay for elusive “super powers.” Using methods much worse than tailing people to “Fair Game” the church’s perceived enemies.
And let’s talk about Marty Rathbun’s credibility for a moment. We’ve certainly had similar incidents with him, when our questions about his past as an enforcer enraged him. But does that make anything he has revealed unreliable? Theroux brings up the reliability of Rathbun numerous times in his film, but we wanted to ask him, can you point to a single thing that Rathbun (or Mike Rinder, for that matter) has ever said about Scientology that turned out to be untrue?
The stories told by Rathbun and Rinder are corroborated by many others, and by documents. We keep printing what they tell us because they have never told us anything that didn’t check out. Their stories about The Hole are backed up by Jeff Hawkins and Tom DeVocht and Marc Headley and John Brousseau and Debbie Cook (who testified about conditions in the Hole while under oath in a court of law).
Maybe it was just for legal reasons — England’s libel laws having been reformed, but still not to be trifled with — that Theroux repeatedly talks about admiring Scientologists for their dedication to producing a new kind of world free of war and insanity. But how honest is that statement when Theroux has witnessed first hand that Scientology turns perfectly normal people into deluded zealots obsessed with discipline and ready to destroy people it considers enemies?
We give Louis Theroux a lot of credit for finding a compelling and entertaining way to put Marty Rathbun’s reliability as a narrator into question. But at the end of his really excellent movie, we couldn’t help wondering if Theroux’s own reliability doesn’t end up being put into question (which, knowing Theroux, he probably wouldn’t object to in the least). Does he really feel, as he said in a description of his film he wrote for the Guardian yesterday, that Scientology is just like any other religion?
Maybe Rathbun ought to put him on the cans for that one. What’s your withhold, Louis?
We didn’t get a chance to include photos in our book, so we’ve posted them at a dedicated page. Reader Sookie put together a complete index and we’re hosting it here on the website. Copies of the paperback version of ‘The Unbreakable Miss Lovely’ are on sale at Amazon. The Kindle edition is also available, and shipping instantly.
Tony Ortega’s upcoming appearances (and check out the interactive map to our ongoing tour)…
Oct 23: Sydney, Giant Dwarf Theatre (with Steve Cannane and Bryan Seymour)
Oct 25: Melbourne, The Wheeler Centre, 3 pm, free but reservations recommended (with Steve Cannane)
Oct 28: Adelaide, Wheatsheaf Hotel, (with Sen. Nick Xenophon)
Oct 30: Perth, Collins Street Centre, Collins St and Shaftesbury St, South Perth, 7 pm
Past dates: Santa Barbara (5/16), Hollywood (5/17), Orange County (5/17), San Diego (5/20), San Francisco (5/22), New York (6/11), Chicago (6/20), Toronto (6/22), Clearwater (6/28), Washington DC (7/12), Hartford (7/14), Denver (7/17), Dallas (7/20), Houston (7/22), San Antonio (7/24), Austin (7/25), Paris (7/29), London (8/4), Boston (8/24), Phoenix (9/15), Cleveland (9/23), Minneapolis (9/24), Portland (9/27), Seattle (9/28), Vancouver BC (9/29)
Posted by Tony Ortega on October 15, 2015 at 02:00
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Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…
BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of LA attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts
PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer
The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill
The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ
Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield