While Louis Theroux filmed a documentary about Scientology, the movement struck back, dispatching members with cameras to confront Theroux, his crew and interviewees.
He exposed the tactics in the BBC documentary, My Scientology Movie, which debuted to mostly positive reviews in the UK last year and in the US last month.
My Scientology Movie: Louis Theroux's exposé is the most damning yet
“It’s hard to deny the edge-of-the-seat drama that the film-makers generate whenever they calmly push back against the cameramen and operatives who’ve been assigned by the church to follow them around Los Angeles and intimidate them,” said the Los Angeles Times review.
There is, however, a different version of what allegedly happened on- and offscreen: that Theroux adopted his own questionable tactics when the Scientologists initially refused to respond.
This accusation comes from the documentary’s chief interviewee – Mark Rathbun, also known as Marty, a former Scientology enforcer turned apostate who is at the heart of the film.
He alleges that the BBC team made what he described as “extraordinary efforts” to provoke Scientologists with “pranks” and “drive-bys” outside the church’s headquarters in LA.
He first made the claim in a blogpost last September and repeated it to the Guardian this week in a statement via email, accusing Theroux, the producer, Simon Chinn, and the director, John Dower, of “intellectually and morally bankrupt tactics”.
Theroux rejected the accusation and said the film’s goal was to tell the truth.
Rathbun, a hate figure for Scientologists who consider him a traitor, said he had cooperated with the documentary on the promise it would explore the movements’s origins and philosophy. Instead, over the course of nearly a hundred hours of filming in 2014, he claimed he found himself being used “as bait to incite the wrath” of the church.
When the organisation initially failed to respond the documentary, makers resorted to “tabloid” tactics and “childish shenanigans”, he claimed. “I witnessed Theroux and Dower stalk and harass Scientologists repeatedly with no sign that the Scientologists were interested in the bait.”
When, eventually, church members did respond by confronting Rathbun – a key sequence in the documentary – Theroux and Dower “reacted with a mix of relief and glee”, the former enforcer said. “Chinn even referred to the confrontations and their fallout as the saving grace of an otherwise potentially failed project.”
In a statement, Theroux responded: “The aim of the film was to tell the truth about Scientology, not to provoke Scientologists. We certainly never stalked or harassed church members. I very much enjoyed working with Marty on the film. He seemed to like the finished product, until he decided he didn’t like it. I wish him all the best.”
The film, Theroux’s first theatrically released feature, earned $2.2m at the box office and is now available as a video on demand. Chinn, the producer, has won awards for his previous documentaries Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man.
The Church of Scientology declined to cooperate with or give access to Theroux, so the documentary focused on confrontations with Scientologists, interviews with former members and dramatisations and re-enactments of church practices. The church did not respond to a comment request for this article.
Scientology, founded by the science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in 1955, boasts Tom Cruise and other Hollywood adherents despite a reputation, long denied by the group, for manipulation and bullying. Rathbun rose up the ranks to become inspector general, a senior post, before breaking with the church in 2004 and becoming a leading opponent.
In an article for the Guardian in 2015, Theroux said he sought to genuinely understand Scientology and to break the mould of documentaries which focused on its confrontational tactics.
But he also acknowledged relief that the group struck back during filming: “I had begun worrying that the church might have given up counter-investigating. I’ve never been so relieved to have an unidentified pair of people show up and start filming me in a random creepy way from across the road. After studying the subject for years, watching countless YouTube videos of Scientology handlers filming critics and journalists, it felt amazing to be on the receiving end myself: I felt like I’d been blooded.”
Rathbun’s blogpost, and comments to the Guardian, raise the question of whether Theroux and his team went too far in seeking drama.
“The jiggery-pokery Theroux and Dower attempted in provoking Scientologists – and were called out for in real time as I witnessed it – was legion.”
He alleged the film-makers told Scientology lawyers about his collaboration in the hope of blowback and hosted him in a motel just a block from the home and office of the church leader, David Miscavige. He accused them of “loudly cavorting” with anti-Scientologists outside the movement’s headquarters and making a false, lurid dramatisation of Miscavige. He also denied having initially endorsed the film.
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Tony Ortega, a journalist and author who has tracked Scientology for 20 years and who knows both Rathbun and Theroux, defended the British film-maker.
Theroux, Ortega said, used legitimate documentary methods to draw out an elusive, uncooperative subject. “Were they hoping Scientologists would react and follow them? Well, look, they were making a movie. What good would it be if no one did anything?” The confrontations were real, he said. “That is how Scientology reacts. If you show up with a camera, that is how they’ll react.”
Rathbun’s denunciation of the film, Ortega said, reflected an apparent softening of his hostility towards the church. The apostate’s blogposts used to excoriate Miscavige but now they assail the church’s foes. “The real story is not so much Louis and his techniques but what the heck happened to Marty Rathbun.”
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