LFF SPECIAL: Louis Theroux and Simon Chinn discuss ‘My Scientology Movie’
In celebration of his first theatrical release, My Scientology Movie, documentarian Louis Theroux was yesterday joined by the film’s producer Simon Chinn, who is famous for his blockbuster documentaries Searching for Sugar Man and Man On Wire, to discuss the present and future of the form. Part of the BFI London Film Festival‘s series of ‘Connects’ talks, the conversation between the two filmmakers teased what we can expect from their new project, while delving deeper into the nature of documentaries, and why they chose the big screen format for My Scientology Movie.
“I’ve wanted to make a cinematic doc for as long as I’ve been working in TV, and whenever I’ve talked to my exec[utive producer] about it, we’ve said ‘one of these days when we’re working on these TV shows, we’ll hit on one, and it will be so much better than the other ones that we’ve been doing, that we’ll release that one as a film at the cinema’,” explained Theroux. “After ten years of none of them turning into films, I realised that either they’d been very ingenious at stringing me along, as they knew that was never going to happen, or we were all naïvely imagining something that simply isn’t the case. An idea you’re working on for a TV hour does not magically turn into a feature film … It has to be conceived as a feature film. So it’s less about the subject than it is about the approach to the subject”, he told the audience in his usual eloquence.
“The ones that really work tend to be somehow greater than the sum of their parts. They do actually resonate beyond the narrow confines of the subject or story that they’re looking at”, added Chinn.
And Louis’s move to the big screen isn’t necessarily a reflection of his recent move towards more ‘serious’ subjects, such as psychiatric care, or life on death row.
“You could argue that Scientology straddles the things I used to do and the new things. Because Scientologists are fascinated with mental health, and with issues of crime, but they also have an interest in – and I have to phrase this carefully – ‘life on other planets’. I made a show a long time ago about UFO believers … and I wanted to make a TV show about Scientology about ten years ago!”, said Theroux, explaining that a difference in form need not be predicated upon a change in subject matter.
“Obviously it is a controversial religion, and that gave us an opportunity to not just go after the cheap shots, and follow the controversy, but to ask questions about the controversy. And Louis does that brilliantly in the film”, Chinn followed with his producers’ input on the choice of subject.
When asked about the current state of documentary filmmaking in the United States and in the UK, Theroux cited British filmmaker Sean McAllister (The Reluctant Revolutionary) as someone who’s managing to do it all across film and television. Meanwhile, Chinn acknowledged that online streaming sites such as Netflix are helping the cause, with their allocated slots and budgets for feature documentaries. Yet there was a detectable undercurrent of doubt that feature documentaries could ever compete at the box office versus fictionalised theatrical blockbusters. What about dramatic offshoots of documentary films, such as Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, which takes on the same subject as Chinn’s Man On Wire?
“I haven’t seen [The Walk]”, Chinn confessed. “I’ve heard mixed things; some people whose opinions I really value have said it’s brilliant, and then others, whose opinions I value more, have said it’s shit”. However, he continued in all seriousness, “the stated ambition of that film was to achieve something that we couldn’t do with the documentary, which was to put the audience up there on the wire with Phillippe [Petit], and to create an amazing visual spectacle. And if all the accounts are to be believed, it does that absolutely brilliantly”.
“Cinema may not always be the natural home for the kinds of stories that I’m telling”, confessed Theroux. “Most people, when they go out to the cinema, want to go to Westfield, go to Pizza Express, get a couple of nice pizzas and a pick ’n’ mix, and don’t really want to leave the cinema on a downer. They’ve got the babysitter in – I’m sort of describing myself here, basically – and don’t really want to see anything where they’re going to leave afterwards and think ‘Wow, there’s a lot of people locked up with mental illnesses having killed their parents, and I’m really glad I learned that on my one night out’. But for better or worse, those are the sorts of stories that I’m interested in”.
On the flip side, television affords the documentarian an opportunity to slip ideas on certain topics to audiences who wouldn’t necessarily pay to see a movie about them. “Certainly I’m able to bring an audience to subjects that they may not naturally tune in for”, said Theroux.
“I’m just aware that 90% of the ideas that I have just wouldn’t suit a feature film format … Maybe I’ve got to innovate a new approach, and find a new character; a bit like Sacha Baron Cohen, and go in doing method acting. What do you think?”, Theroux posited to the audience.
We’re certainly on board with that.
My Scientology Movie premieres tomorrow, Wednesday October 14th, at Vue West End Cinema in London.