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7 October 2016updated 03 Aug 2021 11:35am

Louis Theroux’s new films look at Jimmy Savile and Scientology – but what do we learn about Louis?

This autumn, Theroux releases two new documentaries, which are both are notable for their focus on the filmmaker. But how much of himself does he really reveal?

By Anna Leszkiewicz

When did Louis Theroux become a cult figure? It’s been a slow burn – Tatler once named Theroux the seventh most wanted man in Britain, and in a 2005 Heat magazine, he was listed in the “weird crush” top ten. As he told the Financial Times in the same year, “I think I got 4 per cent of the vote!”

Now, the internet is full of Theroux fan content. The Twitter account No Context Louis has had several viral hits, with close to 100,000 followers, and fans find their five minutes of fame with punning baked goods. You can buy t-shirts emblazoned with drawings of Theroux alongside rap lyrics, and embroidered patches of his face are garnering thousands of notes on Tumblr. (Pictures of Theroux semi-naked or engaged in sexually frank conversations are particularly popular.)

Last weekend, The Observer Magazine’s cover story, an interview with the filmmaker, read “The Cult of Theroux”. The line comes from a predictably peculiar moment in his new feature-length documentary, My Scientology Movie. In one of the film’s several re-enactment scenes, Theroux encourages a group of actors to stand up and applaud a non-existent portrait of L. Ron Hubbard, as actual Scientologists would do. A spiky former Scientologist Marty Rathbun, who has been schooling the actors on Scientology techniques of self-empowerment, refuses to engage with such “mind control”. 

“If you wanna join this guy’s cult, that’s fine with me […] After I did all that work to try to get them to become self-determined and able to exercise intention, they all went and followed this new cult leader – the Louis Theroux cult.”

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It’s a particularly irresistible moment because, while revealing about Rathbun, it shifts the focus back onto Theroux himself. He’s a man who found fame by getting others to reveal their personalities on screen – and today, his fans increasingly want to see him do the same.

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This autumn, Theroux releases two new documentaries – and both are notable for their focus on Theroux himself. Savile looks at Theroux’s own guilt surrounding the posthumous exposure of Jimmy Savile as a paedophile, after he failed to connect the dots while making a 2001 documentary about him; while the very title of My Scientology Movie reveals a more personal take on a subject than usual.

So, if these new works are a more Louis-tastic affair, what do we actually learn about Theroux himself? Well, not much. Although these films sell themselves on the documentary-maker as much as their subjects, they are a masterclass in giving the appearance of intimacy without actually sharing much.

In My Scientology Movie, Theroux throws himself, as well as his troupe of actors, into all the techniques Scientologists use to train members of their Church. Many of these practices seem based around getting participants to “clear” their emotions, or at least give the appearance of being in complete control of them.

As former Scientologist Marty Rathbun explains, “If you’ve seen them in the public eye, people who are prominent Scientologists have a very sort of forceful barrier, an intentional type of personality. That’s essentially what these things drill in.” Louis is “good” at all of them.

The first one we see (used heavily in the trailer) is “auditing”, a form of counselling using a primitive lie detector called an E-Meter. It involves speaking about memories and traumas (called engrams) that elicit a reaction on the E-Meter, repeatedly, until they no longer register on the machine. “I’m thinking about a time when I was about 11 or 12…” Theroux says, as the soundtrack fades out, so the viewer can’t hear the memory.

“That’s interesting, your needle’s floating,” Rathbun says soon after. Theroux responds, “That’s good, right? That means I cleared something?”

Next we see Theroux participating in “the mostly highly criticised” and “the most highly sworn-by drill”, called “ball baiting”. Yes, it is what it sounds like. It involves trying to provoke an emotional reaction from the participant in any way possible – from telling Theroux he’s bad at his job to saying his wife doesn’t love him. “She’s fucking some other guy right now. It’s probably someone you know. It’s probably your brother.” Theroux doesn’t flinch. “God, he’s really good. I don’t even know what to say. What do I do?”

In Savile, Theroux’s voiceovers, and actual voice in interviews with victims, emphasise how troubled he was to hear of the crimes Savile had committed, and how he grappled with the fact that he had not known the real Savile, both when making his 2001 documentary, and in the following years. But it’s hard to say how he really feels about the situation.

The film’s premise revolves around Theroux’s guilt. At the film’s climax, there are, perhaps, traces of tears in his eyes when he admits, “He was someone who, when he was alive, I called a friend. Which I still struggle with.”

He continues, “I feel a bit ashamed, now knowing what we know. I feel as though…” –  trailing off before Sam, one of Savile’s victims, offers: “You didn’t do the right thing?”

Theroux frowns. “No. I don’t – I want to stand up and say I don’t really regret that, in the sense that… I don’t want to say that I have anything to feel ashamed of, in a sense. Because I didn’t see anything.”

We learn that Theroux and Savile remained in touch, and that Theroux had called him a friend. “We’d had a friendly relationship since making a documentary together the previous year,” Theroux tells us, over footage of Savile spending time at Theroux’s house. “One of my reasons for keeping in touch was that I thought there was a side to him I hadn’t seen.”

As he says this, we see a clip of Theroux insisting Savile stay at his house whenever he likes. “You’ve got a room upstairs. I’m serious.”

Savile leaves the viewer with a creepy, hollow feeling, for all the right reasons. The stories from his victims make for very upsetting viewing, confronting us with the idea of a man who was a monster in plain sight. But, bag of insecurities that I am, this particular moment made me feel strangely uncomfortable for another reason. Imagine having a friend earnestly insist that you stay over whenever you fancy, not because they enjoy your company, but the opposite – they find you odd, strange, and want to keep you under observation. It feels like intimacy, but it’s not.

As Carole Cadwalladr, an old friend of Theroux’s, notes in that Observer interview, “the one thing I do know about Louis is that, despite appearances, perhaps, he’s not an open book.”

I canvassed the opinions of various friends, I tell him, to ask them what they remembered about him and the word which came back was “inscrutable”.

“Really? I think I’m the most scrutable person going!”

“You don’t think you have a certain… detachment?”

“We were friends, weren’t we?”

“Well, yes, but I didn’t know you…”

“Who is scrutable? I mean I like the idea of being inscrutable. But… maybe I kept people at arm’s length a little bit. I think of myself as being quite affable, approachable, fairly easy to get to know. I don’t totally recognise the characterisation of inscrutable, but it’s possible I kept people at arm’s length a bit.”

Even as he discusses his own inscrutability, Theroux is simultaneously warm, frank – and invulnerable. If these more personal films reveal anything about Theroux himself, it’s this very conflict.

***

Now listen to a review of Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY: