Louis Theroux webchat – your questions answered on Jimmy Savile, Islam and Scientology

Last modified: 12: 41 PM GMT+0

The TV documentarist answered your questions, from his regrets about not exposing Jimmy Savile to vomiting and falling asleep during interviews. Catch up with his answers here

That's all for today!

Many thanks to Louis for his time and his answers, and to everyone who submitted questions. Until next time!

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

Thank you for your great questions. On Sunday night at 9 o'clock on BBC2 we have a show called A Different Brain about brain injury - please tune in. And Drinking To Oblivion is still available on iPlayer.

'Following Lisa Marie Presley would be fascinating. Why did she marry Michael Jackson? I still don't get what that was about'

n1ckww4 asks:

Who would be your Anne Widdicombe for this age Louis, someone unlikely you would like to follow around where others would fear to tread?

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

I have to say Trump, but he'd never agree. I think Lisa Marie Presley would be fascinating - I don't know about following her around, but the way she touches on different interests of mine, being married to Michael Jackson, being involved in Scientology, it's rumoured that she's now disaffected from it and has left, and is behind the scenes an anti-Scientologist, or at least helping people who have left it. So if she would open up and talk about MJ and also the truth about Scientology that would be fascinating. Why did she marry Michael Jackson? I still don't get what that was about.


'There have been times when I've felt inappropriately emotional. It doesn't help viewers to see me reacting in that way. I never want to feel more than the viewers'

PikaPika asks:

The scene in your latest piece where Joe returned up the road with a bottle of water was almost heartbreaking. What’s the most moving interaction you’ve ever filmed, and are there any scenes you’ve had to remove for those reasons?

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

There have been times when I've felt inappropriately emotional. I remember making The Most Hated Family in America about the Westboro Baptist Church, and being on the way to a funeral of a US soldier with the Phelps family, they were going to picket the funeral. Something they always did was to read out biographical information about the dead soldier among themselves in the van on the way. And seize on bits they took to be evidence of ungodliness, like he was divorced or had children out of wedlock, or his parents were divorced. On this occasion they let me read out his biographical information and just in reading out I became aware I was on the verge of tears. We didn't put it in the programmed because it wasn't a particularly vivid scene or especially revealing - I was just having a human response.

It was just so sad reading about this guy's life, thinking about the quotes from his mum which reminded me of my eldest son, she called him her little tank, a tough little guy. It made me think of my own son and what I would feel if he died. So that was why - I was aware I was feeling emotional. It doesn't help viewers to see me reacting in that way. It's better in general if I can remain impassive. I never want to feel more than the viewers. I'm not trying to be an automaton. It's like when you see people laughing on camera and you don't find it funny as a viewer - it's an offputting experience. The viewers need to be a judge of what they find emotional. I really do try not to emote. I don't like seeing it on documentaries - it seems a bit unprofessional. I also need to be human being and be a kind of sympathetic presence for the contributors I'm with, so there' a line you have to walk.

The scene with Joe was difficult for me - I was caught in the middle of these two different roles. Being an emotional support on the one hand and a dispassionate journalistic presence. These are the first shows I've made in the UK in 15 years, and the first i've ever made that were not about celebrities, so this was a big step for me. In the past I've always had the insulation of doing stories in places I wasn't particularly well known, and among people who weren't likely to be massively affected by the exposure of being in a documentary. It's quite odd doing stories with people who have a relationship with you through the television. And being asked to do selfies with people while you're filming out on the streets. It's a positive though because what you get is all the honesty that goes with making programmes with people who have seen your shows and know exactly who you are and what your style is, and in a sense who are your own people, culturally and in terms of country of origin. I think we weren't sure whether we'd be able to do it, as a production. And because it is home territory, the response has been strikingly positive. I hadn't expected the reaction we got, and it's partly explained by viewers feeling more connected to stories that are in the UK.


'We're all guilty of "us and them" thinking. The left just as much as the right'

heyjackcooper asks:

To what extent do you approach your film making with social change in mind? Are you motivated by the potential to make a positive or negative impact on the public’s perception of xyz person/issue, or are you invested wholly in honest storytelling?

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

Well, I'd like to think there isn't really a tension between those two imperatives. But in the end, honesty has to come first. And in fact, for me, the sweet spot of my kind of journalism is where the human qualities that the viewer responds to comes into conflict with a sense of how they should feel rationally. In other words, seeing the human side of weirdness, for want of a better term... a lot of my work is simply about meeting people who one feels should disapprove of and finding they're rather likeable in certain ways.

I think we're all guilty of us and them thinking. The left just as much as the right. And that we condemn someone as racist, let's say, or as a sexual deviant, and then feel we needn't treat them as if they were fully human.


Veterantraveller says:

A-up, Louis, love everything you do.

What book are you reading at the moment?

I recommend The Trial of Maximo Bonga. The true story of Quixotic foreigners staying at a mad guesthouse run by an eccentric WWII veteran. Think Fawlty Towers meets Dad’s Army. Very funny.

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

I'm reading This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski. It's an account of being a prisoner at Auschwitz by a young Polish poet and communist, who wasn't actually Jewish, which probably explains why he survived it. I just finished a book called The First Bad Man, a novel by Miranda July, which I absolutely loved. It may be the funniest book I've ever read.

'I have fallen asleep during interviews – I'm not proud of it'

elalpineclub asks:

Hi Louis. Have you ever vomitted whilst talking to somebody on your show?

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

Yes. I vomited while interviewing some wrestlers at the WCW Power Plant training academy. They had pressured me into a workout that I was patently unequipped to handle and I pushed myself. I had a greasy breakfast, and I pushed myself to the point of "blowing chunks", is the term they used. And what was funny was Sarge, the head wrestler who was shouting at me, and who had been totally unimpressed by my physical efforts, was equally disappointed in my puking. He seemed to think it was too watery. And he kept saying: that ain't nothing, blow chunks!

I have also, on a number of occasions fallen asleep during interviews which I'm not proud of. A long day, an early start, a sleepless night due to young children, followed by lunch and then filming either in a rather boring meeting in a stuffy room or a filmed conversation with me in the back of a car and someone in the front of the car, either of those scenarios are potentially high likelihood of me nodding off. So I think I might be mildly narcoleptic. If it's a case of either falling asleep or the other pitfall for journalists is that they go off the deep end - they lose their cool, start shouting. In a sense it's better to fall asleep - I'm not making excuses for it. Possibly it's good for rapport building - it shows trust, I think... No, that definitely is cobblers.


'I tend to think that the truth is generally a good thing for all parties'

jezriggs asks:

Hi Louis, what are your tips for getting people to reveal themselves on camera?

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

So I work with a team, a director and an assistant producer. They meet the contributors first, usually, so the rapport-building begins before I'm on the scene. After that it's about me turning up and trying to be a nice guy, polite, interested, available, putting the hours in. I am a pretty easy going bloke, and I am genuinely curious about the subjects that I cover, and in the end, I try to make it clear that it's up to them what they want to disclose, especially the vulnerable contributors, but they have nothing to fear by speaking the truth. I do try and approach film programme making as a win-win: I tend to think that the truth is generally a good thing for all parties. The people I speak to, it's very often a central conflict in their existence. Whether it's a behaviour that seems self-sabotaging or a dilemma that's been thrust upon them and it's actually in a sense salutary and unburdening for them to talk openly. Very often the people I'm among are aware they're somehow stigmatised or grappling with something the world doesn't quite understand, and so by being a good listener and asking the right questions in a polite way, you can create something very powerful.


On Jimmy Savile: 'It is a source of regret that I couldn't do more to expose him while he was alive'

paul772 asks:

Louis, regarding your programme with Jimmy Savile is there anything you now think that you would have done differently, as we all know hindsight is a wonderful thing?

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

Well clearly I would have done it very differently. With hindsight I would have questioned him closely about his sexual activities, I would have attempted to gather evidence of what he was up to. And held him to account. Or indeed notified the police. I didn't at that time, when making the programme, know him to be a sex offender, or a sexual predator. I had heard rumours but so had a lot of people, and it always seemed to me that the rumours were extremely pervasive - it wasn't a BBC thing, I'd been hearing them since my mid teens. It may be that there were so many rumours, that they almost had a paradoxical effect of making one disinclined to take them too seriously. But it is a source of regret that I couldn't do more to expose him while he was alive.

There's a moment in the car when I address the rumours with him. In fact he brings up the rumours, it's not me. He says when you're a single fella, people say a lot of funny things. If there was a spot where I look back and think I could have pushed harder, it's not there. It was in the bedroom that belonged to his mother before she died, where he'd keep her clothing and have it dry cleaned once a year. And I asked him about his private life and whether he had girlfriends, and that was the moment when I was trying to pin down what he was, sexually. And he talks about having millions of friends who are girls, but no girlfriends, in terms of exclusive relationships. Which didn't quite make sense at the time. So when I finished making the documentary I was aware that I hadn't really answered the central question of his identity which is what his sexual interests were. I knew I hadn't answered it. I remember even being interviewed about the programme, and I'd say we got some of the way, but I still don't understand who he is in the sexual department. Asexual, gay, something else. Clearly he was never going to volunteer the fact he had a track record of criminality.


'Isis would be an amazing subject if I wasn't quite so afraid of going there'

Joe Beagle asks:

What topic would you most like to cover, what makes you want to and why do you believe you have, so far, not been able to?

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

I'd really like to make a documentary about extreme Islam. Or Islamism if you prefer that term. We made a start last year and did an afternoon with Anjem Choudary and Abu Baraa. It's such a huge issue, it's a massively important topic that touches on themes that I've covered in the past to do with religious identification: how we define extremism, the strange power of religion. It's such a front burner issue, it was very hard to build trust, it was very hard just to get into people's homes. The Islamists we were in touch with didn't want us in their houses and were also worried that just by expressing their true opinions they might open themselves up to accusations of glorification of terrorism. Isis would be an amazing subject if I wasn't quite so afraid of going there. The whole question of at what point a religion which by its very nature predicated on a belief in the supernatural tips over into something dangerous and toxic is a fascinating one. I suppose I explore some of the same ideas in My Scientology Movie.

We find that there's this massive fault line that separates those who tell us that Islam is by its nature lending itself to misinterpretation and violence, and then there's this more mainstream view that it's fundamentally no different from other religions. It's a matter of fact we worry less about Buddhist terrorist than Islamic terrorists. It's interesting to try to explore, and important, why Islam has become a cloak for, in recent times anyway, these frightening political actions. I'm by no means an expert. Whether it's the Islamists or the anti-Islamists that are doing it, it's constantly a front page concern. It's almost such a hot topic that it makes it difficult for me to explore. The sensitivities are too high.


'There are people with beliefs that are deeply offensive who are acting out of a kind of misguided sense of missionary zeal'

CVA1976 asks:

Who of the people you’ve interviewed have you: a) found the funniest b) wanted to stay in contact with c) felt sorry for d) despised?

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

a) I interviewed a plastic surgeon who specialised in transgender surgery. He's Dr Crane, and one of a tiny handful of contributors who made me laugh in a way I couldn't control while i was filming with him. He had a disarming manner. He was telling me about clients of his who'd opted to get phalloplasties while keeping their vaginas, and the way he talked about it and the unexpectedness of the image that came into my head caused me to start laughing.

b) I stayed in contact with Thor Templar who was in a UFO show, and he claimed to have killed ten space aliens. He wore a uniform and talked vividly about what it was like shooting them. It felt almost like a performance piece he was doing. I went back in search of him for a book I did called Call of the Weird, and he was very hard to track down. Something about the strangeness of what he was saying, mixed with the very normal qualities he had - he worked in finance. He wasn't in the least bit mentally ill. It made for a really intoxicating combination.

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

c) I was tried to make and abandoned a programme about Ike Turner, husband of Tina Turner. Notwithstanding he had a track record of spousal abuse, he was also very sensitive, very thin skinned, and had a loveable quality. He was a prisoner of this identity that was partly media-created due to the success of the movie What's Love Got to Do With It, so I always felt sorry for him.

d) Despised is a strong word. I had a negative reaction - I could actually say I disliked - a success guru called Marshall Sylver, who charged vulnerable people thousands of dollars on the promise of making them into millionaires. A lot of the work that I do is in the area of confused idealism, and so as strange as it may sound there are people with beliefs that are deeply offensive who are nonetheless acting out of a kind of misguided sense of missionary zeal, or tribal loyalties. Whereas some like Sylver actually had a cynical and rather predatory outlook. It seemed to me there was bad faith going on in his supposed attempts to help people.


'My Scientology Movie is coming to UK cinemas later this year'

miriam79 2d ago 12

Will My Scientology Movie ever be getting a UK wide release?

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

Yes it will. It's coming later this year to cinemas near you. We made a deal with a company called Altitude who released Amy, so it's all very exciting.

For me it's a big departure, because it's the first theatrical released documentary I've ever made. It was conceived and shot as a cinematic movie, it's 100 minutes, and it investigates and attempts to get under the skin of what for me is the Holy Grail of stories: America's homegrown religion created by a science fiction writer, and structured like a corporation. With Tom Cruise.


neiljung81 asks:

Where do you get your documentary style from and who influences you? I remember Werner Herzog saying “The director must be the hornet that stings, not the fly on the wall.” Do you subscribe to this notion and adopt this approach?

User avatar for LouisTheroux Guardian contributor

I'm influenced by Alan Whicker, a bit of Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore who gave me my first job in television, Jon Ronson, and print journalists and writers like George Plimpton, Hunter S Thompson, of the participatory journalism school. I like the Herzog quote because I agree that a lot of the classical documentary in the cinema verite tradition fetishises non-intervention, and you can get to the truth more quickly by probing and shaking things up.


Louis is with us now!

Here he is in Guardian Towers, with your questions and our questionable machine coffee:

Louis Theroux


Post your questions for Louis Theroux

Porn stars, white supremacists, swingers, hardened criminals – Louis Theroux seems at home with all of them, creating TV documentaries that quietly show the humanity behind life’s most cartoonish characters. But as well as everyday people, Theroux has also followed infamous figures such as Max Clifford, Neil and Christine Hamilton, and – memorably – Jimmy Savile.

While there’s a certain amount of comic mileage in being a fish out of water, his common touch also elicits remarkable candour from his subjects, often very movingly. Take his newest films for BBC2, exploring alcoholism and, on Sunday 15 May, brain injuries.

Theroux is joining us to answer your questions about them and anything else in his career, in a live webchat from 12.30 BST on Monday 9 May. Post your questions for him in the comments below, and he’ll answer as many as possible.


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