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How Scientology is losing control of Hollywood

The notoriously elusive religious body used to scare filmmakers, but as Louis Theroux’s documentary looms on the horizon it would appear that the church doesn’t inspire the same fear that it used to

Scientology and Hollywood share more in common than Tom Cruise being at the heart of both. They also both happen to be hugely profitable entities, primarily based in California, that recognise the power of stories told by famous faces. “There are many to whom America and the world listens,” L. Ron Hubbard wrote in his proposal for Project Celebrity. “On the backs of these are carried most of the enthusiasms on which the society runs.”

LA is awash with Scientology centres that target performers and offer acting classes – Jerry Seinfeld recommends the “communication” course. For the Church of Scientology, showbiz stars attract glamour and wealth – in 2007 Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, donated $10m to the religion. But, the Church hopes, newcomers are also comforted that the likes of Beck, John Travolta and Elisabeth Moss are long-term believers. After all, surely Peggy from Mad Men knows what’s best?

The thing is, Scientology operates by withholding information from its junior members, many of whom are promised superpowers down the line; they just need a chequebook to advance further. Hence, the Church desperately needs the media to play along. Before the internet, it wasn’t until level OT3 (Operation Thetan 3) that followers discovered the religion’s intergalactic sci-fi backstory. It’s like a TV box-set; once you’ve invested so much time and money, it’s easier to overlook a farfetched plot twist. But if the subtext is spoiled beforehand, you’re immediately suspicious of the personality test offered on the streets.

So when a movie alludes towards Scientology’s shadowy side, the Church pulls out its not-so-secret weapon of intimidation and a volcano the size of Xenu threatens to erupt. It’s why The Master knew not to mention Hubbard by name and Paul Thomas Anderson felt it necessary to host a private screening for Cruise. However, with the double whammy of last year’s Going Clear doc and now Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie, filmmakers are no longer afraid of directly upsetting the Church.

For Theroux, exposing Scientology is too rich for TV and requires the big screen treatment. With My Scientology Movie, the prying reporter updates his usual format with an Act of Killing spin: unable to visit Scientology HQ, he hires a film crew and recreates the horrors that occur behind closed doors with assistance from Marty Rathbun, a one-time senior figure who left the Church in 2004.

Rathbun, who joined Scientology in the 70s, was promoted to Top Lieutenant (a LinkedIn-friendly description for Chief Bully) in 1987, which entailed, as he claims in Going Clear, tasks such as facilitating Tom Cruise’s breakup with Nicole Kidman. Unsurprisingly, throughout Theroux’s movie within a movie, your eyes are drawn towards Rathbun as he winces in the corner, reliving his old misdemeanours. When you die, your past flashes before your eyes. But Rathbun’s still appears to have a life of guilt to endure.

Theroux’s visual depiction of Scientology’s skeletons, set to entertain popcorn-munching cinema audiences around the world, is a delicious strike against an organisation that shrouds itself in secrecy. What awaits for the bespectacled documentarian, though, is a lesser taste of his own journalistic medicine.

“Just been informed by Scientology lawyers that Scientology is working on a documentary about me,” Theroux tweeted last year. “Little bit excited; little bit nervous.”

During My Scientology Movie, he’s persistently tailed by a cameraman sent by the Church, which is as unnerving as you’d expect. “It’ll be a 10- to 15-minute thing. They’ll extract any photo where I look like a dick,” Theroux predicts. Alex Gibney, too, received his own Scientology-produced documentary after Going Clear. They both knew the responses were coming and weren’t deterred. The fear factor’s gone.

The Church has always treated films as propaganda. David Miscavige, the religion’s current leader, got his first break as Hubbard’s assistant cameraman for some in-house videos. On a wider scale, Travolta produced and starred in Battlefield Earth, a $73m adaptation of a Hubbard novel whereby aliens conquer Earth because mankind doesn’t sort itself out. Travolta called it “Pulp Fiction for the year 3000”; although it’s unlikely that Tarantino diehards checked out Dianetics next.

What wasn’t supposed to reach cinemas is the leaked video of Tom Cruise, in 2004, accepting a medal and saluting a Hubbard portrait at a swanky Scientology awards bash. Though the clip found its way online in 2008, it went mainstream when Gibney placed it in Going Clear. That wasn’t all; Gibney’s comprehensive exposé also includes footage of a Cruise interview, intended only for Church members, in which the actor praises Scientology over the Mission: Impossible theme. Forget “show me the money!”; Cruise’s new catchphrase should be: “I think it’s a privilege to call yourself a Scientologist and it’s something you have to earn.”

An argument Going Clear makes is that Cruise, as the chiselled face of the cult, is in a public position to speak out against, say, The Hole (its own ‘concentration camp’) or its aversion to psychiatry. But he doesn’t, and reporters rarely challenge him on the subject. (When they do, it’s gold.) So with Gibney, Theroux and Leah Remini, Scientology’s most famous escapee, revealing the cult’s juicy secrets, the silence from Cruise et al is increasingly deafening.

When I saw Theroux at a live event that previewed a clip from My Scientology Movie, he was intrigued by the audience laughter and admitted he cut out a bit that felt too jokey. The film, though funny in the way Weird Weekends could be, is also an integral piece of journalism that captures the Church’s intimidation tactics live on camera. HBO needed 160 lawyers for Going Clear’s release, but the doc still found its way into homes and cinemas – the dam is broken. And now with My Scientology Movie coming out worldwide, Scientology’s head honchos will be desperately crossing their fingers its members stick to Tom Cruise DVDs. They might even say a prayer.