Q&A: Louis Theroux on interviewing controversial subjects

July 28, 2017

A great interview is one of the journalist’s most powerful tools. It can be informative, entertaining, thoughtful. For the next five weeks, the Columbia Journalism Review and MaximumFun.org will broadcast conversations with some of the world’s greatest interviewers. Hosted by NPR’s Jesse Thorn, the podcast, called The Turnaround, will examine the science and art of journalism.

This episode features Louis Theroux, documentary filmmaker and broadcaster. An edited transcript is below.



Jesse: How would you characterize what it is that you do? Because it’s a very specific thing, and you’ve been doing it for quite a while.

Louis: I go among people who are in some way involved in lifestyles or belief systems that are outside the mainstream, but also have a profound moral dimension to them where their view is often questionable, controversial, sometimes hateful, and I attempt to build relationships with them and get to know them ideally over a period of days or even weeks. I make documentaries in which you see those relationships develop.

ICYMI: “You could put a cactus in my job and people would criticize the cactus.”

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Jesse: Do you remember the first time that you were with one of these groups of people? Was there a moment when you thought, “This is a thing that should be my thing that I do”?

Louis: I do know that when I first got hired on a TV show in 1994, I was 23 and Michael Moore had the TV show TV Nation, which was just gearing up. I went along for an interview having no TV experience and he thought, “Well, there’s something in this bespectacled, skinny, and slightly sallow kind of shambolic figure who will make an interesting contrast with the wild and woolly outer reaches of American culture.” And the first story he sent me on, at the time was literally, because the magazine I’d been working for as a journalist was Spy magazine. It had gone belly up, and I was temping in the publishing industry, doing proofreading and fact-checking. He called me up and said, after the interview, “You know I’m going to send you off and, get ready, you’re leaving tomorrow.” And the story was about religious groups that think the end of the world is around the corner. Millennialist cults and sects. I remember thinking, “Well, I have no qualifications to do this. I’m very afraid of doing this because I feel profoundly unqualified, but I am very excited to speak to these people and maybe that curiosity will carry me through.”


Jesse: Was it weird for you as someone who has made his career out of penetrating impenetrable walls connecting with people who otherwise don’t necessarily want to be publicly portrayed?

Louis: It was a huge challenge and, in some ways, it ran counter to everything that I set out to do or had been doing in my work for the preceding 20 years. Most of the people who turn up for my documentaries, they’re there because they want to share something. You asked, “Was there a moment when I thought, ‘This is what I do. This is what I’m good at.'” It was during the taping of the millennium segment for Michael Moore and [as a] 23-year-old, I felt totally out of my depth. But I remember on day three, we arrived in a remote area of Montana in the Bitterroot Mountains, and we went up to a trailer, and there were two neo-Nazi guys inside who formerly belonged to Aryan Nations. They are full-blown white supremacists. I remember being a bit nervous and thinking, “How is this going to go down, and what will they think of me?” Halfway through or even a few minutes into the conversation, I remember thinking, “Wow, these guys really just almost seem to want to like me and relate to me,” and they were reaching out in this really striking way. I remember thinking, “This is absolutely bizarre.” From thinking I was going into a hostile environment, I was aware that I was suddenly in this environment in which they felt totally emotionally open and that I could have a conversation that was wholly other and, in an odd way, human with them. Now with Scientology, they weren’t offering that. It was a prolonged period of soul-searching, of thinking by what right do I do this story. I don’t want to upset them needlessly. Why would I do a film about them if they have made it clear they don’t want the film made on them? I only resolved it by realizing the film’s as much about ex-Scientology, and chiefly about this guy Marty Rathbun was very prominent in Scientology and about his experience both inside and outside Scientology. He gave me the permission to get inside.


Jesse: Was there a time when you were less comfortable with emotionally charged social interactions?

Louis: I feel like I’m a grown man now. I’m 46-years-old, literally half my life I’ve spent doing this, and I feel more comfortable calling B.S. on stuff that I think is wrong-headed. I’m still not hugely confrontational, but I am more OK with taking on subjects in a sort of assertive way. I did a show about the Westboro Baptist Church, and it was all sort of, “Tell me what you believe. This seems really weird, but explain yourselves about why you go around holding pickets and waving placards with offensive anti-gay slogans on them.” Then I went back about five years later to do a follow up, and it’s striking how I felt able on the second to be more aggressive. I think it’s probably a good thing. I know enough about more opinions or something, I feel more comfortable in taking on a slightly more adversarial role.

Jesse: That’s interesting to me because if I’m to feel the feelings that I have in my chest right now, I would be a lot more comfortable, even maybe in a physically dangerous situation, being confrontational then I would doing something that you do a lot, which is shutting your mouth in a really weird situation and letting the person say a second thing or a third thing.

Louis: That’s interesting because when I do Q&As and things, the question I get asked perhaps more than any other is, “How do you stay so calm?” or “How do you prevent yourself from getting annoyed or coming back at the person you’re interviewing?” And it’s really striking because it’s one of those questions that is sort of premised on a false idea which is that I’m holding back. Most of the time, I just don’t feel it’s my role. I don’t feel either professionally but also I don’t feel emotionally compelled to take it there.



Jesse: As you said, you do it over days, weeks, months, but do you have a second voice in your head when you’re on camera that is putting together the piece or the story as you are talking to a person?

Louis: I would say yes. You have to because, unlike interviews that are live-to-tape, I’m constantly aware that huge swathes can be just cut out and dropped. I’m conscious I have got what it was that I was sort of trying to get to, the question that I was hoping to get answered. Then you know there’s a sense of I can just drill in in a way that maybe isn’t helpful. In most of the stories I do, they are about something that, the story can be distilled into almost a single question. So the porn industry, the question is simply “What is the cost of taking the most intimate act, the act of sexual procreation and publicizing it and doing it more or less on command for the purpose of consumption?” In a lot of them, like white supremacism, a lot of it is, “What are the human stakes for someone adopting the most abhorrent form of ideology? How does that then affect the lives of the people who believe in it?” In all of these, there’s a sort of profound self-contradiction, and I just like to keep revisiting those ideas so that sometimes the conversations, if you saw the raw footage, they would they be probably pretty boring because I might be just coming back to the same thing.



Jesse: Let’s say you’re interviewing a lady from the Islamic State. To some extent the way that you sit in it is you have to choose some mixture of doing something that this person sitting across from you isn’t going to like because you have offered them a generous ear but you are going to represent them as what they are which, in the case of the Islamic State, is something that is abhorrent. And the other choice, which is to represent them positively because you like them, because you like people and that’s part of why you do what you do, but then in so doing, you have to deal with the moral consequences of “Oh, am I making a pro Islamic State thing?,” you know what I mean?

Louis: I do know what you mean.

Jesse: Like by pointing out the humanity of terrorists.

Louis: I think I hear what you’re saying.

Jesse: So it’s easier to just be like, “No I’m against it. I’m confronting this person.”

Louis: I can put a different spin on it because I think actually disagreement is not hostile. I think you go to the Islamic State to interview Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or his wife or wives. They don’t expect you’re going to agree with them as an emissary of an infidel country and disagreement is not necessarily hostile. I think there’s a deeper thing which is that viewers expect some sort of friction and understandably so. So there can’t be coziness or too much coziness. I remember when we did our neo-Nazi story. We thought we were close to done with filming, and our executive producer came in and said, “You can’t finish there. You haven’t actually confronted any of these guys in a robust and almost sort of assertive borderline aggressive way, like the viewer sees you as a kind of a champion who’s going to go in and take them on.” I had to fly back for a third visit, and more or less, there were three main contributors and kind of in a sequence see one after another and kind of pick a fight with them. There is a need, rightly or wrongly, to feel that wrongheadedness or viciousness is being confronted. Not just like with rational argument but almost in an emotional and a visceral way that is satisfying. That’s the part of the job that hasn’t always come as naturally to me. But this speaks to sort of what you’re saying is, if you’re exposed to an ideology you really do find deeply abhorrent, it is really dispiriting. The long days you spent, usually you might be there for a couple of days, and you know your camera goes off, and like “Should we go get a sandwich?”, and you sit down. It’s like you make chit chat and it’s this odd feeling of almost like a truce is declared, and we’re just going to behave like normal people but secretly knowing that we disagree.



Jesse: Is there a question that you ask when you have forgotten what you were going to ask?

Louis: I’m pretty good about keeping my questions in my head. I think the one thing I’d do is I go back to first principles. I always feel like there’s a question before the one that you asked that is the one that you forgot to ask. This is going to sound really banal, but it’s sort of like, “Why do you do this?” Or even, “What is the thing that you do?” It’s quite common to get deep into a conversation.

Jesse: Do you feel like that’s a question that you end up asking every time in some form or another? Why does this matter, like why does this matter to you?

Louis: I think it’s there along the way. For example, recently I’ve been doing shows about alcohol addiction. With addiction, the question is simply, “It seems like your way forward is very clear. There’s a fork in the road, and if you stop drinking, you can have a sober life in which you will be healthy, happy, and form stable relationships. Then there’s another path which you keep drinking, everything falls to pieces. That seem so obvious, so why can’t you do it?” That’s really the only question, in a sense. But actually you don’t always formulate that question. I’m sort of saying what’s so obvious, but sometimes it’s the obvious questions that people trip up on because people try to be intelligent or analytical in a way. Actually it’s more about asking a really simple question and giving people the space to answer it.

The Turnaround is available on MaximumFun.org. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts to get new episodes as they become available.

Photo credit: Jesse Thorn

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.