Docs Dose: Louis Theroux on the importance of finding people who scare you

We spoke with BAFTA-winning documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux about improving accessibility to documentaries, the docs that bore him the most, and top tips for filmmakers in this week’s edition of Doc Dose.

In anticipation of the application deadline for our funding and recognition awards, we have asked five leading lights in the world of documentary making to answer the Whicker’s World Foundation questionnaire. We hope ‘Docs Dose’ will serve as both inspiration and light relief as you perfect your applications ahead of the January 31st deadline.

After last week’s interviewee Dom Joly criticised his “prison obsession”, will Theroux be quite so outspoken?

Theroux’s documentaries cover a huge range of subjects, often with an overarching theme of people who are shunned for their views or lifestyle. With his faux-naïve style and deadpan humour he has been able to get his subjects to say things which they would not reveal through interrogation. Perhaps this got him closer than others to getting the now disgraced entertainer Jimmy Savile to hint at his criminally deviant true self. In a forthcoming BBC documentary Theroux plans to revisit When Louis Met Jimmy 15 years on, examining how Savile was able to use his celebrity to get away with his crimes for decades.

The attention has sometimes worked both ways: whilst making his latest film, My Scientology Movie, Theroux was put under surveillance and told that the Church of Scientology is itself “working on a documentary” about him. On Twitter he said that he was a ‘little bit excited [and a] little bit nervous’ about the prospect of starring in a documentary made by someone else about him.

Such are the perils faced by a documentary maker who is not afraid to immerse himself in organisations which many would shy away from.

1) In three words why did you become a documentary maker?

Curiosity, intimacy, control.

2) What changes have you seen in the last few years?

My knees have gone.

3) Where would you like to see the documentary genre going…why?

I’d like documentaries to be more accessible to a wider public. There are a lot of amazing docs out there which people don’t know about – maybe because they’re not showcased in the right way.

4) What was the last thing you saw on screen or through the lens which made your skin creep or tingle?

The scene in the recent BBC Two documentary series The Detectives when they strip off the wallpaper and find a crucial piece of evidence in a historic sex offence.

5) Which moment in the whole documentary process makes you the most happy?

When the critical scene you were hoping for, but despairing of ever getting, finally comes through.

6) Who in the industry do you think is underrated? Why?

TV docs in general are underrated vis-à-vis cinematic docs.

7) Who in the industry do you think is overrated? Why?

I find some cinéma vérité a bit boring, e.g. Frederick Wiseman*. I also think the big, glossy retrospective archive-and-interview docs win too many awards, as opposed to actuality-driven docs.

8) What’s the most surprising encounter or location that triggered a story for you?

Don’t quite understand this question. Stories, for me, arise through people, rather than locations.

9) What’s the best tip you have inherited?

Early on, Michael Moore taught me about using handheld cameras, not bothering with lights, and shooting the first time you meet someone (don’t re-enact the meeting).

10) What’s the best tip you’d like to pass on?

Find people who scare you a little bit or who you find morally questionable, and try to like them.

[*Frederick Wiseman (born 1st Jan 1930) is an American documentarian and theatre director who rose to prominence in the 1960s. He is still making documentaries on similar social institutions to Theroux, such as hospitals and police departments. However, Wiseman takes a very different approach: he does not use narration or interviews. This makes his documentaries appear to be un-authored, but they are authored instead by the way in which he edits them. This form of ‘observed’ or ‘direct’ cinema has bracketed him as one of the leading pioneers of cinéma vérité, although he himself has objected to this label saying that ‘cinéma verité is “just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I’m concerned”.]

Many thanks for this Louis. We hope your knees return. Next week Alan Hall, the award-winning founder of Falling Tree Productions, will explain how his inability to sing led him into the world of documentary making. In the meantime, visit our ‘Apply’ section and submit your proposal for a chance to win £80,000 of funding. The deadline is January 31st, so start thinking about your documentary now.

Photo credit: Flickr CC/ IAB UK