The Church of Scientology can be an intimidating subject for documentary producers to take on.
Keenly aware of its notoriously litigious reputation, producers behind Leah Remini’s upcoming A&E series about the controversial religion treaded carefully during every step of production.
“The Church has a fearsome reputation, but we don’t come to this with any prior bias,” Eli Holzman said in an interview with realscreen. “We’re not experts in the church. We’re not pro-Scientology or anti-Scientology. We’re just documentarians who take the facts as they come to us and investigate every lead as best we can.”
Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath will be the Undercover Boss and Project Runway producer’s first full series to hit the air since the former Studio Lambert and All3Media America president launched indie prodco the Intellectual Property Corporation with long-time producing partner Aaron Saidman.
The pair got wind of the project after Saidman heard Remini (pictured) and her agents were looking to produce a documentary based on her Scientology past.
The King of Queens actor, who fronted the TLC reality series Leah Remini: It’s All Relative in 2015, publically split with the Church in 2013 after 30 years. Two years later, she published the memoir Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology.
Although Remini wrote the book intending to close a chapter on that part of her life, it ended up opening a new one.
Following the book’s publication, several former Church officials reportedly reached out asking for support. She shot a teaser based on one family’s story and shopped it to a handful of producers. IPC landed the job and facilitated conversations between Remini and A&E, which greenlit eight episodes and set a Nov. 29 premiere date.
“If we wanted to orchestrate some sort of auction, that might have been something we entertained if the focus was purely about commerce,” explains Holzman. “In this case, Leah had a vision from the very beginning. She wanted to do something responsible with the right home and the right partners. She felt comfortable with A&E”
Remini’s series comes in the wake of director Alex Gibney and author Lawrence Wright’s 2015 HBO doc, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which delved into the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and accused Church officials of blackmailing members and creating a prison camp-like facility where executives are confined for months and years, among other allegations.
In response, the Church took out a full-page ad in the New York Times following the doc’s premiere at Sundance that attacked the film as based on falsities.
The A&E series promises to be similarly explosive, with the first trailer alluding to allegations of abuse, violence, child rape and abortions. “Fight for your family,” Remini tells people in a voice over. “Fight for your daughters, your sons.”
Each episode follows Remini and Mike Rinder, a former international spokesperson for Scientology, as they meet with ex-officials and other insiders who accuse the Church of harmful practices and explain why they left.
“For too long, this multi-billion-dollar organization bullied victims and journalists to prevent the truth being told,” Remini said in A&E’s press release announcing the show. “It is my hope that we shed light on information that makes the world aware of what is really going on and encourages others to speak up so the abuses can be ended forever. I hope that people who have left now feel they have a safe place to go. I hope others who have also experienced abuses will come forward and help us to do something about it.”
In an email response, a spokesperson for the Church of Scientology told realscreen, “Desperate for attention with an acting career stuck in a nearly decade-long tailspin, Leah Remini needs to move on with her life. Instead, she seeks publicity by maliciously spreading lies about the Church using the same handful of bitter zealots who were kicked out years ago for chronic dishonesty and corruption and whose false claims the Church refuted years ago, including through judicial decisions.”
Although A&E facilitated an interview with Holzman and Saidman, the network declined to put forward an exec producer for an interview because “we don’t know who is taking EP credit internally yet,” a rep said.
Scientology and the Aftermath will differ from Gibney’s broader view of the Church in that it gives more intimate personal accounts over an intensive eight hours.
“It’s a little bit of a who’s who of former high-ranking members who have since left and have decided to speak out,” says Saidman. “Leah really does go on a journey herself. She did not know about some of the things that she was going to learn. And that surprised us, but it also surprised Leah because she felt she knew everything.”
Celebrity Scientologists such as John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Tom Cruise are not a focus, but famous names do come up from time to time.
The producers say the show will contain previously unreported revelations.
“I’m hesitant to reveal what they are but I would venture to say there are some things in there that have not been covered,” says Saidman.
The producers communicated with Scientology officials throughout production and have invited officials to give their side. However, a representative has yet to sit for an on-camera interview.
“We’ve endeavored to be responsive to and work with the Church as best we could,” says Holzman. “The Church has taken an interest in this show and has made its presence felt and its opinion known. There are times that our people have been followed. There are times when, inexplicably, the Church became aware of things that we were planning to film. We have no idea how they could’ve possibly learned them. We’ve tried to conduct ourselves in a completely above-board, transparent manner.
“Thus far, we’re not aware of the Church doing anything that we have a problem with,” he adds. “Every step we take with an abundance of caution and we are in constant dialogue with the Church.”
Viewers will get a glimpse of that process as the series documents those discussions between producers and Scientology officials.
To stave off potential legal threats, IPC and A&E retained dedicated counsel with specialized experience to review material at every level, from sending letters to conducting interviews and post-production.
“It adds an extra layer of complexity to even the simple production plans of filming,” explains Saidman.
“It did make us nervous,” admits Holzman. “To the extent that the Church wishes to participate with us, we’re completely open to that. We had no agenda. Leah was our partner. She was our initial way in. We trusted ourselves. If someone was looking at this in a balanced way – maybe some of those involved might not – no one would be able to say we hadn’t done this in a responsible and unbiased way.”
“As much as we’re doing this with Leah, she is doing it on her own,” he adds. “We’re treading carefully and we’re very proud of the work. We stand by it.”