BBCS Showcase ’21: Louis Theroux on “Life on the Edge” and “organized irrationality”

Having built his near three decade-long career implanting himself among the controversial, extreme and strange — from neo-Nazis to Scientology, Las Vegas casino culture and even the infamous Joe Exotic ...
February 24, 2021

Having built his near three decade-long career implanting himself among the controversial, extreme and strange — from neo-Nazis to Scientology, Las Vegas casino culture and even the infamous Joe Exotic years before Netflix’s Tiger King – filmmaker Louis Theroux is moving behind the camera.

“The journey I’ve been on in 25 years has been to attempt to become closer to the real me on screen, and to try and take some of the burden off my own shoulders in terms of making things happen,” Theroux (pictured) tells Realscreen. “In the old days, it was participatory journalism, and so it was actually a criteria of selecting the stories that I did that I should be able to get involved in some way — take part in a porn film, meet a space alien, go on patrol in Idaho and shoot guns. More and more, as time has gone on, I’ve just wanted the stories themselves to do the heavy lifting of creating the excitement, engaging the audience, which is very liberating because it means there’s almost any number of stories that I can turn my eyes to, turn my sights on, as long as it feels interesting to me and it feels as though it’s a world we can negotiate our way into.”

In his BBC series Life on the Edge, which premiered in September 2020, the BAFTA-winning documentarian combines archive footage with interviews from some of his more memorable contributors, as well as his own reflections, in a look back at his work.

Theroux got his start in film and TV with Michael Moore’s TV Nation, which ran from 1994 to 1995. After signing a deal with the BBC, he subsequently helmed Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, When Louis Met… and a number of other specials for the British pubcaster.

In 2019, he launched the London-based indie Mindhouse Productions with fellow filmmakers Aaron Fellows and Nancy Strang, signing a first look deal with BBC Studios in April 2020.

The outfit’s projects, in addition to Life on the Edge, include the recently announced Sky true crime series The Bambers: Murder at the Farm (w/t), for which Fellows and Theroux executive produce.

Realscreen caught up with Theroux during the 2021 BBC Studios Showcase, running virtually from Feb. 22 through to today (Feb. 24), during which he offered a masterclass, to discuss Life on the Edge and his evolving approach to documentary.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How has your approach to filmmaking and interviewing changed over the past 25 years? 

Louis Theroux: It’s changed in so many ways because I’ve changed. I was just 23 years old when I started out working on Michael Moore’s TV Nation. I was 26 when I started making my series Weird Weekends. So, I’ve grown up a lot.

In general, though, techniques in filmmaking have changed… This was before reality TV, really, unless you count shows like Cops. There was still a sense that just by bringing in a certain unvarnished, raw reality to the programs — which is what I attempted to do — that it was something new and different, to be more honest and to let encounters unfold in surprising and unpredictable ways.

When I started out you would basically shoot on quite big beater cams… and they would have half-hour tapes in them and then you change the tape. Now everything’s digital and you could just film and film and film for hours. All of that creates a greater flexibility and greater opportunity for unselfconsciousness, but also in a weird way can be paralyzing because you could just scoop up so much material that you have to impose a sense of discipline on what you’re doing.

The world has changed a lot. Mid ’90s… in the fringes of the Internet, conspiracy theorists would gather, but they were still more or less a niche phenomenon. In the 25 years since you’ve seen Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the dark web, Parler — a million ways in which people can connect, for both good but also for ill, which has contributed to the rise of populism. So, with respect to my shows, when you go back to the ’90s you see programs that I made that were about the far fringes of culture — people in Idaho believing in imminent takeover by the federal government or by the UN. Ideas like that are now much closer to the mainstream via people around Trump, for example. That’s been a huge change and one that I reflect on in the series Life on the Edge.

As you look ahead to this next stage of your career, what stories are you most interested in telling now? 

LT: I’m still interested in the ways in which human beings connect, but also the ways in which we act counter to our own interests and behaviors that are both very strange and very normal. There’s a Nietzsche quote to the effect that madness is rare in individuals but in religions, nations and societies, it is the norm — something along those lines. That idea of organized irrationality is really where I find most of my interesting stories.

I’m still interested in prisons, I’m still interested in mental health, I’m still interested in crime, I’m still interested in religious subjects especially where they skew towards the controversial… In a sense, the big change has simply been, I’m open to other ways of telling the stories — using archive, using passage of time, inter-cutting between interviews. I’ve tried to expand the grammar of storytelling techniques that we use.

You’re still interested in the same subject matter — you’re just evolving how you tell those stories?

LT: I think so… The other thing is, as you may know I started a company and, for the first time in all the years of working in TV, I’m now making my own programs with my own company.

One of the great things about that is that it’s allowed me to tell stories in which I’m completely absent from the screen. Of the slate that we have at the moment… are several documentaries that were either my idea or things that I was interested in that other people on the team came up with that I can be part of putting on the screen but not as an on-camera presenter.

For me, the idea of telling stories off-camera has almost been the dream scenario, not exclusively… but actually just as a way of telling stories in a different way.

When I got into TV, I got into it in a really weird way which was, I was hired as a correspondent with virtually no TV experience and I never quite understood — well, certainly at the time I didn’t really understand — why Michael Moore had hired me… As much as I’ve had plaudits and I’ve always felt like, I think I’m bringing something to the table. I think I’ve got some input into structure, or how to fix a problem in the edit by moving things around, or how to take a different approach — but I’ve never been a director. I’ve never even been a producer, in essence. So, for me, the idea that I might actually have something else to offer other than being the weird looking guy on screen is very affirming.

Broadly speaking, how have you seen the documentary filmmaking landscape shift over the past year?

LT: Through the pandemic, the big challenge was COVID-safe filming… there’s been a rush to the archive, which I think has in actual fact produced some interesting projects.

If your question is more about, not so much approach, but actual theme and subject, whether it’s created a reordering of priorities, I think that’s to some extent the case. Obviously people are going to be more interested in stories that have to do with some version of ecological catastrophe. We’ve been reminded, in certain respects, how fragile our tenancy on the planet is.

People still want to see stuff about weird religious practices, porn sets, conspiracy theories. It’s not like people are becoming really normal all of a sudden. We’re still subject to the same sets of irrational psychological impulses and therein lies my future employment.

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