Louis Theroux On The Myth Of Cancel Culture & Making Documentaries That Confound Viewers

Louis Theroux is not comfortable with the disruptor moniker. He almost recoils at the notion, sitting back in his chair, chewing over the word and its literal, historical and symbolic connotations. “It has become a cliché; it’s definitely a cliché,” he eventually says.

But then comes one of the pensive expressions Theroux is famed for. His eyes fixed behind black-rimmed glasses. A man silently arguing with himself, jostling for clarity of thought. Suddenly, a revelation. Maybe he is a disruptor after all — or at least he once was.

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“There’s a sense in which I came along in my presenting work and was a bit of a disruptor,” Theroux decides. “I took elements of conventional presenting and elements of classical vérité filmmaking and combined them.”

His talent in front of the camera was spotted by Michael Moore, who gave him a starring role in NBC’s TV Nation, interrogating evangelical Christians about the end of the world and launching mortars at an Arkansas shooting range. By 1998, he had graduated to his own show on the BBC, Louis Theroux: Weird Weekends, and he has remained a durable screen presence ever since. 

Theroux enjoys an almost unique status in the U.K. He is a respected journalist, author, and interviewer whose brand of immersive reporting does excellent business for the BBC, and Netflix, which licenses his films. He is also adored by legions of internet fans, who have printed his face on T-shirts, spammed social media with Theroux memes, and turned his viral  “Jiggle Jiggle” rap into an actual Jason Derulo hit. Some even describe him as a national treasure.

“Once you’re recognizable, and your shows do well, then audiences respond and come to your programs in the future,” he says, about his longevity. 

So, you might find it surprising to learn that Theroux is deliberately doing less of what has made him a success. For the second act of his career, the filmmaker is handing over the presenting keys to others through his production company, Mindhouse. He’s still keeping his hand in on-screen, but right now, Theroux is intent on building something bigger than himself. 

He agreed to this interview because he wants to raise awareness for his producer-first reincarnation, arguing that Mindhouse is now a serious player in the documentary and podcast space. The company, co-founded by Theroux’s wife, Nancy Strang, and former BBC producer Aaron Fellows, boasts 16 employees and an equal number of announced commissions.

These include Prime Video film KSI: In Real Life, spotlighting the outrageously successful YouTube star JJ Olatunji, and Sex Actually with Alice Levine, now in its second season for Channel 4. Theroux also talks animatedly about Gods of Snooker, a three-part BBC deep dive into the breakout stars of the British table sport. Theroux does not feature in the Snooker series, but he drunkenly re-watched it recently and was left glowing with pride about what Mindhouse is attempting to achieve. “That’s very big-headed of me,” he says with a knowing smile. 

Four years ago, Theroux was still a BBC employee, producing and presenting only his own films in a small enclave of BBC Studios. He remains umbilically linked to his former employer through a development deal, which Mindhouse recently renewed for 12 months. He also continues to present shows for the U.K. broadcaster, though he feels that the success of his back catalog on Netflix means audiences no longer consider him a BBC star.

How would he fare if he ran the Gary Lineker gauntlet? Or, to put it another way: if, like the Premier League presenter, Theroux skewered the government’s asylum policy on Twitter, would it send the BBC spiraling into an impartiality crisis because he is perceived to be a BBC presenter? No is his answer, but that’s largely because he wouldn’t have tweeted in such a nakedly political way in the first place. 

“It’s always been more helpful for my work if my true opinions are kept slightly ambiguous,” he says. “It’s my job as a presenter and journalist to have a freewheeling critical attitude; to have an all-purpose, polyvalent sense of subversiveness so I can upset any political orthodoxy.”

Theroux adds that this goes to the heart of his documentary-making: “I try not to make audiences too comfortable and try to challenge the viewer about whatever particular received opinion they hold. If you’ve got an attitude that is capable of surprising, which is unpredictable, then I think that’s a much more interesting place.” 

So much of Theroux’s work is marked by his desire to find nuance, to spend time with people to understand their outlook, no matter how extreme their views. He recently filmed with Nick Fuentes, a leading figure in America’s white nationalist far-right movement. Past documentaries have seen him explore Scientology and immerse himself in the Westboro Baptist Church, an organized group that pickets funerals with incendiary homophobic signs.

Does Theroux believe that people are less tolerant of those they disagree with? His response is carefully worded. Theroux thinks that social media has “collapsed” the public and private spheres, meaning we all know what everyone else is thinking and are “constantly being shocked and outraged” by one another. Having said this, he does not subscribe to the idea of cancel culture, which he considers simplistic and unhelpful.

“There are people who are censorious, quick to judge, and overly sensitive. There are also people who are trolls and provocateurs who are attracting clicks and views based on being outrageous,” he says. “Can cancel culture be a real thing in a world in which Andrew Tate can get hundreds of millions of views and build a media empire by pushing misogynistic messaging?”

Theroux thinks provocateurs can be canceled in a very literal sense, such as being blocked on social media or banned from university campuses, but he is skeptical of the idea that freedom of speech is being strangled. “The notion that we’re in a suffocating and censorious atmosphere, which has been pushed and amplified by people like Piers Morgan, is obviously not the case in any simple and straightforward way,” he adds.

However, Theroux acknowledges that certain subjects have become increasingly complicated to discuss. He agrees that it would have been “more difficult” to make his 2015 documentary, Transgender Kids, in a climate in which gender identity has become one of the vogue issues of the so-called culture wars. 

Somewhat ironically, he praises a one-time subject matter for plotting a successful path through the debate, saying he enjoyed The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling podcast by Megan Phelps-Roper, a reformed member of the Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps-Roper has gone on her own journey from extreme to enlightened and applied this experience to hours of interviews with Rowling, who has become equal parts pariah and heroine for her staunch position on transgender ideology. 

Podcasting is a medium that comes naturally to Theroux after he launched his own BBC interview show during lockdown in 2020. Grounded with Louis Theroux has evolved into Spotify exclusive The Louis Theroux Podcast, a long-form interview format produced by Mindhouse. “Podcasting at its best is about authenticity, and that’s very much in the DNA of all the programs I’ve made. I’ve always valued the parts of my shows that feel real and unexpected,” he says.

Mindhouse is building out its podcasts business with another series featuring Rylan Clark, a British presenter known for his work on Big Brother and the Eurovision Song Contest. The interview podcast is titled Rylan: How to Be a Man and features guest including comedian Phil Wang. Theroux interviewed Clark and says he is an exceptional broadcaster. “He’s like warm maple syrup being drizzled into your ear,” he laughs. 

Theroux clasps for a piece of paper featuring what appears to be prompts for our interview. There are lots of presenters he is developing projects with, he says, including Amelia Dimoldenberg, whose YouTube Chicken Shop Date series gave rise to Theroux’s “Jiggle Jiggle” rap. He is also developing projects with Netflix and A24, though is reluctant to reveal any further details. Theroux also declines to comment on a yet-to-be-announced documentary Mindhouse is making for CNN and the BBC about the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. 

Scripted is another area of interest for the company. “There’s something beautiful about telling stories where you don’t have that restraining influence of worrying about the real-life people behind it, whether it’s platforming them or their vulnerability,” Theroux says. Getting a drama away would be a full-circle moment for Theroux, who wrote TV scripts as a child.

His love of the medium is obvious, but are we getting to the point where audiences have too much of a good thing? Is there too much television? 

“It feels like there’s been a thinning of the herd,” he says. “It seemed to me that there was a tipping point when CNN+ broke down its data. They launched with tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars, and then they found out that in America, only 10,000 people a day were watching. A mid-level TikToker or YouTuber was getting bigger numbers than the CNN streaming service, which sort of tells you everything you need to know about television in 2023.”

What was the last thing he watched that blew his mind? “Probably Watchmen, the Damon Lindelof series on HBO,” he says. There’s a mention for White Lotus too. “I like really good television. I mean, I’ll watch crap television too. But I prefer to watch TV that is outstandingly creative and interesting.”

The conversation points us back to the BBC, which he says is “embattled” by the big streaming services. Theroux would like to see the license fee survive beyond 2027, when the U.K. government says it plans to scrap the funding mechanism, raising questions about the corporation’s future. “If you look at the TV landscape in America, it’s very far from ideal,” he says. “I know that it makes some of the best programs in the world, but when you go there, you do miss the BBC. You miss that sense of the calm, center-ground voice.”

You can take Theroux out of the BBC and set him free in the world of independent production, but you will never take the BBC out of Theroux.

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