I am a little apprehensive to interview Louis Theroux. A two-time BAFTA award winner, the presenter of over 60 documentaries, and an acclaimed writer and journalist, he is an icon , a treasured one man brand. Over the course of his career, he has redefined the documentary making scene, winning over the British people with his frank, faux-naif style, and thought-provoking insights.
But more intimidating than his career history (and it is intimidating) are the comments of journalists who have spoken to him before. Previous interviews describe Theroux as ‘inscrutable’, and bemoan the fact that he knows all the ‘machinations and deflections’ of interview technique. When I tell a flatmate about our conversation, I get a sage nod and a helpful reminder: “It’s not going to be easy, is it? Interviewing the interviewer?”
But in reality, Theroux is (or seems) a much less terrifying interview candidate. Although he is just as intelligent and perceptive as you would expect (his conversation is peppered with references to enlightenment ideas and existential issues), he is also disarmingly funny and considerate. When he joins in at the end of a point, he offers me an immediate apology, “Sorry I interrupted- what were you gonna say?”
We are calling to discuss Theroux’s latest series, ‘Altered States’, which, like his other series, is filmed in America. The series is wide ranging: going, via polyamory, from open adoptions to assisted dying. He explains that the series looks at ‘different ways of doing important life decisions’, adding that “America has always had a kind of utopian spirit […] when you think of the American spirit, it involves a certain wide-eyed ingenuity and the idea of human perfectibility. Each [episode] is to do with both that can-do culture and also a kind of commercial culture [… that] points towards the possibility of a certain way of handling these existential issues that many of us have to face at one point or another”.
America holds an important place in Theroux’s heart. His father, the travel writer Paul Theroux, is a native Bostonian; Theroux himself got his first break in the States, as a correspondent for TV Nation. But Theroux says it’s more than that: America has “a fascinating culture and society with extremities of wealth and poverty. It’s a vast country, large population. Culturally, British people grow up with […] the idea of America, that it has a certain brashness and unselfconsciousness, in certain cases a stereotype of vulgarity.” His relationship with America has changed over the course of his career: “There’s been an old tradition of shows that slightly make fun of America – maybe I was slightly guilty of that at one stage.”
Maybe he’s a little guilty again in this series. One of the more surprising scenes in ‘Love Without Limits’ finds Louis stripping off to engage in a sensual eating party. Over the credits, we hear Theroux explaining that it wasn’t entirely enjoyable: he was fed far too much cheese. It’s a departure from weightier approach the presented has adopted over the last few years.
“The reason I do it sometimes is partly because I find it quite funny and partly because I think it’s a helpful way of changing the dynamic with the contributors,” Theroux explains, “it’s a little bit of going naked almost in sort in an ethnographic way. It’s like the idea, if you’re going to live in the village, you have to live the way the villagers live. “I think that’s quite revealing. As I say, it’s sort of fun for me up to a point, sometimes its uncomfortable. […] One of the reasons I enjoyed doing the polyamory program was that it was a chance to turn the clock back a bit and do participation and do things that I haven’t done in a while. […] We were all aware on the team that it would be fun to get back to a slightly lighter and more comical mode of film making of which the sensual eating workshop was a part.”
Indeed, quite a lot of ‘Love Without Limits’ (his episode on polyamory) feels like a throwback to Theroux’s earlier work. In the discussions he has with Bob, Nick and Amanda about monogamy and conventional relationships, there are echoes of his trip to meet swingers. His massage at the party feels like it could have been filmed back at the brothel in Weird Weekends. Theroux released a handful of retrospectives earlier in his career: he made two documentaries with the Westboro Baptist Church, and another two with the porn community in California, back in the early 2000s.
But Theroux hasn’t revisited his subjects in a while. “It’s something that I’m always tempted to do,” Theroux tells me, “I’m naturally curious about what happens to the people that I film with after I leave. Even going back to when I was at TV Nation I remember always thinking… gosh – what happens to these people? … For the most part, they don’t really change that much… You know yep, they’re still waiting for the UFOs to land, or – yep, he’s still a neo-Nazi living in Idaho like – no change […]
“My lesson from it was if you go back on something you need to have a really good reason for doing it.” He cites his documentary ‘Savile’. Filmed in 2016, the program responded to ‘When Louis met Jimmy’, an early documentary made when Savile was just an eccentric children’s entertainer. “The fact that someone I spent a couple of weeks filming with turned out to be one of the most notorious sex offenders of modern times in Britain was a massive change in the landscape,” says Theroux.
I observe that the opportunity to release these retrospectives is a privilege borne from Theroux’s immense popularity. Theroux has a cult following; he can assume that his audience will have watched the majority of his repertoire. Theroux isn’t so sure: “I’m aware of a cult following, whether it’s growing or not, I don’t know.
“And I can’t always tell how big it is and in general, I’d be in dangerous territory if I was trying to second guess what my cult following was interested in. Having said that,… we have talked about some kind of, you know it’s 20 years since we did Weird Weekends and we’re sort of thinking – is that something we should mark? Or is there a case for doing a revisit? Or is there a story we should follow up on? But we haven’t quite decided what it would be.”
For Louis, this concern about relevance, or appropriate subject matter, has spread through his entire career: “There came a point when the idea of making programs about people doing odd things felt limiting.
“We more or less ran out of road on a certain style or tone of storytelling. There’s always more people you can find who are up to something that seems a bit ridiculous, but for me the idea had been for the shows to have some depth and some broader resonance, so we weren’t making shows about Elvis conventions, we weren’t making shows about cheese rolling or Ernest Hemingway lookalike conventions…it just felt too trivial… There came a time when I had a choice to make about telling stories that were funny but lacked grit or weight, and telling gritty, weighty stories that weren’t funny. We went with the not funny and that’s more or less … been the area of inquiry for us as a production for the last ten years.”
We turn to the politics behind, or alongside, documentary making. Though Theroux has talked politics in the past, he says it’s not at the forefront of his documentary process: his programs are “not conceived as political documentaries … I just try and see the world clearly.”
But he adds, “I’ve tried to make these shows hint at or speak to a kind of a background of what’s going on, a bigger picture to do with inequality of income or slight lack or provision for the more vulnerable. “These more recent shows aren’t really about people making choices that are utterly bizarre,” he notes, “they are speaking to a wider social issue, though it’s not explicit throughout the program. “What lies behind them is a sense that there is a vulnerable class of people…who aren’t very well off; their choices are conditioned by not having much money.” But is his presence somewhat political?
I observe his ability to shift the narrative of the program, convincing his subjects to challenge their opinions. He concedes that, “just by being there, we’re altering reality in some way”, but argues “this whole idea of being there as a blank slate, or to be non judgemental, is a bit misleading. “You’re there to reflect a kind of reasonable position on how the world is, not just to report fairly, but if someone’s a Nazi, to challenge them on why, if someone’s killed people, to reflect a view of that being horrendous and inquiring why on earth someone would do that?… It’s not so much with the job of changing [their] mind, its more with the job of figuring out what’s happening.”
He recalls a moment, in the ‘Choosing Death’ episode, when he tells one of the contributors that her broken heart will pass: “in a sense I’m kind of breaking the rules of conventional journalism, but it just felt like the right thing to do,” he says. There is a pause.
“It’s only human to want to tell people that things will get better,” I tell him. Louis agrees. “I think there are times when to be human and not strictly journalistic is appropriate. Sometimes, those are the most powerful moments in the program.”