Meeting murderers, interviewing incarcerated paedophiles, shadowing brothel workers, delving behind the scenes of Scientology and the Ku Klux Klan, spending an afternoon with neo-Nazis and attending a swingers’ party is all in the name of a day’s work for Louis Theroux.
The fervidly curious BBC journalist built his colourful career around throwing himself into uncomfortable, unusual positions to shed light on the weirdest people in the world.
Sitting down with The CEO Magazine, the thoughtful, gently spoken, remarkably intelligent award-winning documentary maker explains how there is always something he can relate to with even the most dangerous criminals.
“The foundation stone of my entire life’s work has always been acknowledging the dark sides or secret sides that we’ve been socialised into not expressing,” Louis says. “Whether they were in dysfunctional, distasteful, unsavoury, ideological or religious environments, it was never the case that I’d thought there’s no aspect of that I can’t identify with.
“Every kind of behaviour springs from some kind of basic human impulse we all share. The weirdest thing about weird people is how normal they are – we aren’t all that different.”
Louis first began filming documentaries for the BBC in the mid-90s when he was a young, slightly naïve and terrifically inquisitive journalist.
“The weirdest thing about weird people is how normal they are – we aren’t all that different.” – Louis Theroux
With his humility allowing him to be more the relatable friend and heartfelt listener than a typically intrusive reporter, he comfortably draws people into saying more than they ever thought they would. And it’s a skill he’s honed across the past two decades as he grew up in front of cameras.
“I was just someone trying to make a living, but also someone who was creatively ambitious and wanted to have extreme experiences and make programs that would surprise and intrigue, and maybe shock people,” Louis says. “Now I’m a father of three living in suburban London – it’s very odd to reflect I’ve been doing it all these years."
When Louis first started producing Weird Weekends, Bill Clinton was in power, the Soviet Union had collapsed, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the economy was strong.
“It felt like happy days,” Louis explains. “The whole notion of Islamic Fundamentalism wasn’t really on anyone’s radar.
“Now we’re in this sort of situation in which all of those uncertainties are up for grabs. Notion of the rule of law, notion of increasingly being under attack – the world feels like it’s much more, to my mind anyway, much more unstable and entering unchartered terrain.”
With the world more unpredictable than ever before, the investigative thinker believes social media is a major disrupter.
“Donald Trump’s got 67 million Twitter followers … it’s a massive level of reach Trump can achieve and so he doesn’t really need a microphone, studio or newspaper to get his message out.” – Louis Theroux
“Historically there have been gatekeepers to who can have their voice heard,” Louis says. “Now you’ve got sort of roguish, maverick figures saying more or less whatever pops into their head and getting large followings.
“When Twitter and Facebook popped up, I didn’t really imagine that it would lead to this disruption of politics.
“Donald Trump’s got 67 million Twitter followers – now I know those numbers have to be used with caution because probably half are bots or people who have logged on and never looked at Twitter again. Either way, it’s a massive level of reach Trump can achieve and so he doesn’t really need a microphone, studio or newspaper to get his message out.”
While social media has thrown the political sphere into disarray, it’s a reality Louis has exercised caution with by protecting his contributors with advice to avoid online platforms in the weeks bookending the program’s airtime.
Despite the influx of confronting images available at your fingertips, it’s not an aspect the filmmaker believes has impacted his captivating documentaries.
“The main thing that’s changed with respect to social media is people in the programs can see how viewers are reacting to the programs,” Louis explains. “In terms of those worlds, they still exist in some way.”
Making connections in unlikely places creates a sense of bafflement at someone doing something extraordinary. And because of the depth and length of the documentaries, it has allowed for long shelf lives – and a whole new wave of young Louis fans who will no doubt be sitting front and centre at Louis Theroux Without Limits.
“The first four Weird Weekends, they were about survivalists, fundamentalists, UFO believers and porn performers, so the only one that’s changed significantly is the porn performers and that’s because there’s so much pirating of content,” he explains. “The world of the porn performer used to be like a little village. The boogie nights of a big dysfunctional family are gone now.”
Having spent time with members of the KKK, neo-Nazis, America’s Most Hated Family, inmates facing death sentences and US sex traffickers, the Singapore-born journalist, who recently released his new novel Gotta Get Theroux This, says being a decent bloke as well as a little bit wily is key in confronting situations.
“It’s not so much that you’re saying these guys have a point – their poison, their hatefulness, their expression – it exists alongside other human qualities and it helps people explore how they arrive at hate by just asking honest questions,” Louis says. “The person on to of a mountain in Idaho, in a mental hospital in Ohio or on a porn set in LA, we are all driven by the same motivations and are trying to figure things out in the same kinds of ways.”
“When Donald Trump was unleashed, or other phenomena came to the floor, people felt abandoned, unspoken for or left behind, and all of that I could relate to – the anger and sort of resentment or feeling of wanting the world a certain way.”
Following his sellout tour in 2016, the renowned documentary maker will share the truths behind everything from the opioid epidemic and dark reality behind sex-trafficking to religious extremes. His Australia and New Zealand shows will be hosted by Julia Zemiro and special guest Megan Phelps-Roper, who featured in his famous program The Most Hated Family in America.
“When I came to Australia in 2016, people were saying do you think Trump can get elected, and people were shocked when I said he could,” Louis tells The CEO Magazine. “It was a different world – there were all kinds of surprises that were still in the future.
“Much of what’s happened in the world now is kind of a reflection of impulses and a phenomenon I’ve looked at for years and years.
“The shows are definitely about having fun, with a little seriousness sparingly dropped in here and there.”