Louis Theroux has encountered murderers, paedophiles, Nazis, gangsters, drug dealers and sex traffickers. He’s also found himself face-down in a wrestling ring, searching for UFOs, starring in porn and trying gangsta rap.
His 20-year career as a documentary filmmaker can ostensibly be split into two phases. The first decade was spent exploring the unique and bizarre; taking humorous plunges into subcultures with idiosyncratic characters.
His demeanour as a young, slightly goofy presenter with a penchant for ill-fitting clothes gave him a naive yet genial style that disguised his Oxbridge education.
In the second decade, Louis began to step away from this gonzo approach to explore harder subjects with a more detached presence.
Here he reflects on this mid-career transformation and what he’s taken from encountering the breadth of human existence.
Remember to be human
“I’m always quite clear that I’m on location as a journalist. The reason the BBC flies me out is not so that I can change lives; it’s to get the story and tell it in as compelling a way as possible. I’m also aware that you don’t stop being human when you’re trying to do that, it’s just that there’s a slightly different set of priorities.
“Sometimes you can push too hard in a scene and when you watch it back, you come across as being unlikable or you’re grinding away too hard at them as a contributor, rather than treating them as a person.
“When you’re with someone who is vulnerable or who has made some choices that are in some way questionable, there’s a positive side-effect to asking questions that need to be asked. Coming from a place of humanistic curiosity encourages people to think about their choices a bit more deeply.”
…But get the job done
“This is going to sound a little cold, but the bottom line is always getting the story. In professional mode, you can definitely numb yourself to what you’re seeing. There’s a sense in which you are exposed to grime and damaged lives and you just think, ‘Well, will I be able to film it?’
“It’s odd because I might watch something I’ve done later, sometimes with a distance of years, and be more upset by it then.
“That probably sounds really weird, but there are a lot of conversations on set and sometimes it doesn’t become totally clear where the journalistic role ends and a more social worker or interventionist one is more appropriate.”
The camera is a safety barrier
“Once the camera is on, the chances of someone having a pop at you go way, way down. People always say, ‘Oh, you must be nervous when you go to prisons’; sometimes you notice that even correctional officers can be quite nervous going into a cell.
“But for the most part, prisoners don’t have any reason to attack a visiting TV crew. They just get time added to their sentence or sent to solitary confinement; and for what? It doesn’t really make sense.
“I’m more nervous around contributors at large in the real world. I did a programme about dangerous animals where I had an encounter with a chimpanzee: he headed straight for the crew and smashed a window.”
It’s okay to feel conflicted
“I’m a fan of America; I’m half-American and much of my family are American. But I do have to balance my own joy of the country in all its exuberant excess while also having enough of a socially democratic and socially conscious person inside me to want to fix some of these things.
“I used to enjoy the spectacle of America in a more unadulterated way and, as I’ve gotten older and had kids, I guess I see the social costs more.”