After 20 years as a documentary filmmaker, Louis Theroux reflects on his transformation from gonzo reporter to compassionate presence.
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.”