Running from 1998 to 2000, the cult of Louis Theroux began with Weird Weekends, the documentary maker’s unorthodox but tongue-in-cheek series of BBC Two programmes.
The films explored everything from the lives of porn stars to exactly how a swingers’ party is organised.
Nearly two decades on, Theroux has become synonymous with a more serious and often much darker kind of filmmaking. Some of his more recent heavy hitters touch on topics such as alcoholism, the Church of Scientology and postnatal psychosis.
“The Weird Weekends stuff feels like a different me, in some ways,” said Theroux, speaking to Dawn O’Porter at Edinburgh TV Festival today (22 Aug).
“When I watch it, I sort of think, ‘Who is that wally, literally waving his willy around?’”
‘Each time we made a show, I worried less about being funny’
Theroux blames the markedly changed tone of his output on growing up, but admits that there’s still room for humour in documentary, as well as his unique brand of charming silliness.
“I think what happens is, you just get older. Or you just get interested in other things. There was a sort of fork in the road, and I realised that we could keep making programmes that were funny, but less impactful,” he said.
“Each time we made a show, I worried less about it being funny, and the show was still really good. Making My Scientology Movie was fun because it had silliness and participation.
“I’ve lost some of my incompetence - I’d like to get some of it back.”
‘Being involved with Savile was strange and upsetting’
Theroux’s work with and about Jimmy Savile seems to have played a significant part in his growing up process. Having first interviewed Savile in April 2000 as part of his When Louis Met… series, the filmmaker has been open about his troubled relationship with the TV personality, who was accused of paeodphilia and sexual abuse.
“I am totally willing to talk about [Savile],” Theroux told O’Porter, when asked.
“It’s something I think about a lot. In terms of my career, I would count it as the strangest and most upsetting event to be involved in in any way.”
Theroux admits to describing Savile to others as “an okay guy” between first meeting him and the revelations of abuse, but that he wouldn’t call them friends “in a straightforward way.”
The filmmaker recounts his discomfort with the “brazen” way Savile addressed the paeodphilia rumours, even as far back as 2000. The situation not only spurred Theroux to follow up his original documentary in 2016 with a programme addressing the revelations - simply called Savile - but also to take a public stand against those denying similar allegations towards Michael Jackson.
“I felt like I had a little bit of a responsibility,” he said, referencing a tweet defending both the makers of and those appearing in the recent Michael Jackson expose, Leaving Neverland.
‘We deaded that beef’
Despite his ‘nice guy’ persona, Theroux has ruffled feathers on all sides with his past documentaries. He is certainly no stranger to what he calls “beef” - especially among his peers. Comedian Ruby Wax, journalist Jon Ronson and Theroux’s former mentor, Michael Moore (who gave Theroux his big break on TV Nation) have reportedly all had bones to pick with the filmmaker in the past.
“Everything I did, he [Theroux] took. There’s still a little bit of anger,” Wax told comedian and friend of Theroux, Adam Buxton, in a recent episode of his podcast.
“Ronson’s got more of a right to be annoyed than Ruby Wax,” said Theroux, addressing the comment.
“But I also feel like people resenting you is kind of a compliment, not to be glib about it. I feel bad for her. I feel bad about it. And, at the same time, a little part of me is flattered that she would be so annoyed.”
And as for Moore’s anger when Theroux was poached by the BBC?
“We deaded that beef,” explained the filmmaker.
“Younger people understand what I’m talking about. We’re cool now.”
Starting an independent production company
Clearly Theroux has managed to retain his sense of humour, despite his recent, more harrowing projects.
“I’m quite a creature of habit. I like to eat the same lunch every day,” he revealed in his signature, deadpan tone.
If you’re wondering, lunch is a falafel wrap and orange juice (no crisps) from Pret a Manger, apparently.
But, even though his meals are set in stone, his working habits could be about to change in a big way. Theroux is starting his own independent production company, along with his wife, Nancy Strang, and collaborator, Arron Fellows.
After years of dealing with independent companies instead of the BBC directly, Theroux said he had a realisation.
“If I’m now working for a big indie, maybe it’s time to start my own indie,” he recalled thinking.
Though there isn’t much to report so far about the as yet unnamed outfit, viewers can expect more of what they’ve come to love from Theroux, as well as exciting documentaries from new voices.
“We’ll make my programmes, but then stories without me that cover similar terrain. Really well made, mature, funny, observational documentaries,” he explained.