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Gotta Get Theroux This: Chapter 33

Half Old, Still Confused

I try not to be too worried about the success or failure of programmes when they go out on TV. You figure you made the show you wanted to make, and it does what it does. Feature films turned out to be a different story. Mainly the problem is that, if the distributors don’t like the film, they won’t buy it and the film won’t go into cinemas.

After the success of the premiere and the great reviews and word of mouth, I was expecting a smooth passage for My Scientology Movie into cinemas across the UK and then the world. But something strange happened . . . nothing. Well, maybe not quite nothing; there was occasionally some little whisper or micro-step forwards. A sales agent came on. An invitation to another festival. But the nothing soon returned. I found it hard to decipher the nothing – whether it was a genuine nothing, or the nothing of bad news that I was being spared having to hear, or whether the nothing was itself the bad news. There were screenings for potential distributors, then what sounded like the mumble of something but turned out to be more nothing.

In early 2016, our film showed at Tribeca Film Festival. John Dower and I flew to New York and did a day of press in an airless office with a procession of reporters from online outlets whose enthusiasm for our film persuaded me it might find an audience in America. There were more good reviews – including a glowing write-up in Entertainment Weekly – followed by a couple more months of basically mumbles and nothing. So far I had been trying not to be too interested in what was happening as I thought it was probably annoying to Simon and definitely uncool to have too much staked in the film’s success, but at this point I couldn’t help myself. I pressed John to account for the lack of interest.

‘It’s weird,’ he said, ‘but I think there is a portion of the more high-minded docs world that can’t help seeing you as a TV commodity. They’re thinking, “It’s not cinema.” And it’s bollocks but it’s the way a lot of these people think.’ He described meeting a high-end docs distributor at a Tribeca dinner. ‘She was all sniffy and I asked if she’d seen how it plays to an audience. She hadn’t even seen the film.

I felt demoralized. I thought about all the small films and modest TV docs that get short runs in cinemas. Couldn’t we just get a little art-house release for a week in a handful of cities? I lobbied Simon to do anything to get the film out there.

‘We could just stick it up on YouTube,’ I said. ‘Let people pay to download it.’

Even as I was saying it, I reminded myself of a character in the film Sideways, a know-nothing who advises his writer friend, ‘Publish it yourself! Get it in libraries! Let the public decide!’ Judging from Simon’s reaction, it was a risible suggestion and may partly explain why I am a TV presenter who specializes in getting out of my depth and not an Oscar-winning producer.

As months went by and there was still no sign of a distributor buying our film, I felt baffled and impotent. In July, with everything still quiet, Simon suggested we shake the bushes by taking the film up to Sheffield for the documentary festival. This would be our third major festival – I worried a little about whether it seemed a bit desperate. It reminded me of an elderly man I once saw in a bath house in west London. I was with my brother in the sauna and the man kept sauntering past and ‘accidentally’ letting his bathrobe fall open and then standing there with his willy out. (In this analogy, in case you are wondering, I am the elderly man and the Scientology movie is the man’s genitals.) But I deferred to Simon’s greater experience and agreed to go, let slip my bathrobe and dangle my willy-movie one more time.

By a happy coincidence, I heard Michael Moore would also be at the festival, promoting Where To Invade Next?, his latest film. Simon had thought it would be helpful for our film if we could get Michael to watch it and support it, and I also had my own reasons for wanting to meet up, and so through a mutual acquaintance I engineered a meeting.

He was crossing the foyer of Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema when I spied him. He had a small entourage around him, opening doors, carrying bags. It was the first time I had seen him in the flesh in twenty years. He looked older, a little heavier, his face was retracted into his neck, and I noticed how he shambled, his legs folded in at the knees – he moved them almost without raising them – and I worried about his health.

We found some seats in a corner of an empty bar. He apologized, he hadn’t managed to see our film, he said, and then without me having thought about it, I heard myself, as an opening gambit, burbling incoherent appreciation for what he’d done for me by taking me on as a correspondent all those years before. ‘I never really had a chance to say thank you for taking the chance and putting me on the show,’ I said. ‘You changed my life and nothing that happened later would have happened without you.’ To my surprise, I realized I might be emotional.

‘Oh wow, that’s nice of you to say,’ Michael said. ‘I’ll never forget when you first came on board. I saw you around the office doing the photocopying and I said, “That British intern has something about him. We should give him a chance on camera.” ’

This recollection was at odds with my own memory, which told me I’d never been an intern at TV Nation, or done photocopying, but I didn’t like to correct him and spoil a moment of bonding.

We moved to a crowded Italian restaurant across the road – Michael had shaken off his retinue and a seagull swarm of British TV executives. It was just him, me, and John, my director. Michael ordered a Kahlua and cream and a spaghetti carbonara and we talked, reflecting on the time that had passed. We were both old now. Both divorced. Well, I was kind of half old and half divorced. He remembered Sarah, recalling one of the few times we’d all socialized together – he’d invited us to a fundraising dinner for the magazine The Nation and Sarah had accosted him about my habit of going off on assignment on short notice, as though it were his fault.

We moved on to the subject of Trump, who was defying polls and emerging as the Republican frontrunner. Roseanne Barr, an old friend of Michael’s and at one time a leftie – was among those climbing aboard the Trump train and endorsing right-wing conspiracy theories. Michael saw the whole phenomenon as symptomatic of the political class, right and left, turning its back on working people – he decried the lack of connection between the Democrats and the blue-collar folk in the Midwest who were showing signs of lining up for Trump. I was listening and trying to keep up, and say something relevant, but nothing much was coming to mind about Wisconsin and Michigan swing voters, and I had the feeling of trying to fall in and jam with a band on a tune I didn’t know that well. With that same sense of wanting to impress him and make him laugh but feeling a little out of my depth, I reflected that nearly twenty-five years on, it wasn’t so very different to that first ever meeting for a job interview at the Brill Building.

A couple of months after the Sheffield screening, Simon called with good news: a company called Altitude had signed on to distribute the film. We had a meeting at their offices in Soho; they were happy, I was happy, everyone was happy.

With a nod to the gonzo quality of the film, they had the idea of bringing in the gonzo illustrator par excellence Ralph Steadman to do the art for the poster. They also mapped out a reassuringly relaxed publicity strategy – a day and a half of interviews over a month or so. And there was mention of kicking off the opening weekend with a live event, with a Q&A at Royal Festival Hall that would be streamed to God knows how many cinemas – I had tuned out by this point – around Britain.

I was by then preoccupied with other matters – back on the treadmill of TV-making, reporting a series of programmes about crime and addiction in the US, murder in Milwaukee, heroin abuse in West Virginia – so I didn’t give much thought to the film’s release. I heard some more mumbling – emails from Altitude that I was cc’ed into and that I only half-read – but this time the mumbling was more positive: burble burble ticket uptake burble thrilled more cinemas burble very excited blah blah burble.

On opening night I was a little under the weather. I made my way down to the South Bank. I sat in the green room and signed some posters. Adam Buxton was there – he was doing the Q&A – and Ralph Steadman, hawk-faced, a little batty-seeming, with wild eyebrows and a jewellery confection of silver and lapis lazuli round his neck. I’d had a briefing call with him on the phone a few months earlier. He’d just watched the film and said, I think in a positive way, ‘Oh God, it’s so fucking depressing. Jesus, what a fucking nightmare. So awful.’

The evening was a blur. I felt typically anhedonic, ill, nervous, sapped of energy. I was still mindful that it was at heart a film about not getting access and that some viewers might be disappointed. But the crowd enjoyed it from what I could tell and the Q&A passed off without incident, and so it was with a feeling of pleasant surprise that I read, in a triumphalist email from Altitude early the following week, that the live event had been beamed into so many cinemas that in that one night the film had grossed more than most theatrical docs make in a year.

And so it went on. After its long period of languishing unloved, the film defied every prediction, selling well week after week, until it was the second-highest grossing doc of the year in the UK and one of the most successful of recent times.

Eventually, in early 2017, the movie came out in America. It showed in cinemas in New York and Los Angeles, and for about fifteen seconds it was the number-one film on the iTunes documentary charts. I did a short publicity tour, which mainly consisted of low-rated Internet broadcasts: print journalists who did web interviews filmed by the office tech guy. One woman literally interviewed me on her personal Facebook page, with questions coming from members of her family.

At a time when I had grown complacent about media interest, turning down interviews like Duran Duran in their heyday, it was a salutary reminder of what lack of interest feels like.

I did a couple of nights in New York. The ghost of my younger self seemed to be walking the streets, angry and resentful and wholly committed to making something of himself with no real clue as to what it would be. Being back with a middlingly successful documentary felt like a triumph of sorts, my fifteen minutes of the big time. I had the feeling of being both close to that hungry young man and far away, his dark energy muffled by a modicum of success but still throbbing underneath, still directionless and confused.


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