On a sunny afternoon in Hollywood, three figures strolled through a residential neighborhood just south of Sunset Boulevard. As they paused to chat, a stranger clad in black and sporting a walkie-talkie made a beeline for them on a bicycle.
"Hello," he said. "Do you need help with anything today?" Fresh faced and exceedingly polite, he focused his attention on one member of the trio, a tall and bespectacled Brit in his 40s. "No, we're just walking around."
"If you need anything," the young man said, holding out his hand expectantly, "my name's Alex."
"I'm Louis," answered the Brit, warily returning the handshake. Seemingly satisfied, Alex smiled, remounted his bike and rode off down the sidewalk without bothering to address the man's companions.
What seemed like a curiously odd exchange did not surprise the Brit. Documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux was days away from the U.S. debut of "My Scientology Movie," and the encounter occurred on a public street outside the Church of Scientology's sprawling West Coast headquarters.
Theroux, who lives in London, didn't think the church had been tracking him as he made his most recent stateside return. But after the encounter with the young man on the bicycle, he wondered if his face was plastered somewhere on a Scientology security wall, a suspicion he'd felt years ago when guards turned him away from the Celebrity Centre on Franklin Avenue after he'd first approached the church to propose a documentary.
"Do you think that I'm drawing the attention?" he asked.
The afternoon had begun innocuously enough when Theroux strode into a Hollywood cafe a few blocks away from Scientology headquarters.
"I used to wander around here when I was making my film, not secretly but as a normal citizen, just to feel the vibe and chat with Scientologists," he said, taking a seat as a Muzak version of "Nessun Dorma" ("None Shall Sleep") played softly from the overhead speakers. He flashed back to the time when, living in Los Angeles, he wandered into a Scientology building and took in an orientation video only to find himself buying a copy of "Dianetics" he didn't know he was being sold.
"I wouldn't say it was totally normal," he said. "It's like going into a used car lot. It was this conversation about, how can I get more out of life? And you realize it's a sales pitch for why you need to sign up for Scientology."
The church's close monitoring of any outside coverage or portrayal of the group has become as iconic as its bright blue building. Many journalists, filmmakers and former Scientology members who have investigated or spoken against the organization have experienced pushback from church officials, both legally and personally.
Several times during the making of "My Scientology Movie," which is now available on demand and on Amazon, Theroux and his fellow filmmakers unexpectedly found themselves in the sights of Scientology members who showed up outside their sets and started filming them — a meta-movie curiosity that lends the documentary the kind of surreal, humorous jolt absent from more sober fare like Alex Gibney's "Going Clear" or A&E's "Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath."
Theroux, 46, is known for an immersive style of filmmaking that's placed him into intriguingly uncomfortable proximity to criminals, addicts, neo-Nazis and members of the Westboro Baptist Church for his British television documentaries.
In "My Scientology Movie," his first theatrically released feature documentary — produced by Oscar winner Simon Chinn ("Man on Wire" and "Searching for Sugarman") and directed by John Dower — he attempts an inquiry into the self-protective religious organization. He ends up with a curiously personal film about the psychological intimidation tactics the church allegedly exerts on its members, even years after they have left the organization.
Theroux had long been interested in deep-diving into Scientology, but after a decade of requests for access and interviews, the filmmakers instead interviewed high-profile apostates, gathering accounts of Scientology practices and alleged abuse among the higher echelons of the organization.
In 2012, the filmmakers approached former Scientology executive Mark "Marty" Rathbun, who left the church in 2004, to join the film and share insights from his experience as a high-ranking official under church leader David Miscavige.
Inspired by the documentary "The Act of Killing," they hired actors to play Scientologists, including Miscavige and his most famous A-list acolyte, Tom Cruise, reenacting firsthand accounts from former members for the camera in a production studio in Los Angeles.
"The film is as much an excavation of Marty and his personality as it is of Scientology," Theroux said of Rathbun, a complex figure in the ex-Scientology community at the center of the film, and who denounced the documentary on his personal blog shortly after its film festival debut last year.
Rathbun declined to comment on the film for this article, but pointed The Times to his blog review in which he accuses the filmmakers of using him as "bait to incite the wrath of the Church of Scientology." According to Rathbun, Chinn initially promised that the documentary "would break the cookie-cutter mold of Scientology projects to that date," which relied on the "lazy method of highlighting and rehashing what has been alleged before ... to provoke aggressive responses."
Theroux maintains that Rathbun was supportive of the film when he first saw it. "He saw the movie and his first reaction was positive, he said some nice things about it."
According to Scientology spokesperson Karin Pouw, the church has not yet screened "My Scientology Movie."
"We did notice several reviews saying things like it was 'far from his finest hour' or 'nothing more than a desperate bid to get in on the hype,' and that Theroux was also 'accused of deception' by the individual he cast as the star of his film," she wrote in an email, quoting two negative reviews of the film, which holds an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a Yahoo article referencing Rathbun's blog post.
Theroux said that his motive for making the film was to explore and engage, not merely bait Scientology.
"I'm always interested in the irreducible contradictions that exist in certain subjects," he said. "[Scientology is] a spiritual practice, but it seems to model itself on McDonald's. David Miscavige, the pope of Scientology, his official title is chairman of the board — and he's actually in charge of preserving the copyrights. They're more like protecting a kind of corporate brand." (According to a Scientology website, Miscavige heads the nonprofit Religious Technology Center formed in 1982 to "preserve, maintain, and protect" Scientology.)
In the film, Rathbun helps cast the role of Miscavige after an audition in which Rathbun ends up pinned against a wall by actor Andrew Perez playing a physically and verbally abusive fictionalized version of the Scientology leader.
The role goes to Perez, who brings intensity to his big Rathbun-directed performance: Terrorizing a roomful of fellow actors playing his underlings while in character as Miscavige in a reenactment of "The Hole," a reported punishment facility located on the organization's Gold Base in Riverside County.
It's a scene Rathbun has since criticized as "a creation." But another powerful — and unstaged — moment in the film is captured when Rathbun is accosted on his way back home to Texas by Scientology members who taunt him mercilessly at LAX: "You're a loser … you're nothing … Why don't you just stop committing suppressive acts and live a real life?"
That scene, said Theroux, "packs an enormous power. Suddenly everything you see [reenacted] in the Hole feels totally plausible."
"I feel no animosity towards Scientologists," said Theroux, who is currently working on three documentaries about crime in America. "I do believe Scientology does real damage, in the way in which it separates families and uses psychological techniques to keep people in a system in which they are abused and exploited — they deny that, but that's my take on it."
"[Theroux] has no knowledge qualifying him to make this opinion," Scientology's Pouw responded. "The church's beliefs and practices very much include the building blocks of strong family ties."
The communication Theroux has had with Scientology's representatives has varied wildly over the course of the project. Legal letters from Scientology lawyers streamed in during filming, but while editing the film, Theroux says, he also received a packet of testimonials from 100 members of Scientology's elite Sea Organization order extolling Miscavige's virtues.
"Each of them was an individual account of how much they loved being in the Sea Org, how rich and full their lives were, and how everything I'd got in my movie was wrong," he said. "But none of them had seen my movie," which was still in production.
According to Theroux, a bizarre threat materialized one day when police arrived at his London home while he was making pancakes for his children.
Theroux recalled how authorities relayed secondhand word of a plot to do him harm. "They said, 'We only know about the threat because it was passed along to us by the Church of Scientology in East Grinstead. They were concerned for your safety.' I thought, hang on. Is that a real threat, or is that the Church of Scientology finding a really weird roundabout way of sending a message?"
He paused. "In a funny way I found that much less worrying than the legal letters. It felt like old-school, almost primitive Scientology tactics."
Via email, Pouw confirmed that the church received an anonymous threat of harm to Theroux in 2015 that was then relayed to law enforcement: "We have no other details, including who made the threat.
Leaving the cafe, as Theroux and I decided to walk north two blocks toward the perimeter of the 500,000-square-foot former hospital campus that has housed Scientology's West Coast headquarters since 1977, he admitted he was curious to see if he'd be recognized.
The hydraulic whirring of a nearby garbage truck cut through the air as Theroux offered his dream interviewee ("R. Kelly!") and downplayed recent reports that he's working on a documentary about President Donald Trump.
"I would think not," he smiled. "He doesn't even seem to give access to the White House press corps half the time. Maybe I need to sign up with Breitbart!"
As the afternoon traffic started to back up along Fountain Avenue, we passed a man wearing a shirt emblazoned with the phrase, "I'm staying through OT V." A sign at the entrance of the organization's flagship building enticed visitors in with a promise: "All are welcome."
We ambled along a side street adjacent to the grounds peopled with the occasional local walking a dog and uniformed Scientology members bustling to and fro. As we passed a building entrance, two men seemed to fix their gaze on Theroux. Half a block later Alex wheeled up on his bike.
When asked about Theroux's interaction with Alex, Pouw responded: "Our security personnel at all of our churches are very friendly and offer people assistance or directions when they appear to need them."
Rounding the corner onto Sunset past a sprawling Scientology parking lot filled with cars, Theroux mulled whether or not his documentary, which has scored positive reviews, was a successful investigation into the insular organization.
"I think it's successful," he answered. "I think there's also something about the journey we go on, the fact that it isn't just a stunt or a kind of prank — it's grounded in something very real, and that is what Scientology is and how it engages with us while we're making the film."
We walked back toward the cafe, several blocks away from the Scientology compound and I bid Theroux goodbye. A few minutes later I noticed that Alex, still on his bike, had followed us. He watched Theroux's car leave and scribbled something on a piece of paper, and headed back from the direction he came, toward the big, blue building.