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'Going Clear': Alex Gibney welcomes Scientology's backlash to his documentary

by John Horn | The Frame

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Director Alex Gibney, right, and author Lawrence Wright, whose book was the basis for Gibney's documentary, "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief." Dan Steinberg/Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP

Alex Gibney, director of the Scientology documentary "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," welcomed the controversial church's full-page newspaper ads decrying his work, telling The Frame's John Horn that they are "great publicity."

The documentary is one of the most talked-about films at Sundance; it gives a look behind the scenes of the religion and its celebrity adherents such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta. 

The documentary doesn't air on HBO until March, but the Church of Scientology recently bought full-page ads in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times attacking the film even before it screened at Sundance. 

The Frame's John Horn sat down with Gibney in Park City. Here's what he had to say:

What was your reaction to those ads?

Great publicity. You can’t buy that. Well, they could — and we were the beneficiaries.

Did you think [church representatives] would actually show up at the festival and do something here?

I didn’t see any presence last night [at the screening], though I’m told the producer of "Battlefield Earth" was there. [Editor's note: "Battlefield Earth" was based on a novel by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and starred church member John Travolta.] But so far, no, we haven’t seen. We keep expecting to see. I’m told some of the participants in the film said that [private investigators] showed up at the airport and photographed them when they were arriving [in Salt Lake City].

The movie makes it clear you tried to have conversations with the church about the movie you were making. Did you have any kind of communication directly with the church during the making of the film? Did they send you cease-and-decease letters or anything other than what appears on the film?

We’d gotten a lot of cards and letters prior to the film from lawyers and PR reps from the church. And we reached out carefully to a small number of people who had direct relevance to the film and asked them for interviews, but they all declined.  

When Lawrence Wright’s book, upon which this film is based, was written, fierce litigation prevented the publication of the book for a period of time. Do you have similar concerns of the church trying to stop the distribution of this film in any territory around the world?

Not anymore, because now that it's been seen I feel that any attempt to do that will ultimately backfire. There are a lot of people [that] feel the church is trying to muzzle critics, and we did encounter that. Indeed, we were not able to license any material from the big networks — American networks. They all felt it was too legally difficult for us to license that material, which I found astounding since I licensed all sorts of materials from the networks for many, many years, but this one thing — Scientology — seems to be the red button.

But this is CNN, ABC News. These are not fly-by-night networks. And they said, "No, you can’t have it"?

That’s right. Legal restrictions, they say. They wouldn’t say anything past that.

Why did you think turning Lawrence Wright’s book into a movie was a good idea?

I knew Larry from before. He and I had done a film together called "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," based on his one-man play, which was all about the writing of the book, "The Looming Tower," which won a Pulitzer Prize. And then when he was working on this book, he sent me the galleys, so I saw it in advance. I had been offered to do Scientology films before and I always shied away from it. Not out of fear, but I wasn’t sure it was a story I wanted to do. But Larry’s book convinced me it was worth doing. And one of the reasons was this whole idea of the prison of belief — this notion that smart people can get seduced by a system of belief and end up doing the most appalling things that they never would have considered otherwise.  That was really interesting to me because it’s about Scientology certainly, but it’s also about all sorts of other things in terms of any kind of fundamentalist belief ... where people lose themselves and suddenly lose their rudder because they’re in this prison — this mental prison of belief.

The film doesn’t explicitly say what kinds of people tend to be attracted to the Church of Scientology. Working on the film, did you start forming an opinion of what kind of people were seduced by their message?

It’s hard to say. That’s what’s so interesting about it, it’s hard to generalize. A number of people that we’ve talked to, of course, got in [during] the '70s. At the time, Scientology was like religion without God. And that was appealing in the counterculture era. But I think a lot of people got in for all sorts of other reasons because there is a kind of bait-and-switch that goes on with the church. You enter and they tell you, "Look, this is an applied philosophy — take what you want and leave the rest." And you start this "auditing," which is a kind of therapy — it’s like Freud’s talking cure. You start to feel better. [Then they say], "Well, [if] you'd like to feel more better, how about paying a little bit more money?" And the next thing you know, you’re in. And when you get to a certain level, you start to see the theology and the wild cosmology of the religion, but that happens a long way down the road and after many, many thousands of dollars.

But part of the message, too, is that everything good that has happened in your life is a direct result of what you’re doing through auditing or your work in the church. And everything bad is because you’re not working hard enough. In other words, it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle.

That’s exactly right. And then people begin to really internalize that. So, if something good happens, they [think], Oh, gosh it’s all due to Scientology.

Lawrence Wright’s book gave you a narrative thread, a vision of how this story could be told. But that’s separate to what a movie could do. How did you think you could make his book cinematically compelling?

The big thing was to find a sort of visual way, and the key thing for us was the E-meter [used in Scientology training], this needle that goes up-and-down depending on what you’re thinking. Because that testifies to how people got in. It does measure things. And I’ve seen skilled auditors surprise people. In fact, one of the associate producers of the film, Lauren Wolf, who also worked with Lawrence Wright, was surprised at how effectively it was able to track certain of her thoughts in the hands of a skilled auditor asking the question.

What new information do you think is most important that you present in the film?

I think there are two things: One is that it’s the feeling of being inside the church. And that comes from the footage and the photographs that we were able to collect, so you get a visceral feeling of what it’s like to be inside. That’s really important. There are some things that are in the film that weren’t in Larry’s book, like the recollections of Hubbard’s second wife, Sarah Northrup; and, also, revelations about a wiretap of Nicole Kidman done at the behest of [current Scientology leader] David Miscavige.

Explain what the church did to undermine Tom Cruise’s marriage and why they thought it had to be undermined?

Nicole Kidman’s father was a psychologist, a well-known one in Australia. To Scientology, psychiatry is like Satan. They were afraid that she was taking Tom away. And ultimately they tried to cast her as a suppressive person. A suppressive person in Scientology is one who is un-redeemably evil. They were afraid that Tom was going to leave the church.

And that Tom needed to be disconnected from this suppressive person?

Correct. What they tried to do was, through auditing, to get his head away from Nicole, to literally turn their children against her and tell their children she was a suppressive person. And in addition, Tom was — it has been written many times — concerned about Nicole Kidman’s possible infidelities. According to Marty Rathbun, who used to be the number two person in the church, he had a conversation with David Miscavige and Marty [said], "Tom wants me to wiretap, this is ridiculous." And Miscavige said to him, "Get it done."

The documentary, "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," debuts March 16 on HBO. 

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