Alex Gibney on Going Clear, His Scientology Documentary That’s the Talk of Sundance

Photo: Monica Schipper/FilmMagic

Debuting to a packed house at Sundance this week, Alex Gibney's upcoming HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief received a standing ovation. Vulture's Bilge Ebiri called it "jaw-dropping" and wrote, "Any way you cut it, this is still spectacular stuff." Gibney spoke with John Horn, host of Southern California Public Radio's new arts and entertainment show “The Frame,” about turning Lawrence Wright's book into a documentary, new details he unearthed about Scientology, and the opposition he's faced from the Church. (Listen to Horn and Gibney's interview here, and subscribe to “The Frame” at iTunes or Stitcher.)

Before the movie premiered, the Church was already going on the offensive publicly by taking out full-page newspaper ads condemning the film and its accuracy. What was your reaction to those ads?
Great publicity. You can’t buy that, but they could, and we were the beneficiaries. 

Do you think they would actually show up at [Sundance] and do something here? I didn’t see any presence.
I didn’t see any presence [at the screening], though I’m told the producer of Battlefield Earth was there. No, so far, we haven’t seen [them], but we keep expecting to see. I’m told some of the participants in the film said that PIs showed up at the airport and photographed them.

The movie makes it very clear that 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-desist letters or anything other than what appears in the film, saying they didn’t want to comment?
We’ve gotten a lot of cards and letters, prior to the film, from lawyers and PR reps for the Church. And we reached out carefully to a small number of people who had direct relevance in the film and asked them for interviews, but they all declined. 

When the book upon which this film was based — Lawrence Wright’s book — was published ... fears of litigation prevented the publication of the book in Britain for a period of time. Do you have similar concerns about 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. A lot of people feel that the Church is trying to muzzle critics, and we did encounter that — indeed, we weren’t able to license any material from the big networks — our networks, American networks. We had to “fair use” it because they all felt it was too legally difficult for us to license that material, which I found astounding since I’ve licensed all sorts of material from the networks for many, many, many years. This one thing — Scientology — seems to be the red button.

Why did you think turning Lawrence Wright’s book into a movie was a good idea?
I’d been offered to do Scientology films before, and I’d always shied away from it. Not out of fear, but I wasn’t sure it was the story I wanted to do. But Larry’s book convinced me that 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 then end up doing the most appalling things that they never would’ve considered otherwise. That was really interesting to me because it’s about Scientology, but it’s also about all sorts of other things in terms of any fundamentalist belief, any deep-seated political passion where people lose themselves, and suddenly lose their rudder 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. In working on the film, did you start forming an opinion in your mind of what kinds 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 we talked to got in in the ’70s, and at the time, Scientology was like religion without God. That was appealing in the counterculture era, but a lot of other people got in for all sorts of other reasons, because the fact is there is a 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, really. It’s like Freud’s talking cure. You start to feel better. Well, would you like to feel more better? How about paying a little bit more money? The next thing you know, you’re in, and then when you get to a certain level, you start to see the theology and the wild cosmology of the religion. That happens a long way down the road, and after many, many, many thousands of dollars.

Part of the message, too, is that anything good that happens 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 sort of self-fulfilling cycle.
That’s exactly right, and then people begin to really internalize that, so if something good happens, they know, “Oh gosh, it’s all due to Scientology.”

So Lawrence Wright’s book gave you a narrative thread, a vision of how this story could be told, but that’s separate from what a movie could do to a story that he’s written. How did you think you could make his book cinematically compelling?
The big thing was to find a visual way in, and the key thing for us was the “E-Meter,” this needle that goes back up and down depending on what you’re thinking, because that testifies to how people got in.

The E-Meter, we should say, is a primitive lie-detector that measures electricity in your palms, and you’re holding on to two kind of—
It used to be Campbell’s Soup cans, but now it’s metal cans, which are attached to a meter, where a dial literally goes up and down depending on the force of your thoughts. Scientology claims that thoughts have mass. There’s no proof that thoughts have mass, but that’s what they say. The needle does work. If you think of certain things, you can see the needle move. 

Is getting an E-Meter easy?
We got a really nice one on eBay and used it to great effect. 

Does it actually work?
You know, it does measure things. 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 in a way at how effectively it was able to track certain thoughts in the hands of a skilled auditor asking the questions.

So Lawrence Wright gives you a narrative thread, the E-Meter gives you a visual metaphor for telling this story. What new information do you think is most important that you present in the film?
I think there are two things. One is 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, and that’s really important. There are some things that are in the film that weren’t in Larry’s book, like the recollections of [L. Ron] Hubbard’s second wife, Sarah Northrup. Also, revelations about a wiretap of Nicole Kidman done at the behest of David Miscavige [the head of the church], according to Marty Rathbun, who used to be the No. 2 guy in the Church.

We should talk a little bit more about that, because people that I talked to coming out of the film were most struck by that. I talked to somebody who once worked with Tom Cruise. Explain what the Church did to undermine his marriage and why they thought it had to be undermined.
Nicole Kidman’s father was a psychiatrist, well known in Australia. To Scientology, psychiatry is like Satan. They were afraid that she was taking Tom away. Ultimately, they tried to cast her as a “suppressive person.” A suppressive person in Scientology is one who is unredeemably evil. They were afraid that Tom was going to leave the Church.

And that Tom needed to be disconnected from this suppressive person?
Correct. So in time, what they tried to do was, through auditing, get his head back away from Nicole — to literally turn their children against her, and tell their children that she was a suppressive person. In addition, Tom was — as this has been written many times — concerned about Nicole Kidman’s possible infidelities. According to Marty Rathbun — he was the key fixer for David Miscavige — Marty said he had a conversation with David Miscavige saying, “Tom wants me to wiretap, this is ridiculous.” Miscavige said to him, “Get it done.”