Alex Gibney on Going Clear’s Archival Scientology Footage, Using Drones, and Why More People Need to Speak Out Against the Church

Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

Alex Gibney’s two-hour-long exploration of Scientology, Going Clear, premieres tonight on HBO. Based on Lawrence Wright's book by the same name, Gibney speaks with former leaders and defectors of the church for the documentary, which gives the unacquainted a primer on the organization and its creator, L. Ron Hubbard, and chronicles its alleged abuses against its members. Gibney spoke with John Horn of Southern California Public Radio's arts and entertainment show “The Frame” about where he found footage of Scientology rallies, protecting his material from meddlers, and why more people need to speak out against the church. (Listen to part of this interview below, and subscribe to “The Frame” at iTunes or Stitcher.)

I want to ask about the archival footage that you found. There’s a lot of footage of David Miscavige at what looked to be — I think, to a lay person — they looked like a sales meeting at Herbalife. They are these rallies, these pep rallies. Was that something that you found pretty early, or what did you think was kind of your great find in terms of tracking down archival footage?
Some of that we found early, but we kept finding more and more of that material, sometimes even on the Russian internet, RU.  And so, you know, we just kept digging. The other great find for us was there had been out in the ether a black-and-white interview with L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, conducted by a guy from Granada TV. What nobody knew until we finally reached this person was that there were outtakes of that interview and we were able to get those outtakes, which contained some rather really interesting stuff. And so that was also a great find for us.

This is where L. Ron Hubbard thinks he’s off the record?
Yes, and confesses that there were abuses in the church, which I think everybody will find interesting, particularly those devout members.

One of your fellow documentarians Laura Poitras was talking to us not that long ago about making Citizenfour and the degree to which she had to safeguard her film to protect it from people who she thought would try to meddle with it. Did you have similar concerns or issues in the making of this film, and what did you do?
We did. And we employed safeguards in the cutting room in terms of the way we were or were not connected to the internet and also in terms of how we conducted our business and emails and so forth and so on. So, yeah. I don’t think we were as assiduous as Laura has been, but we certainly took precautions.

Two of your previous films were about Lance Armstrong and Julian Assange, and they were both very preoccupied with their image, probably about as much about their image as their work and their lives. Is the Church of Scientology in some way similar to Lance Armstrong and Julian Assange in terms of the way they wanted to manage and manipulate their image?
Yes, and it’s particularly important to them not so much for how the outside world sees them, but how their declining membership sees them. It’s terribly important that they keep their membership inside the Scientology bubble and also terribly important that they convince their membership they’re doing everything they can to attack these scurrilous critics, so that the membership never becomes disillusioned.

There’s been a lot of talk on many different levels about the use of drones — militarily, for Amazon to drop packages. Your film uses drones. Prophet's Prey, Amy Berg’s film, uses drones. Cartel Land uses drones. How important are drones to documentary filmmaking right now?
[Laughs.] Well, right now they’re the flavor of the month. I think people will get tired of them, but they do afford you a rather unique opportunity. It’s almost like God’s Louma crane.  Suddenly, you come up over a tree as we have done to show the blue building of Scientology and it’s a pretty dramatic shot and then you can fly over it. You know, Spanky Taylor, who’s one of the women interviewed in the film, talks about how they used to have to sleep on these wet mattresses on the roof of the building and we can glide over the roof. So, it’s pretty dramatic and it can be very, very useful in a lot of instances.

And if you had knocked on the front door of the Church of Scientology and said, ‘We want to fly over. Can we get some shots of the inside,’ they probably would have said no?
Probably. And otherwise, in another environment without drones, we would have been limited to a tripod on the street, which is not nearly as exciting as God’s Louma crane.

There were a number of very prominent former members of the church who are in the documentary. What were the conversations that you had with them to convince them to go on-camera, and is there now kind of a wave of people, is there a kind of group momentum about people finally willing to tell the story?
I think there is a tipping point on account of [Lawrence Wright’s] book and also the film, and we’re starting to hear from more and more former members. In terms of my conversations with some of the people who agreed to appear, I think they wanted to be assured that I was going to treat them as smart, sentient human beings, not as wingnuts and just doing a deep dive into the wild stuff that happens in the church. Because I think one of the things about the film is it tracks their journey, and all of them are pretty smart people. And that’s what’s interesting about it: How did they — and by extension, all of us — fall into these belief systems? So that was, I think, the key for them, to know that I was going to treat them with a degree of empathy.

When you were making your film about Lance Armstrong, The Armstrong Lie, you were working with a couple of producers — Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach — who had, I think it’s fair to say, slightly different opinions about how heroic or unheroic Lance Armstrong is. On this film, you’re working with Lawrence Wright, who’s very close to the subject. How did you resolve any differences of opinion that you had with Lawrence Wright about the direction of the film since he’s really your right-hand man in the making of this film?
I think, like in anything, once you get into making a film, the film ultimately has to have a logic and a kind of momentum, narrative momentum, of its own. And so while I relied on Larry a lot, particularly because he did such a thorough job of research, nevertheless in terms of making the film we had to go on our own journey. And I think, frankly, the film started out as a sort of simple abuse-of-power film and then became a film that was kind of a portrait of these people and how they got in and also how they got out. Because by the end of the film, what’s really interesting is you see this momentum where some of them get out and then they reach other people who are out and they say, “We gotta do something about this to let other people know of the horrible things that are going on inside.”

And getting out is not easy, I mean, there’s a scene where somebody is actually chased down the street by a security guard as she’s trying to escape the church.
That’s right. The church has a practice of disconnection whereby if you decide to leave the church, particularly on terms that the church doesn’t like, you go out as a critic, they try to insure that you’re disconnected from all those who are close to you, particularly family members. And that is a really terrifying thing for people. I mean, imagine a world where you know that if you walk out, if you take an action, that suddenly none of your family members are going to talk to you anymore, and it keeps a lot of people in. So, it’s very hard to break free of that. One of the people in the film Mike Rinder, who used to be the spokesperson for the church, talks about how he lost his entire family.

The church is famously litigious with the Internal Revenue Service. Were there any people that you tried to get to or footage you tried to get where the church was successful in blocking those people or that footage from getting into your film?
In the case of people, there were a lot of people who were afraid that the church might come after them. And they were afraid often because they had signed these NDAs, nondisclosure agreements, that the church often pressures people to sign. I think they’re not legally enforceable, but many people fear that the church will come after them and ruin their lives. So, in the case of people in particular, that was a real concern, and that’s why I hope that this film will encourage other people to come out and start speaking up.

Is that what you hope the takeaway from the film is, that people who are in the church will be able to leave? Is that your goal, or what is your goal for this film?
Yeah, I think there are particular abuses that the church is responsible for that need to be highlighted and they should be stopped. And the best way of stopping them is to have many, many more people speaking out. And there’s this issue of the fact that we’re all paying, in effect, for the church because they’re a tax-exempt organization, which seems to be — that tax exemption seems to be supporting these abuses, and that should be a concern for all of us. So, those are two big things. But I think also more broadly, I hope the film focuses all of us, in a period of time where you can see more and more kind of intense fanaticism, focuses all of us on the need for healthy doubt so that none of us end up aiding and abetting the kind of abuses that the Church of Scientology is responsible for.