What is it about Louis Theroux?

How does he do it? The king of documentaries' tight-knit team tells Kasia Delgado how together they make some of the most harrowing, revealing films on TV

The places where Theroux and his team film are often such sensitive, highly personal worlds that it takes a huge amount of  time and effort to get access to a Miami mega jail or a London liver unit. Trust-building is key, says Rafaele. And sometimes it just doesn’t work and they have to abandon a project.

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It took around six months to make Drinking to Oblivion – but the US-set film By Reason of Insanity about patients at the Ohio State Psychiatric Hospital was a seriously tough one to put together.  

“That one was about 5 years burbling away,” says Rafele. “Nothing really happened and then because we have a long relationship with Louis, we can go back to those things. There is a long list of institutions, ones we really want to go to that we’ll try again and again and eventually the moment is right – something clicks for them, clicks for you.”

“That one we did as a two parter because we’d been waiting so long to get it, it felt like it justified two hours of TV. But where the access has been really hard is often the best stuff. “

There is a sense, watching Theroux talk to the people in his film, that he’s not putting words in their mouths but is instead drawing out something they already want to say. Despite the contributors often expressing heart-wrenching, shocking things, there’s a gentle humanity to it all.

So if Theroux  and his team are able to bond with subjects, is he able to let go afterwards once the film is over? Does he wake up at night wondering what’s become of Joe, the 30-year-old alcoholic who hugged him In Drinking To Oblivion?

Pickup says that it’s certainly not at all easy to put those subjects out of mind. “If it feels affecting to watch then it’s probably the same for us – it does get to you.”

At this point Rafaele says with a proud smile, “Jamie’s underplaying the fact that he and an assistant producer built up  a rapport with the contributors in the alcohol film and then that relationship carries on after they’ve filmed and they’ll be in touch with people to find out how they’re getting on. Sometimes even with Louis there are people he has remained in contact with over a long period of time. He can’t quite let go of certain things.”

“And its on their terms,” adds Pickup. “So Louis gives them their email address and if they want to drop him a line, they drop him a line. He’s still a journalist coming to speak to them but you do have some kind of relationship with them, a rapport.”

Indeed, Theroux shared an update on Joe earlier this week, revealing he has been sober for eight months and counting.

Rafaele and Pickup do acknowledge that it can be difficult to establish boundaries, especially with someone like Joe, who Theroux seemed to really connect with. 

“Sometimes that’s quite hard,” says Rafele “It’s something Louis explored it in the film. You feel like you want to protect that person and be all things to all people.

“Yet at the same time Louis is an incredibly good journalist and knows there are boundaries and things he shouldn’t cross – and that’s the sort of dilemmas that other professions like the hospital staff [in the film] are facing all the time.  Joe thankfully is in a better place now, and Louis would still be able to drop him a line and director Tom Barrow keeps in touch to see how he is.”

With the recent films about alcohol addiction and brain injury, and with a scientology doc coming out soon, I want to know what the team has in mind for their next film. 

“It’s early stages, but we have research into child custody issues and family dynamics, ” says Pickup. “We want to look at situations that all of us are affected by, extraordinary moments in our lives.”

Theroux’s new Britain-set docs have been exciting for the team, explains Rafaele, because it’s opened some doors here which might have been closed to them before. She doesn’t say which institutions but I get the impression that perhaps people started to think of him as only a US doc maker, rather than someone who would want to probe at the heart of British issues too.

“Now people have seen him do a couple of things in Britain,” she says, “it’ll make people say ‘oh maybe I didn’t expect him to be like that at Kings College Hospital [Drinking to Oblivion] so we’re reappraising some of the access we have in this country.”

America is still a seductive land for doc-making though, and Theroux and his team have lots more they want to do across the pond. “There’s so much more of everything there,” says Rafele.

“With the world of the Jinx and Making a Murderer and all those things which are incredibly powerful in America, we’d still want to be doing more stuff in the States.”

If moral complexity is what gets Theroux going, there’s plenty left of the world for him to get his teeth into. As my meeting with his producers draws to a close I ask whether all these years later, they’re still surprised by what Theroux can do on camera. 

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“I think it’s amazing that one man can have the range to be able to talk to all types of people,” says Rafaele. “I do actually think he’s rare in British telly and someone jokingly – I think the Lad Bible – referred to him as a national treasure recently. Weirdly, I hope he’ll forgive me for saying this, he’s a geeky, nerdy-looking unlikely national treasure – but I think he is a national treasure. He definitely is.”