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

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Louis Theroux is the sort of man who makes you feel embarrassed of your own social skills. Not because they’re bad – hey, you have friends – but because his seem so spectacularly good.  The presenter manages to look completely at home with everyone from Nazi-sympathisers to transgender children to alcoholics on the verge of death. It often feels to the viewer like he’s known his subjects for a long time and they see him as a sort of kind, eccentric, bespectacled English uncle.

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Several weeks after his two new British documentaries – A Different Brain and Drinking to Oblivion – aired on TV, friends, family and colleagues of mine are still talking about them. There’s clearly something about Theroux – but what is it?

I went to get some answers from the people who have worked with him for over a decade and know him very well indeed – Aysha Rafaele, Theroux’s executive producer and head of documentaries at the BBC, and Jamie Pickup, who has produced his films for years.

“The first time I met Louis, ” says Rafaele, “we had a long conversation and I thought ‘he’s not any different from the person you see on telly’. So he has this amazing gift of being able to be himself on TV which I actually think is counter to what most presenting tends to be.

“He’s incredibly non judgmental and that’s really important. Especially because Louis has often been attracted to subjects like people with extreme views, sex offenders, paedophiles and he’s able to let people say what they have to say. What they say is valid too. Often presenters come from a polemic or a perspective – he doesn’t.  He’s the ultimate listener.”

But it’s also experience, she says. Yes, Theroux has “the gift” but he’s also had the benefit of practice.

“In TV, we’re always looking for the next Louis Theroux. And the reason you can’t find the next Louis Theroux is that Louis has actually been doing that for 20 years and he’s grown up in front of us on the telly. When he started out he had a certain je ne sais quoi but that was honed and honed and now its effortless when you watch it”.

“Sometimes he dares to go places where you think ‘oh my god what’s he going to do, what’s he going to do?’ but it always falls on the right side, his encounters never feel like they’re taking something away from somebody. It’s been as enriching for people who have shared time with him as it has been for him.

“He’s part priest, part therapist, part best friend, part someone just to offload to.”

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When watching Theroux’s films, you do get the sense that people are telling him things they’ve never told anyone before. Rafaele says he’s able to draw people out to make them feel comfortable about saying “unsayable things.”

And it’s when the subjects say those unsayable things that his documentaries are most affecting – and often quite uncomfortable to watch.

In A Different Brain, his most recent BBC film about people who have acquired brain injuries, there’s a memorable scene where he’s cooking a Thai green curry with Rob, whose wife fell off a horse and has only just returned home from rehab. Theroux helps serve up dinner and as they’re tucking in, the relentlessly positive Rob is for the first time honest with his wife about how profoundly her injury has affected their marriage and how alone he feels as a husband.

“Sometimes Louis’ presence makes people open up in a way that if you didn’t have him there they wouldn’t,” says Rafaele. “Rob and Amanda felt they were really willing to let Louis into their lives. For Rob it was an opportunity to be heard and Amanda could express what she wanted to – those quite difficult sentiments.”

However, Theroux doesn’t just turn up and charm the socks off his subjects. There’s lots of prep done first which doesn’t even involve him. In the case of Rob and Amanda, Pickup went down to Cornwall where they live and got to know the family before filming began.

“I, or one of the production teams, goes there first and talks about being involved in the doc,” says Pickup. “They want to be part of it, they want to tell their story. So then when we come and film with Louis things quite quickly evolve, just like if you went to someone’s home and had a cup of tea, you’d get to know them. They get to like us as a team and I don’t think it takes long for people to be open about their situations.”

“With a documentary like Drinking to Oblivion people are having moments of such deep crisis in their lives,” adds Rafaele” so when you’re meeting them in that setting [the liver unit in Kings College hospital] you’re not saying ‘we’re going to turn up and start filming you’ – there is relationship building and trust building. There’d be more time spent chatting than there would filming.”

Theroux’s films have dealt with such a vast variety of unusual topics – but who actually comes up with these ideas in the first place?

“The idea nearly always comes from Louis first,” explains Pickup. “We’re a tiny team of, including Louis, four of us, and then we sort of riff off that. He has a certain theme he’s thought about and then we look into it and come up with other issues around the subject and go from there.”

So how does he come up with his ideas, and why those particular themes? The duo says that moral complexity is Theroux’s catnip. If it’s tricky, he’s interested.

“The driving principle for Louis is anything that isn’t black and white,” says Rafele. “Any conversation we have with him about what he wants to do next will be about something incredibly difficult on both sides.

“He has stuff like Scientology [Theroux’s film about the religion is coming out this year] which burbles away in his mind over years. But Drinking to Oblivion came out of the fact that he’d just come back to Britain after living in America for some time, and was looking at our country and thinking ‘what are the big stories here, what is a state-of-the-nation idea?.’ And drinking stats are incredibly high as is addiction in this country. And then we start approaching various institutions.”

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.

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.”