‘Muckracker”, “slimy” and “slithery” are just three of the insults thrown at Louis Theroux in his latest documentary by a group of fundamentalist Christians in Kansas as he observes them with his trademark wry eye. On camera, it is water off a duck’s back, but surely deep down no one likes to be called names?
“I’m fine with it,” says the 49-year-old triple Bafta-winner. “To be honest, for a journalist to be called a muckracker is kind of a compliment, isn’t it? Aren’t we meant to dig and churn things up a bit?”
It’s just the sort of word that the congregation at Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, likes to bandy about. This small, mainly inter-married congregation has made itself notorious in the United States as a result of their high profile hate-speech against gay and lesbian people (their placards use more incendiary terms), and their picketing of Holocaust memorial services and the funerals of celebrities, victims of mass shootings, and soldiers killed in battle in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are all sinful, they scream, and we are all going to hell.
Theroux has already made two previous documentaries about Westboro – in 2007 and 2011. Broadcast this Sunday, Surviving America’s Most Hated Family will be his third, something he has never done before since successfully switching in 1994 from print media (“no one paid any attention to what I wrote – it was like putting a message in a bottle and chucking it off a boat”) to filmmaking.
There is an argument that such fringe figures are better ignored than given the oxygen of publicity; indeed, two of the recent recruits featured in the new film reveal they have come to Westboro as a result of watching Theroux’s previous films, including Simon Holbrook, a postal worker from Bradford. But Theroux has built an enduring career precisely on such people. His first big TV hit, Weird Weekends, which ran from 1998 to 2000, featured white supremacists in South Africa, UFO-spotters and survivalists preparing for Armageddon.
“It was kind of a revelatory experience the first time I went,” he explains, “the idea of being immersed in an extreme religious group for that many days and getting to know them fairly intimately. And the programme came together really well.”
He likes all the documentaries he has made. “They are,” he quips, “like my children” – of which he has three, all boys, aged 14 to 4, with his second wife, TV producer Nancy Strang. Or at least I think he is quipping. Part of his appeal is to keep you guessing.
“But I’ve always had a special soft spot for that first Westboro one. And that seemed to be reflected in how people reacted to it.” Because we are fascinated by cults?
“Because they were so peculiar. I try not to use ‘cult’. It is so loaded and I don’t know if it completely applies, because part of the dynamic at Westboro is that it is a bit family, but with cult-like qualities. Fred Phelps – or ‘Gramps’, the founder – was never a typical cult leader. He didn’t rule them in they way that other cult leaders would have done.”
The spur for this latest visit was the fallout following Phelps’ death, aged 84, in 2014. Some of Phelps’ grandchildren have abandoned the church, and one, Meghan, has written a highly critical memoir about life inside this curious community, to be published here in the autumn and already optioned by Hollywood.
As we talk in an anonymous BBC canteen in New Broadcasting House, it quickly becomes clear that Theroux is not only fascinated by his subjects. Part of him rather admires them.
“Part of Westboro’s stock-in-trade is the ability to deliver religious invective or hateful commentary with a smile that seems somewhat genuine. I don’t know how to fully account for that. So when they insulted me, what I heard was: ‘We disagree, and at worst you are a person who should burn for eternity, but it is nothing personal.’”
Some might call dividing the issue and the personalities involved quite grown-up. “What I call it,” he replies, “is socially sophisticated, this ability to navigate different social registers at the same time – both the fire-and-brimstone register, and the ironic-playful register.”
The latter, of course, is one he himself has used to amusing effect in the past on subjects like Ann Widdecombe, Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee, and Neil and Christine Hamilton in his When Louis Met… series. Of late, though, Theroux’s work has become more serious-minded, with documentaries on autism, anorexia, prisons, mental hospitals and assisted dying, where his heart-breaking film, Choosing Death, was part of the Altered States series that this year won him his third Bafta.
By contrast, Surviving America’s Most Hated Family feels like a return to his earlier more light-hearted, gently-poking-fun approach. Theroux adopts what he refers to as his “fish-out-of-water” questioning technique, but accepts that, after his recent run of documentaries, this is a concerted attempt to inject some light relief back into his work: “It is a flavour I still enjoy when making programmes.”
The story of Meghan, the apostate daughter, however, is a serious and sad one. She is fixated on liberating her siblings who remain inside the Westboro community. In the course of making the film, Theroux discovers that two of them have decided to marry other members of the congregation, making any exit much less likely.
How he chooses to share that news with Meghan – with the cameras rolling as she breaks down in front of him – could prove controversial, especially at a time when the now-axed Jeremy Kyle Show has prompted a new and unforgiving focus on how sensitively members of the public are treated on screen.
“I could have told her off camera,” Theroux concedes. “I consciously told her where I told her because I thought it would give the scene more of a point. What I didn’t expect was that it would have the devastating effect on her that it did have.”
Surely that was foreseeable? “I was conscious in editing it that on screen it might look cynical on my part. In the end, she would have been upset wherever I told her about it.”
His role as a filmmaker, he insists, is “to take the world on as it is, do a good job, and report it as honestly and entertainingly as I can”. Trying to intervene to change or mitigate the reality of lives is not part of that.
“My guilty secret may be that I don’t feel huge urges to intervene or save people [from themselves]. Dedicating your life to an insular group like Westboro is to me a massive waste of talent and a massive waste of lives – and that’s not to talk of all the pain they inflict on those in the outside world. So, yes, I’d love to see them have a change of heart – but that is not my job.”
Louis Theroux: Surviving America’s Most Hated Family is on BBC Two on Sunday, 9pm