Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) remembers how he reacted the first time he was offered the chance to do a film on the Church of Scientology.
"I turned it down," he told Business Insider recently at HBO's New York City offices. Like many filmmakers who wanted to investigate Scientology, the uncertainty of doing it without getting bogged down in an expensive legal battle turned him off of the project.
But two years ago the offer came back around and this time he couldn't turn away.
What was different was the involvement of journalist Lawrence Wright — who Gibney previously worked with on “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” — and his latest book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & The Prison of Belief.”
Gibney couldn't put the book down and so started a two-year journey making “Going Clear,” opening theatrically in limited release March 13 and on HBO March 29.
The documentary highlights the church’s origins by creator L. Ron Hubbard, the celebrities who made the religion intriguing to the world, and the horrific stories of abuse from former members. But Gibney says for him the entry point was not the sensationalism but rather the people who seeked out Scientology to find better lives.
"I was like Larry, he wanted to find out what people got out of it," said Gibney. "And from my previous films (“Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” and “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks”) I got very interested in noble cause corruption and how when people are convinced of the nobility of the belief system they can do the most appalling things."
First, Gibney had to decide which stories to investigate from Wright's book.
Knowing he couldn't touch on all of them in a two-hour film, he homed in on some of the major stories: Scientology's battle to be recognized as a tax-exempt religious organization, how the church has used movie stars like John Travolta and Tom Cruise to heighten its profile and in some cases manipulating them so they stay in the church, and the high-level members who left Scientology and were willing to speak out, like Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis.
Haggis had already blown the lid off the inner workings of Scientology when he talked to Wright for The New Yorker in 2011, which is what sparked Wright to write his book.
Scientology, however, has built a reputation for not only going after people who try to uncover church happenings but also tormenting members who leave it either by surveillance or harassment. Aware of this, Gibney says he took very cautious steps to ensure the safety of those who spoke in front of his camera. He would never film the former members at their homes, and Gibney would never arrive at meeting places at the same time as his subjects.
Gibney’s approach to secrecy came from his talks with Wright, who used similar methods when he interviewed former church members for his book. “I often used throw-away phones and encrypted e-mail,” he said. “People were so frightened.”
Gibney would discover that fear also spread to the media. Licensing footage of anything related to Scientology for his film through the major news outlets turned out to be impossible. “They all declined to license it to us for legal reasons,” he said, which forced him and his team to declare fair-use, permitting limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission.
But the biggest battle is the one Gibney and HBO are currently facing.
Since the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Scientology has gone on the attack to discredit Gibney and the film. The church bought out a full-page ad in The New York Times before it screened at Sundance, comparing Gibney and his work to the now infamous Rolling Stone story about rape at the University of Virginia.
In February, the Church released a video on the YouTube page of its publication Freedom denouncing the film’s claims about the horrible living arrangements for its Sea Organization members — the clergy of Scientology who sign billion-year contracts to serve the church — instead showing lush locations they inhabit and the beautiful facilities the church offers members.
Gibney told BI that he did reach out to Scientology to comment for the film, as well as Travolta and Cruise, but all declined. HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins has said the production company has around 160 lawyers looking at the film.
Gibney believes that all of these tactics done by the church to discredit his film are intended not for the general public but for the members of Scientology (which, according to the film, is around 50,000 people).
“They are playing a PR game with them to say, ‘Look at these evil people who are attacking us. Look how valiantly we are trying to defend our organization,’” he said.
But, says Gibney, "There is this palpable sense that the storm is turning," he said. "Something is changing."
"Going Clear" opens theatrically in limited release March 13 and on HBO March 29.
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