Director Alex Gibney Understood He Was Taking a Risk
The filmmaker carefully kept his eyes open when it came to taking on the Church of Scientology.
How did you first encounter Lawrence Wright’s book ‘Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief’?
I’ve known Larry since we worked together on another film on HBO, My Trip to Al Qaeda. We developed a good working relationship and pledged to find another project to work on together. We talked during his reporting process and eventually I read the book. I was terribly impressed -- particularly by his interest in learning what people got out of Scientology. I thought that was a much more interesting angle than doing an expose, which is what had been done many times in the past.
How did you go about finding the former members of Scientology featured in the film?
Some of them were interviewed in the book and Larry made introductions. It was tough, because some were wary about going on camera. It took a long period of time to persuade them. I interviewed a lot of people who didn’t make the film, so it was an extended process. Ultimately, I decided to focus the film around the stories of these individuals and tell their stories -- and, in the process, to tell part of the larger story of Scientology.
What was your strategy for weaving the pieces together?
We wanted to follow the story of these people through the church -- what attracted them to it, why they got involved, how they lost their way and ultimately, how and why they decided to leave. That actually imposed a very complicated structure because we had to keep each personal story going, even as they intersected with the story of the church. Thanks to the work of the extraordinarily talented editor, Andy Grieve, we were able to come up with a structure that feels very personal even though you’re getting a good idea of how the church works.
Were you concerned about being attacked?
I felt that I had my eyes open going in; so long as I was careful, everything would work out.
How were the recollections of [L. Ron Hubbard's ex-wife] Sarah Northrup uncovered?
Larry touches on her life in his book, but there’s a great deal more direct testimony from her in the film. I can’t say exactly how they were found, but I can tell you that they were her late-in-life recollections about her life. It’s amazing and it’s really interesting too because you see Hubbard in a completely different light. You also understand that from the very beginning, what he wanted out of Scientology -- even though he came to be a believer in the end -- was a way to make a living without being taxed.
What do you hope viewers take away from this film?
I honestly hope that this is a helpful film and that it gives comfort. It’s been very powerful to be approached by ex-Scientologists at screenings. People have come up to us, saying, “This was so important to us because we didn’t think anybody was ever going to tell our story.” That is to say -- how people had gotten lost in the church and how they managed to escape.
What about current members of Scientology?
By charting the journey of these people, I think we showed what smart people get out of it. It’s something real. The goal in the film is not to delegitimize anybody’s belief, it’s to question the way an outfit like Scientology can take the belief of good-hearted people and turn it in a very sinister direction.
What are the next steps to stopping the abuse?
I would be very happy if the IRS would re-examine Scientology’s tax-exempt status. That means putting pressure on senators and congressmen who are in the appropriate committees.
Hopefully the film inspires others to speak out.
This idea of the “prison of belief” is so important -- you wall yourself inside of your own mind. The film is really about a psychological process that to some extent, all of us undergo when we fall under a powerful political philosophy or a religion that allows us to be blinded to abuses committed in the names of those things. It’s a cautionary tale for all of us in that sense.