Legendary documentary maker Louis Theroux has gone toe to toe with sex offenders, murderers and drug addicts over the course of his 20-year career. But a "sensual eating workshop" might well be his most uncomfortable experience to date. He tells Maxim Boon about exploring the romantic trend of polyamory in his latest film.
A little over 20 years ago, a young, British documentary maker arrived in the United States, with a small camera crew in tow and a mission to explore the shadowy subcultures on the fringes of American society. Louis Theroux – a delightfully befuddled, bespectacled man from the BBC – had big ambitions for his fledgeling show, including infiltrating the inner-circles of TV evangelists, survivalists and the porn industry.
But intimidating as his intended targets may have appeared, and as meek as he might superficially have seemed, Theroux was armed with three powerful secret weapons: the disarming anonymity of being totally unknown, the fearlessness to chase compelling stories, and the mastery of a wide-eyed whimsy capable of beguiling even the most hardened of interviewees.
That show, which first aired in 1998, was Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, and it would become the launchpad for a career that has now seen the filmmaker reach cult status all over the world. In his early films, the charm of Theroux's unflappable, quietly puckish nature – a deceptively benign Britishness often starkly juxtaposed with the brashness of his American subjects – made for essential viewing. "Those programs were always intended to be a kind of funny series, though it had its dark moments," Theroux recalls. "It was meant to amuse as well as entertain and reveal these extraordinary stories. And it was meant to be fun to watch and a bit ridiculous in a way."
But while comic flair may have been the tenor of his early films, in the two decades since that first season of Weird Weekends, Theroux has also proven his skills handling the most harrowing of human experiences. This was arrestingly on show in one of Theroux's most recent undertakings. Last year, his three-part series, Dark States, explored the drug addiction, sex trafficking and murder that has reached epidemic proportions in the US. "I’ll be honest, I actually find it easier to do the darker subjects, which might seem counter-intuitive. But for me, the most involving stories are the ones where the stakes are the highest. These stories tend to be easier to tell because there’s a sense of urgency, so there’s a sort of legitimate claim on the audience’s attention," Theroux says.
However, the first film in his latest trilogy of documentaries, Altered States, sees a return to a lighter kind of storytelling. Love Without Limits lifts the veil on the growing trend of polyamory; romantic relationships involving multiple people beyond the traditional monogamous pair. In contrast to other projects of recent years, Theroux wasn't faced by mortal danger during the filming process. But that's not to say making the program wasn't still a challenge.
"There are very different difficulties to figure out, because as opposed to stories where I’m observing something actually taking place, where I’m seeing extraordinary things happening in front of me, this is a film that relies more heavily on my ability to the peel away the layers of the relationships and rub against the grain of what’s going on, to find out what’s going on underneath."
And it's not just metaphorical layers Theroux peeled away while making this film. In a return to a flourish common in his Weird Weekends documentaries, Love Without Limits sees Theroux actively participating in the activities he's documenting. In the past, this has seen him dabble in porn or Christian extremism. So it's a surprise to learn that a "sensual eating workshop" may well rank as one of the most confronting activities Theroux has ever consented to.
"I have to admit, that I didn’t love the idea of doing it – it felt like a bit of a professional obligation to take part in it. I was aware that my wife would see it – not to mention several million people on TV. And it was pretty full on. Way more full on than I expected. I thought it was just going to be people feeding each and saying, ‘Oh that’s nice,' with maybe just a little bit of light shoulder rubbing. But certainly, around me some people were getting very frisky, to an extent I wasn’t expecting," he says. "But then again, this is the business I’ve chosen. If I’m not prepared to get out there and push myself beyond my comfort zone, then I shouldn’t be doing the job, quite frankly. I get well paid, I get to travel the world and do something that I love. So if the price of that is having someone force feed me strawberries and cream while people moan and groan around me, then I guess that’s just something I have to do."
In some tonal respects, Love Without Limits shares much of the playful DNA of Weird Weekends. But there is a maturity present that stands it apart from its predecessors, most notably in Theroux's willingness to reveal his own personal perspectives, offered with a frankness that seems to mark a new phase in his filmmaking. "It was very much spontaneous," he insists. "I think for me, at least part of being an emotionally engaged interviewer is not being overly precious with my opinion. I do try and say, 'Well, here’s what I think.' And there are a few moments in this film that go a bit further than that even, where I’m there more as me, as a person, rather than a detached observer, or even as a mischievous TV construct. Because a lot of that quintessential ‘Louis Theroux’ personality in older stuff, like the Weird Weekends, was a construct – a bit of a fiction you know. It’s me, but an exaggerated version of me. And I think in this film you see that fall away. I'm more real."
As Theroux enters his third decade chronicling the peculiarities of American society, it's clear his fascination with our cousins across the pond remains as potent as when he first started filming them, back in '98. "The stories will always be out there. I really do believe that it is a fact of the human condition that we behave in strange ways, that we are at war with ourselves, that we are yet to resolve all the complexities that exist within humanity. There’s a quote by the philosopher Immanuel Kant that says, ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.’ And I consider that my subject. Until the timber of humanity straightens out, there will always be stories that I will want to tell."
First published 27 Nov, for The Music.