E-Meter Blues

Published March 11, 2015

ABOVE: PHOTO COURTESY OF HBO

“I became obsessed with this term ‘noble cause corruption,’ ” explains documentarian Alex Gibney of his decision to investigate Scientology in his latest film, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. “The idea that once you believe in some cause, everything you do is somehow sanctified.” Premiering this month on HBO, Going Clear is based on the book of the same name by Lawrence Wright and features interviews with some of Scientology’s most high-profile defectors. Gibney—whose previous subjects have included Enron, Lance Armstrong, Fela Kuti, and pedophilia in the Catholic Church—wanted to understand “not only how intelligent people get into what Wright calls the ‘prison of belief,’ but also how, when they get there, they allow themselves to do the most appalling things they would never have done if they didn’t believe they were somehow permitted by the church.” Both Gibney and Wright were at the Sundance Film Festival for the film’s premiere in January.

EMMA BROWN: The film made me quite angry at the IRS for giving Scientology tax-exempt status and allowing it to become so powerful.

ALEX GIBNEY: It’s hard to believe because, for most of us, the IRS is the ultimate bully. The last thing you want to do is go up against the IRS because they will crush you. But Scientology was brutal, and frankly the knees of the IRS just buckled for no particularly good reason. The whole fight with the IRS colors everything that went on after that. I think the Church of Scientology thought, “If we can bully the IRS, we can bully anybody just by threatening them with possible lawsuits, smearing people, stealing their materials.” It’s really an instructive episode, but the result is that we as American citizens are, in effect, subsidizing the Church of Scientology.

BROWN: What do you think the church would be with without David Miscavige as the chairman of the board?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: He single-handedly saved the church because he was able to wrestle that IRS exemption. If that hadn’t been accomplished, there wouldn’t be a Church of Scientology. It could be a different organization than the one it is, but it’s a reflection of the tyrannical man who runs it.

BROWN: Does Scientology have a future as a religion in the U.S.?

WRIGHT: Religions can change and evolve. The Church of Latter-Day Saints was the most stigmatized, persecuted religion in American history—there was a bill in Congress to exterminate them in the 19th century. But here you have, in the last presidential election, two Mormon candidates. It’s not impossible that Scientology could reform and change and become part of the general religious landscape within America, but it’s unlikely.

BROWN: Was it difficult to gather material for this film?

GIBNEY: Gathering material for my films is always tough. What made this one particularly tough is how assiduous the church has been in terms of trying to gather up all the personal material—particularly images—and confiscate them so that nobody has any evidence of their presence in the church. To get those personal materials was really, really difficult. One of the goals of the film is to encourage other people to either speak out or act on their volition in terms of leaving the church.

GOING CLEAR WILL AIR SUNDAY, MARCH 29, ON HBO.