How Louis Theroux Makes His Documentaries So Entertaining To Watch
One of the permeating themes of Louis Theroux's documentaries is awkwardness.
But it's the best type of awkwardness because the British filmmaker asks questions most journalists would refrain from. He pushes his interviewees to answer questions they might not be comfortable with or he throws himself into incredibly awkward situations and environments.
The best interviewers have very distinct idiosyncrasies and Louis is no exception. James Lipton from Inside the Actors Studio has a powerful tenant for getting actors to express themselves by asking well-researched questions. Sir Michael Parkinson learned to relax and have fun with his guests - making the interview seem like an almost informal chat between mates.
Oprah almost literally oozes empathy when she interview her subjects by approaching difficult subjects carefully and allowing the person to finish their answer. But the difference with Louis is, he's so awkwardly blunt with his questions.
He got his start in the industry by working as a correspondent in Michael Moore's TV Nation. That's where he began poking into the weird and wacky parts of the world. Since then he's created dozens of documentaries for the BBC, ranging from Nazi's in America, the US prison system, survivalists and ultra-Zionists in Israel. He often won't inject his own opinions, rather he confronts people with strong, deep-seated beliefs and forces them to try and rationalise the seemingly irrational.
Take his documentary on the Westboro Baptist Church, dubbed The Most Hated Family in America. After exposing the cult-like atmosphere, Louis spoke to the head of the Church's daughter Shirley Phelps. The exchange between the Brit and Ms Phelps provokes so much awkwardness you almost want to turn off the programme.
He pushes Shirley on the Church's stance on homosexuality, as well as why they picket the funerals of dead US soldiers, by saying, "But what do you really believe." You can see her becoming visibly angry as Louis continues to question her beliefs and why she does what she does.
Another aspect of Louis' entertaining documentaries is the juxtaposition between his somewhat dorkiness and an uncomfortable or awkward situation. These are best shown when he looks into porn industry. He's clearly out of his depth and it's sometimes hard to watch.
You can also see here when he follows a British man looking for a Thai bride in his Weird Weekends series.
It's so painfully awkward when the Brit says to his bride, "I love you."
She replies with, "I understand."
Louis often conducts his interviews "on the go" which is different from the usual well constructed, organised discussions on other documentaries. Louis has a talent in using empathy and vulnerability during difficult situations. This is no more evident than in his Extreme Love series which had a look at the way autism and dementia affects the sufferer and their family and friends.
Louis told the Radio Times, "To be honest with you, before I made the show, I'd never knowingly spoken to someone who'd been diagnosed with autism. It was a real learning curve because the first couple of kids didn't observe the social norms of how you engage, even for a kid. Eye contact and things like that weren't there.
"But that's how my stories often work, by throwing me up against something that I'm out of my depth with."
His winning formula is awkwardness and an unashamed ability to confront people's beliefs. Some people believe Louis puts on a persona when he's doing his documentary to make it more entertaining. But he doesn't see it that way:
"I don't think I ever consciously thought of it as a persona. I characterise it more as a case of having gained confidence about the kinds of stories that I can tell. You know, it's only recently that I've felt confident and been able to trust my instincts without using tricks, arch elements or contrivance. I just figured I could document these people's lives and get to know them in a straightforward and honest way."
Louis's next documentary will look at US President Donald Trump
It seems like a natural step for Louis to step in and take a look at the current president of the US for his new documentary.
The award-winning filmmaker told the Mirror: "It feels like a whole cultural, almost sea change in how the world is part of the post- Brexit wave of populism. The story seems to change every day with Trump. There's something new bubbling under. It's hard to get your head around such a big subject."
He added: "The challenge with Trump would be... something so abhorrent that walks on two legs and is a human being, you have to explore where his foibles come from."
The documentary is likely to look at the social precursors that led to the billionaire businessman becoming the leader of the free world.
One of those is Brexit.
Theroux said he wasn't confident Hillary Clinton could pull off a win following the UK's referendum last year.
He told ITV: "I think post-Brexit I was less complacent about the idea of a Hillary Clinton victory. I was aware of the phenomenon of a so-called shy Tory and that people say one thing in polls and then do another thing in the voting booth.
"You know as far as the whole Donald Trump phenomenon, it's such a vast subject I don't really know how to broach it."
"I don't think you can say anything that confidently at this point about where he's headed, whether he'll be impeached, whether he'll be re-elected, whether he'll be a one-term President."
People on Twitter sounded VERY enthusiastic at the idea of the documentary.
Featured Image Credit: YouTube/BBC Films