Louis Theroux: Things I Believe

Tuesday March 24, 2020 Written by Oliver Pelling, illustration by Jake Foreman

Louis Theroux has picked up a few nuggets of wisdom from his journeys as a documentary filmmaker and journalist. Here, he chats to us about kids, embracing weirdness and having a funeral before you die.

I had a slightly neurotic work ethic as a younger man, and I don’t think it was completely healthy. I didn’t really know when to switch off, but I wasn’t necessarily productive either. Often I was just working for the sake of working, to alleviate the guilt or the anxiety that went with not working. As I got older, having the ballast of a family life has meant that when I’m working, I’m genuinely working. It’s made me more focused, and more aware of the idea of just being ‘on the job’ without faffing around.

I don’t really have morning habits or rituals – getting the work done has always been instinctive. I’ve never been one of those people to get up earlier than I need to. I need seven-and-a-half hours sleep. I can trim an hour here or there, but it catches up with you. I cycle to work, which I think helps clear the mind, and I try not to work late into the night, because everything seems gloomy. Once it gets past seven o’clock I start dwelling on the negative, so I just send myself to bed and deal with it in the morning when everything will be much clearer. It was something my mum taught me – go to sleep, we’ll deal with it in the morning; everything will be much better in the morning. I think that was the best advice anyone’s ever given me.  

With creativity, the key for me has just been to listen to my instincts about what I’m interested in. You should always be ready to walk away if you feel backed into something that doesn’t fit you. I’ve been very lucky insofar as I’ve always been able to pursue my own stories and my own interests. There are times when you’re tempted to do something for a buck, or to just keep your face on TV. But I’ve always resented doing things that I didn’t genuinely feel proud of at the end.

I think a healthy degree of fear is important. For me, the best stories come from a place of some sort of doubt or hesitancy on my part. I enjoy taking on stories that make me a little bit worried, either because they’re controversial in nature, or because I’m not quite sure how we’re going to tell the story. If you can hang on to the idea of exploring subjects that make you nervous, that tends to be a good thing.

You have an influence over your kids, but there comes a point where they’re going to do their own thing. They’re not going to be perfect, they’re not going to be exactly like you – they’re going to do things differently. Sometimes they’re going to behave like dicks, and you’ve got to be a little bit relaxed about that. There’s a temptation to be a dick back, to discipline them, and to take it personally. But in the end your main responsibility is to love them, to guide them, and to just do the best you can. It’s only going to end badly if you start beating yourself up. People have so much invested in the idea of their children’s success, but that can be a little bit imprisoning and destructive. You’ve got to let them fail.

I wish I could wrap the human condition all up in a neat bundle, but I’m always suspicious of people who have pithy one-liners about what it is to be human. I think it tends to be a hallmark of a slightly shallow thinker, if they have neat homilies about how life should be lived. The bottom line is that we are all complicated. The human condition is a profoundly strange thing. We’re alive for a short span, we’re a hostage to these impulses that drive us – whether it’s love or lust, or tribalism, or a need for attention – and we tend to behave in strange ways. I think you should do the best you can and strive to be a little better each day, but it’s never completely clear what the right thing to do is.

I’ve always tried to listen to people in a decent way, assuming that bad behaviour, wrong-headedness, or even what we might call ‘evil’ is a side effect of self-deception, misplaced idealism or even a kind of understandable selfishness, rather than always an active attempt to do wrong. The more we can do to treat others as similar to us, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to give them a fair hearing, and to assume that they’re acting out of good faith – I think that’s the best way to proceed. It’s certainly how I work in my journalism, and it’s how I try to be in my life.

Sometimes the voices in your head tell you you’re going to be hopeless, or you’re going to be a blob. There’s no real way to switch them off, you just have to put one foot in front of the other and see where you get to. But that quality of hesitancy, of being prone to worry, can actually be a bit of an asset. It can drive you to work. If you’re worried about your deadline, that’s obviously a helpful way to focus your mind and make sure you don’t get too relaxed. But the other thing is that people actually tend to respond well to vulnerability. I think part of the reason why my interview subjects have opened up to me over the years is because they can see that I’m emotionally present. And part of that is just anxiety or fear. I’m just there looking at them and thinking, “Oh god, I hope this goes okay,” and they can see that. Can you imagine if I just turned up and went, “Okay, are we gonna do this or are we gonna do this? Question one…” I’d end up scaring everyone off.

Death plays on your mind more as you get older. As a society, we tend to hide death and not think about it. I think we should bring it to the fore. I’m in favour of having funerals before you die. Why would you have everyone around once you’re in the ground? The idea I’m trying to get traction for – and so far I haven’t had a lot of interest – is that we start having funerals a couple of years before you die. I don’t know how you’ll predict when you’re going to die, maybe an algorithm, but I’m sure we can figure out the kinks. The point is, get everyone round, play your favourite music – everyone should be privileged to such an occasion, with speeches and reminiscences. That’s a happy thought.

Louis Theroux’s memoir, Gotta Get Theroux This, is published by Macmillan. His live show, Louis Theroux Without Limits, is touring Australia and New Zealand in January.

This article appears in the volume 33 of Smith Journal. You can pick up your very own copy here.