A documentary about Scientology is now distributed worldwide, after successfully screening on HBO in the USA. Written and directed by Academy Award® winner Alex Gibney and based on the book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief profiles eight former members of the Church of Scientology-whose most prominent adherents include A-list Hollywood celebrities.
It was one of the most talked about films at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and highlights the Church’s origins, from its roots in the mind of founder L. Ron Hubbard to its rise in popularity in Hollywood and beyond.
For this interview, I spoke to journalist Tony Ortega about the importance of the documentary–and also about his new book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, which is about the author Paula Cooper and her 1971 book, The Scandal of Scientology.
Tony Ortega: I’m a journalist and I’d always heard about Scientology. I grew up in Los Angeles. I stumbled across a story in 1995 that involved Scientology. One story led to another. You build a set of sources. I had this never‑ending desire to keep learning about this fascinating field.
Here, twenty years later, I’m still writing about it. I’m probably the only journalist in the world that writes about Scientology every single day at my own website, TonyOrtega.org. It’s a breaking news story. Scientology is going through one of the most interesting periods of its history right now. I feel like I have a front row seat!
Kylie Sturgess: You certainly do! We’re talking about Alex Gibney’s film, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” He’s done other award winning films: “Mea Maxima Culpa,” which examined child sexual abuse in the Catholic church, and “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which looked at American military and intelligence services. He’s no stranger to the gritty confrontation of reality. What can we expect upon going into this film?
Ortega: I tell, that’s why I’m so honored that I’m included in this one. This is probably the best documentary maker in the world today. When I heard that he was working on something in Scientology, I was thrilled. Then he actually asked me to come in for an interview.
I’m really happy that I was able to help him out. This is really his film and Lawrence Wright’s film. They use me to talk about some specific issues like Scientology’s tax exempt status and the role of Tom Cruise in the church. I was really glad I got to be a part of it.
I think what viewers should expect is a hard hitting film that leaves them with two questions. First, why does the Church of Scientology still enjoy tax exempt status today despite all of its controversies? Second, when is Tom Cruise going to say something? This film hits him very hard. I was actually pretty surprised when I saw it for the first time.
Sturgess: How would you best define Scientology?
Ortega: Scientology is a self‑help organization that, at a beginning level, uses some basic psychological techniques that help people become more confident. Their problem is that they promise the moon. They promise superhuman powers if you stick with it and spend a lot of money.
The fact that it has some celebrities involved, I think, gives it a lot more visibility than it would normally have.
It’s actually a small group. There’re probably only about 40,000 Scientologists in the world but it gets the publicity like it had the millions that it claims to have.
Sturgess: This documentary, you’ve already mentioned how it looks at Tom Cruise. It also looks at people like John Travolta. I found the story of Sara Goldberg and her children particularly emotional. What do you think are some of the main highlights of this film which people should be aware of?
Ortega: I’m glad to hear you feel that way because I want people to get past the celebrity aspect. Tom Cruise and John Travolta do play an important part in this film but I’m glad that you saw that what this film really wants to get at are the experiences of really intelligent, compassionate people who get involved and then find themselves capable of really horrendous acts in the name of Scientology, one of which is the ways families are ripped apart.
Sara Goldberg’s facing an impossible choice. The church essentially asked her to make a choice between her son and her daughter. Why would any church want to do something like that? But that’s Scientology.
For me, what made the film so powerful was the way Alex was able to put together this narrative to show how intelligent people fall into this thing, what they’re capable of, and what happens after they leave. That arc, I think, should really impress people about the power to harm that Scientology has.
Sturgess: Why does it go on? Why have we got this incredible history, which the film looks at? I was quite astounded at some of the aspects of L. Ron Hubbard’s life and how they managed to get that much detail. It was astounding in the book by Lawrence Wright, “Going Clear,” and then Alex Gibney’s work. What do you think has been some of the main factors that has enabled Scientology to survive?
Ortega: Scientology, this is not a group that sits back to find out what its fate is going to be. This is a group that’s very active in perpetuating itself. They have a lot of money. They spend it on high priced attorneys. They’re active in pursuing their goals.
In some ways, in the United States in particular, they have found a way to really bedevil our court system. They’ve got our court system coming and going. They work actively to make sure that their former members can’t speak out, that the government really has nothing to look into.
If you’re wondering how do they survive, it’s less a matter of whether they’re popular or not and more what efforts they go to in order to keep themselves secretive and also protected.
Sturgess: It’s a lengthy documentary. You’re one of many people who are interviewed in this film, many coming from different kinds of backgrounds. What can you tell us about the number of people who were chosen to be involved and what they went through to ask to be included and say, “Yes”?
Ortega: I think Larry and Alex were really smart to choose eight important people. The most important people that are being interviewed are the eight former Scientologists. They’re chosen not just for their experiences but also the time they cover.
You have Hannah Whitfield, who was actually on the ship with L. Ron Hubbard, helping him run Scientology in the 1970s when it was run from the sea. You have Spanky Taylor in the mid-seventies who helped bring in John Travolta and provide that celebrity angle.
Then you have Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun who really helped run Scientology in the 1990s. Then you have Sara Goldberg, who just a couple of years ago left Scientology, went through that terrible split in her family.
I think the point of that is Alex wants you to see that Scientology doesn’t change. It’s still doing the same things today that it was doing in the 1950s and 1960s. I think he was very smart in choosing those eight people. There are a few others of us in the film, like myself and Kim Masters and Lawrence Wright as journalists, but the heart of the film are those eight people talking about their experiences.
Sturgess: Scientology is under increased scrutiny. It’s been critically examined. Often it’s being laughed at. It’s become a punch‑line in popular media, like South Park. There’re public rallies. Now we’ve got “Going Clear,” this documentary after Lawrence Wright’s book. What do you think of the future of Scientology?
Ortega: Scientology’s very good at surviving scandals. The Australian press in particular has been really good at exposing Scientology, much better than the American press.
Sturgess: That’s intriguing because that’s where it’s all happening, over there in America. Yet, it’s outside that it’s getting attention.
Ortega: Hubbard really wanted to have a strong presence in Australia. He came to Melbourne in the early 1950s. He really wanted it to grow. The press there, your press, I think, is more aggressive than ours. And so, I’ve been really impressed with some of the work that’s been done over there
The thing about “Going Clear” is that it reaches an entirely different kind of audience. It reaches so many people who normally wouldn’t give this a thought and makes them wonder, “How does an organization like this get away with so much today?”
I think that that momentum has really allowed Alex Gibney to get some important people thinking about what should be done. “Going Clear” clearly changes the game. I’ve been astounded at the response. I think once you see it you’ll understand why it’s having such an effect.
It’s not just the information, because a lot of that information has been out previously. It’s the way Alex tells this tale. It’s spine chilling. I think it’s having a great effect.
Sturgess: Alex Gibney has already had this film released over in the USA. It was on wide release on HBO television where it made a tremendous impact. I notice people are still talking about it. It’s come over here as a documentary that we can see in the theatres. I believe that there’s been trouble showing it in the UK. I’m not sure.
Ortega: There has been so far…Sky Network was scheduled to show it in the United Kingdom. Only because there have been some changes to the libel laws over there. They found out that in one place where Sky broadcasts, Northern Ireland, has not adapted that new law. Because Sky could not cut Northern Ireland out of their broadcast they couldn’t broadcast it anywhere.
I hear that that’s still being worked out and that the film will be broadcast in the United Kingdom. Scientology has earned its reputation as one of the most litigious organizations on Earth. In England in particular, it’s more difficult to put on a show like this. I think it will get shown eventually.
Sturgess: We have a new building that’s going to be created by Scientology here in my hometown. Should we be concerned? Should we be all going to see this documentary to learn more?
Ortega: I think people should see the documentary to see the total picture, but that particular project is really bewildering, because at the last Australian census only about 2,000 people identified themselves as Scientologists in the entire country. Yet, David Miscavige has announced that he’s opening a new Advanced Org.
He’s taking over those acoustic labs in North Sydney, I think it is. This is a $30 or $40 million project. Even in their own environmental impact statement they admitted that it would only serve about seventy or eighty people. It’s another one of these projects that’s purely for show.
David Miscavige opens these new buildings because he gets the press to say, “Oh, look. The church is expanding.” There’s absolutely no need for this building. He’s only doing it for the publicity. It’s just strange.
The same thing here in America. He’s opened a lot of new buildings and they’re completely empty. It’s more about a show than serving actual people.
Sturgess: You have a book out, as well, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely. Can you tell us about that?
Ortega: Yeah. One of the people who first exposed Scientology and its controversies was a New York woman named Paulette Cooper. She came out with a book in 1971 called The Scandal of Scientology.
Her story is legendary among all of us that cover the field. I felt that it was probably worth an entire book. I worked with her for two years. In the spy documents, they refer to her only as “Miss Lovely.” I used that for the title.
We’ve been on a book tour recently. Paulette’s been coming with me. We’ve been telling her story to people. It’s really been popular. It’s, again, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely.
Sturgess: In your opinion, what can people expect to come out with after they’ve seen this documentary?
Ortega: What I always hear from people is that they might have heard something about Scientology. They might have seen a story but they see this film and they’re shocked. They’re amazed to see the entire picture of Scientology because the story is largely told by insiders. Not just people that were in Scientology but people like Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder who helped run Scientology and know its most innermost secrets.
Alex Gibney weaves that together in a mesmerizing tale. I think people leave it angry. Angry that this has been going on for so long and that Scientology spends so much money on PR and litigation, that they’ve been able to get away with things for a long time.
I think people will enjoy it. I think they’ll be shocked. I’m looking forward to the response from Australia.
Sturgess: People can go to your website if they want a guide to the film or even more detail, can’t they?
Ortega: I have interviews with each of the people that’s in the film at my website, TonyOrtega.org. It’s also called “The Underground Bunker.” We have something new on the website every day about Scientology. We’re covering numerous lawsuits that are happening. We’re keeping an eye on this new building in Australia.
Like I said, you have some terrific journalists there who cover Scientology. We’re always featuring them. There’s a book about Scientology in Australia coming out by journalist Steve Cannae that I’m looking forward to.
There’s a lot going on. I hope people, after they watch the film, come to the website. It’s got a terrific community of folks who talk about Scientology that are very knowledgeable. We’d love to have them join us.