Documentary maker Louis explains why he's as proud of his new series - on the demented elderly and autistic young - as anything he's ever done.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve carved out a niche for myself as a maker of documentaries about people whose choices in life seem odd, offbeat or at the very least questionable. The owners of dangerous exotic pets; hardened criminals in a huge US jail; porn performers whose job it is to “get wood” on set: all these have at some point been grist to my journalistic mill. I get to know them, try to understand them, and often end up liking them.
But while the stories vary, in almost all cases my starting point is the subjects’ commitment to something I don’t fully understand. This creates a tension at the heart of the programme: I disagree with a person’s choices, yet I find I quite like him. To use the psychiatric jargon, I experience a “dissonance between the rational and the affective faculties”, which the viewers, when they’re watching the programme, hopefully share.
So it was a little bit strange when, round the middle of last year, we began talking about the idea of a two-part documentary series (airing this Thursday and next) about caring for the demented elderly and the autistic young. Take a presenter known principally for his tongue-in-cheek approach to interviews and let him loose among the mentally ill. As a concept it doesn’t exactly sell itself. But the idea of working in a new way appealed to me. And one October day we flew out to commence filming.
We shot the dementia episode in Phoenix, Arizona, a city whose year-round sun has made it a magnet for retirees over the past 50 years. The first day on location was somewhat worrying. One of my first encounters was with a retired dentist, Dr Gary Gilliam. At 70 years old, Gary was witty and well-informed on a range of subjects. But his condition now meant he spent large parts of each day believing he lived on an army base, that he’d never married (he’s been married nearly 30 years), that his (long deceased) parents were still alive.
It’s difficult to describe the weirdness of speaking to a man who appears to be perfectly in control of his faculties, who can deliver off-the-cuff repartee, and yet who is actually utterly disconnected from who he is.
There was a sadness to the interview, and more importantly, an imbalance between us that occasionally felt awkward and embarrassing. I wondered if I had made a mistake trying to do a show on vulnerable people.
Then I met Gary’s wife Carla. As strange as Gary’s world had become, Carla’s had become ten times stranger: seeing her life’s partner grow increasingly cantankerous, then bizarre. She now found herself in a state of confusion about her obligations: married to a man who didn’t remember being married to her; clinging on to someone she was still fond of but who was, in some ways, no longer there.
This, I realised, was the true subject of the documentary: the families and carers of the vulnerable. Though no one chooses dementia, once it has entered your life by attacking a loved one you are faced with some of the hardest decisions imaginable. If your Alzheimer’s-ravaged wife is canoodling with other men, is it okay for you to move on, too? How do you explain to your nine-year-old daughter that within two years her mother will no longer recognise her?
Encouraged by the experience of the dementia story, I moved on to a topic that is if anything even more delicate: children with autism. As a father of two children, I am used to seeing kids in the midst of a five-alarm meltdown over the choice of DVD or the necessity of broccoli. And yet even for me this was a baptism by fire. On day one of the shoot, when a seven year-old had been crying for several hours, for reasons to do with his autism and (in part) an apparently insatiable desire to go to the supermarket, I had a strong urge to go and sit in the van with a gin and tonic.
As an interviewer, what made my job more difficult was that many kids on the spectrum seem to lack interest in other people. Conversations weren’t always easy, sometimes impossible. And yet over time, I found by making the effort to communicate, by drawing or singing or communicating through touch, I could make myself understood.
Among the people I met was a young man named Brian who had made repeated physical assaults on his mother. Brian could speak very few words and I’d been concerned that he might take against me. But while he wasn’t verbal, Brian was very social. We got to know each other through touch, eye contact and games. By the end of our day together, Brian and I were “dancing” in the back seat of his mother’s car to a merengue song. It’s one of my favourite scenes in the film.
Several months on from the decision to make these shows, I look back to see that in important respects they are not so different from ones I’ve made investigating weird worlds and strange pastimes. They too involve acts that cut to the core of what it means to be human: the meaning of love and loyalty; the duties and limits of parenthood and marriage; the nature of identity.
For me, making these films has been an adventure, a revelation, occasionally a strain, more often a pleasure. I’m as proud of these shows as I am of anything I’ve ever done.
'Louis Theroux: Extreme Love' begins on BBC Two on Thursday 18 April at 9.00pm