Fred Phelps’ infamy is spreading across the pond. The anti-gay Topeka preacher and his faithful flock were recently documented by Louis Theroux, an English broadcaster with the British Broadcasting Company and a former correspondent with Michael Moore’s TV Nation. Theroux hosted the documentary The Most Hated Family in America, which debuted on BBC 2 to more than 4 million Brits. The BBC is in negotiations with cable channels in the states to air the show, although it’s already available via YouTube (the video above is a clip from the film). Theroux took time out to talk about butting heads with Fred, empathizing with the young women in the church and going to hell.
Pitch: What has the response been so far?
Theroux: In America, the Phelpses have a profile, so people have generally heard of them. Here, they have no profile. People were shocked. They couldn’t quite believe it. They found them strange, baffling.
What impression did you leave with?
They are – perhaps with the exception of the pastor himself, Fred Phelps – nice people. I found them warm and sensitive and mostly, they’re kind. And to me, personally, they were very hospitable.
Why do you think Fred was so standoffish with you?
I think he’s done with media. I think he feels like he’s been interviewed by journalists for the last 50 years, and he’s kind of had enough of it. As a visiting TV crew, they kind of gave us a little more leeway, and I got an audience with him a couple of times. But even on the first one, I think he decided that he was there on sufferance, and when he didn’t like the direction of the questions, he decided pretty quickly this is not for me.
Seeing all of those young girls involved with this, what impression did you get of what’s in store for them?
It’s hard to say. There’s a bunch of women in their early 20s, and no one for them to marry within the group. It’s hard to see how they will ever get married. They say we’re in the last of the last days, so that’s not going to be an issue. I would argue that we’re not in the last of the last days, and in fact they’ve probably got long lives ahead of them. So how it will shake out? I imagine some of them will manage to recruit young men into the church. Of Fred’s children, a number of them got married and brought people into the church, so there is a precedent for it. I don’t think it’s easy. I would suspect that after Fred dies, the church will kind of soften a little bit. Perhaps at that point it will be easier for them to find partners who aren’t completely scandalized at the idea of going to the services and joining up with the group.
You seemed to feel sorry for them.
I wouldn’t say that I felt sorry for them. I didn’t pity them. I guess I empathized with them. The challenge for us making the documentary was to evoke a little bit of vulnerability from the members of the church. They can seem, in the very least, unlikable when you see them on the pickets, partly because they seem to be enjoying themselves so much. In this case, it was a matter of trying to see what the consequences were for the membership themselves. Trying to see the sacrifices that they’d made and the consequences for them, the toll they were paying for a lifestyle that they really hadn’t chosen, they’d been born into.
Jael Phelps had no problem saying that you were going to hell. You seemed surprised that she would say something like that and take joy in it. Why were you surprised?
I wasn’t really surprised, but I just like to personalize it and to make it real. You know, if I’d been knocked over by a car, and she’d see my head explode open on the sidewalk at her feet, I find it hard to believe she would just laugh. I would think that it would be disgusting and shocking, even if she didn’t like me and she thought that was an appropriate end. I just wanted to explore that contradiction.
She had to ask permission to go get coffee, and she wasn’t allowed to. It seemed like there was a heavy amount of control there.
Absolutely. I’ve done lots of stories about people who are in lifestyles that are some way off the mainstream or offbeat, and normally they’re pretty open and happy to talk about their frailties. But with the Phelps, so much about it is about not showing weakness, not showing any chinks in your armor to the outside world, not opening up to your frailties except in the most abstract way.
Anything surprise you during the filming?
Overall, I was surprised how much I liked them. What’s hard to get over to people is that they’re not like televangelists. I’ve done stories on sort of mainstream evangelical Christians or these sort of holy roller types. The Phelpses compared with them seem much more normal. They’re educated. They listen to the kind of music that I listen to. They read the books and see the movies and watch the TV shows that I read and watch. And yet they’re in this strange religious group. Like Shirley had gone to see Capote with her husband Brent. She was like, ‘I thought it was a pretty good movie.’ So she went to see Capote, this film about this flamboyantly gay writer in New York, this relatively high-minded film about the nature of journalism. And she thought it was an interesting movie. And at the same time, she’s turning up with signs that say ‘Fags eat poop.’ That’s a very odd juxtaposition to me. -- Justin Kendall