Louis Theroux on KSI: How the Veteran U.K. Documentarian Captured a YouTuber’s Big Break Into the Mainstream

Louis Theroux knows what it’s like to go viral. In 2022, the veteran British documentary presenter and journalist won himself a new generation of fans when a rap he wrote more than 20 years ago resurfaced on TikTok as a meme. Blowing up online is something he has in common with YouTube sensation KSI, the subject of a new all-access documentary Theroux has executive produced for Amazon Prime Video.

The film follows the rapper as he releases his second album, embarks on a sold-out European tour and prepares for a headline show at London’s Wembley Arena. Speaking to Variety over Zoom from his northwest London home, Theroux said he hoped “KSI: In Real Life” would be a window onto a new media landscape, and an opportunity “to reflect on what we are as a culture.” This, Theroux said, was a world in which a child from Watford can build a global media brand from their bedroom.

Born Olajide Olayinka Williams Olatunji and known as “JJ” by his friends and family, the 29-year-old Nigerian-British YouTuber KSI is “a media colossus,” said Theroux. Olatunji has used the platform he built through gaming and comedy skits — largely through a decade-long stint with YouTube group The Sidemen, for which he was a founding member — to expand into a successful boxing and music career. KSI now has 24 million subscribers on YouTube, is “making millions and millions of pounds” and is “driving billions of views.” For ‘Gen Z,’ he’s one of the biggest stars in the world.

But Olatunji’s universe is one of relentless “content.” Theroux says the “indefatigable pushing out of sometimes quite disposable videos” has created a culture of ephemeral, “here today-gone tomorrow” material. Indeed, Olatunji himself has erased swathes of his own videos to better reflect his current online identity. For Theroux, a feature-length documentary film is the opposite of that, a way to capture lightning in a bottle, and to freeze the star in time.

Celebrity profile documentaries are rarely more than vanity projects designed to promote their subjects. “You want to tell the truth, but you don’t want to fuck up the deal, right?” said Theroux. But according to him, the Mindhouse team had “zero editorial interference” from KSI’s team, and insisted there were no preconditions in place about what Olatunji would and wouldn’t discuss.

It’s rare for a celebrity of Olatunji’s profile (and indeed, his generation) to approve that kind of no-holds-barred access, but Theroux explained that Olatunji’s lack of self-consciousness was likely the result of sharing his entire life online, for years. “With YouTube,” he said, “you see them day in, day out, in their best moments and their worst moments, in their bedroom. You see their frailties.” He described Olatunji as “someone who can’t really hold things back in the way that an old Hollywood star would have been able to, in the old days.” Nor does he need to, eschewing mystery for an intense, intimate connection with fans and followers who feel they know him.

It was Dan Grabiner, head of U.K. Originals at Amazon, who first suggested Olatunji as a documentary subject after listening to Theroux’s interview with him on the “Grounded” podcast back in 2020. The film feels in keeping with Theroux’s sensibility — genuinely curious, gently probing and, in Theroux’s words, “not corrupted by an overly cozy relationship.” The team’s approach was so journalistic, in fact, Theroux said “what we needed to guard against was making it too forensic.”

“Sometimes in the documentary world, there’s a tendency to say, ‘How are we going to show the dark side?’” he said. He didn’t want “a story about the triumphs of the son of an immigrant family in Watford” to feel “in any way grim.”

Still, all good stories require conflict. Theroux was concerned that for someone as wildly successful as Olatunji, “there wasn’t a massive sense of something being at stake professionally.” Instead, the team discovered that what was at stake was personal.

“I had an instinct that maybe the family would be the grit in the oyster,” said Theroux. Indeed, the tension at the heart of the film is between Olatunji and his younger brother Deji, who is also a YouTuber. Theroux was fascinated by the fraught relationship between the two brothers. “You have Deji really idolizing JJ,” said Theroux, and then “JJ holding Deji at arms’ length and finding him lacking in certain respects.” Indeed it is when Olatunji reflects on how fame has given him something his family couldn’t that he is at his most vulnerable. When asked an innocuous question about love, Olatunji begins to cry.

Theroux said he was conscious about sending a white filmmaker to make a film about a Black family (“our Amazon commissioner Fozia Khan is a woman of color,” he added). However he also noted that “one of the really interesting things about JJ, which we don’t dig into that deeply, is that his racial identity is not a massive part of how he sees himself.”

“KSI: In Real Life” is directed by Wes Pollitt and produced by Mindhouse, the production company Theroux co-founded in 2019 with his wife, TV director Nancy Strang, and executive producer Arron Fellow.

“It was becoming a bit of a frustration that I was working from contract to contract at the BBC, making three or films a year,” Theroux said. Anything that deviated from the format — Theroux as presenter — he said, “didn’t seem to be part of the conversation”.

Mindhouse was a way for Theroux to make projects that didn’t require his participation in front of the camera. As an exec, he’s able to step into the role of facilitator, and “to help shape the story” from behind the scenes and mentor a new generation of documentarians. As well as working with filmmakers like Pollitt, Mindhouse are also collaborating with presenters including Alice Levine (“She has that quality you want —there’s no preciousness about getting involved, even in extreme situations”) and Liverpudlian journalist Layla Wright. “People whose voices are original, and unique, and different, and not the ones you hear or see on TV very much — that’s what we’re all about.”

“KSI: In Real Life” launches on Prime Video on Jan. 26

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