HBO's 'The Trials of Ted Haggard' details the pastor's fall
Ted Haggard liked and trusted Alexandra Pelosi. The once-powerful evangelical leader had become friendly with the HBO filmmaker when she was making a documentary about evangelicals in 2005, even taking Pelosi and her husband camping at one point and teaching them how to shoot rifles.
So when Pelosi called Haggard after he was ousted from his church following a gay sex scandal, he was delighted to hear from her. She visited frequently, often filming the disgraced pastor with her hand-held camera, footage she said she wouldn't use unless he was comfortable with it.
Haggard was less than thrilled a year later when Pelosi told him she had made a movie about his exile.
"We were enjoying our privacy," he said. "As the months were passing, we were increasingly able to go to Wal-Mart without being watched. So I told Alexandra that we were not going to be comfortable with it and that I was not happy because I thought she had violated her word."
Pelosi initially shelved the movie. But she was unrepentant about making it.
"As a friend, I wanted to tell his side of the story," she said. "I thought the media had done a disservice to Ted. Am I a vulture, am I a buzzard for showing up at his house and exploiting our friendship? I think anyone who invites Alexandra Pelosi from HBO to their house with a video camera should assume it will end up on HBO."
"The Trials of Ted Haggard," which premieres Thursday on HBO, is the product of both fortuitous coincidence and the kind of guerrilla filmmaking that marks Pelosi's work. Her best-known documentary, "Journeys With George," resulted from personal footage she took as she covered George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign as a producer for NBC. As with Haggard, Bush was taken aback to find his musings stitched together into a film.
It's an approach that may make traditionalists cringe, but the filmmaker, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), stands behind her technique.
"I would rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission," she said. "Because asking for permission, everyone is going to be on. That's why, even if people don't like Ted in this movie, you have to feel sorry for him, because he was genuine."
The 45-minute film offers an intimate if fragmentary look at Haggard's attempt to recover from the sex scandal that drove him from his Colorado Springs, Colo., church in 2006. His contrition takes on new resonance with allegations made this week by a former parishioner, who said Haggard performed a sex act in front of him when Haggard was still a pastor.
In a statement, Haggard expressed regret for having "an inappropriate relationship" with the man. HBO is adding a postscript to the documentary noting the latest development.
In an interview last week, Haggard said he has made significant progress in healing his marriage since his spectacular public downfall. After intensive counseling, the father of five children now sees himself as "a heterosexual with issues."
"I have an incredibly satisfying relationship with my wife, and I no longer have the compelling and obsessing thoughts attached to same-sex attraction that I used to," he said.
"I believe sexuality, at least for me, is confusing and complex," he added. "I really wanted to be a virtuous, wonderful man, but I had to fight hard to be a man of integrity."
Although Haggard was initially horrified by the idea of the documentary, he said he now views it as a bracing dose of honesty.
"There are so many human lessons in this," he said, including a very stark one about personal responsibility.
When Pelosi first met Haggard in 2005, she said she had no inkling of the secret harbored by the then-head of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, who had the ear of the president and commanded a huge following. She was floored when, shortly before her film "Friends of God" aired, Haggard admitted to "sexual immorality" involving a male prostitute and was forced to leave New Life Church, the 12,000-member congregation that he founded.
"I felt personally deceived," she said.
But Pelosi said she didn't think about doing a follow-up film, even when she learned during a visit to her sister in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2007 that the onetime evangelical superstar was quietly living around the corner with his family, banished from Colorado.
Pelosi and her husband ended up going over to the Haggards' home for lunch, an encounter that stretched into nine hours of emotional recriminations and apologies.
"We were so desperate to be able to speak openly with somebody," Haggard said.
Pelosi said she left the visit "feeling like there were a lot of different sides to the story. It's not that simple."
She checked in with Haggard every time she was in Scottsdale to visit her family, intrigued by his efforts to cope with his abrupt fall from grace. Eventually, she pulled out her camera and began filming him, without explaining her plans for the footage.
Pelosi said she herself didn't know. Making a documentary about Haggard's turmoil seemed out of the question. He had agreed not to speak to the press as part of two legal contracts he had signed with the church, separation agreements that also barred him from Colorado or returning to his church.
"At the time, I was filming because it was so surreal to watch this man go from here to here," she said, holding her hands wide apart.
Haggard said he viewed her filming simply as "an ounce of comic relief" during a bleak time.
The scenes Pelosi captured were far from lighthearted: The onetime national figure leaving a job interview, hoping the prospective employer wouldn't Google him. Knocking on doors, trying to sell health insurance. Sitting alone in the desert, reading Scripture.
Early last year, Pelosi said she realized that material amounted to something. She put it together in an edit bay at HBO, called Haggard and told him she had made a film. The former pastor reacted angrily, and Pelosi quickly told him she would drop it.
But when she learned from news reports last June that the church had allowed Haggard to move back to Colorado Springs, she tried again. Haggard and his wife, Gayle, flew to New York to watch the film, expecting to say no.
Haggard said he found the documentary "incredibly embarrassing" but was surprisingly comfortable with it airing.
"There is nothing in the documentary that is pleasant for me personally, but philosophically I believe it's important for stories like this to be told," he said. "As I watched, I thought, 'I wished I would have seen a documentary like this before I got myself in trouble.' "
Haggard's wife and their children, ages 15 through 27, also signed off on it. But before it could air, Haggard had to get released from a final contract with the church that prevented him from speaking to the media. In December, New Life pastor Brady Boyd met with the Haggards and agreed to dissolve the agreement. But he is not pleased about the film.
"I told Ted I think it's premature to tell the story," Boyd said. "We still believe in redemption and restoration, and there's obviously been hurt. His family has been hurt, and our church family has been hurt. There's no way this has been healed in just two years. It's too big a wound."
Boyd, who said the church wasn't asked for its input in the film, said he's distressed that the congregation is portrayed as casting Haggard out. He said that the former pastor agreed to leave Colorado in the spirit of a "fresh start."
"I think the whole truth hasn't been told," he said.
Pelosi said she made numerous attempts to contact members of the church's board and never got a response.
For his part, Haggard said he's sorry if the film causes any of his former parishioners pain.
"I created the complex situation that they were in, and they all did the best they could," he said. "I love the people of New Life Church, and I am devoted to them to this day."
(Photos courtesy HBO, Magnolia Pictures)