It’s been a long, strange trip for “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” The shockumentary/comedy/road movie has provoked many divergent reactions — from questions about the nature of comedy to howls of laughter. And that’s just the way director Larry Charles wanted it to be.
In the film, Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen), a bumbling reservoir of prejudice, treks across America, interviewing everyone from political figures to average Joes, purportedly to make a documentary about the “U.S. and A” for the good folks back home in Kazakhstan. The people he meets are more than willing to open up, revealing the seedy underbelly of American bigotry (several of the people who appeared in the film have since claimed they were hoodwinked by the filmmakers; lawsuits against the film are still pending).
However, for all the film’s lowbrow humor, critics found “Borat” to be one of the smartest, most subversive films of recent years, and for that, the movie won the 2007 Golden Tomato Award for best-reviewed comedy. In addition, the film has been nominated for two Golden Globes (Best Musical or Comedy and a Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy nod for Cohen) and has been selected as one of the American Film Institute’s Movies of the Year.
So what does Charles do for an encore? The director told RT he’s working on a comedy/documentary with Bill Maher that looks askance at contemporary religion. He’s also completed a script for “The Dirt,” based upon Motley Crüe‘s absurdly lurid oral history bio of the same name. Charles talked with Rotten Tomatoes about “Borat”‘s awards potential, why little movies are better than big ones, and the odd similarities between Borat and Bob Dylan.
Rotten Tomatoes: Congratulations on your Golden Tomato Award.
Larry Charles: I’m very honored. I feel extremely honored that you guys have [recognized] this movie, and I appreciate it very much.
RT: Would you say winning the Golden Tomato Award is the apex of your career thus far?
LC: Absolutely. I can’t imagine anything else that would come close. Unless, possibly, a Nobel Peace Prize, which I’m still holding out for.
RT: Also, Congratulations on the Golden Globes and the AFI Awards. Did you have any idea that this film would have such award potential?
LC: I knew it had the potential to be great. I can’t plunge into anything with the kind of intensity that it requires unless I do think it has the potential to be great. I loved Sacha, I loved Borat, I loved the process that we were talking about making this film with, and I felt that if all the dominoes fall correctly, we could make a great movie. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s gonna to be successful, or that people are gonna like it, or that it’s gonna be well reviewed or anything like that, but I felt we could make a great movie. I did believe we had the potential to do that, and I did think that from the beginning.
RT: Has the recognition exceeded your expectations?
LC: In some ways it really has. You can’t predict that part of it. I’ve been involved in other successful things, [and] it’s the same thing. You try to make something great, and you hope when you put it out there that it gets that kind of response, and sometimes that happens. Other things come out great and you love them just as much, but it doesn’t click in some way, it doesn’t reach that critical mass [because of] some variable that’s out of your control. In this case, everything kind of fell together nicely.
RT: Are you guys thinking about the Oscars at this point?
LC: Personally, I feel there was a moment there where the Oscars were a possibility. That’s why I’m appreciative of this Golden Tomato Award, because I feel like the more mainstream awards are going to be more difficult for this movie, because the movie kinda falls in the cracks in a lot of ways. It’s not an independent movie, because it was made by Fox Studios [ED: Rotten Tomatoes is a subsidiary of News Corp, which owns Fox]. But in truth, it’s more independent that most of the independent movies that are out there. We were this autonomous, small stealth unit out in the middle of the country shooting this movie with no supervision whatsoever on a very, very small budget in a kind of a radical way. So it may be hard [for “Borat”] to find its place in the more mainstream awards circuit.
RT: People talk a lot about Sacha Baron Cohen staying in character as Borat, Ali G, and Bruno. But it must be difficult for the filmmakers and crew to stay in character as well.
LC: We all, especially me, had to play a character as well. I wasn’t Larry Charles when we were on the road. We all had to be in character, and we had to balance that with our aesthetic and logistical needs to produce the movie properly. So yes, that was a challenge, because all the lines that are normally drawn for people’s roles in a movie, behind the scenes or in front of the scenes were blurred in kind of a radical way to make this movie. The director also had to act. The cameramen also had to get involved and be interactive with the people they were shooting. There were a lot of lines that got blurred in the making of this movie that really kind of liberated the movie from the usual kind of moorings that hold most movies back. The process of making the movie was extremely liberating.
RT: There have been complaints from some of the people who were in the movie as to how they were depicted —
LC: All groundless and baseless. I believe it’s kind of a continuation of the conceptual comedy that we’re doing that people are now complaining and suing. I feel like the movie doesn’t have boundaries, like this is part of the movie in some weird way, these lawsuits and complaints. Beyond that, we have all the footage, the hours that we shot with these people. They should be happy that we’re not putting out the full, unexpurgated footage. They reveal themselves, [but] they never are forced to reveal themselves. It’s a choice they make to reveal themselves, to show their true selves. The fact that they’re complaining about it now is very disingenuous.
RT: You’ve worked with Borat, and before that, Bob Dylan in “Masked and Anonymous.” Both of them, in their own strange way, are sort of spokesmen, revealing some weird truths about America.
LC: Absolutely. The question I ask myself before I get involved in anything, be it TV or movies, is, “Does this need to be made? Does this need to be out there?” There’s so much s— out there that I can’t understand why people would spend tens of millions of dollars to make something that’s not going to come out good. So I ask myself, “Do we need this movie? Do we need this TV show? Will this somehow expand the dialogue, expand the discourse about the way we live and what’s important to us in out lives?” I felt in both the Bob Dylan movie and the Borat movie that these were urgent ideas and provocative ideas that might create interesting dialogue about ourselves, and about our world, about our lives, about philosophies, our beliefs. Also, they were low-budget movies, and I’m a big believer that we shouldn’t need to spend $100 million to make a great movie. If you have $100 million, you should probably be saving an African country. But for $4 million or $5 million or $10 million, you can make a great movie, and politically, you’re making a statement by making a low budget movie like that as well. On all those levels, it appeals to me.
RT: What’s going on with “The Dirt,” based on the career of Motley Crüe?
LC: I just handed in a draft of the script, so I’m waiting to hear. I don’t know if you’ve read “The Dirt,” but it’s almost a better book than Motley Crüe deserves, in a way, because it’s really about America. It’s about the excess, and dysfunction, and it’s about us, as told through the metaphor of Motley Crüe.
RT: Are the members of the band going to play themselves?
LC: No, they won’t really be involved. The film spans their childhoods and their early days. I don’t think any of the guys will be involved in front of the camera. We will have to cast all those parts, and that will be kind of fun to do. To find someone who can play Tommy Lee is a challenge. It will be a very interesting audition I can tell you that.
RT: And what’s happening with “This is America,” your road trip sketch comedy collaboration with Richard Belzer?
LC: That’s something that’s been kicking around for a while. I don’t know what’s gonna happen with that. That’s something that has never fully coalesced for a variety of reasons.
RT: What are you doing next?
LC: I’m doing a documentary with Bill Maher, almost like a non-fiction comedy about religion. We just got back from Israel, and Rome, and London, and Amsterdam, and so now we’re going to go out and shoot in the United States. Hopefully, you guys will recognize that next year.
RT: Is that almost done?
LC: Well, we’re about halfway through the shooting, but it’s probably going to be a pretty long post-production. I took “Borat” to the Traverse City Film Festival, the Michael Moore film festival, in late summer, and we went to Toronto [in September] with “Borat.” I would love to follow the same trajectory with this, but I don’t know if it will be ready in time. I hope it is.
RT: Who is featured in the movie?
LC: Oh, we’re talking to so many people on all sides of this issue. We’re talking to Muslim extremists, Jewish fanatics, Catholic traditionalists; we’re talking to philosophers and atheists and fundamentalists and evangelicals, just everybody, to get a full range of this dialogue about religion in the world today.
RT: Is it funny?
LC: It’s so absurd and outrageous that it’s gonna shock people, I think. It’s really gonna shock people.
RT: Do you have a title for it?
LC: No, not yet.
RT: Were you concerned for your safety when you were working on this film?
LC: Yes. Often. But there was concern [working on] “Borat” too. I may have developed some kind of addiction to danger or something. It’s extreme filmmaking, you know?
RT: Do you have any plans to work with Mr. Cohen again?
LC: I would love to work with him again. Anytime he would ask me, I would be there for him.
RT: Given the choice, do you prefer critical or audience appreciation?
LC: I often describe Sacha as “comedically greedy” because he always wants to get the most out of each [role], and I would say I’m greedy that way, too. I love both, and I don’t have control over either, so I’m sort of setting myself up for disappointment. I love reaching as wide an audience as I possibly can, but I don’t like compromising to do that. What’s disappointing sometimes is when people misunderstand what I’m trying to do. With the Bob Dylan movie, I felt there was a lot of misunderstanding, and it was frustrating. But yes, I want people to write seriously about [my work], I want it to sort of enter the zeitgeist, I want it to reach that tipping point where people are writing op-ed pieces about it, but I also want there to be a mass audience for it, and I think that is very exciting when that happens.