The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
Sacha, the original Borat was a tremendous success. Why did it take so long to make a sequel?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Well, we just assumed it was impossible to make. The first movie, when we made it, we thought no one would watch it. It was about a Kazakhstani journalist, it was with real people, it was a documentary… we thought it would, you know, make $15M worldwide, and we really made it for our friends and for comedy nerds. But it blew up! And it meant that it was impossible to– you know, you couldn’t go undercover with one of the most popular comedy characters of the last decade. So we just assumed it was impossible. And then I went on Jimmy Kimmel during the midterm elections. I didn’t know what I was going to do. And the night before (I’m going to do some name-dropping now, because I’ve heard that people love that), I called up Chris Rock, because I didn’t have any idea what to do on Kimmel. And he said, it’s the midterms, why not do Borat? I told him that Borat was impossible to do now. And he just told me to try it, so I did– we got the whole team back together, we found where the costume was, found the lawyer who has defended us in the past, got the old writers… and managed to have Borat interact with Trump supporters, and found out that the dynamic worked really well. Because Borat is a more extreme version of Trump: He’s a bit more misogynistic, he’s a bit more supportive of white supremacists, he’s a bit more into caging children… he’s probably a bit less into paying women for sex… But essentially Borat was this mechanism for allowing people who supported Trump to go further. You know, to agree with statements like, “in my country, when we chain Mexicans in the cage it’s better than the Almaty four seasons!” And these people were saying, “yes that’s right, they’re lucky to be in cages… of course!” So it was a reminder that this could be a satyrical way to expose Trumpism and the dangers of Trumpism. To show that, essentially, America was becoming Kazakhstan. That was the sort of underlying theory of this. And so we decided to use my most popular character as a form of protest, really. We knew that the election was coming up, that as an actor/comedian/celebrity… whatever you want to call me… asshole?… there’s not much I can do, but to bring back my most popular character, to use him in this way to show the dangers of Trumpism, and wrap it up in a funny movie that’s an emotional father/daughter story… the aim was, OK, let’s do what we can to challenge and protest the present political situation, so that we can look ourselves in the mirror on November 4th and say that we did everything we could. We didn’t believe we could affect the election directly of course, but we thought maybe with our fans, maybe we could motivate some of them to vote.
we wanted to make a really funny movie, but we did want to reveal certain dangers of Trumpism
Maria, your performance is amazing. But you haven’t had many comedic roles, correct?
Maria Bakalova: I come from a dramatic background, and this was my first part in comedy. Sacha and Jason helped me to develop my comedic abilities, and they’re the ones who found me.
SBC: We interviewed hundreds of actors, and Maria is one of a kind. She’s a total revelation. She’s absolutely hilarious without ever pushing. So you never realize that she’s telling a joke, which is crucial when you’re with real people. Because you’re walking that tightrope where you’re trying to get the audience in the cinema or at home to laugh, hard, and we do that by actually writing jokes. We believe in really crafting one-liners and specific gags. But the performer, and the performance, needs to be completely believable, so that the person you’re sitting in front of doesn’t realize they’re talking to a comedian. She’s hilarious, and she’s incredibly courageous. She’s filming scenes with real people, often in some terrifying situations. She’s an incredible actor. You know, we flew around the world interviewing different actors (actually, I’m not sure I ever told Maria this…). There’s one scene – we got her to improvise, we got her to work with real people, to get to see if she could convince real people that she was Tutar. Because we knew that the emotional through-line had to work, you had to really be invested in their relationship and want them to be together at the end. And in this breakup scene, in the middle of the scene, I found myself on the verge of tears. And I just said, “stop the shoot! She’s got it.” We knew we couldn’t make the movie until we found Tutar. And we had auditioned brilliant comedic actors from America, and they’d sit down in front of real people, and within a minute the person would say, “you’re an actor.” So it’s this kind of ability to improvise, to have that courage, the depth of the emotion and the subtlety of the performance… the ability to get the performance right in one take – this is how this production is very different than a typical film – you’ve got one take to get it right. So we had to know that we could completely rely on whoever played Tutar. And so we were lucky. I think she’s one of a kind.
Jason Woliner: Yeah, you know, these guys can’t say it, but to me this was a discovery on the level of Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread, of you’re taking someone that no one knows, and putting them next to the person who is the best at what they do in the entire world. No one does what Sacha does, to do this stuff in the real world. And it’s incredible to watch, and it’s incredible on screen. Even a great actor, as Sacha was saying, can’t necessarily do that. And I feel like Maria is really a revelation and we were so lucky to find her.
One stand out sequence involves Tutar eating a baby-shaped cake-topper and your subsequent efforts to get it out of her body. Can you discuss?
MB: So the physical comedy… that was the moment when we started acting like two clowns, with the swallow the baby scene. It was a little bit scary because I started it by doing it outside of this place, and then we went there, and we started dealing with this person, and we were telling him that Borat was my father. And when you have Sacha right next to you, and he is brilliant, and he says so confidently, “yeah, I am her father, so can we take it out now please,” it’s really hard to not laugh, for me as a person. But at the same time, it’s crazy because it’s making me think, “what if I was really in this situation? What if I was having my father’s baby? Should I not be allowed to have an abortion? Is that the right thing, really?” And this is another example of how we have to think about what is good and what is not so good. But it was weird. I mean, you’re there, you’re experiencing something that might actually happen to someone unfortunately. But it was funny and important at the same time, like the movie itself.
So much of the comedy in your films comes from getting ordinary people to do or say horrible things. Are they just typical weak human beings, trying to please their interlocutor? How do you think of them, after so many interactions?
SBC: I don’t think they are weak people. We have certain criteria for who we will interview. I mean, Rudy Giuliani is not a weak person. In the cage match in Bruno, those 2,000 people who are ready to storm the stage are not weak people… in fact a lot of them had just come out of prison, so… I’m not sure they’d be called weak. I think the interesting thing in this one was that we wanted to also show the humanity of people. So two of the biggest characters in this movie are the babysitter and the holocaust survivor. The babysitter is essentially the fairy godmother of the movie. And she shows an incredible beauty and humanity. She unwittingly moves the story forward: Tutar is about to have plastic surgery, and because she’s developed a bond with this woman, she plants the seed in Tutar’s mind that she’s beautiful as she is, she doesn’t need to be owned by somebody else, that her father is a liar. And also, for example, with Jim and Jerry, the two conspiracy theorists. We wanted to show that there was a humanity in people that we would normally dismiss. I lived in character with Jim and Jerry for five days. They’re actually good people; they take it upon themselves to convince me that women have equal rights. You know, they are essentially feminists! In spite of the fact that they believe that Hilary Clinton drinks the blood of children, they actually hold a number of very positive and humanistic views. So the idea was, in an increasingly divided America, to present people that we would normally completely dismiss, and to show that, actually, the issue might be the ideas that they’re being fed – force fed on social media – rather than the people themselves. These were conspiracy theorists who had adopted beliefs that were very obscure years ago, but had become mainstream, because they were repeatedly fed them, either by POTUS himself, or by social media that was making money out of propagating these vile theories.
JW: It’s interesting. Take the lady in the cake shop. I don’t think it’s true at all that she’s evil or anti-Semitic. I think the reason that that scene is in there, and why it’s justified, is because it is so shocking to see her reaction to that horrible request. That wasn’t a scene we shot for hours. We didn’t have to do any tricks to get her to do that. We walked in, we started filming, he asked her to put that message on the cake, and she said OK. Does that make her evil? I don’t think so. If anything, I see that as a lesson about complicity, which I think is as important as anything else right now. The character was the one who was saying something truly horrid, and she was going along with it in an unblinking way. And as Sacha was saying, I think so many Trump supporters are not necessarily evil people – of course not. But, nowadays, and forever, and especially during the holocaust… turning a blind eye, or going along with authority, or just being compliant to insane or evil things going on around you or being asked of you is certainly to me, and I’m sure to Sacha, is something worth shining a light on. To me, that scene is shocking and funny, but also says something more profound about human behavior.
SBC: One of the great historians about Nazi Germany, Ian Kershaw, has a quote: “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.” And it’s when we as a society become indifferent to Islamophobia, or the caging of children, or we just say, “hey, the stock market is going up, sure there’s some stuff that goes on… but yeah yeah yeah,” and we’re indifferent to that, that is the danger of an authoritarian demagogue like Trump. And that is what we were trying to show, that there’s been this dangerous slide in America. Look, we wanted to make a really funny movie, but something like the rally where Borat goes up on stage and sings this insane song… we were trying to show that there’s been a dangerous slide toward authoritarianism. And that if Trump was elected again, the fear was that people would “just go along” with things in the song, like “slicing up journalists like the Saudis do.” Our theory was that you’d see, in the second term of a Trump presidency, that people were following him so blindly that they would transition America to a form of democracy like we see in Russia or Turkey, where it would be a democracy in name only. Inevitably it would lead to a situation where people were being persecuted, or violence was being used. So, again, we wanted to make a really funny movie, but we did want to reveal certain dangers of Trumpism.