Geri Cole: You’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. I’m your host, Geri Cole. In each episode, you’ll hear writers working in film, television, and news, break down everything from the writing process to pitching, favorite jokes to key scenes, and so much more. Today, I’m joined by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, and Peter Baynham, three of the writers of Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, the surprise sequel to the 2006 film that’s now airing on Amazon Prime.
Geri Cole: In this interview, I talk with Sacha, Anthony, and Peter about why they decided to revisit the iconic character, how intense it was to film that now infamous Rudy Giuliani scene, and the reality of filming in very dangerous situations. So first question, Borat, we brought the character back. Why did we decide to bring the character back right now?
Sacha Baron Cohen: So can I start with that one?
Geri Cole: Yes, please.
Sacha Baron Cohen: This is Sacha by the way. [crosstalk 00:01:00] Okay. So essentially, quick history of how it happened, which was Trump gets elected. Donald Trump, used to be the President, currently the President sort of. I don’t know what we call him. Potentially some people still believe that he’s the president for the next four years. But anyway, he gets elected. We start sharing articles from fake news media, from mainstream media. I think that was the way that a lot of people coped with his election, which was, “Look at this article, look at this article.” And then we had a discussion which was, “What can we do about it?” And we created a show, particularly myself and Ant, called, “Who is America?” Which was designed really to target and reveal the truth about those around Donald Trump and those he supported, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Judge Roy Moore, and Corey Lewandowski, et cetera, et cetera.
Sacha Baron Cohen: And we created characters that we felt would appeal to those around him and also to satirize what we felt was an increasing danger in America, which was the proliferation of conspiracies and lies on social media. So we created a journalist called Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, who was a conspiracy theorist who interviewed politicians, including Bernie Sanders and Howard Dean, and a few people like that, Jill Stein…
Anthony Hines: Not Sarah Palin.
Sacha Baron Cohen: And Sarah Palin, but we didn’t ever release that one. And anyway, so we had some success with it. It led to a few people, one person losing his job who was a state Congressman in Georgia, Jason Spencer, who had revealed he bared his buttocks on camera and screamed the N word a number of times and still refused to step down. Eventually, he was forced out and Trump was still in. We hadn’t really made a dent. Then the midterms happened and we did a small piece on Jimmy Kimmel where Borat was trying to convince people to vote for Donald Trump. We just assumed that Borat was impossible to shoot now. That was the thing was it’s impossible to do another Borat movie. Some people, over the last 14 years, had pitched versions where it was completely scripted because we assumed that it was impossible to do with real people again and impossible to do undercover.
Sacha Baron Cohen: But we tried this thing on Jimmy Kimmel, we did this short piece and it went well and we had a realization, which was Borat was essentially a more extreme version of Donald Trump. He was 20% more misogynistic, he was 20% more enthusiastic of white supremacists. The only thing probably was less than Trump was he was less inclined to pay women for sex. So we realized that he was actually a good mechanism to allow Trump supporters to really open up and so Borat could say, “Talk about caging Mexican children,” and say, “It was very nice for them. The cages there are better than the [inaudible 00:04:42] Four Seasons.”
Sacha Baron Cohen: Then during Jimmy Kimmel’s thing, some of the people we interviewed said, “Yeah, you’re right. They’re lucky. The kids are lucky to be in the cages.” We realized that that basic concept of bringing a character that was more extreme than the person you were speaking to allowed that person to really open up. The next day, myself and Ant and Darren [Swimmer 00:05:05], another one of our writers, we were writing a separate project.
Anthony Hines: We just finished writing another movie. [inaudible 00:05:11] remind you, Sacha. We spent months on it. Then the next day…
Sacha Baron Cohen: So we went, so this was the day after the Jimmy Kimmel thing. We’re completing another movie that we’d spent a couple of months writing. We just, in the room, we said, “That Jimmy Kimmel thing really worked. It’s really working satirically. It feels like Borat works in the world of Trump. Is there a movie with Borat that we can put out before the election to show the danger of Trumpism?” Because the absurdity of Trumpism had already been demonstrated by Donald Trump. Pretty quickly, we came up with this concept of Borat gives his daughter as a gift to Mike Pence.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Suddenly, there was a reason after 13 years to make this movie, which was, it was our attempt to do what we could to prevent what we believed was an authoritarian leader securing a second term. We felt very strongly that democracy was at a turning point, was in mortal danger in America. We were disgusted with policy after policy. The legitimization of racism, this brazen misogynist being the most vocal person in the world. We felt this was our form of protest. We didn’t think it would necessarily swing any votes, but we felt that we had to do what we could so that on November 4th of 2020, we could look ourselves in the mirror and say, “We did what we could.” So that’s why we did it and we decided to write a movie. We made it very clear that we were only going to make the movie if we could release it the week before the election, otherwise we weren’t interested in doing it.
Anthony Hines: Yeah.
Sacha Baron Cohen: That’s what we did. That’s a very long answer. Isn’t it?
Geri Cole: Well, yes, but it brings me to several questions, one of which is let’s talk a little bit, actually in general, about the pre-production process. So once you have the story and you know that you want to tour certain places and try and secure interviews with certain people, but how do you make that happen in a year like this year?
Anthony Hines: Well, we knew from the start that the timeline was going to be tight. It’s going to be, this is ambitious to write, produce, shoot at it, and release this movie before the election. I remember, yeah, the story and the script… Our process is basically we treat it like a conventional movie. We’ll write a script and final draft. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Then the difficult part, again, because you then have to try and realize this vision in the real world with real people and 99% of the people in the world know who Borat is. I remember there’s a day we did a table read as per conventional movie and it went well.
Sacha Baron Cohen: By the way, I would interject there and people said, “Oh, this movie sounds great. It’s obviously impossible to make.”
Anthony Hines: Yes. There was a brief moment of feeling pleased with ourselves after the table read went quite well and then it suddenly dawned on us that, “Well, the next time these words are uttered, we’re hoping that they’re going to be by real people, not by actor friends of ours.”
Geri Cole: Yeah. How does that… How? This brings me to my first how question, how do you write a script and then get a real person to play that role?
Peter Baynham: Well, the person doesn’t know. Obviously, nobody ever knows they’re in a movie. They’re meeting Borat and they believe in him and they believe he’s real, but also there’s a certain amount of thinking that goes into before an interaction like that. Obviously, Sacha does a lot… He’s improvising in that as well, but that person does not know that they’re helping to tell a story, for good or for bad, or they reveal themselves to be good or to be bad.
Peter Baynham: Can I just have, by the way, just to go into the question of the why is that one thing that came up, I think, after I came on board, because obviously the guys had the idea for the story and I came on later, but I think what was interesting, I think, as we went along was that the first movie was very much about exposing racism or exposing antisemitism and exposing whatever these [inaudible 00:09:43], or sexism. There was a question, I think, and a concern amongst all of us about like, “Is there a danger we tread [inaudible 00:09:50] territory?” Also the American public is doing a great job of exposing racism itself.
Geri Cole: There’s so much of it.
Peter Baynham: There’s no shame, there’s less shame. There’s much more openness about coming out and saying these things and people don’t seem embarrassed. Sacha was talking about Trumpism. That’s a horrible result of Trumpism that people are like these disgusting attitudes are just spouted out in the open now. But I think there was obviously that we just thought, “Well, there’s new things Sacha was saying about conspiracy theories,” and obviously, we delve into that in the movie. But I also think in a way, what was really exciting and interesting for us in this movie was that we met people where they might hold representable or frankly, bonkers opinions on the world, but they were exposed as nice, not nice, but they exposed as not wholly bad.
Peter Baynham: I think that was a big difference. I think that’s what this movie in an end, I hope this movie achieved is this, you actually expose good and you show that the enemy isn’t necessarily other people. [inaudible 00:10:54] Joe Biden [inaudible 00:10:55], I guess. But it’s like part of it is that you are showing that the Trumpist view of let’s divide people or the social media or let’s just make people hate each other, is that’s the enemy and not necessarily other people.
Geri Cole: Yeah, I actually was confused around Jim and Jerry where it’s like, they seem like lovely guys who took you in.
Peter Baynham: Yeah, they really cared about Borat. They really cared about him and his daughter.
Anthony Hines: Yeah. They’d lived in a parallel Facebook fortress of bullshit alternate reality, where they just been of brainwashed by conspiracy theories.
Sacha Baron Cohen: So I think that was, I mean, that was a conscious decision and a surprise, which was that they’re conspiracy theorists. I’m sure many liberals would see them as the enemy, but what became clear was that they were ordinary people, and actually in many ways, good people. They welcome Borat, they challenge Borat when he came out with his sexist views about his daughter. They really wanted him to respect his daughter. We felt again to just reiterate and…
PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:12:04]
Sacha Baron Cohen: It’s his daughter. We felt again to just reiterate and what Peter said, it was a way to break down this concept of these people are enemies. We can’t speak to them. It’s a way of showing that it’s gray, it’s confusing, it’s muddy. Actually, what is the issue here is the breakdown of truth and fact, where social media now is elevating conspiracy theories, and lies, and hatred, and disinformation and putting it on the same level or even above information and quality news. What’s fascinating about it is one, they’re good people that believe in reprehensible ideas. They believe that Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of children. Secure a non idea, which is based in a medieval conspiracy actually about Jews. Q Anon is a re-interpretation of that medieval concept of the blood libel. Also, the second really fascinating thing is they don’t believe that they are conspiracy theories. They believe that the rest of the world are conspiracy theorists, which is something intrinsic to conspiracy theorists.
Anthony Hines: It’s one of my favorites of that scene actually, Sacha, is when they call you out for being a conspiracy theorist.
Geri Cole: So you were with them for several days, no?
Sacha Baron Cohen: I lived with them undercover for five days, went to sleep, had breakfast, lunch, dinner, stayed up with them, got drunk late at night, went to bed, slept in Borat’s pajamas.
Geri Cole: How are you still producing the film? The crew is contacting you in between?
Sacha Baron Cohen: So what would happen was outside my window, I’d lock the door and then I would climb outside the window and would climb outside. There was a ladder that he propped against my window.
Anthony Hines: It’s really dangerous actually.
Sacha Baron Cohen: A dangerous ladder. In the middle of the night, he’d come up and we’d whisper to each other. I’ll tell you one little funny story, which was because I needed a way to communicate with Ann and Peter. So what happened was at night, first night, I locked myself in the room. Say goodnight to Jim and Jerry and then I had a secret compartment, which had a padlock on it. In there was a walkie-talkie, my iPhone and my computer. I undo the padlock, I get out the computer, I’m on the iPhone redoing script pages, I’m texting Ann and Peter. The crew has gone home. Ann is in his hotel miles away and Peter are miles away. So it’s just me, Jim and Jerry in the house.
Geri Cole: Oh no.
Anthony Hines: A cabin in the woods.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Suddenly knock on the door. Borat? Borat? I’ve got all my stuff out, computers, I’m clearly not Bort. I’m clearly a fake. I decided to just ignore the knocking and the knocking continued. Borat, Borat, open up. I’m thinking, what the hell do I do? Do I hide? Do I pretend I’m not here? So I started frantically like in a bad French fast, throwing computers under the bed and throwing the phone here. Then eventually opened the door and they just said, “Just checking you’re okay. Have a good night.”
Geri Cole: My first thought would have been, how fast can I run?
Sacha Baron Cohen: You can’t run. You’re stuck in the house. You can’t leave.
Anthony Hines: Another thing, I’m not sure if people realize it watching the movie, but there were no camera men in that house. There were hidden robocams, which you can remotely zoom and it’s how they shoot Big Brother, et cetera.
Geri Cole: Did you have to install those yourself?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Yes. We had to install them, yeah.
Anthony Hines: Yeah. We [inaudible 00:15:54]. I was so fascinated the whole time too about how they would take Jason the director aside, sometimes at lunch or during filming and say, I heard … Jim just said at one point, “We got to to help this. I’m really worried about this guy. He’s got to find his daughter.”That’s the thing about Sacha, [inaudible 00:16:11] Borat spending longer, I think than you’ve spent with anyone by far.
Sacha Baron Cohen: So with that, it’s an interesting thing. Because it’s the end of act two, we’re coming to all hope is lost. We’ve followed a traditional father, daughter story stroke, arranged marriage story.
Geri Cole: It’s a beautiful father daughter story also, I feel like.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Thank you. Thank you.
Geri Cole: For all the comedy and controversy, it’s a very lovely father-daughter story.
Sacha Baron Cohen: By the way, that was intentional. We thought, okay, we want to deliver a political message. We want this to be hilarious, but we also want this to be an emotional story. To do that, what we do at the beginning of every movie is we give ourselves a little screenplay writing course in the genre. So what we do is we analyze every other reputable father-daughter story. We looked to Fiddler On The Roof and we try and draw comparisons. Even though our movie is set in the real world, we don’t want to reinvent anything structurally. The invention is that it’s happening with real people and real people are creating the story, but we want the genre to be not bog standard, but to make sense as a typical screenplay. We felt in order for it to be emotionally satisfying at the end, that we needed to ensure that each time we saw Borat and Tutar, his daughter, that it needed to develop their story. His paternal love needed to grow and her distance with him needed to grow, until she rejected him, until she essentially goes through a teenage hood.
Geri Cole: Her own coming of age.
Sacha Baron Cohen: She comes of age and rejects him. At the end, he sacrifices his life to …
Geri Cole: For his little girl.
Anthony Hines: Although, she does end up back in custody. Basically, is a right wing conspiracy theory [inaudible 00:18:11].
Sacha Baron Cohen: It’s our twist on it all.
Anthony Hines: We wanted to under cut stuff.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Just to go back to the … So we’re in this lockdown house, it’s a five day scene. We’re writing a five day scene.
Geri Cole: How many writers are involved in this at this point? Is it just the three of you?
Sacha Baron Cohen: No, no. The writing room was changing on the road. We had Erica [Rivernoya 00:18:34] Dan [Swimer 00:18:35] We had a brilliant writer called Jenna Freeman. The writer’s room would change a bit. The core was always myself and Dan Swimer. We’re very lucky to have Peter join us for large chunks. So with a scene like this, so it’s the act two low point essentially. He’s lost everything. He knows he’s going to die unless he delivers his daughter to Rudy Giuliani. He can’t find her, she’s run away, she’s refused to get plastic surgery. So she’s probably not even going to become attractive to Rudy Giuliani.
Geri Cole: Obviously.
Sacha Baron Cohen: We’ve thrown an even bigger obstacle, which is Coronavirus has happened. So it is impossible. This is the act two low point. So we knew we had to go through the active low point and end this scene with the break into act three, which is they discover Tutar on the computer. We wanted them to say, “Let’s find her.” Which is your break into act three and the beginning of act three. So it’s a bizarre concept. We’ve got a five day scene, but we have to go through.
Anthony Hines: We have to engineer some stuff.
Geri Cole: How? My other question was in watching them search and find where Tutar was, it’s like how are they not searching for Borat and then learning that you are a character?
Sacha Baron Cohen: So I will reveal one trick here, which was that was our computer. That was our computer. We had a limited search on it, so that they couldn’t search …
Anthony Hines: Basically parental controls.
Sacha Baron Cohen: We basically had parental controls on it. So that allowed us that day on day five-
Anthony Hines: We allowed access to, I think there were five extreme right wing news sites.
Geri Cole: Oh my goodness.
Sacha Baron Cohen: So she was doing actual interviews with lockdown protesters and people like that. Obviously, eventually she got into the White House. So she was a real conspiracy theorist journalist.
Geri Cole: I can’t even imagine how you begin to produce something like this, but I also want to talk a little bit about Maria Bakalova because her performance is amazing. Being able to stay in character that long and strong is not a skill I think many people possess. How did that come about?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Well, we interviewed hundreds of actors. I must say, Maria is completely wonderful kind. We decided not to start production until we’d found our Tutar. We search around the world. We literally flew to different countries to audition people because it wasn’t going to be enough doing it over Zoom. She’s hilarious. She’s incredibly courageous because filming scenes with real people is terrifying at the best of times. We put in some really terrifying situations. She’s an incredible actor. Actually when we did the audition, one of the auditions that … We had three auditions with her. During the breakup scene where she tells Borat, “I’ve had enough, I’m leaving you.” At one point we will almost started crying. That was it. We filmed it and you see me just go, “Okay, that’s it” and I break because I found my found myself, I go, I thought I’m going to start crying. That was it. We just went that’s it, she’s in.
Anthony Hines: She was literally a gift. Can I say also that she’s done well in an audition and we’ve tested her. Tested, she’s dipped her toe in the water a bit, but you still don’t know how she’s going to when push comes to shove and you put her in these real situations in a country where it’s her second language, she’s not with friends. Her second ever day of shooting was with the babysitter. I think for some reason we had to change towns we were shooting and we had to rejig. She ended up basically alone on her second day ever of shooting for 12 hours with Janice and didn’t break once. You’ve seen the footage that came of that.
Peter Baynham: One thing that’s brilliant about it is I remember we looked at tapes of other people. You find people who are hilarious and you find people who are believable. You find people who are brave, but it’s unique. I think it’s unique to Sacha and her basically.
Anthony Hines: Yes, I think so. I think so.
Peter Baynham: Those three things that they can do all of those things.
Sacha Baron Cohen: We auditioned some brilliant improvisers who are great and hilarious in the room. Then part of the audition process is we put them in a real life situation with real people. Often within two minutes, the real person would say, “You’re an actor. You’re an actor.” Because you can be a brilliant, hilarious actor. You can be great on stage. You can be great in the movie. But when you’re actually sitting next to someone, it’s a tight rope. It’s very easy to see through somebody.
Peter Baynham: I remember after Sacha, and Ann, and Dan had come up with this idea. At some point when they told me about the idea, I remember thinking, I love this idea and I have a bit of a-
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:24:04]
Peter Baynham: About the idea and I remember thinking, “I love this idea,” and I had a bit of a feeling of not sure it can be done though, because it was like, “But how are you going to find somebody that’s going to do that?” Because there’s very, very, very few people in the world who can actually do it and to find this person in Bulgaria [crosstalk 00:00:24:18]-
Sacha Baron Cohen: And it’s a two-hander. She’s the co-star. That was also something that we really wanted to do, which was, there are so few funny roles for women in male led movies that we also just wanted to… We felt, “Why not have it as a two-hander now?”
Sacha Baron Cohen: The first time we had Borat’s producer and he had actually had much less a role. He was fantastic, Ken Davitian was incredible find, but this was a far more challenging role. It really is a two-hander.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Bringing it back to the election. We were very aware that to defeat Trump, women would need to come out in unprecedented numbers and vote against him. Having a story about a woman standing up against an extreme misogynist, Borat, we felt might…
Sacha Baron Cohen: Again, listen, we’re comedy writers. There was only so limited amount of stuff that we could do, but this was our form of protest. We felt, “Okay. That could hopefully inspire a few women to come out and vote, and maybe a few women who were going to vote for him to inspire them not to vote.”
Sacha Baron Cohen: It’s just a reminder of the disrespect for women in the government.
Peter Baynham: What Sacha is trying to say is we swung Pennsylvania.