Exclusive Interview with Sacha Baron Cohen
Jagshemash! Sacha Baron Cohen, the star and creator of HBO’s "Da Ali G Show,” brings his Kazakh journalist character Borat Sagdiyev to the big screen for the first time. Leaving his native Kazakhstan, Borat travels to America to make a documentary. As he zigzags across the nation, Borat meets real people in real situations with hysterical consequences. His backwards behavior generates strong reactions around him, exposing prejudices and hypocrisies in American culture. In some cases, Borat's interview subjects embrace his outrageous views on race and sex by agreeing with him, while others attempt to offer a patriotic lesson in Western values. Wa-wa-wee-wa!
Hilarious. Jaw-dropping. Inflammatory. Dangerous. Subversive. Borat, a satirical Kazakh journalist caricature invented and portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen, has been called all this – and more. Borat became a phenomenon in the U.K. with the comedy series “Da Ali G Show,” in which Baron Cohen’s outlandish humor and razor-sharp satire on anti-Semitism, misogyny and racism, came to life through his creation’s bizarre behavior and interviews.
Baron Cohen’s innovative and unique work has brought him two BAFTA awards. “Da Ali G Show” was a worldwide phenomenon, and Baron Cohen is the only person to twice host the European MTV Awards. Dictionaries added two words based on his characters’ “inventive” use of the English language, and even the Queen Mother was a fan.
In addition, Baron Cohen received critical plaudits for his role opposite Will Ferrell in this summer’s blockbuster comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” Also, Baron Cohen was the voice of the King of the Lemurs in “Madagascar.”
Even before its release, critics heralded BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN as one of the funniest pictures of all time, and it became the highest-rated comedy on the Internet Movie Database (). The film’s humor and acclaim stem from its comedy “dream team”: Sacha Baron Cohen, Larry Charles from “Seinfeld” and Jay Roach, director of the “Austin Powers” films. Baron Cohen and Roach are the film’s producers, with Charles serving as director.
The production of BORAT – as one might expect about a project centered on the character – was unlike any other. Baron Cohen, whose commitment to the role is unwaveringly intense, stayed in character through the shooting, and elected to conduct publicity and interviews promoting the picture, as Borat.
STARRING: Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Castro
DIRECTOR: Larry Charles
STUDIO: 20th Century Fox
RATING: R (For pervasive language and graphic nudity)
Behind The Scenes & Interview
“My profession television reporter. I second most successful in all Kazakhstan,” Borat explains. “I also have work in past as gypsy catcher, ice make, and in computer maintenance – I would paint the outsides and remove dead birds from their pipes.”
From those humble beginnings, Borat rose up the ranks of Kazakh broadcasting – until he got his big shot at fame. “1 years ago, Kazakh Ministry of Information send me to US and A to make reportings that would help Kazakhstan,” Borat recounts. “We want to be like you. America have most beautiful womens in world – for example Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor. It also center for democracy and porno. I like! I so excite to do my movie!”
Filmmaker Jay Roach, who in addition to the “Austin Powers” films also helmed the mega-hits “Meet the Parents” and “Meet the Fockers,” was fascinated by Baron Cohen’s work as Borat, and saw the potential for a movie starring the character.
“I think what Sacha does in this film is revolutionary,” says Roach.. “He’s created a totally believable, hilarious, fish-out-of-water character. Then Sacha takes Borat into often dangerous predicaments with real people who have to believe Borat is authentic the entire time – or else Sacha could face serious consequences. That’s fantastic suspense!
“Sacha takes risks like no performer I’m aware of,” Roach continues. “He’s a true comedic high-wire act. On top of that, whatever these real people do in the scene not only drives the scene, but changes the direction of the story. And it’s all insanely funny, even though he only gets one take for every performance. He does all that, and then also spoofs and holds a mirror up to racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, jingoism and hypocrisy. With no exaggeration, I believe what Sacha accomplishes with this character sets an entirely new standard for filmed performances.”
It is this combination of explosive humor, rawness and satire that led Roach to believe that a Borat film could be very special – and very different from traditional Hollywood comedies. “We saw an opportunity to do a film that was bold, subversive and fresh,” explains Roach. “We wanted to transplant the reality format of [“Da Ali G”] TV show, which has Sacha in character, interacting with real people. Then, we created a story that supports a feature film.”
Peter Baynham, Anthony Hines and Dan Mazer were drafted to write an outline for the film. There was no script. The movie is an experiment – a new form of filmmaking for an age in which reality and entertainment have become increasingly intertwined. Real events with real people push the film’s fictional story, and when scenes played out in unexpected ways, Baron Cohen and his colleagues had to rewrite the outline.
Following a grand send-off from his Kazakh village, Borat made the long journey to the US and A to begin work on the documentary. He was accompanied by his obese and ineffectual producer, Azamat Bagatov. Comments Azamat: “I got involved in this project because I am very experienced in industry of film and television – in fact during last 20 years I have personally watched 27 programs. I also got job because I am only producer in Kazakhstan.”
Borat traveled to the U.S. in style—Azamat, not so much. “We fly Kazakh Airways,” Borat recalls. “Azamat go in hold, with luggage, animals and Jews – I travel first classes – which meant that when toilet box was passed around, I was the sixth person to make my ‘dirty’ in it.”
No expense was spared to bring the film to the big-screen. “This documentary was most expensive film ever made for Kazakhstan,” says the intrepid reporter. “It cost 48 million tenge – this equivalent to 5000 US dollar. Ministry of Information supplement budget by selling uranium to some brown men.”
Larry Charles, a creative force on the landmark series “Entourage,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Seinfeld,” joined the project as director. Like Jay Roach, Charles was a fan of Baron Cohen’s work. “There is an intensity and incredible intelligence to Sacha’s performances, as well as a certain bravery,” says Charles.
Charles marveled at Baron Cohen’s ability to stay in character throughout production, even during on-location filmmaker conferences. “Sacha as Borat was always real, believable, complex and spontaneous. I’ve never seen a performance like that.
“Our collaboration was multi-leveled,” Charles continues. “During our creative meetings, I was talking to both Sacha and to Borat, which was disconcerting sometimes, but fun. I understood why Sacha did this: He has to be in the moment, and yet still be somewhat detached and self-aware. He managed to strike a delicate balance.”
Executive producer Monica Levinson says the production was true guerilla-style filmmaking. “All we had was an eight-person crew, including Sacha, a sound person, camera people, Larry Charles, and a production assistant. We all traveled around in a van, followed by a pickup truck that carried the equipment.”
Borat began his cross country odyssey in ‘New Yorks,’ where he experiences for the first time a subway car, an elevator, and a feminist group. Then, a revelation turned his plans upside-down. “Although we had initial planned to stay in New Yorks, because of a reason I cannot say, we needed to get to California.”
Unable (or forbidden) to fly, Borat had to learn how to drive. “We too have cars in Kazakhstan,” he notes. “They now very modern –some of them reach top speeds of up to 120 miles per week! Also, they better than western cars, because when engine get old you can eat it. I was interest to see if America cars were as fancypants.
“I was very nervous about sitting alone in a car with my drive instructor,” Borat continues. “In my country only time two men ride together in car, is when they journey to the edge of town to make bang bang in anoos.”
To capture on film the character’s cross-country adventure – much of it done via an ice-cream truck – the BORAT filmmakers also traveled to Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, California, Oklahoma, Alabama, South Carolina – and Romania.
At many locations, the production’s guerilla-style, hit-and-run filmmaking attracted the interest of various law enforcement officials.
In New York, for example, a warrant was issued for Baron Cohen’s arrest. He also narrowly escaped incarceration while filming a segment at a local hotel. (Earlier, Baron Cohen had been advised to leave the state.)
Monica Levinson and unit production manager/first assistant director Dale Stern didn’t fare as well – they were arrested by New York’s Finest. The production had borrowed from a local hotel, a phone, alarm clock, and comforter – all of which were going to be used as props. Even though the filmmakers had a location agreement and a five million dollar insurance policy for lost or stolen goods, New York City police went ahead with the arrests. Later, as Levinson and the crew member were being questioned, she saw Stern eating a copy of a sheet listing the names and phone numbers of the film’s crew – to protect them from legal action. (The two arrests were later expunged.)
“Monica’s night in jail raised the bar for a filmmaker sacrificing for his or her art,” says Jay Roach.
Another time, twelve police cars surrounded the ice cream truck in which Borat makes much of his cross-country trek. The authorities hoped to find and interrogate Baron Cohen, only to discover that he had again made a narrow escape, this time in another crew vehicle.
The FBI often followed the filmmakers, whom the residents of several locales suspected of being terrorists. In the nation’s capital, the Secret Service questioned the filmmakers outside the White House, and at a Louisiana location, state troopers investigated the strange group ostensibly making a documentary. Again, Baron Cohen’s determination to stay in character – even while facing Secret Service and state police questioning – was impressive. “He never let on that this wasn’t ‘real,’” says Larry Charles.
Borat learned many lessons during his journey – some of them the hard way. “Along my travelings, I learn many new things about America. For example that it no longer legal to shoot at Red Indians. Once again I apologize with all my heart to the staff of the Potawotomi Casino in Kansas.”
Wherever Borat touched down, he left a shaken populace in his wake. In Washington, D.C., he rocked a Gay Pride parade – “Many peoples friendly to me in America. In Washingtons, a guy in bikinis grab my busherka,” Borat exclaims. But his travels through the South left an especially strong imprint on Borat and his “subjects.”
Baron Cohen, as Borat, infuriated audience members at a Salem, Virgina rodeo by singing the Kazakh “national anthem” to the tune of the American anthem. After the rendition, a group of irate rodeo hands on horseback surrounded the filmmakers’ van, demanding that they be lynched.
Also in the South, Borat tried to figure out the American art of shopping – strangest of all, the practice of paying lots of money for old things called “antiques.” At a small antique store, Borat is incredibly clumsy and manages to destroy hundreds of dollars of items.
In Birmingham, Alabama, Borat paid a visit to a dinner party, where he hoped to learn the fine art of dining etiquette. The Southern hospitality didn’t stop there. “While were in the South, we passed by a group of soldiers making re-enacting of the Americans Civil Wars. It very similar to the Kazakh re-enactment of the Tishniek Massacre, which we do every year by traveling to the town Tishniek and massacring them. Why not?”
Producer Azamat had more practical concerns during their stay in the South. “Most challenging aspect of filming there was to find film in Mississippi that would fit our 1912 Krasnogorsk Super 13mm camera,” he notes.
These are just a few of the many highlights of Borat’s adventures in the U.S. But the story ends where it began – in Borat’s hometown of Kuczek, Kazakhstan. A gypsy village two hours north of Bucharest, Romania doubled for Kuczek. Against the stunning backdrop of the Carpathian Mountains, the filmmakers found themselves working amid livestock wandering through the streets. And the BORAT team often went without benefit of indoor plumbing. “Working in this village was as far from our lives in Los Angeles as you can get,” notes Larry Charles. “Yet it was exhilarating and exciting.” Grateful for the cooperation and graciousness of the townspeople, the production and Baron Cohen donated computers, backpacks, supplies and books to the local school.
At one point, the filmmakers had considered capturing these scenes at a Hollywood studio backlot. “But we realized we couldn’t ‘art direct’ that village,” says Charles. “You can’t art direct the horses, pigs, and jerry-built huts. So we didn’t have to pretend we were in Borat’s village; we were there!”
Borat himself couldn’t be happier that his documentary is finally ready for the US and A, but he reminds us that an earlier version had already opened in his native country. “This movie have already been release in Kazakhstan and was blockbusterings,” exclaims Borat. “It take top spot from Hollywood movie ‘King Kongs’ – which had been number one film in Kazakhstan ever since it was release in 1932.”
But Borat warns American audiences they’re in store for more than a few jolts. “I hope you Americans see my movie, but please be warn that since it contain foul cursings, needless violence and a close-up of a man’s bishkek, it have been given most strict certificate in Kazakhstan, meaning no one under age of 3 will be able to see it.
“Also this film have been very controversial in my country because of amount of anti-Semitisms in it – however, eventually our Censor decide there was enough and allow its release.”
But whatever obstacles Borat has faced in making and releasing his movie, he’s thrilled to see it finally reach the U.S. “My movie finally coming in America!” he concludes. “High five!”
Sacha Baron Cohen
• 2003-2004 Da Ali G Show nominated for 6 Emmy® awards
• BAFTA [British Academy of Film and Television - equivalent to an EMMY] for Best Comedy Program
• BAFTA for Best Comedy Performer [Da Ali G Show]
• Broadcast Award for Best Comedy Program
• Royal Television Society Award for Best Comedy Program
• Winner: Bronze Rose of Montreaux – Best Comedy Program
• 1999 and 2000 GQ Comedian of the Year [92% of vote]
• EMMA Award for [Ethnic Multicultural Media Award voted for by African-American and Asian communities] Best Entertainment Show Da Ali G Show
• Winner: Best New Comedian at British Comedy Awards
• Winner: British GQ Man of Year Award 3 times, and American GQ Man of Year.
• Hosts MTV Europe Music Awards as Ali G in 2001, to a television audience exceeding one billion. MTV implements “delay” for fear of what ‘Ali’ might say. It proves to be a good decision.
• In 2005, again hosts European MTV Awards, this time as Borat. Walking on stage after a Madonna performance, Borat said, “It is very brave of MTV to start the show with a genuine transvestite.”
• 2005 European MTV Awards – introduces Madonna as ‘me main bitch’
• HBO: Two seasons of Da Ali G Show
• Channel 4: Da Ali G Show
• Ali G Innit Video becomes one of the highest selling comedy videos ever, exceeding over a million units.
• C4 The Alternative Christmas Message: Ali G went up against the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day. The Princes were caught – by the Queen Mother, watching Ali G, instead.
• C4 Da Best of Ali G: 2 x 30min. compilation shows of interviews
• C4 11 O’clock show – Series I, II, III – a late night topical comedy show. There were about 30 x 4 minute Ali G segments.
• 2001 Comic Relief – interviews Posh Spice and David Beckham
The Ali G Phenomenon
• Changes English language – after introducing the word ‘mingin’ [meaning ugly], it’s included in the Oxford English Dictionary
• Reported that the Ali G phenomenon is responsible for changing the main type of slang amongst English youth from cockney to Jafaican [a mixture between Jamaican patwa and street slang].
• Doctors report a new injury called “Booyakasha Syndrome,” after teenagers are admitted with wrist injuries after trying to imitate Ali’s trademark fingerclick.
• Tony Blair names his policy “Respect: Ali G’s catchphrase to try to appeal to British youth.”
• BORAT movie – winner of audience and critics award at Traverse Film Festival.
• Ali G Indahouse – turned out to be the highest British grossing movie of that year. Stays No. 1 atop the Dutch charts for 7 weeks, knocked off by Star Wars.
• Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby – plays Jean Girard in the highest grossing comedy movie in the U.S. in 2006.
• Baron Cohen was involved in the ARA anti-racist alliance for many years – actually marching against fascists and racists in London and against apartheid in the 80s
• The Times wrote a piece entitled “Ali G Creator is in fact Leading Civil Rights Scholar,” which examined how Baron Cohen made a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Martin Luther King while doing research for his dissertation in Cambridge. Entitled “ A Case of Mistaking Identities – the Jewish Black Alliance,” the thesis examines the nature of cooperation between the African-American and Jewish communities and suggests ways of how to improve relations in the current day. His professor describes it as a major work of importance on the civil rights movement and is suggested reading for history students in Cambridge.
• Da Ali G Show has been commended for its positive effects on race relations by the [commission for racial equality]
• Da Ali G Show led to lectures during police training, on why it is crucial not to see the population solely in terms of black and white.