|The Brains Behind Borat
Four writers have four words for the cultural learnings of America: It’s the writing, stupid.
When Sacha Baron Cohen heads back to his hotel room after a long day of pretending to be Borat Sagdiyev, Kazakhstan's infamous roving reporter, there are three other mischievous Brits who anxiously await his return, wondering if the jokes they had written had a chance to play. Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer, and Anthony “Ant” Hines spend their afternoons debating important details such as whether a bag to contain Borat's feces should be transparent or a solid color.
“We have incredibly serious discussions about incredibly stupid things,” says Mazer, who serves as an executive producer on their film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Mazer, Baynham, and Hines constitute a small inner circle of writers with comedy carte blanche when it comes to writing with Cohen, a versatile performer and writer his team compares to Peter Sellers, Buster Keaton, and John Cleese. Cohen blends vaudeville (chickens, bears, and a tall guy falling into a rack of dishes at an antique shop) with performance art (fearlessly addressing a red-state rodeo crowd with the rousing, “May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq!”). The result is absurd and revolutionary, high-wire humor that Ty Burr of the Boston Globe describes as “Jackass with a brain and Mark Twain with full frontal male nudity.”
Cohen's remarkable ability to, as he says, “believe that you are who you say you are,” has led many critics to ignore or gloss over the contribution of the rest of the British band (most now relocated to Los Angeles and all proud members of the Writers Guild of America). Not that they seem to mind. These blokes appear to have the time of their lives toiling in “scripted reality.” It's a genre this quartet polished during the past 10 years. In writing the British and American versions of Da Ali G Show, Mazer and Hines helped Cohen lay the groundwork for the trio of main characters: Ali G, Borat, and Bruno (a gay Austrian fashion show reporter). Baynham, also a cult comedy figure in the U.K. because of the sitcom I'm Alan Partridge and the animated series I Am Not An Animal, joined the lineup shortly after writing commenced on Borat.
Photo: Mark Hanauer
Dan Mazer, Ant Hines and Peter Baynham
Although often referred to as pranksters, Cohen and crew work too meticulously for such a juvenile classification. Pranks don't begin with writing a detailed script/treatment of one Kazakh journalist's quest to meet Pamela Anderson, the ideal symbol of the American Dream to a Don Quixote delusionist like Borat.
Written By wanted to pay homage to this unique approach to comedy. The Borat team obliged our request to publicly expose the fact that their work is written. It is ironic that a film so often referred to by the media as unscripted has writers writing on preproduction, during production, on location, postproduction, and even scripting original Borat bits for each of Cohen's many television appearances. In the midst of their extreme support of the PR push-much harder than writing the actual film, says Ant-they made time to be interviewed.
This is an exclusive, the first time they've spoken in-depth about their writing process. Three of the writers came to the Guild for the roundtable discussion. Sacha Baron Cohen joined in as well, via cell phone, while driving to a meeting in Hollywood, only the second time since the film opened that he's spoken on-the-record and out of character. It's going to be a funny ride, so unbuckle your seatbelt.
John Koch: While we're waiting for Sacha Baron Cohen to phone, let's get your names and some background on how and when you came on board.
Dan Mazer: I was at school with Sacha from the age of 11—he was the same age but a grade higher—and then I went to university with Sacha but didn't start working with him until The 11 O'Clock Show where I—[phone chimes]
John Koch (into speakerphone): Sacha?
Woman's voice on speaker phone: Uh, it's Robin; I have Sacha calling in.
John Koch: Okay, great, we're just getting started.
Robin: Hold on one second… [dial tone; conference call disconnected]
Peter Baynham: Is there any chance that was accidental?
Anthony Hines: Call me Ant. I met Sacha through Dan through The 11 O'Clock Show where Dan was my producer. And so I blew him away with-
Peter Baynham: You blew him?
Ant Hines: Yeah. [phone chimes]
Robin: You know what? He's going to call in about two minutes—I'll call you right back…bye.
John Koch: When you guys first encountered this scripted reality genre and Sacha, was there a moment you thought this work is something really special?
Dan Mazer: The film is quite pioneering and different, and I think we're going to start to see lots of imitators now. What's interesting is it's taken us eight years to refine the art of doing it and knowing how to do it. It's an incredibly difficult and unique skill, the actual writing of it. People think you go out there and just improvise. But all our jokes are tightly honed and tightly written, and Sacha delivers them brilliantly and also improvises around the situation. But it's about using our experience to assess how a situation's going to go. Having done it now for eight years, I think we are the pioneers. We've helped craft what I think is this new and exciting art form.
Peter Baynham: When I got the call to work on this, there was a certain amount of just hilarious material that they had already. I thought straight away, This can definitely work as a movie, but it's going to be really, really hard because obviously the challenge is taking it from these five-minute chunks in this great show to a single narrative film. There was absolutely no guarantee that it's going to work. And so you can sit and watch this sort of material for like 40 minutes, and it can be unbelievably funny, but then you'll stop laughing because you're not being pulled along by any kind of a story. A huge amount of work went into just having enough of a story. There was the balance between having enough of the story and not too much story, that- [phone chimes]
John Koch [answering phone]: Hello?
Robin: Hello, I've got Sacha. Hold on. Sacha?
Sacha Baron Cohen [through cell phone static]: Hello?
John Koch: Sacha, this is John Koch. Thank you very much for doing this. We've been having a good time with your writing staff this morning.
Dan Mazer: We've been having just the best time, Sacha.
Peter Baynham/Ant Hines: Oh, yeah!
Sacha Baron Cohen: Are you all together in the same room?
All: Oh, yeah!
Sacha Baron Cohen: Wow! Where are you?
John Koch: We're at Third and Fairfax. The Writers Guild. Are you in L.A.? You want to drive down? We'll wait for you.
Sacha Baron Cohen: I can't, actually. I'm literally just in the middle of meetings. Sorry.
Dan Mazer: Oh, you're so important...bloody big now…meetings…
Ant Hines: You're on the toilet.
John Koch: Sacha, what is it about these co-writers that you need for your process to work? What are their skills, what are their attributes?
Photo: Sam Jones
Sacha Baron Cohen: I mean, what's clearly obvious is they're incredibly attractive. You've got Dan, who's darker and swarthier. You've got Peter, who's got everything that a middle-age woman can provide.
Dan Mazer: Including the hair of a middle-age woman.
Peter Baynham: Ummm… [tossing hair back coquettishly] True.
Sacha Baron Cohen: And Ant-40, virile, and aerodynamic [i.e., shaved head]. They all clearly-I find it embarrassing to compliment you in front of you, but they're all—
All: No problem, do compliment!
Sacha Baron Cohen: There's a total freedom that they bring to the room that means that anything is possible. For example, when the “Running of the Jew” was brought up-and I think Peter came up with that idea-in a lot of writing rooms that would be thrown out immediately. But the total freedom to experiment and come up with any comic idea is incredibly liberating.
Dan Mazer: The weird thing is, we have incredibly serious discussions about incredibly stupid things. Like, can we bring a shit down to a dinner table? We debated that for an hour.
Ant Hines: Should I bring a piss down, shall I bring a shit down?
Peter Baynham: Should it be a transparent bag or…?
Dan Mazer: Yeah, that debate over the nature of the bag, we get incredibly—I suppose anal is the wrong word to use about the shit.
Peter Baynham: I'd never spoken for an hour about what kind of bag we should use to put our piece of shit in. And I'm sitting there thinking, This is my job…
Dan Mazer: It was worth the discussion because it's a brilliant moment. It would have been probably too disgusting if it was a completely clear bag. And it would have been not that funny if it was an entirely-what's the word? Opaque.
Ant Hines: I'd say the unsung hero in this production is Jason Alper, the costume guy who provided that shit. He has a credit on the movie: FECES PROVIDED BY JASON ALPER.
Peter Baynham: So you have the idea, and then you just write the idea. And then you sit back and you go, “Can we do this? Will anyone let us do this?”
Dan Mazer: Initially, it's funny and childish and quite a lot of fun to process. But then, we're all very aware of the reality of the amount of detail that you need to get these things right. But then also it's very good for a writer to be able to sit down and actually have somebody in Sacha who's willing to go out and do the most obscene things. It's very rare that you find somebody who will go, “Okay, yeah, all right,” and have a naked fight. To abandon vanity in favor of comedy is a very rare thing for somebody to have. So from that point of view, it's very—
Sacha Baron Cohen: What? [cell phone static]
Peter Baynham: He said you're a great storyteller.
Ant Hines: No, brilliant.
John Koch [shouting over conference phone]: Sacha, we were talking about the idea of this being a completely innovative and brand-new genre in terms of scripted reality. What is the script like?
Dan Mazer: At the start we have an incredibly detailed treatment where we go in and we know the shape of the movie. The other chaps may disagree on this, but I always picture this basically as: You write a script, but you're only writing one half of it. See what I mean? Say, you're writing Borat, and by that point we've been doing it for so long, you sort of know how people are going to respond in some ways. You plot their responses, and it's like a flowchart.
Peter Baynham: We try to predict a story option at literally every possible eventuality of a situation.
Sacha Baron Cohen: The principle that we use is we go in as scripted as possible. But then you've also got to be prepared to throw everything away if new opportunities present themselves.
Dan Mazer: We've now done this character for quite a long time, and Sacha is so in the mindset of Borat that he just knows instinctively, as if it's second nature, what Borat will do in any situation. Which means that he can react and he can go with it, and it's beyond an acting job; it's a complete immersion.
In Harm's Way
John Koch: Do you guys worry about putting him in danger at all?
Ant Hines: Nah.
Dan Mazer: There were quite a lot of situations where you just had to think very hard. You want to do it, you always want to do it, whatever the risks are. But then you assess. What backup do we need, what protection do you need? If you want a scene where he goes into a very scary situation and says things to scary people, you just back up and occasionally don't do it.
Peter Baynham: It's very rare for Sacha to say no. I don't believe we've ever rejected a situation outright, from our side or from Sacha's side. Except when they won't insure us to do it.
Ant Hines: Or that the police have said you can't do it.
Sacha Baron Cohen: We had one instance where the studio put their foot down and said we weren't allowed to shoot a scene because it was too dangerous. But we only got word of that after we shot the scene. [The writing staff] had an idea that Borat gets lost in Mexico and the van breaks down, the exhaust pipe falls off. And Borat starts carrying the exhaust pipe, and it's extremely hot, he's walking through the desert. He takes a towel, wraps it around his head, and it looks like he's a Mujahadeen operative with a rocket launcher over his shoulder. And then the idea was for Borat to walk across the border and straight into Minutemen.
John Koch: So you guys did this?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Yeah, we did it.
John Koch: How do you make decisions about what gets in and what gets out?
Dan Mazer: We preview it and watch whether it's funny, and funny wins every time. There are a couple of things that were really funny and couldn't make it in just because they either clashed with other things that we'd already done or inhabited some of the same territory, and they'll become funny DVD extras and stuff. But effectively, if it's funny and fits, it's in.
Peter Baynham: We've worked out this incredibly detailed story, but then you've got to be prepared to lose any element of it like any script or any story you're writing. You have a scene that we probably thought was essential to the story. And then you just go, “It's too long, it's flat, it's not working.” You take it out, and the story just works so much better without it, however funny.
Dan Mazer: That's where the interesting definition of writing comes in because, effectively, we were always writing the film. We had this material that we went out and we scripted and we treated, and then we got it back. In many ways, we carried on writing in postproduction in order to make it fit and meld together.
Peter Baynham: One of the joys of having a unique language spoken by Azamat and Borat was that it then allowed you to say whatever you like with subtitles, which helped.
Dan Mazer: A lot of the good jokes, like, “I could not understand what this man was saying,” with the feminists, were written afterward. That was a nice luxury to have, to be able to go back and write those subtitles.
Peter Baynham: Those are the things that quite often aren't story things, but you're just working your ass into the ground trying to make them as funny as possible. And we ran over that stuff a lot of times, didn't we, just constantly.
Ant Hines: We were very, very aware that perhaps 90 minutes of Borat bits just lifted, say, from the HBO series would soon become very boring. It's because you're laughing at the same, however hilarious, dynamic.
Peter Baynham: You needed some kind of narrative to work through it.
Ant Hines: We come in with a point of view. We wanted the film to say something. Jackass is hilarious, but it doesn't say anything. And Borat, even in the three-minute things-in the same way as Da Ali G Show and Bruno-they all say something.
Dan Mazer: We have a point of view; it's satirical. We've always wanted to do that. And so you can get away with a naked fight and still be lucky enough to be interviewed by Written By magazine and esteemed writers, because other things have a kind of a satirical bent and are-hopefully-politically relevant.
Peter Baynham: Also, the story has, like everything else, got to be slave to the comedy in order to deliver 85 minutes or 90 minutes that you keep watching. And for you to stay interested, you must care about what's going to happen to Borat. We had versions of this where there was much more of Borat and Azamat and their relationship. Then you sit and you go, In the end people will care about that relationship to a certain point. You want them to care about Borat and Azamat enough so when you get to the naked fight and it kicks off; you care about that relationship. Then you've got so much more invested in this stupid fight. There's one of the most amazing parts of the movie, and it's incredibly well-acted by Sacha, which is that low point after the naked fight where the audience, having just seen a man's testicles like two minutes earlier, is heartbroken for Borat. Writers talk about There's Something About Mary, the setting up, how you have to feel for the Ben Stiller character at the beginning. We were equally conscious that you have to really like Borat and feel for Borat in order to drive you through the movie.
John Koch: When it goes into production, what is your involvement as writers?
Ant Hines: Constantly we're there because it's a really different process since we're reliant on bookings. We're in Memphis and say, well, a sports event has fallen through. Instead, we will have to go to a formal dinner. And then all of a sudden, you've got the idea, but you haven't necessarily got the jokes. So we're sitting there on a daily basis, constantly catching up and writing all the way through.
Sacha Baron Cohen: And at the end of every day, we have a writing session; we go over the next day's stuff. It's exhausting sometimes, when you've been in character for 10 hours.
Peter Baynham: It's constant, literally.
Ant Hines: It's crazy. So, we're down in the hotel, and Sacha's coming back. He's been doing all this stuff and falling around on camera while we're arguing about material. You can't control everything you shoot. Some things go well, some things don't go well. The whole process is constantly evolving, so the story's constantly evolving. There was the bit where he gets protection, so you try a couple things. Does he get a dog? Does he get a gun? Does he get an exotic pet? And on the positive side, really, Sacha will come back and say, “Well, this great thing happened today; we need to follow up on that.”
Dan Mazer: The one frustrating thing about this process is if you're writing a traditional script and you love a joke, then you know it's going to get in. You know you're going to film it. Sometimes, what's left on the page and that we haven't been able to film is frustrating. So there are some really, really funny pieces that just got cut or didn't fit.
Ant Hines: He's going in to meet the feminists; you don't know how long he's going to last with them. We've written enough jokes, enough material, for him probably to last literally an hour-and-a-half in there. At some point, there are so many things that he can say in there that you know only a percentage of them for time reasons is going to make the movie, make the cut. People can only tolerate so much of this level of absurdity. Like Dan says, it is frustrating because it's a lottery as well. We've written all these jokes that have to go in there. Sometimes, more often than not, we don't go onto set; we're at the hotel. It's that anticipation; we're waiting for Sacha to come back in from a shoot. Then it's literally, “How was it, how'd it go, how'd it go, how'd it go? What worked? Did the thing work, did the thing work? What did she say when you said that…?”
Dan Mazer: If Sacha says it went well, you think, Yes!
Peter Baynham: It's a one-shot deal. You don't get the chance to do it again. For example, one thing that I'll miss is at the dinner when the prostitute comes in. The scene was supposed to go on longer and he was supposed to take her to the bathroom and have sex with her.
Dan Mazer: We planned to leave the camera on the diners, and they'd be hearing the noise of him and the prostitute having sex. Then he'd come out and ask for $30 [to pay the hooker] and say, “You know, she was just—!”
Ant Hines: He was then to get kicked out and leave the house. And then he'd have to come back because he'd left his underpants in the bathroom, and could he have his underpants back?
Dan Mazer: But when the prostitute came in, they reacted so violently just to a black woman being in the house that that was it. We never envisioned they would react that violently simply to her presence. So they threw them out immediately, and we didn't get a chance to do that funny setpiece. Now as you went out of the scene, it just didn't have a big laugh on the end. Earlier on, he's had that encounter with the guy where the guy says, “I'm retired,” and Borat goes, “You're a retard.” And then you see they're throwing him out of the house and they're actually saying, “Get out of the house” or “We've called the police.” Later in the editing process, we then think, Ah, what if he goes, “Why, have the retards escaped?” And so that's a bit of postproduction revising.
Peter Baynham: A little thing that grows through the story that pays off is the controversial [sexual] rubber arm. But then you have the rubber arm in the village. You think, Okay, so we're shooting this bit with these gay people tomorrow, so let's have a rubber arm in the scene. Later on, he's naked, chasing his partner down the corridor with the rubber arm, and then it ends up as a prosthetic arm on the guy in the village with one arm. It's hard, in a film like this, to keep that stuff in. There are production people who say what a pain in the ass that rubber arm…uhhh… But it's basically trying to keep being really anal. Oh, my God. But you're obsessing, and just all of it's strange like that. You're obsessing, Oh, we've got to keep the rubber arm because it'll be used in the hotel and then it'll be on the guy's arm at the end. And production people are just thinking, Oh, God. We're having to literally-okay, yes, I'm obsessed with the rubber arm-to make sure the rubber arm stays in the story all the way through.
Lost in America
John Koch: Sacha, sorry, as is always the case, writers talk much more than actors.
Sacha Baron Cohen: That's because I'm lost.
Dan Mazer: Emotionally?
Sacha Baron Cohen: No, I'm not talking about my psychological state. I can't find my way.
John Koch: Do you need directions? Where are you?
Sacha Baron Cohen: No, don't worry, don't worry. I've realized that I actually have the address. Don't worry, go ahead.
John Koch: Can you talk about how you're able to get these interviews? Not the legal aspects of it but the emotional aspects, and how, as a performer, you're able to get people to trust you.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Well, you just have to be a believable character. They have to totally believe that you are who you say you are and like you enough to want to open up to you. The challenge, the interesting thing about the structure of this movie, is that in each scene, there were two objectives. The first one was to be funny, and the second was to have a plot point or a beat. For example, in the church-[shouting to someone]-No, I'm just trying to find my way! In the church scene you need to get your jokes; but you also need Borat to be saved because he's depressed and you must leave invigorated and ready to move on. That's the constant struggle, really, which is to get the funny but also to get the plot point.
Dan Mazer: That's the difficult thing about this. You've got to have a different value at the end than they had at the beginning of a scene.
John Koch: Let's talk about the rodeo scene. I heard you guys were almost lynched afterward.
Ant Hines: Sacha will tell you. Sacha, was it cowboys circling the van?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Yeah. And Jason, the costume and props guy, actually was brave enough to take the tapes off the cameraman and stick them down his underpants when the coach that we were in was surrounded by 10 guys on horses.
John Koch: Did you ever think, I've got to end this ruse to save my life?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Early on I realized that there wasn't really [inaudible-cell phone break-up]... and when the police turned up. But then I realized that no laws [inaudible-cell phone break-up]. So, no.
Dan Mazer: We do make sure, when we do things, that we stay within the parameters of the law. It's a production issue more than a writing issue. But we have very good researchers and producers who make sure that whatever we do is absolutely strictly legal so that, if we are stopped by the police, we know we're within our rights.
Peter Baynham: We're always aware that there's no point in going through all this, and being heroes, and being as bad as we like if, ultimately, we can't use what we're shooting.
Dan Mazer: That's why I'm sure that when you invest in something, it's probably safer for Sacha to stay in character. The amazing insane bravery of it. We were down in the deep South in this bar in which he entered a talent contest. They loved it the first time, and then he had to try and do the song again. The second time, they started to get a bit unhappy with the situation. There were some very scary kind of Deliverance-type guys. This guy called to Sacha and said, “I'm going to get you in the car park,” or whatever. And Sacha went over and kissed the guy; he went over and kissed him on the cheek. The guy said, “In the South, you don't kiss men.” If he then had a sense Sacha's not who he says he is, we got trouble.
Ant Hines: I've been kissed by a liar!
John Koch: Obviously, it's comedy first, but then you bring out prejudices, intolerance, racism.
Peter Baynham: It's Borat going in there and allowing people to be themselves. What we do is we hold a mirror up to people. If people are bastards, they'll come across as bastards. If they're lovely, nice people, then they'll come across as nice people.
Ant Hines: The joke is always on Borat. The little Jewish couple at the bed-and-breakfast show anti-Semitism as really stupid. As absurd, ridiculous, rooted in a medieval mindset.
John Koch: You guys feel that this does more in playing out anti-Semitism than actually promoting it.
Sacha Baron Cohen: And it's getting standing ovations in Israel, where it just got released this week. Which way is Highland? [beeping signals from conference phone]
John Koch: Disconnected… Well, even though it's an innovative comedy, you're also drawing back to vaudeville.
Dan Mazer: It wasn't consciously a homage to the silent film era, but from the gestation and evolution of Borat—in the context of Da Ali G Show-we wanted to give him a more physical persona. Ali G sits down and interviews people; we wanted to make Borat, from the very beginning, a lot more physical and have elements of Chaplinesque slapstick and Buster Keaton.
Ant Hines: In England, we grew up with Sellers and The Goon Show, John Cleese.
Dan Mazer: And those thin, long, hairy legs just cry out to be utilized. A rare resource.
Peter Baynham: That's what makes it work when he says sexist stuff. If he said sexist stuff to a woman and you felt that he might actually grab hold of that woman and do something, it wouldn't be funny. But where he's actually with the feminists and he's saying, “Like, what is a feminism?” you're laughing because, if he tried to attack a woman—
Ant Hines: He's so pathetic—
Peter Baynham: The woman would probably beat him up.
Ant Hines: That's why he was abused by his wife, and he was frequently raped by his wife.
Peter Baynham: Yeah, we did one rape at one point at the beginning by the wife, didn't we? We thought that would be a funny way to start the movie. [The conference call phone chimes]
John Koch: Sacha?
Robin: I got him, hold on one second… Sacha's on.
John Koch: Hey, Sacha. The writers were just going on about your physical attributes.
Sacha Baron Cohen: [Inaudible, cell phone static]
John Koch: Sacha, how was the Pamela Anderson throughline developed?
Sacha Baron Cohen: It came about very early. She was the epitome of the American dream, really, this blonde silicone television star.
Dan Mazer: We knew, in the very beginning, that we wanted a quest to take him across America.
Sacha Baron Cohen: That was the Act I turning point that propels him through the rest of the movie. We chose quite deliberately. Even though the end result is experimental, the initial structure is quite traditional-wait, sorry, I just got lost-where's…? It's quite traditional in the sense it's a traditional kind of-excuse me, I think I must turn here.
Peter Baynham: It's Crocodile Dundee meets Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
Dan Mazer: But we knew we had to have some structure with the narrative, but we also knew it had to be a fairly simple, rudimentary plot twist.
Peter Baynham: Yeah, we didn't want to bog ourselves down in the story.
Ant Hines: All these things were really carefully thought through.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Yeah, definitely. A good example of that is the Baywatch Annual—who the fuck is…? Hold on, somebody is-I think I'm about to get in a fight-excuse me, you carry on.
Dan Mazer: He's actually in a room with sound effects. It's amazing.
Peter Baynham: We should do the DVD commentary from Sacha in a car.
Ant Hines: Yeah, the Baywatch Annual, that was—
Sacha Baron Cohen: No, but it was crucial that the Baywatch Annual had almost the significance of the ring in Lord of the Rings. They have that scene where Borat's alone in his room, and he wraps up the Baywatch Annual in a velvet cloth as if it's the most precious thing in the world. And that gives the naked wrestling a lot more weight because Azamat is then desecrating this sacred object.
Ant Hines: There just happens to be a Baywatch Annual there at the yard sale. That woman genuinely thought it was her Baywatch. So after we came up with this Baywatch talisman, someone anonymous from our crew went in there and slipped the Baywatch Annual amongst her items she's selling—
Peter Baynham: People thought it was staged. It's not; it's just this crafted story.
Dan Mazer: If we'd have written every part in it, then people wouldn't buy it, execs would say, “Hold on, this is ridiculous, this could never happen.” But it did happen, and it's real. If we'd literally transcribed the things that other people said, then it would have been a completely incredible story and incredible comedy to any studio executive who'd pick up that script.
Peter Baynham: Also, sometimes when you're watching the tape you get the sense that a person clicked halfway through but played along with the gag.
Dan Mazer: You throw that stuff out because if they're playing along, you think, This is cheesy, it's horrible, and I don't believe it.
John Koch: Now that Borat's more popular than the Pope, how do you do this again, or do you? Is Borat finished?
Ant Hines: Be careful, he wants you to say that we're bigger than Jesus.
Dan Mazer: It's like anything. If you're a sportsman and you run a route, you then have to work out another way to do it. That's part of the battle. And hopefully we'll be intelligent and innovative enough to do that. People said after the first series of Ali G in 1998 that it was dead and we'd never be able to do anything again. So we've always managed, somehow, to keep it going.
Sacha Baron Cohen: I think also, as a team, we're interested in writing scripted comedies as well. A testament to the writing on this movie is that the funniest scene is actually one that is totally staged: the naked fight. In that hotel room, it's hilarious. And it's written and it's me and another actor—oh, shoot, I missed the…carry on… [car horns honk]
Dan Mazer: What Sacha means? We'll make it up. Completely misinterpret him and misquote him. That would be fine.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Which way is Highland? [static, cell phone silence]
Dan Mazer: Is there really a difference between Sacha Baron Cohen and Borat? Good performance? Or clueless? What Sacha's saying is that we don't-and all of us have done the scripted stuff-necessarily need to exist in this genre exclusively. What I think we've done is create just a great character, a true comedy character that people talk about and love. That will be true of characters in any scenario, in any situation.
John Koch: Sacha? Sacha? You're a big Peter Sellers fan. Do you have anything to say about your influences?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Where's my car?
John Koch: What did he say?
Dan Mazer: He said, “Where's my car?”
Peter Baynham: He's in a hotel room and now he's watching Dude, Where's My Car.
Ant Hines: Have we lost Sacha?
John Koch: Sacha, you still there?
Peter Baynham: He's gone…
John Koch: He was looking for his car.
Dan Mazer: It seemed that way. I thought he was in his car.
Peter Baynham: I think he got out of his car for some reason.
Dan Mazer: “Where's my car?”
Peter Baynham: It rolled down the hill.
Ant Hines: He put some petrol in maybe. He said somebody was on his tail, somebody was…
Sacha Baron Cohen: I'm back. But not for long. I found a parking spot.
John Koch: What have you been doing, may I ask?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Trying to find a parking spot. I've got a lunch meeting, which I'm now 20 minutes late for because I got slightly lost. I am the real Borat.
John Koch: You are the real Borat. You have protected Sacha from Borat. Is it just that you want to, as you said in Rolling Stone, “have your cake and eat it too,” and have both a private and personal life? Or is there something artistic about that?
Sacha Baron Cohen [cell phone static]: Say it again.
John Koch: Can you elaborate on the artistic part of creating your personas?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Ah, nah, nah, nah. Sorry this has been a bit of a nightmare. What's your name? Nice to meet you.
Male Voice: I'm from Iran.
Sacha Baron Cohen: You're from Iran, nice, very good. And I'm not actually from Kazakhstan.
John Koch: Did somebody just ask him if he was from Kazakhstan?
Ant Hines: Yeah, the man from Iran.
Sacha Baron Cohen: Yes, somebody walking, talking to someone. Guys, I really have to go. Bye. [cell phone goes silent]
John Koch: Okay. So now you're all involved in the PR promotion. They kept you on so that the appearances on Leno and Jon Stewart and all the talk shows were fresh and original.
Dan Mazer: You go on these high-profile talk shows, you do Leno, then you can't do that material on Letterman. You go on The Daily Show and you can't do that material on Conan. Ant was doing this for a bit before I came on board and then we did the junket in New York and then in Britain. It's just this tidal wave of material you've got to generate, isn't it? And people have literally said, “What does Borat think of Philadelphia?” And you've got to have answers.
John Koch: Did you guys write the Leno sequence between Borat and Martha Stewart?
Dan Mazer: Yeah. Fucking brilliant.
John Koch: When Borat said, “You come to Kazakhstan, you can have my food, you can play with my sister; she's tight like a man's anus,” I lost it. It was said in front of Martha Stewart. He pulled it off, and then it got on air.
Dan Mazer: Could you believe it when Jay Leno said to her, “Have you ever had a three-way?” If Sacha goes on, he creates such havoc. You can see panic on Jay Leno's face, and Sacha's creating this kind of havoc. Leno just said whatever came to his mind.
Peter Baynham: One of the craziest bits of this whole thing, because it was sheer madness, was Regis & Kelly. When we were out with Regis Philbin, walking around the streets of New York, he takes Borat to this hotdog stand, and there were people shouting from buses, “Hey, Borat! Hey, Regis,” in equal measures. We were walking backward in front of them, writing the shit down on boards and holding up stuff for him to say.
Ant Hines: Borat's brilliant at reading the boards.
John Koch, a frequent contributor to Written By, is the events and programs manager for the Writers Guild of America, West.