When jason woliner was first approached with the idea of directing sacha baron cohen’s latest film, he had no idea that the top-secret script, delivered via an encrypted link that would expire in a matter of hours, it would be a first draft of the next amazon borat movie.
but once woliner started reading, it quickly became clear what the project was. “I thought I wasn’t making a movie about a Guatemalan journalist named Sergio,” Woliner recalls of the script’s attempt to hide the true identity of the film’s protagonist: Borat Sagdiyev, the bumbling, mustachioed Kazakh journalist who first appeared on the show. of baron cohen. gives ali g show before “starring” in his own movie in 2006.
According to Anthony Hines, Baron Cohen’s longtime collaborator who served as the film’s producer and head writer, early drafts of the script were constantly changing in an effort to maintain secrecy surrounding the project. “Sacha was getting more and more neurotic and crazy,” Hines says with a smile. “Borat’s nationality changed about five times. he went from being Guatemalan to Bulgarian, to Moldovan and Azerbaijani.”
Because drafts were sometimes full of typos, the find-and-replace feature was nearly unusable — resulting in scripts in which the name of Baron Cohen’s character changed multiple times. “Sacha would think this would be an unbreakable code, but it was really an exercise in futility,” Hines says. “Anyone within three minutes would figure it out.”
It’s understandable why Baron Cohen would cloud the project with the kind of secrecy of a Star Wars pitch. Borat himself had become incredibly famous and recognizable after the huge success of the first film. there was also incredible pressure; The first Borat was not only a box office success, but it was also a critical success earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Not to mention, Baron Cohen wanted, even needed, for the film to be released just before the 2020 presidential election.
“donald trump meant that the racism, anti-semitism and misogyny I mentioned in the first film, then a dark underbelly of society, had been brought to light,” says baron cohen of the president of a mandate. “I felt that American democracy was in danger and I couldn’t be a bystander. As a comedian and actor, there’s not much you can do other than do your job. I felt I had no choice but to bring Borat back, because it was the perfect tool for those who follow Trump to reveal what they were willing to put up with.”
so the political became personal, and the next movie: the delivery of a prodigious bribe to the american regime to benefit the once glorious nation of kazakhstan became baron cohen’s mission. “The first movie was a satirical commentary that exposed the realities of American society, but [our job] was to make the funniest movie possible,” he says. “This film, mainly, was a form of peaceful protest.”
baron cohen admits he was terrified at the prospect of bringing borat, the centerpiece of a hit that generated more than $262 million at the worldwide box office on an $18 million budget, back to the screen 14 years after it was released. his first film outing. Woliner describes that movie as almost the first and last of its kind. “I was a big fan of the first movie,” he says. “Like millions of other people, I remember the experience of seeing it in a theater for the first time and how revolutionary it was.”
When woliner met with baron cohen after reading the draft script, he expressed how excited he was to help bring borat back, but also how intimidating the idea was. “It’s very hard to make a comedy sequel, and it’s even harder to make a delayed comedy sequel,” Woliner says. “I basically said to sacha, ‘everything is against this movie working,’ but the second part of that sentence was, ‘if we could pull it off, it could be pretty awesome.'”
In the 2006 film, Borat was joined on his journey by his producer, Azamat Bagatov (played by Ken Davitian), providing a buddy comedy narrative to balance the political satire. Borat’s return would require a similar sidekick, and Baron Cohen and Hines found potential in the character of Tutar, Borat’s 15-year-old daughter. Tutar would drive the plot (Borat brings her to America as a gift for Vice President Mike Pence), but she could also interact with the film’s interviewees without being recognized. And she would serve as the heart of the film’s emotional journey, which sees Borat becoming an unlikely father figure.
Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova was one of thousands of women around the world who sent in audition tapes for the role of tutar without knowing what the project was. Reading a short script provided by the writers, Bakalova began improvising on her own tape. “We sent a monologue [in which tutar boasts] that her father is the best father in town, bragging that her cage is better than the other girls’, which is very cartoonish,” Woliner recalls. “And then Maria started bragging about how good she was at smoking cigarettes and how she rubbed it in her dog’s face, like, ‘You stupid dog, you don’t know how to smoke as well as I do!’”
The producers flew Bakalova, fresh out of acting school, to England for a chemistry test with Baron Cohen. Posing as a documentary crew filming a piece about a father and daughter, Baron Cohen (in disguise) and Bakalova filmed a scene with an English couple — and Bakalova sprang into action. “She was trying to climb up a staircase, acting like she had never seen stairs before and didn’t know how to operate them,” Woliner says. A second chemistry test, this time with just Baron Cohen and Bakalova, sealed the deal for the director. “We did a kind of breakup scene, and she rejects him. Sacha and I were nearly moved to tears. We knew we had found a one-of-a-kind person. She could really do it all.”
hines describes bakalova’s performance as a way of shaping the film’s narrative: “the father-daughter relationship became a more integral part of the film when we discovered how brilliant and engaging she was.” Woliner also praises Bakalova for her bravery, especially when it comes to intense and confusing interactions with non-actors. “There was the occasional threat of physical danger,” she says. “The whole team had to run from the police constantly, because people just call the police when they’re confused.”
bakalova admits she wasn’t as fearless as woliner thought. In a scene filmed early in production, Tutar turns to a group of conservative women and enthusiastically describes the experience of having her vagina examined for the first time. Baron Cohen was also going to appear, until a producer acknowledged that one of the women had appeared in the first Borat. Bakalova remembers crying to her when she learned she would have to go alone, terrified she would be found out and ruin the movie. “I called Sacha, and that was the first time she said to me, ‘Use that fear,'” she says. “And I listened to him, because he is a genius.”
A Borat production is often chaos, and producer Monica Levinson, who worked with Baron Cohen on the original Borat and Brüno in 2009, is used to managing. but that was before a pandemic brought the world, and all subsequent movies, to a standstill in March 2020.
by then about half of the film had been shot; In the months before production resumed in July, the writing team figured out how to work the COVID-19 crisis into the plot as Levinson scrambled to find ways to resume filming while keeping cast and crew safe.
that required talking to epidemiologists at johns hopkins and doctors and nurses across the country. “They were dealing with death and dying, with horrendous things on a daily basis and with people ignoring their advice,” says Levinson. “I think they enjoyed hanging out and I loved that they gave us the time of day.”
The team scrambled to complete the film in time for its late October release, which would see a streaming premiere on Amazon Prime Video rather than a theatrical opening. While Baron Cohen saw the film as an effort to show how Trump had poisoned and divided America, Woliner can’t say if it had any impact on the 2020 election and Joe Biden’s eventual victory. He, however, points to the lucky break of getting Rudy Giuliani to agree to an on-camera interview with Tutar who catches Trump’s lawyer and former New York mayor in a compromising position in a Manhattan hotel room before Borat ambushes the interview in order to save tutar.
“[Giuliani] was trying to push the Hunter Biden laptop scandal, hoping for a surprise in October,” recalls Woliner. “And the next day, the review embargo on the film was lifted. I think it helped discredit him.” Post-election, with Giuliani’s efforts to overturn the results becoming more unhinged, Woliner now sees the former mayor’s appearance in the film a little differently: “In hindsight, the scene in our film is probably the most dignified that rudy wore”.
This story first appeared in the March 3 issue of the Hollywood Reporter magazine. click here to subscribe.