good one podcast

On a Borat Shoot, Even the Director’s in Disguise

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Amazon Studios

On the set of a Sacha Baron Cohen project, it’s not only the people in front of the camera that are acting. To effectively create reality for both the eventual viewer and — more importantly — the person Cohen is trying to dupe, everyone on set has to play a character. For Jason Woliner, the famously non-performing member of Human Giant and director tapped for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, that meant dying his hair blonde, going by “Christopher,” and dressing as non-Jewishly as possible. But it worked! Not only were they able to pull off a sequel to the first Borat movie that didn’t suck (despite Woliner’s early reservations), he didn’t get beaten up or shot at in the process.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Woliner discusses directing the film in disguise, why Maria Bakalova deserves an Oscar for her performance, and more. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Good One

A Podcast About Jokes

On Conceiving the Crisis Pregnancy Center Scene

So the germ of this idea was Jena Friedman’s, who is a brilliant comedian and writer who came in and was like, “We have to do something about these crisis pregnancy centers.” Most of us weren’t familiar with them. They’re basically these Christian organizations that look like abortion clinics essentially, and they just say “Women’s Health” or “Pregnancy Center” or something that doesn’t tell you that they have a religious affiliation. They’re often made to look like doctor’s offices, and they say “Come in and get a pregnancy test and and we’ll give you help. There are options.” They kind of make you think that one of the options is that you can terminate the pregnancy, and they’ll say to you, “Well, first off, before you do that, you should know that God loves your baby and doesn’t want it to die,” and just kind of do all of these very intense psychological things on a young woman to get her to keep the baby.

Jenna came in with a lot of the idea, and then the room kind of tossed it around and punched it up. It was like, Well, what if we could have a situation where she eats a baby doll or something like that? She’s explaining it to this pastor there who is kind of masquerading as a medical professional or whatever, and she’s saying, “I have a baby inside me, I need to take it out,” and then she reveals that her father is the one who got her pregnant.

This is kind of a classic comedy setup of this misunderstanding, but it’s doing it in the real world with a real person playing the “straight man,” the person who doesn’t understand, and you have these two kind of clowns. But on top of that, you have this very clear satirical angle, which is the kind of thing that makes it perfect for this movie, which is ultimately, you have a pastor faced with a young woman saying that she’s pregnant with a baby. It’s horrible to say it as plain as it is, but she’s saying this is a product of incestuous rape, and he’s telling her, “No, you have to keep this baby.” It’s doing this extraordinarily dark thing, but in this kind of very familiar comedy setup. So we were like, Yeah, if we could get that to work, that could be a really funny, memorable, crazy scene.

So we then set about finding a place that would do this, and that took months and months and months. It was one of the hardest things for the field team to book because these places are so non-trusting of when a company comes in and says, “We want to film you.” There’s all these things that the field team does that are a very delicate process. And then, finally, we found a place, and even after that, there were hours and hours and hours that went into that day that kind of all led up to that.

On Directing Borat Subsequent Moviefilm in Character

I’m playing a part. I’m blond, first of all. I don’t look like myself. I have an actual look. My name is Chris. I bleached my hair for most of the past year. Sacha’s done this for a long time. He’s like, “You need to look a little less Jewish and more trustworthy to people in the Deep South.” And he was completely right, I will tell you that.

There are all these things that we do, that Sacha does before the cameras are filming. There’s a lot of reality-setting. I’ll tell you one example: This is the first day of shooting. When we’re in the hair salon and the hairdresser is like, “Can I see your hair?” and Maria pulls her skirt up, it’s this very uncomfortable moment. Right after that, the woman looked over with a real What the fuck is this? look on her face. They walked in there, and she’s flashing her. So that was a very aggressive way to begin that shoot. And I come out because I’m just like hidden around the corner. I go, “What’s going on? What’s wrong?” This wasn’t planned, but both of our instincts just went right to this: Maria started crying, and I went over to comfort her. I was like, “No, you didn’t do anything wrong. This is a cultural thing. You misunderstood. It’s a language thing.” I think if I had gone over to the hair stylist and was like, “Nothing wrong happened. This is real. These aren’t characters,” that would be like, Okay, well, now you’re trying to convince me. Because I went to comfort Maria and she really was crying and she’s like, “Did I do something wrong?” that kind of short-circuited her doubt because that wouldn’t make any sense if this was a joke.

Woliner in character as “Chris.” Photo: Jason Woliner

Sometimes we pushed it too far. Sacha maybe said one or two lines that just pushed it a little too far, after we got what we wanted. Obviously, it’s all about pushing everything to the extreme. The pastor in that [crisis pregnancy center] scene comes out and he’s like, “Hey, can I talk to you, Chris?” He’s like, “Something is going on here. I don’t know what it is, but that guy in there,” who he had believed up until that point was completely legit, just kind of a weird foreign guy, “he just said this one thing I think about Donald Trump, and it sounded like a joke.” I was like, Oh fuck, are we busted? And he goes, “I think that guy might be pranking you.” And I say, “What?” He says, “I don’t know what his deal is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a hidden camera on him or something.” I was just blown away. I was like, Wow, that’s how good this blond hair is, that you’re not thinking of the three non-hidden cameras that are right in your face in this room.

On Why Maria Bakalova Deserves the Oscar

On the first day, I think when she was a little shaken up or asked “Did I do a good job?” after shooting the hairdresser stuff, I said to her — I don’t know if she remembers this — I said, “Yeah, no. I think you’re going to get an Oscar for this.” It was just an instinct of if you have someone that no one in America has heard of or seen that can go toe-to-toe with Sacha Baron Cohen, with real people, and get huge laughs in scenes, and do these scenes with him and actually make you care about this character’s story and journey, and make you emotionally invested by the end, I feel like that’s so rare. I can’t think of anything else quite like it.

Not to slam anything or anyone else, but I did drive past a billboard the other day, like a “For Your Consideration” thing, that talked about someone’s “courageous” performance. When you talk about “courageous” acting, there is a lot of courageous acting, but what’s very rare is acting quite literally as courageous as being in a situation like when she does that dance, just being completely, truly fearless. And Sacha, too — it’s just a different definition of courageous and fearlessness and performance, where you’re actually doing a fearless, raw performance, but you have to be fearless. You have to be like, Well, someone could get physically violent with me. It just kind of makes a joke of any other kind of acting being referred to as “fearless.”

More From This Series

See All
On a Borat Shoot, Even the Director’s in Disguise