For some comedians, obscurity is a curse. For comedian/provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen, star of “Da Ali G Show” and “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” obscurity is his method. Known for his edgy, embarrassing and uproarious interviews with people unsuspecting of his flamboyant alter egos, Cohen, whose elaborate pranks depend upon his victims not knowing his identity, has in the last four years gone from an unknown comic to a U.K. sensation to Will Ferrell-sized prominence. This past Friday, the now-famous but reclusive comic made an 11th-hour appearance at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival to discuss his work, comedic method and newfound fame.
Cohen appeared in the Lobero Theatre following a screening of “Borat.” He was accompanied by producer Jay Roach, and writers Anthony Hines and Peter Baynham in a lengthy Q&A moderated by veteran critic and SBIFF regular Leonard Maltin.
Sacha Baron Cohen is famous for his secrecy. Virtually all of the few interviews he has granted, whether on TV or in print, have been given in character. No photography, filming or audio recording of any kind was allowed in the theatre. Festival organizers even contemplated banning cell phones at the event. One flash, they warned, and Cohen would leave the theatre.
Roach, Hines and Baynham were very congenial, discussing all aspects of the production and their involvement in it. Cohen proved to be more fickle. Sitting in the last chair in jeans and a baseball cap, Cohen sometimes openly expressed boredom, answering only those questions that interested him.
“Could you repeat that?” Cohen said in response to one audience member’s question. ‘Totally honestly, my mind just drifted.”
Cohen’s greatest interest during the event, however, seemed to be the audience members. Exhibiting his comedic fascination with human idiosyncrasies so defining of his work, Cohen frequently riffed on unusual or outspoken audience members. But when Cohen was interested in the discussion, not just the audience, he’d spring to life, dryly telling hilarious anecdotes in both his natural and character voices, with interjections from the other panelists.
Sacha Baron Cohen described several scenes that didn’t make the final film – the first cut was five and a half hours long – including a segment where, through a long series of mishaps, Borat finds himself walking across the Mexican border wearing a turban and holding what looks like a rocket launcher into a Minutemen press conference. Another deleted scene had Borat earning money by acting as a bellhop in a Van Nuys porno. A bit where Borat begun selling newspaper subscriptions door to door involved a segment where Borat asked to use the bathroom and emerges 45 minutes later, bathed and brushing his teeth. The unsuspecting woman whose house they were using called the police, and Cohen had to vault through a window and dash to safety wearing only a towel.
“I wasn’t sure what to do,” Cohen said. “If I ran off with the towel, then I’d be stealing. If I left it, I would be committing indecent exposure.”
The antics captured in “Borat” are not without their risks: Over the course of the filming, the cast and crew had over 40 run-ins with local and state police, the FBI and even the Secret Service. In the first week of filming, Executive Producer Monica Levinson, who was present in the audience, spent a night in jail. The film’s producers and crew had to take the heat, as Cohen, a British national, would have been deported upon his arrest.
“It’s no coincidence that we shot most of the segments next to state lines,” Roach said. “It was like making a film if you were Bonnie and Clyde.”
The dangers Cohen and company faced weren’t merely of the legal kind. The panel discussed at length the film’s now notorious scene where Cohen wrestles rotund co-star Ken Davitian in the buff, with Cohen at one point pinned under Davitian’s genitals.
“Between each take we showered thoroughly,” Cohen said.
“Together or separately?” asked Maltin.
“When we filmed the bit where he sits on my face, we’d only have 20-30 seconds before I’d start to suffocate. When this happened, I’d hit my fist on the bed three times to signal the crew to cut. If you look at the scene in the film, you can see me banging on the bed, and notice that they don’t cut,” Cohen said.
Seemingly growing bored with Maltin’s questions, Cohen opened up questions to the floor, at which point some interesting questions were posed concerning the conception and future of Borat. They also addressed the wave of well-publicized lawsuits that have recently been filed by the film’s unsuspecting real-life “stars.”
“It was something we thought might happen. There’s always the question of how happy people will be to see themselves onscreen in these situations. Some of the lawsuits are simply from opportunists; others have very legitimate issues. We didn’t expect them to be this voluminous,” Roach said.
“Borat” has received heat not only from those embarrassed by their appearances in the film, but by Kazakh representatives who have publicly decried the film and character and created a media counter-campaign. Another audience member asked why Kazakhstan, of all nations, was chosen, when a fictional nation would have spared them from these diplomatic woes.
“We chose Kazakhstan because it was important that the country actually exist so that people wouldn’t figure out that Borat wasn’t for real. They had to at least be able to Google it. But it had to be obscure enough that people could believe the interview,” Baynham said. “Our interpretation of Kazakhstan was actually based on Wales.”
With the huge success of Borat, however, the very nature of Cohen’s craft is threatened. Now a household name, its unlikely that Borat will ever be able to prank Americans again. Cohen wouldn’t comment on whether or not he has any further plans for the character.
“If anybody being interviewed is playing along, we stop the taping,” Cohen said. “It kills the comedy.”