Interview: Larry Charles

Director Larry Charles is courting more controversy with a provocative documentary on faiths.


By Stephen Applebaum, April 2, 2009
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As one of the writers of Seinfeld and the director of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry Charles has earned his place in the pantheon of American comedy. He is no longer the broke Brooklynite who once scraped by in Los Angeles by dealing jokes like drugs outside the Comedy Store. Now Charles, 53, wants to do more than just entertain.

“There’s so much crap in the marketplace,” he says. “I don’t want to just add another DVD to the pile. So I think, ‘Is this going to have an impact and some lasting value? Is it worth it for me to spend two years of my middle-aged life on this?’ They’re my criteria, and I think that’s led me to more urgent projects.”

The last one of these set Sacha Baron Cohen loose across America in the controversial global smash, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Now Religulous, a funny and provocative feature documentary, follows comedian Bill Maher to countries including America, Israel and the UK to challenge Christians, Jews and Muslims, among others, about their beliefs.

Maher, who was raised in his father’s Catholic faith but later discovered that his mother was Jewish, thinks religious certainty is leading us towards self-destruction. So why do some apparently intelligent people in the 21st century long for an apocalyptic war in the Middle East that will wipe out most of the Jews (“There’s like 144,000 that will be saved, if you believe in the Rapture,” says Charles)?

When a US Senator tells Maher there’s no IQ threshold to be in the Senate, you know the film-makers are on to something. This awkward moment illustrates the drive for “spontaneity” and “urgency” that Charles says now informs his work. Tired of the smooth packaging of Hollywood, he wants to “strip away all the artifice” and create work that’s raw and immediate.

In one scene in Religulous, Maher interviews a Neturei Karta rabbi who went to Iran to participate in a conference in which the truth of the Holocaust was questioned. Maher gets so angry he storms out of the interview. “I’m trying to get him to stay because I had a million questions. But he [Maher] can’t take the guy any more and he has to leave. What’s best for the movie is great scenes. This is a great scene but Bill at that point couldn’t take it any more. That guy was annoying as hell.”

Collaborating with Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm helped to prime Charles for Borat. The HBO show is unscripted and effectively “one-take film-making”, he says. “You can repeat things because it’s on a set and there are actors. But if it’s a great moment and you don’t capture it, it’s rare to get that moment again. And on a movie like Borat or Religulous, you’re definitely not going to get it again.” His job as director is to “capture lightning in a bottle”.

Charles’s other job on the films was to protect his stars and make sure they had the space and security to do their work. “Sacha’s one of the most courageous people I know. He is a fearless, fearless performer. And Bill is, too. And that’s something I really respond to: their courage.”

Both men, he says, are on a mission. Like him they want to entertain but also say something. Where Cohen, a former member of Habonim Dror, was interested in exposing antisemitism, misogyny, class prejudice and bigotry, Maher wanted to uncover the absurd and potentially dangerous faces of religious belief. This sometimes put them in potentially hazardous situations.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat in a scene from the comedy hit directed by Larry Charles. “Sacha is one of the most courageous performers I know. He’s a fearless, fearless performer”

Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat in a scene from the comedy hit directed by Larry Charles. “Sacha is one of the most courageous performers I know. He’s a fearless, fearless performer”

To try and minimise the risks on Borat, locations like the rodeo arena where Borat/Cohen sings about Kazakhstan’s superiority to the tune of The Star Spangled Banner were meticulously recced beforehand, in case they had to make a quick exit — which they often did.

“The prelude is like planning to rob a bank,” Charles laughs. “You have to have escape routes. We don’t scout; we case the joint.”

If Cohen had ever been arrested it would have spelled disaster for the production, particularly if his visa had been rescinded. “Even though we knew we hadn’t broken the law it doesn’t mean that you can’t get arrested and held,” says Charles. “It’s like even though we knew there were no grounds for the lawsuits, people still continued to sue us.” So when situations started to unravel, Cohen was always the first one taken away.

“I take big risks,” Charles continues, “but I’m not reckless about it. In Sacha’s case I wanted to make sure he was not worried about anything so he could do what he wanted to do. That was very important for the performance.”

Charles was brought up in a secular Jewish household: “I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I grew up in a very Jewish neighbourhood, and thought the whole world was like that. My parents were secular, but I went to a very Orthodox Jewish school and I really got into it. I found it all fascinating, and I was just kind of really attracted to the metaphysical questions.”

His interest in religion is still strong. But when making a film on the subject, the stakes can be very high. The Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh was murdered by an Islamic extremist, while author Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding after a fatwa was issued against him following the publication of The Satanic Verses. Charles claims he is not worried about attacks.

The film is an “anti-everybody-in-organised-religion movie”, he says. “So it would be crazy for someone to go out and hurt somebody or kill somebody, based on the 15 minutes of the movie [that apply to them]. To me it would prove the point of the movie.”

Religulous is released on April 3

    Last updated: 2:12pm, April 2 2009