Long before he got involved with the breakout comedy Borat (and if you think I’m typing that annoyingly long sub-title, you’re so wrong!), writer/director Larry Charles was most known for his involvement with the early days of “Seinfeld,” one of the most cutting edge television sitcoms, something he continued into his later television work, most recently for the HBO comedies “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Entourage.”
It was probably a combination of these things that brought political comic Bill Maher to Charles’ doorstep when he decided to make a movie that tackles religion, faith and belief head on in an entertaining way for the comic doc Religulous (Watch exclusive TV spot), which was garnering some controversy long before anyone actually had a chance to see it.
Bill Maher and Larry Charles literally traveled around the globe talking to people from all faiths and religions, grilling them on their beliefs and trying to find the flaws in their logic. While the movie might fray the nerves of the deeply religious who have no sense of humor, it’s not exactly a probing documentary as much as an extension of some of the things that Maher and Charles have done in comedy, only taking on what’s normally a taboo subject of debate.
Charles was gracious enough to talk to ComingSoon.net, and we met him outside a screening in which the audienced seemed to be laughing heartily to Maher’s humorous take on faith. The most surprising thing though about Larry Charles’ appearance when he walked in to meet us, as even just a few weeks back at the Toronto International Film Festival, he still had his long scraggly hair and matching beard, both which had been cut short for the last round of press before the movie’s U.S. release on Friday. Regardless of his newfound clean-cut appearance, Charles proved to be a pleasant chap and really smart, especially when it comes to the science of comedy.
ComingSoon.net: The screening seems to be going well as everyone inside seems to be enjoying it.
Larry Charles: I was just in Zurich last night and we did really well at this film festival. So it’s getting pretty good responses.
CS: Did they run it there with subtitles?
Charles: They told me that it actually was the hardest movie they’ve ever had to subtitle because I have subtitles in the movie like I’m making editorial comments with the subtitles, so those have to be subtitled and the dialogue has to be subtitled all at the same time and it has to do it in two languages, in German and French. How do you translate even his jokes, like the colloquial kind of jokes into German and French? I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of jokes they became in the translation.
CS: Have you been sitting through some of these screenings to see how people react?
Charles: I do. The last couple days was the first time I haven’t. I’ve seen the movie probably about a thousand times, but I do like to sit through it if I can. I sat through it in Toronto, I sat through it in Traverse City. I’ve watched it quite a few times with an audience which is great.
CS: I’m assuming you’ve known Bill for a long time.
Charles: No actually, the interesting thing about me and Bill is that we’re about the same age, we’ve traveled in the same circles, we’ve had all the same friends and yet we had never met. Of course I knew of him, and I guess he knew of me and when we met it was like we were friends forever. It was as if we had been friends all that time we just connected, and were talking, and were just riffing with each other and just boom, we had an immediate rapport that carried over into the movie.
CS: How long before starting the movie did you met him?
Charles: This movie came together really, really quickly. They brought me in for a meeting with him and we hit it off. He had kind of a brief outline. I took the outline and I kind of elaborated on it. The producers decided to go ahead with it at that point and give us the money, hired the crew, and boom we went and it was so very fast. Very, very fast which was so unusual.
CS: I remember you had some footage shown at Toronto last year, so you’d already been shooting stuff for a while.
Charles: I had been shooting. I shot for quite a while and the biggest time consuming thing for something like this was 400 hours of archival material for the clips and stuff was the editing. I had three editors, but it took about a year to edit it. I wanted it to be ready for Easter, but it just simply wasn’t ready, and ironically Lionsgate in their wisdom, saw an opportunity in that, which is, “Let’s hold this till closer to election time and maybe somehow it will be relevant.” Who knew that Sarah Palin would come along and possibly make it very important.
CS: It’s sort of being released similar to how “Borat” was released two years ago, isn’t it?
Charles: “Borat” was released November 2nd. About a month later. “Borat” had the same situation. It was supposed to be released in May, and we took it to Cannes and all that kind of stuff, and then the decision was made to hold it and not put it up against all the big summer movies and wait until November, and that wound up being a good decision also ultimately.
CS: What were your initial conversations with Bill like? Did he say he wanted to make a documentary about religion or did he just want to go out and interview these people and see what came out of it?
Charles: He had certain concepts and themes that he wanted to explore regarding religion and a lot of those elements are in the movie. Then what I did was I sort of expanded on a lot of those things and kind of developed a vision of the movie essentially and how that could work. My thesis was very simply too: can I take such a volatile, controversial, taboo, dark subject, and make a Saturday night date movie out of it? Could the people that are looking for a fun movie to see on a Saturday night, who’ve seen “Tropic Thunder,” they’ve seen “Dark Knight,” this is a good choice. You go, you’ll be able to laugh, you’ll have a good time and yes, it has a very serious subject and hopefully it will provoke you in some way, and hopefully you’ll come out thinking about it and arguing about it and whatever. Ultimately, it’s an entertainment and I didn’t want to make a Christiane Amanpour documentary about religion. I wanted to make a rock and roll, rollicking, roller coaster ride, funny comedy about religion. Nonfiction comedy is sort of what I call it.
CS: Since Bill’s on camera all the time, he’s gonna get any flack or credit for those who like or hate it, but since this was very much a collaboration, how did you guys resolved when you had different ideas on what to or not to include?
Charles: We usually didn’t have too many problems about that really. We were pretty much in sync about things and we worked things out. When he really needed or wanted something–and he’s the star of the movie, and my job as director is to keep him happy so he can give the performance he has to give in front of the camera. So I would do everything I can to accommodate him and if we disagreed on things we’d have reasonable, intelligent, mature conversations about them. We never really had any arguments. He’s a bit of a cranky traveler. That was the only issue really. In front of the camera he was great.
CS: I would think after the “Borat” experience, you would have been able to deal with pretty much deal anything.
Charles: That’s correct. I can diffuse any situation. I’m not afraid of confrontation at this point. That’s for sure.
CS: One big difference is that Bill’s fairly well known since he’s been doing this for a long time…
Charles: If I may interrupt, he’s very well known in this country, but he’s not–and this is one of the things that I had to do–I had been traveling in Europe quite a bit, and he’s not well known in Europe. In fact in Zurich, they kept going (pronouncing the last name to rhyme with “car”) “Bill Maher, Bill Maher.” And it’s like they don’t know him in England, France, Italy or Switzerland, and the places that I’ve been recently. I’d wished and I’d hoped that they sent him over to at least London. Jon Stewart’s been there, Michael Moore has been there, a lot of comedians, Chris Rock, a lot of comedians have gone over there and have scored very big, and I think England and Europe in general would embrace him and his point of view and his humor. But as of right this second, they do not know who he is.
CS: I’m surprised by England.
Charles: “Real Time’s” not there, I guess “Politically Incorrect” didn’t play there, his HBO specials don’t play there, so they don’t know him. So there, “the director of ‘Borat’” is actually more of a selling point than Bill Maher but here of course, Bill Maher is a massive star.
CS: I’d think that with the success that HBO has had with British comedy and how big “The Sopranos” got over there eventually, that more of their shows would be making it over there, though I guess it did take a long time.
Charles: It took a long time. But there, “Curb” is gigantic. In England, “Curb” is like an institution really. That’s why I get a lot of good action in Europe because “Curb” is a big hit there, “Seinfeld” is a big hit there, “Borat” is a big hit there, so they know my work. They don’t know his work. I’d like to change that before the movie comes out, but I don’t know with his show whether we could work out the schedule.
CS: I was curious, why do you think it’s a good time for this movie to come out now? Obviously you’ve talked about Palin and the whole political environment in this country
Charles: It just seems like so many issues are connected to religion now, and our country in particular has gone in a backwards direction about this stuff. It’s almost like you feel like the only sane person is in a lunatic asylum sometimes. You go, “Why are people doing this? Why is all this going on? We have these crazy Bronze Age beliefs. Why are we clinging to them? What are we afraid of? There are so many important questions to ask that aren’t being asked.” Then you listen to McCain and you listen to Palin at the convention–I actually missed the debate because I was traveling–but it seemed like from the convention stuff that these people are dedicated and committed to a confrontation with Islam. And Islam is dedicated to a confrontation with us. So you have this clash of cultures, and this clash of civilizations that seems inevitable and it is also built into religions, you know, the apocalyptic scenario is a part of the religion. So what is the motivation to make things better or to make peace or to work things out when really God is telling you to blow the whole thing up if you want to get to paradise or Heaven or whatever your version of that is? So and again, another part of it is, I’ve been trying for years to get various projects off the ground about this and people just will not touch it. I had a sitcom about the twelve apostles that would be like “Hogan’s Heroes.” I thought it would be funny. So here we found a way. I found Bill, Bill found me. That was the first bit of great good fortune. We found producers, and I was also committed to making it as low budget as I possibly could. I thought that just ethically I didn’t want to make a hundred million dollar movie about this, you know what I mean? I wanted to make a small, little movie that could be totally independent, I didn’t have to answer to anybody and then we could make a pure version of this stuff, and between the producers and Lionsgate, we were able to do that actually.
CS: Now for some of the devil’s advocate questions, no pun intended of course. As far as finding the people to interview, one of the thing is that some of the people who are overly zealous in the film come off as being stupid and/or crazy. It’s kind of the theme of the movie in some ways, to show how dumb religion can be in some ways, but I was surprised you didn’t talk to more theologians or smarter people about religion. Were they just not as funny?
Charles: We talked to Father Foster in front of the Vatican; he’s a highly educated PhD. Father Coyne, the Vatican astronomer, PhD. We talked to Francis Collins who’s the head of the genome project. We talked to a lot of people in positions of authority, but the fact of the matter is, it’s not our fault that we couldn’t get higher up the ladder. You could not get higher up the ladder. We tried to get to talk to the Pope. Father Foster took up us into the Vatican to his apartment, and his apartment is this close to the Pope’s apartment. So we were close, but you can’t get to the head of the Mormon Church, you can’t get to the head of Scientology. They won’t talk on camera about their beliefs. So we just kept chipping away and got as high as we could, but I also had to cast a wide net and talked to all kinds of people. I would say there’s about fourteen and a half hours of just cut material. Just strong cut material that was in the movie at one time or another that ultimately we had to cut. There’s a lot of stuff that might fill in the blanks for some people, but this is the kind of movie that everyone’s got their own idea of what this movie should be like. I remember when “Bonfire of the Vanities” came out and they said the movie was going to be made, and everybody had their image of who this character should be and then it was like, “Tom Hanks. What the hell?” And it’s the same thing with this movie. It’s like you can’t possibly fulfill everyone’s expectations of what this movie should be. You have people saying, “Why don’t you deal with Buddhism, or why don’t you deal with this?”
CS: Personally, I was wondering why there was no mention of Satanism.
Charles: I had a tremendous interview with the head of the Satanist Church in New York. We met at Nathan’s in Coney Island. It’s really, really funny, but ultimately we tried to avoid including too many fringe people. We tried to keep it pretty mainstream, people who were Christians, people who were Catholics, people who were Jews, people who were Muslims, and then the other really rising religions that are on the rise at a kind of alarming rate like Scientology and Mormonism.
CS: It was also a matter of trying to keep it fun, I’d imagine, since you said you wanted to keep it an entertaining movie.
Charles: That’s right. Bill and I kind of went through stuff and that was obviously a really big criteria because there’s a lot of interesting interviews that we did with Richard Dawkins, with Daniel Dennett who is a philosopher up at Tufts.
CS: Dawkins is the one who’s trying to scientifically disprove God’s existence?
Charles: Yeah, he’s the one with “The God Delusion.” He’s probably one of the most well known Atheists in the world today. So we interviewed a lot of people. We interviewed Dean Hamer up in Boston who wrote “The God Gene.” We interviewed Andrew Newberg who’s a little bit in the movie. My goal if this is successful as a theatrical thing–this is what I said about “Borat” also–”Borat’s” 90 minutes too. There’s a four hour version of “Borat” that’s really cool and I’d like people to see that version. It’s different than the movie version. It tells a more sort of lyrical, picaresque sort of tale, and the same thing with this. So my feeling was, if it’s successful in this form, then I would go to Lionsgate and say, “Why don’t we cut the fourteen hours into half hours, sell it to HBO or something, and then you’d have a series that sort of deepens and expands upon a lot of the stuff in the original movie?”
CS: Did anything ever come out of that idea to use the extra “Borat” material for something else or did you end up using what you could on the DD?
Charles:There was all kinds of thoughts about what to do with it. But making a decision, a group decision has been very difficult. For instance, we have amazing behind-the-scenes movie that Fox wants to release, but there’s issues with financing and stuff like that. A really interesting documentary about making “Borat” that they want to release, but right now it’s kind of hung up with some kind of legal, financial situation.
CS: I want to go back to where we started, about playing the movie for different audiences. The people who go to see it in Toronto will probably be fans of yours and Bill’s, but have you deliberately tried to find audiences who might be adverse to the movie to get their reaction?
Charles: I had requested there be screenings for people just like that. Whether Lionsgate has done that or not, I don’t know. I mean, again, one of my theories about this movie is that–because people will ask, “What do you think the controversy will be? What kind of controversy are you anticipating?” For me, the best kind of controversy we can have–better than protests and all that lame kind of stuff–is for people who would normally be aghast and offended by the thought of this movie, to be looking for something to see on a Saturday night and go and see it, and even though they’re strong and zealous believers, they find themselves laughing and come out with maybe a slightly just a three degree shift in their thinking, but like with the chaos effect, it will eventually have maybe more sort of global implications. So I would love people who wouldn’t normally go see the movie to go see the movie. I don’t know how to do that exactly. Hopefully the ads will get people in, hopefully the publicity will get people in. Hopefully again, if you’re in Kentucky or Tennessee on a Saturday night, and it’s playing in a mall, you’ll go see it.
CS: There’s always the hope that the Christians will laugh at all the Muslim parts and the Jewish parts and vice versa.
Charles: Yes, well that’s the thing about being offended also. You can’t go into that movie and go, “Oh, it’s an anti-Jewish movie or it’s an anti-Christian movie, it’s an anti-Muslim movie.” Yes it’s all of those things. It’s not just ONE of those things.
CS: For somebody who’s been working in comedy for so long, as a director and a writer, is it as important to you to get a reaction as it is to get laughs? Which is more important for you at this point?
Charles: That’s an interesting question. I do want to provoke people very much. I’m not interested in titters, I’m not interested in amusement when it comes to movies. To me, the best movie experience is a packed house laughing really, really hard and to the point where they’re not even hearing the next three lines. That is a successful comedy to me. But I’m not interested in making broad meaningless fluff at this point in my life. I’m at a certain point in my life where I’ve kind of come to that place. There were times in my twenties when I would’ve done anything, but I’m at a point now where I have to feel it needs to be made and I have to make it. It’s like, “Does this really need to be made? Does this really need to be added to all the pile of bullsh*t that’s out there?” So I really judge thing based on that level. Am I just throwing another piece of sh*t on top of that pile, or am I trying to do something that I think can connect in some deep way with the audience?
CS: This is being released in a very busy weekend, but it’s definitely different than everything else that’s out there, like “Beverly Hills Chihuahua”
Charles: Right and that’s my goal. I’m hoping that the “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” crowd will come and see this.
CS: Are you pretty much done with episodic television and looking to do more feature films at this point?
Charles: You know I don’t even care so much about the medium if it’s the right thing. If certain things seem better to be TV shows, I’m cool doing it as a TV show. If certain things seem better doing movies, I’m cool doing movies. The issue becomes where can you do it in the most pure fashion? Once you get past HBO and Showtime, it’s very hard to make uninhibited TV shows. Everything is kind of really corporatized and ultimately suppressed and the edges are taken off. I tried to sit through an ABC thing, but at the meetings, they were all like, “Oh, we want you to do your thing.” And I said, “Okay, here’s my thing.” And they said, “What are you crazy? We’re not doing that.” And even HBO has…
CS: It’s surprising to me that ABC has become far more right-wing than Fox these days.
Charles: Right, I think they are. Well, you remember Fox made “Borat,” so Rupert Murdoch’s politics didn’t stand in the way of the movie. I’ve been working on something with Rick Rubin and Owen Wilson, the three of us have been working on something. Rick Rubin is a music producer, and Owen and I, we’ve been working on something for a couple years that I think is about ready, and that’s one of the decisions we’re making, “Is this a better TV show or a better movie?” We’re trying to think of what’s the most audacious presentation of this thing, so I will make that decision soon once I am done with this.
CS: Were you able to get a picture of you and Rick Rubin before you shaved off your beard?
Charles: Yes I did, I did. He’s going to be shocked. I told him I shaved it and he was actually very upset. I think he feels like we were beard brothers and he feels like I’ve betrayed him somehow. (laughs)
CS: One thing I realized when I looked over the shows you’ve written or directed–mind you, I’ve probably seen every episode of “Seinfeld” like twenty times and I know other people like that–but all of the shows you’ve worked on, whether it’s “Entourage” and “Curb,” they’re all shows you can watch and enjoy and laugh at the jokes repeatedly rather than just being funny the first time. Have you ever thought about why that is?
Charles: I think one of my theories again, I always have these theories, I look at comedy as kind of a laboratory that I get to experiment in and I like to test out these theories. One of my main theories about comedy is density. This movie is also sort of like that. I like to sort of layer as much stuff in as possible so that you can’t possibly absorb it all the first time. I think all those shows share that quality of like there’s always more if you watch it a second or third time, you’re going to see things you didn’t see the first time. You may have been laughing and missed a line, or you may have been focusing on this and not gotten to that. I often say I want to make it seem like a great record that you can listen to over and over and over again. I try to make my stuff like that so that it’s valuable still over and over and over again. And as you change, your reactions can change also so that it remains a living thing hopefully in some way.
CS: I’ve talked with a number of comedy directors and TV writers, and I’m always curious about getting more insight into that stuff, because comedy is so subjective.
Charles: Yeah, that’s the great thing about working with Sacha and Larry and all those people; we have very Talmudic discussions about this sort of thing because nobody really knows the answer. So it’s a lot of guess work and you just hope your instincts are on the mark sometimes.
Religulous opens in New York on Wednesday, October 1, but then expands to other cities on Friday, October 3. (Also read Larry Charles’ update on the Motley Crue movie and Kanye West TV show he was involved with here.