FACETIME - LARRY CHARLES
Anyone familiar with the generous bounty of behind-the-scenes extras on the Seinfeld DVD sets will recognise Larry Charles in an instant. Whereas everyone else looks relatively conservative, Charles, with his warlock mane and biker beard, appears to have gatecrashed proceedings en route to a Jerry Garcia memorial concert.
His distinctive appearance is matched by his idiosyncratic output, most notably on Seinfeld, where during its first five seasons he penned some of the most ambitious and offbeat episodes, and as director of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat and Bruno films.
Having exposed the casual bigotry endemic within certain portions of the American psyche with those wild guerilla mock-doc's, the pair explore similarly explosive territory with their latest film, The Dictator, in which Baron Cohen plays a hubristic Middle-Eastern despot transplanted to the streets of New York.
But if Charles, with his penchant for risky provocation, has found the ideal partner in Baron Cohen, his key collaborator is still Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld and writer/star of peerless HBO farce Curb Your Enthusiasm. They first met as writers on '80s sketch show Fridays – prior to which Charles hung around comedy clubs literally selling jokes to the likes of Jerry Seinfeld – and have worked together ever since (Charles has directed numerous episodes of Curb).
Despite being “in the throes of waking up” during our conversation, he's every inch the energised comedy philosopher, betraying an uncurbed enthusiasm for the endlessly fascinating possibilities of his craft, not only as mere entertainment but also as a probing psychosociological scalpel (believe me, ten minutes in his company and you'd be using such terms too).
Speaking in a garrulous drawl with a hint of Brooklynese, Charles coincidentally grew up in the same Jewish neighbourhood as Woody Allen and Larry David. Whatever they put in the water there, it clearly fostered several shared sensibilities between them.
“If you think about that scene in Annie Hall ,” says Charles, “when Woody's a kid and he realises that the world's going to come to an end in billions of years - that's a bleak thought and I was always really able to relate to that. I've always had a morbid curiosity for everything, and the truth that underlines the reality beyond the reality that we live in. Growing up at a time in the '60s and '70s when there was a lot of experimentation with drugs and art, society and politics, I think I was very, very influenced by all of that.”
Both Borat and Bruno were largely unscripted, whereas The Dictator is, relatively speaking, a more conventional comedy. But does it bear any similarities to those films?
It's along the same lines, actually. The themes of Borat and Bruno have a lot do with the world's perception of America. Borat came out during the Bush administration, and it really gave an interesting outside illumination of the American mindset and how they approach people from other countries with such ignorance and naiveté. Bruno, obviously, was about this rampant homophobia that lies under the surface of American and global society. And The Dictator arrives in a political climate where there's the Arab Spring, where the concept of democracy and governmental systems are being questioned. And we see very clearly during the Wall Street meltdown and all these things, how we talk about dictatorships - we point our fingers at other countries and tell them they're not running their countries properly, but here we've discovered that corporations have undue influence over what we call democracy; freedom is suppressed in much more subtle ways. So the movie is extremely relevant and topical in respect of that.
You essentially used real people – who thought they were taking part in a straight documentary – as stooges in Borat and Bruno. What do you think that approach revealed about their attitudes?
The human insight that those movies provide, they tap into people's vanity, people's ego and hubris. What people should do in those situations when they're being asked to appear in something they don't really understand, they should be saying no. But many people feel they have something very important to say, they're flattered by the attention and being on camera, and they wind up eventually revealing their true self. It becomes almost like a therapy session in a way, where it's not just what you're saying, there's also a subtext and eventually that rises to the surface. I mean, Sacha is extremely sophisticated about psychological experiments like the Milgram experiment, we discuss these things quite often in terms of how people let their guard down, how people hear what you're saying and respond to what you're saying; just that very process of communication is fascinating.
An unusual aspect for you when making those films was that – after shearing off your hair and beard – you had to play the offscreen part of a serious documentary filmmaker in order to convince the participants of your supposedly innocent intentions. Was that strange for you?
Yes, there was a whole parallel reality going on. People would stop the filming sometimes in the middle of a scene, they'd go, “Wait a minute, is this real?” And I would go, “Yes, it's real.” But in my mind I was like, “It's not exactly the reality you think it is, but it is very real.” But no arms were twisted, no manipulation takes place at that point. They have the right to say whatever they want, they're not being told what to say – they're being moved in a certain direction in the conversation, but their choices are their choices. So there is an element of volition to it.
Is the adrenaline pumping when you're, for all intents and purposes, pulling off an elaborate prank?
No question about it, that's one of the greatest gifts about this style of filmmaking. You're essentially like a bank robber! We don't scout locations, we case the joint. I'm looking for exits, how we're going to get out and run away. And then when we go in and accomplish the scene, we come running out giggling and giddy because it's so exhilarating - we got away with it!
Your work with Sacha seems to be informed by an almost countercultural or situationist desire to subvert reality.
It's snapping people out of a certain mindset, and I think Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters did that. Andy Kaufman is another great example, and he was someone I knew peripherally and watched admiringly for many years. They were testing the boundaries of what is art, what is entertainment, what is the relationship between the audience and performer? All those questions are very fascinating to me as part of the process, and with Sacha we're able to put some of those things into practice in a rather commercial filmmaking format. It's really surprising to bring those two forces together and have them synthesise and create a dialectic that becomes its own form in a way. There's been many great comedy characters, but applying some of these verite techniques, these Dogma techniques, to a mainstream comedy, that wound up being an almost accidentally revolutionary idea.
You directed Bob Dylan in the film Masked And Anonymous, which you also co-wrote together. What was that experience like?
I recall it as nothing short of life-changing. The first time I met him he had a shoe box, and he was like, “I don't know what to do with all of this.” And he opened the box and dumped out a pile of scrap paper. I picked up some of the scraps and they'd have a single line on it, like a line that could be in a song or the name of a character. So I said you could take this line, that could be said by this character and so on. I started to show him how to put that puzzle together, and he realised it's very similar to the way he writes music. So we wrote the screenplay in a kind of almost automatic writing or cut-up technique. He's someone with complete integrity, somebody who totally trusts his instincts.
Did he confound you in any way?
One day he had a line for the movie that acually wound up being a lyric for one of his songs - “I ain't no pig without a wig” - and I'd been working with him long enough to be able to talk to him this way, even though I admired him and worshiped him, I said, “Bob, you know, even in this movie people aren't going to understand that line.” And he just turned to me and said, “What's so bad about misunderstanding?” And he was right: what is so bad about misunderstanding? In your artisitic and personal process he is challenging you all the time. People will say to him, “What were you thinking when you went electric at Newport?” And he'll say, “What were you thinking?” He's really not accepting anything at face value, which is very similar to a comic's sensibility. It's the way Sacha and Larry David approach life, and me as well, we always ask why. And that's a dangerous question in this society quite often.
As you say, Larry David is a man of integrity - it seems that if he ran out of good ideas for Curb tomorrow, he simply wouldn't make another series...
That's such a non-corporate, non-commercial approach, and that's why he's an artist. Even when he wasn't successful he never did anything he thought wasn't right. He always did what he thought was right regardless of the consequences. He has that kind of unwavering integrity, he will not compromise. He's unable to compromise. And the result was that he was able to keep that vision intact as it went through that very corporate system.
And it's that commitment to making something of lasting quality, isn't it?
Myself, Sacha, Larry, we're all very competitive guys on a base level. We want to make the best show, we want each episode to be the best episode, we want each movie to be the best movie. We want to top the thing we did last time; we have very ambitious aspirations. We don't want to make Borat II, we don't want to do Seinfeld spin-offs. I want to provide the audience with something fresh and unpredictable. Our conclusion is that the audience craves that experience, they want to be taken out of the normal machine entertainment that they're fed. What I've always been committed to, like Larry and Sacha, is a certain level of instinct to the material. You can have political satire, subtle character humour, deft verbal humour, very silly, graphic and course humour, all within the same framework. So it's an incredible epic canvas to choose from, like you're looking at a Bruegel painting or something. A great painting you can stand in front of all your life, and we're trying to make something in our world that has that kind of resonance.