Director Larry Charles on the set of “The Dictator.”
Melinda Sue Gordon, Paramount Pictures
The director and 'The Dictator'
- Article by: COLIN COVERT
- Star Tribune
- May 19, 2012 - 5:02 PM
Larry Charles is not afraid of the dark. The prolific writer-director-producer has spread his special brand of maverick comedy far and wide.
On network TV he was responsible for many of "Seinfeld's" darkest, most impertinent story lines -- the one with the neo-Nazis, the one with the mad, opera-loving stalker. He's the longtime creative partner of Larry David on HBO's acerbic "Curb Your Enthusiasm." He directed Sacha Baron Cohen's confrontational "Borat" and "Bruno" and Bill Maher's docu-comedy about the evils of religion, "Religulous." Now he's re-teamed with Baron Cohen in "The Dictator," a gleefully offensive scripted comedy about terrorism, torture and nuclear missiles designed on the basis of Warner Bros. cartoons.
Like a lot of funny people, Charles' first performances were at the family dinner table. "My dad was constantly on when I was a kid," he said in a phone interview this week. "There was some sort of chemical connection in my brain that gave me pleasure getting laughter. Also, I grew up in Brooklyn, a very tough neighborhood. I knew I wasn't going to survive by fighting. Humor wound up being a good survival tool as well."
And how. Charles drove to L.A. in his late teens and rose from selling jokes to stand-ups at comedy clubs to running a multimedia empire. In an era when studios favor PG-13 pabulum he cuts against the grain with a sensibility that's equal parts Lenny Bruce, Silly Putty and strychnine. And with his track record, he's choosy in deciding which project is worth two years of his 56-year-old life.
Material "to die for"
"Is it something that needs to be said? I don't just want to add to the endless pile of innocuous material that is created by the media. I want something that talks to people, that communicates on a deeper level, that illuminates something that has been hidden in the darkness. Something that has to get out there and that I can help shepherd through that process. I'm willing to die for the material."
And sometimes innovating means courting backlash. "The Dictator" holds a warped mirror up to America's post- 9/11 skittishness and dares us to laugh at our own anxiety. As Adm. Gen. Aladeen, Baron Cohen is equal parts Moammar Gadhafi and Lenny Bruce.
"A movie like this is not going to be loved by everybody, but if you're Republican or Democrat, whatever your religion or beliefs are, you look at the world the same way. The world's crazy. It's ridiculous. It's scary. Whatever your belief system, you'll be able to look at this movie and laugh. We can all laugh at it together and that will hopefully be a cathartic experience for the audience.
"We are dealing in themes that are very hard to find outlets for, especially in a mainstream summer movie. The idea that we can talk about issues that are considered grim and find humor and satire in them is incredibly exciting for me." It's exhilarating to turn a camera on a nutty world "except when the person on the other side is pointing a gun at you," he said. On "Borat" and "Bruno," the process was to place offensive fictional characters into real-life environments and record the resulting spontaneous explosions. Often, the crew literally had to plan escape routes.
"I think about 'Bruno,' where we had gay men kissing in a cage fight match in front of a real audience of very, very hostile people. Or Sacha walking through the streets of Jerusalem in Hasidic hot pants. We got stoned. The Orthodox Jews came running out of their stores and picked up rocks and started hurling them at us. Or Bruno going boar hunting overnight with a bunch of redneck hunters in the dark with big shotguns. We've been chased by police," he said. "Like war journalists, there's a certain addiction to that kind of adrenaline and action, and at the same time it's incredibly risky situations."
Turning an unsavory despot into a palatable comedic character depended on Baron Cohen's ability to humanize him. "Sacha brings a sort of poignancy to it in the way the great comedians do. Like Chaplin, Tati or Peter Sellers, he draws on his natural tenderness and emotion, and that's what allows us to go so far and be so outrageous."
"The Dictator" is by far Charles' most logistically ambitious and expensive movie to date. Moving from the small crew and guerrilla filmmaking approach of earlier films to the world of big sets, New York City locations and name co-stars (including Ben Kingsley and John C. Reilly) was a stretch into unfamiliar territory. It meant Charles had to be "hypervigilant to maintain the edge and urgency and intimacy and spontaneity of the other process. On the other hand, we could do a second take, or a visual effect, or experiment. We were even able to improvise more freely. In the other movies you had one take and that's it."
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