Long before he helped Sacha Baron Cohen create Kazakh TV's empty talking head Borat or Admiral General Aladeen of "The Dictator," Larry Charles was a prolific TV writer with no plans to tackle movies.
Then in 2001 he got a call to meet with Bob Dylan. Much to Charles' surprise, the encounter put him at the helm of Dylan's film comeback, "Masked and Anonymous," co-starring Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, Mickey Rourke, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Christian Slater and Val Kilmer. In a phone interview this week Charles shared the story.
"If you can believe it he was actually interested initially in doing a TV series, like an HBO series. He wanted it to be a comedy, so I went to a meeting with him. I thought, I'll have one meeting with him and I can tell all my friends I had a meeting with Bob Dylan, how cool would that be? I thought that would be the end of it but instead we totally hit it off right off the bat.
"The first thing he did, and this gives an illustration of how his mind works, he had this box on the table. He opened it and dumped out the box. It was all these little scraps of paper, stationery from all around the world. And on each scrap of paper was an aphorism or a line or a name of somebody. He dumped it out and said, 'I don't know what to do with all this.'
"I started looking and I said, 'This can be a line of dialog. And this could be the person's name who says the dialog.' He was like, 'You can do that?' I said, 'Yeah.' And I realized that's how he writes songs. He has all these fragments and he weaves the fragments until they become poetry. It's kind of automatic writing or the cut-up technique William Burroughs used. That's how we started to write that script actually. It was a very organic, very stream of consciousness process.
"At the same time he was very naive about the filmmaking process. the first day of shooting we had this big crane shot that had to come down in this large crowd in an abandoned bus station and find him at a counter, waiting. It was a big shot and this was my first day of shooting a movie. So I was all uptight as well.
"As we started to rehearse the shot I was hearing music over the headphones that I was wearing. And I was like, 'Where's that music coming from, we can't have music here.' The crew was scrambling around, looking for the music outside. We couldn't find the music.
"I looked in the monitor and saw Bob waiting. I thought, 'Oh God, this is my first day, he's going to get fidgety, he's going to get irritable. So I decided I wouldOf mood music and mixed signals tell him we're having a little technical difficulty, there's some music playing and we've got to find the music and turn it off.
"As I walked towards him the music got louder and louder and louder. And as I walked up to him I realized the music was emanating from him. And I thought, 'God, he really is a genius, the music just comes out of his pores.'
"Then I saw he had a little earphone in his ear and I said, 'Bob, what is that?'
"He's like, 'Johnny Depp told me to do it. he told me to listen to music while I was shooting.'
"I said, 'I don't think he meant to listen to music while we are shooting. I think he meant in between takes.' Turned out he had Johnny Depp's DJ out in the parking lot in a tent pumping music to him to get him in the mood to shoot. But he was pumping the music while we were shooting. There were certain lessons that needed to be learned like that."