A script cloaked in secrecy by an "unbreakable code" (i.e., many typos) led to a Golden Globes-winning political message film wrapped in an ambush comedy movie that led to Rudy Giuliani’s public humiliation.
When Jason Woliner was first approached with the idea of helming the latest film from Sacha Baron Cohen, he had no idea that the top-secret script — delivered via an encrypted link that would expire in a matter of hours — would be an early draft of Amazon's Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
But once Woliner began reading, it quickly became clear what the project was. "I figured he wasn't making a movie about a journalist from Guatemala named Sergio," Woliner recalls of the script's attempt to conceal the true identity of the film's protagonist: Borat Sagdiyev, the bumbling, mustachioed Kazakhstani journalist who first appeared on Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show before "starring" in his own film in 2006.
According to Anthony Hines, Baron Cohen's longtime collaborator who served as producer and head writer for the film, the early drafts of the script were constantly changing in an effort to maintain the secrecy around the project. "Sacha was becoming increasingly neurotic and crazy," Hines says with a laugh. "Borat's nationality changed about five times. He went from being Guatemalan to Bulgarian to Moldovan to Azerbaijani."
Because drafts were sometimes full of typos, the find-and-replace feature was nearly unusable — resulting in scripts in which the name of Baron Cohen's character changed multiple times. "Sacha would think this would be an unbreakable code, but it was really an exercise in futility," Hines says. "Anyone within three minutes would figure it out."
It's understandable why Baron Cohen would cloud the project with the kind of secrecy of a Star Wars release. Borat himself had become incredibly famous and recognizable after the smash success of the first film. There was also incredible pressure; not only was the first Borat a box office hit, it was also a critical success that earned an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. Not to mention that Baron Cohen wanted — needed, even — the film to open just ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
"Donald Trump meant that the racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny I touched upon in the first movie, back then a dark underbelly of society, had burst into the open," Baron Cohen says of the one-term president. "I felt that American democracy was in peril, and I couldn't be a bystander. As a comedian and an actor, there's not much you can do other than doing your work. I felt I had no other option than to bring Borat back, because he was this perfect tool to get those who follow Trump to reveal what they were ready to tolerate."
So the political became personal, and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan became Baron Cohen's mission. "The first movie was a satirical comment that exposed the realities of American society, but [our job] was to make the funniest movie possible," he says. "This movie, primarily, was a form of peaceful protest."
Baron Cohen admits he was terrified by the prospect of bringing Borat — the centerpiece of a hit that generated more than $262 million at the global box office on an $18 million budget — back to the screen 14 years after his first cinematic outing. Woliner describes that film almost as the first and last of its kind. "I was such a huge fan of the first movie," he says. "Like millions of other people, I remember the experience of seeing it in a theater for the first time and how revolutionary it was."
When Woliner met with Baron Cohen after reading the draft of the script, he expressed how excited he was to assist in Borat's return — but also how intimidating the idea was. "It's very hard to do a comedy sequel, and it's even harder to do a delayed comedy sequel," Woliner says. "I basically said to Sacha, 'Everything is against this movie working.' But the second part of that sentence was, 'If we were able to pull it off, it could be pretty incredible.' "
In the 2006 film, Borat was accompanied on his journey by his producer, Azamat Bagatov (played by Ken Davitian), bringing a buddy-comedy narrative to balance the political satire. Borat's return would require a similar sidekick, and Baron Cohen and Hines found potential in the character of Tutar, Borat's 15-year-old daughter. Tutar would drive the plot (Borat brings her to America as a gift to Vice President Mike Pence), but she could also interact with the film's interview subjects without being recognized. And she would serve as the heart of the film's emotional journey — which sees Borat becoming an unlikely father figure.
Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova was one of thousands of women across the world who submitted audition tapes for the role of Tutar without knowing what the project was. Reading from a brief script provided by the writers, Bakalova began improvising in her self-tape. "We sent a monologue [in which Tutar brags] about how her father is the best father in the village, bragging that her cage is nicer than the other girls' cages — very cartoony stuff," Woliner recalls. "And then Maria started bragging about how good she was at smoking cigarettes, and how she would rub it in her dog's face, like, 'You stupid dog, you don't know how to smoke as well as I do!' "
The producers flew Bakalova, fresh out of acting school, to England for a chemistry test with Baron Cohen. Posing as a documentary crew filming a piece about a father and daughter, Baron Cohen (in disguise) and Bakalova filmed a scene with an English couple — and Bakalova sprang into action. "She was trying to climb up a staircase, acting like she had never seen stairs before and didn't know how to operate them," Woliner says. A second chemistry test, this time with just Baron Cohen and Bakalova, sealed the deal for the director. "We did a kind of breakup scene, and she rejects him. Sacha and I were nearly moved to tears. We knew we had found a one-of-a-kind person. She could really do it all."
Hines describes Bakalova's performance as shaping the film's narrative: "The father-daughter relationship became more integral to the film when we discovered how brilliant and compelling she was." Woliner, too, praises Bakalova for her fearlessness, especially when it came to being in tense and confusing interactions with the nonactors. "There was the occasional threat of physical danger," he says. "The whole crew had to run from the police constantly, because people will just call the cops when they're confused."
Bakalova admits she wasn't as fearless as Woliner thought. In a scene shot early in production, Tutar addresses a conservative women's group, excitedly describing for them the experience of having just examined her vagina for the first time. Baron Cohen was to appear, too, until a producer recognized one of the women as having appeared in the first Borat. Bakalova recalls crying when she learned she would have to go on her own, terrified of being found out and ruining the film. "I called Sacha, and that was the first time he told me, 'Use that fear,' " she says. "And I listened to him, because he is a genius."
A Borat production is usually in chaos, which producer Monica Levinson, who worked with Baron Cohen on the original Borat and Brüno in 2009, is used to managing. But that was before a pandemic brought the world — and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm — to a halt in March 2020.
About half of the film had been shot by then; in the months before production resumed in July, the writing team figured out how to incorporate the COVID-19 crisis into the plot while Levinson scrambled to find ways to resume filming and maintain the cast and crew's safety.
That required talking to epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins and ER doctors and nurses across the country. "They were dealing with death and dying, horrendous things on a daily basis and people ignoring their advice," Levinson says. "I think they enjoyed having a distraction, and I was thrilled that they gave us the time of day."
The crew raced to complete the film in time for its late October release, which would see a streaming premiere on Amazon Prime Video in lieu of a theatrical opening. While Baron Cohen saw the movie as an effort to show how Trump had poisoned and divided America, Woliner can't say if it had any impact on the 2020 election and Joe Biden's eventual victory. He does, however, point to the lucky break of getting Rudy Giuliani to agree to an on-camera interview with Tutar that catches the Trump attorney and former New York mayor in a compromising position in a Manhattan hotel room before Borat ambushes the interview in order to save Tutar.
"[Giuliani] was trying to push the Hunter Biden laptop scandal, hoping for an October surprise," Woliner recalls. "And the day after that, the review embargo lifted on the movie. I think it helped discredit him." In the election aftermath, with Giuliani's efforts to overturn the results becoming more unhinged, Woliner now sees the former mayor's appearance in the film a little differently: "In hindsight, the scene in our movie is probably the most dignified Rudy looked."
This story first appeared in the March 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.