For the titular character’s return to America in Amazon’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, 14 years after the smash success of 2006’s Borat, satirist Sacha Baron Cohen recruited eight writers to craft the film’s screenplay. Some of those writers — including Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer — received an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay alongside Baron Cohen for the 2006 film; joining the writing team for the Oscar-nominated sequel are Dan Swimer and Lee Kern (who worked on Baron Cohen’s Showtime series Who Is America?), as well as Erica Rivinoja, Jena Friedman and Nina Pedrad.
But what does a screenplay look like for a largely improvised film in which its lead actors interact with unwitting scene partners who believe they are participating in a documentary? According to head writer Hines, the unconventional script had relatively conventional origins. “We get together in a writers room, we throw some ideas around, and we start to draw out an outline,” Hines says. “A beat sheet becomes an outline becomes a treatment. … Eventually, we get a conventional final draft script in which everybody in it, apart from Sacha and Maria Bakalova, will be a real person. You write the script and sort of predict what you would like them to say in scenes — a sort of dream scenario for how you want the scenes to play out.”
The central narrative arc follows Borat and his daughter, Tutar (played by Oscar nominee Bakalova), with the inept father bringing the teenager to the U.S. as a gift for then-Vice President Mike Pence before having a third-act change of heart. The competing narratives of the film — the satirical look at Trumpism in America and the father-daughter road trip — took concrete shape after the casting of Bakalova. “When we initially wrote this movie, we didn’t really know how much emphasis would be put on the political satire or the father-daughter relationship,” Hines says. “That relationship became more integral when we discovered how compelling Maria was and realized that was the emotional engine of the movie. We rewrote and recalibrated to explore further that relationship and make it more central.”
Making a Borat film means every crewmember must prepare for unexpected chaos. Realizing that your breakout actress is a phenomenal screen presence is one thing; a global health crisis is quite another. When production was shut down last spring, Baron Cohen and his writing team realized that COVID-19 could fit into the film’s narrative without derailing the Tutar-driven plot. Working alongside health experts to safely resume production, the film turned the pandemic into a plot twist — which reiterates the amount of writing and rewriting that went into the screenplay.
Writing lines for Borat and Tutar while also anticipating (and hoping for) how their scene partners would react required pages and pages of material that Hines describes as a flow chart of dialogue. To help prepare Baron Cohen and Bakalova for their scenes, Hines created discreet cheat sheets for the two actors in the form of used Armenian-English dictionaries purchased from eBay. Hidden within the dictionaries were pages of the writing team’s many Word documents that the actors could refer to for help. “I even bought the paper stock to match the exact faded color of the dictionary,” Hines says of his DIY props — which on a traditional production would simply be an actor’s script. “They might be shooting for hours and can’t possibly memorize everything we potentially wanted to happen in that scene.”
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm may have evolved over time, but the final product isn’t a total deviation from its origins. “What ended up on the screen is at times verbatim from the writers room,” Hines says. “But 30 seconds of screentime could be 10 pages of a Word doc. There’s so much writing that goes into what ends up on the screen.”
This story first appeared in the April 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.