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Back in 2007 or 2008, Sacha Baron Cohen met with Steven Spielberg at Spielberg’s mother’s kosher restaurant, The Milky Way, on Pico Boulevard, about playing the role of social activist Abbie Hoffman. Cohen, who had studied Hoffman in college, was lobbying to play colorful radical in the film Spielberg was then planning to direct, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and the English actor and comic best known at that time for his Borat character had worked with a dialect coach for two weeks and recorded a CD of himself delivering 30 takes of a two-minute scene in Hoffman’s Boston accent for Spielberg. “Steven says, ‘Thank you. I got the CD,’” Cohen said. “He goes, ‘I got to be honest, the first 10 takes were not very good. But by take 26, you are almost perfect. And take 28 was absolutely spot on.’ And he gave me the role.”
It would be more than a decade before Cohen actually shot the part, this time for the film’s screenwriter, who had become its director in the intervening years, Aaron Sorkin. The transformation Cohen underwent for the role — and his sense of kinship with the Yippie leader who relied on his wit to make a deadly serious point — helped earn him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor. That connection was driven home for Cohen in a key scene where Hoffman is testifying on the stand. “I was very, very aware of that burden of turning from the clown into the straight man and the serious guy,” Cohen told The Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Keegan during a THR Presents Q&A Powered by Vision Media.
“I went a couple of days later after shooting that and I delivered my first-ever speech as myself at the Anti-Defamation League about the dangers of social media,” added Cohen. “So I felt I was in the same dilemma as Abbie there of having to stop being the fool and try and say something that will make an impact.”
Cohen was joined in the Q&A by Sorkin, Trial of the Chicago 7 cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and editor Alan Baumgarten — all Oscar-nominated for their work — who described the collaborative process of making the Netflix historical drama about the riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and subsequent trial of protestors.
“The film kind of organized itself into three stories that I was going to tell at once,” said Sorkin, who is nominated for an Oscar for original screenplay. “One was the courtroom drama. The second was the evolution of the riot. How did what was supposed to be a peaceful protest devolve into such a violent clash with police and law enforcement? The third was the personal friction between Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Abbie Hoffman. Two guys on the same side, plainly they can’t stand each other and each thought that the other was doing damage to the cause. Once I had that, all I had to do was write another 31 drafts.”
While shooting the riot scenes, Sorkin and his department heads relied on footage of the real events for inspiration. “The police and all their period riot gear and the tear gas, we re-created all of that,” said Papamichael. “And then it was easy for me to say to my camera operators, ‘OK, this is what’s in front of you, go make a documentary about that.’”
Reality was also a source of inspiration in the editing room, where Baumgarten intercut black-and-white news footage of the events, as well as footage from the 1968 Haskell Wexler film Medium Cool, with Papamichael’s color cinematography. “It was a matter of just finding areas where we could either very closely match or for contrast, just go to something else quite quickly to give it a heightened energy and authenticity,” said Baumgarten. “We turned it into black and white because we made a very conscious decision not to try to blend it perfectly and make it feel like it was our footage, but to give it a bit of a texture and an added layer. We worked through to what we felt was the best way to represent the chaos and the overall impact of the riots. The stock footage in its proper use gave it an extra special jolt and energy, which felt right.”
Ultimately the film about civil unrest arrived in a year when the world was in the grip of protests, from the Black Lives Matter marches to movements in Belarus and Myanmar. “The reason to make this movie was to encourage young people to watch it and want to protest,” Cohen said. “We had to make a movie where the Chicago Seven or Chicago Eight were heroes. Protesters, to fight against injustice, have to perform a heroic act. … It’s a tribute. I’ve felt that very much, that I had to give tribute to these brave people who’d gone out and risked their lives, time and time again, to fight systemic racism and injustice.”
This THR Presents is brought to you by Netflix; additional material and other supplementary content can be viewed at THRPresents.HollywoodReporter.com.
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