Jason Woliner is responsible for helming some of the best, wildest, and most influential comedy made today, from What We Do in the Shadows to Nathan for You and everything in between. He was, thus, an excellent choice to direct Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, aka Borat 2, the surprise, stealthily-made sequel that brought back Sacha Baron Cohen‘s infamous Kazakhstan character right before the 2020 election. Woliner’s work on this film gives us the cringe-inducing, problematic-attitude-revealing hidden camera comedy we so crave, but also features a newfound emphasis on emotional growth, and even sneaks in a thriller plot, too — hallmarks of Woliner’s previous work.
I was lucky enough to speak to Woliner on a one-on-one phone call, and the director took us through a thorough, deep dive on key facets of Borat 2’s production. We talked about how they found Borat’s daughter played by Maria Bakalova, how involved the test shoots were, how they shot tons of footage that will hopefully see the light of day in an extended version, how surreal it is to watch a random person not realize they’re becoming a movie star, how on earth they pulled off that Tom Hanks cameo, what all the famous names in the special thanks section contributed, and much, much more.
Image via Constantin Aelenei
COLLIDER: How did you initially get involved directing Borat 2?
JASON WOLINER: I had met with Sacha a few years earlier. He was interested in me directing on his show Who Is America, and I had hung out with him for a few hours and we had a great time. We really got along. Obviously I was a huge fan. The show was very exciting; I was in the middle of some other projects and the timing didn’t work out. So he approached me again. I got an email asking if I’d be interested in talking to him about his new movie. Didn’t say what it was, and sent me an outline. basically, that is somewhere in the realm of a script, but a movie like this doesn’t have a traditional script. So it was kind of this evolving outline, and some of it’s just ideas and some of it’s more in scripted form, the scenes between Borat and Tutar.
Anyway, I read it. It was all super encrypted, everything’s a code word, the word Borat is nowhere in it, the word Kazakhstan is nowhere in it. And yet within the first page I put together what it was, and I was like, “Oh my God, he’s actually doing this.” [laughter] So I met with him the next day. I came on very strong, I think. I was just like, “Look, Borat is, I think, the funniest movie ever made. It’s gonna be nearly impossible to do a sequel that isn’t a huge disappointment.” [laughter] Beyond it being difficult to do any comedy sequel or long-delayed comedy sequel, you’re also talking about this specific movie [where] you have to do it in the real world, in secret, with one of the most famous characters in all of entertainment, and not get caught, because if people know you’re doing it, you won’t be able to do the rest of it. On top of this, he and the writers had beat out this storyline of the daughter, [and] if we don’t find the right person to be the daughter, it’s gonna be a disaster. I was like, “Everything about this movie could go horribly wrong, which makes it so exciting to me. Because if we do it right, it’ll be incredible.” So I think that Sacha and I both share that instinct just to go towards the most difficult-seeming thing possible and try to pull it off. I kind of didn’t really mince words when I met with him, and I think we connected over that level of ambition and the impossibility of the task. And within a few days, they asked me if I wanted to do it, and that was the last almost two years of my life.
You brought her up; I did want to ask how you were able to find such a breakout star in Maria Bakalova. What was the process in auditioning for that role? How did you know she was right for it? Did she have any worries about some of the “dangers” of the role?
WOLINER: Well, I’ll start at the beginning. So we knew we needed to find this actor to play his daughter, and that she needed to be incredible. There were so much criteria for that character where she needed to be an actress that could pass as a teenager, that could be in scenes with real people in the real world who don’t know they’re in a movie, who don’t know that they’re in a comedy project, [to] be able to do this really funny stuff that’s going to be really hilarious on screen, but not break the reality within the actual shooting environment, which is something that really only Sacha does. [laughter] There are a few people out there who do similar things, but this exact thing, Sacha invented it, and there’s a reason no one else does it. It’s extremely hard to be a comedy character in the real world and be able to perform in a way that’s hilarious on screen but seems like you’re a real person.
So we did a global search. We had a bunch of casting directors around the world. We had an amazing one here [in Los Angeles], and we saw amazing actors here, but part of the process was [that] we did a lot of test shooting on the movie. We did so much shooting that will never see the light of day where we’re just trying things out. And a lot of that was a few different actresses for this role, and all of them incredible, all talented, but some were so funny that then we would be with a real person for five minutes and they’d say, “You’re an actor. This can’t be real. This is a joke.” And all it is is saying one wrong thing that feels like a pre-written joke. People are not stupid. People are like, “Okay, what is this?” It became so clear that we needed someone who was not only funny, who could pull off the emotional scenes with Sacha, and fearless, who can sit in a room with someone like Rudy Giuliani and get through that, but also someone who is never going to be, as we would call it, busted.
So we just watched hundreds and hundreds of audition tapes, and I would just get these files emailed in from all over the world and just spent so much time watching them and had to really watch each one. We’re looking to find someone who is undiscovered to at least Western audiences; we wanted someone who was really from Eastern Europe. I found Maria’s audition and just watched it; it’s incredible that Maria existed. Turned out she had just had her graduation from an acting academy she was going to, and it was the middle of the night after the graduation, and she’s in this attic, and she was just hilarious and real and doing some material that we’d sent her. It was a speech about how her daddy’s the best daddy in the village and her cage is nicer than the other girls’. She just had so much cockiness and bravado about how nice her cage was that it was really hilarious. And she also felt so real. From that, because she’s Bulgarian, we couldn’t just fly her to America because it’s not a normal visa situation. So we flew her and Sacha to England, and we tested with some people in England. The testing process was with real people. So we just shoot it like a scene. I was seeing that stuff remotely. And then I went to England, and we tested her with Sacha as sort of a chemistry test, and we did the breakup scene where she rejects him. It made Sacha and I both well up and almost cry. So he said, “Wow, she can do this crazy stuff with real people and do this incredible emotional stuff.” Then we just went for it. Because there was so much involved in getting her to America and making sure the visa stuff was all worked out, I think she got here maybe two days before we were actually just into it and shooting. I think within the week that she got here, we were already shooting with Jeanise the babysitter. That was right in the beginning. So she dove right into the fire and she was incredible.
Image via Amazon
What were some of the stunts that she did as part of this test process?
WOLINER: They had gotten an older English couple and Sacha was in a disguise. We certainly didn’t want anyone to know we were working on a new Borat thing while we were testing it. We were also testing disguises to figure out that whole side of it and figure out how that would work. He was introducing her, and we were just trying to see how far can you push this stuff before people will think this isn’t real or is a put-on. A lot of it was similar material to what made it in the movie of long scenes of interacting with people and being in a house for the first time and causing trouble and making mischief.
You brought up Jeanise Jones, the babysitter, who I really think runs away with this movie in a lot of ways. Can you talk to me about what it was like finding her, working with her? What did she think she was doing while she was talking to Maria in this film?
WOLINER: Jeanise is incredible [and] was so important in something that I was hoping for with this movie, which was to show real people, but in a new way than had been done with this kind of work in the past, where you’re not just revealing the objectionable opinions or bad sides of people. From the day I was involved with this, I was really pushing that [because] everything feels so bad these days, what would be refreshing in this movie is to have real people that we’re actually revealing wonderful things about and the good side of and the kindness of. We never know what these people are going to be like in real life, but we have ideas of what we hope we get out of these scenes, and Jeanise went so far beyond what we had hoped.
Jeanise has spoken about how we found her. We have a team that goes into the world and finds people who we think would be right for this. When we got on set with her, a lot of my role on set is creating the environment where people can just be themselves and reveal themselves, be it the less good qualities, but in Jeanise’s case, obviously kindness and empathy and patience and insight. As soon as we saw her interact with Tutar… We never tell people what to say, ever. We never say, “Can you say this?” We just kind of create an environment where we hope that they can be themselves and reveal themselves. All of that stuff happened as you see it in the movie; that was over the course of a day we spent with her. We do it as real as possible.
So [Cohen] dropped [Bakalova] off in the morning and said, “Deliver her to this address at night.” So that night, she delivered her to that address, and it was like, “What are you doing here?” And Maria in character told her about the surgery just as you see in the movie, and she’s like, “You don’t need it, you shouldn’t go through with this.” Just watching it, I just remember thinking, “Oh my God, she just doesn’t know it, but she’s a movie star. She’s going to be beloved by the entire country.” It was a crazy thing to watch. And also for me, and this is another thing about how incredible Maria is, there are times when we’re not even filming, but Maria hung out with her all day and had to stay in character and stay in it. While cameras were changing or we were getting set up to move, Maria and Jeanise [were] in the living room there, and she’s still just Tutar and they’re still just talking to each other for 40 minutes without a single camera there where they were just getting to know each other and Maria was Tutar. They were just having this incredible conversation. I was like, “Wow, no one’s even going to see this.” That is a lot of directing a movie like this, figuring out how to create this alternate reality where these moments can happen and then figuring out how to shoot it and cover it and document it in a way that will be clear on screen and funny or moving or interesting or compelling or shocking.
What were some of the sequences that you covered that you were heartbroken just couldn’t make it into the final cut? The darlings you had to kill, so to speak.
WOLINER: Most of the heartbreaking editing decisions were jokes within scenes that did make it in. A movie like this has to have a certain pace. Sacha’s movies especially are generally on the shorter side, and I love that about them. The editing process is paring down so much that you’re just left with a movie that just cooks along at a very tight clip. And so there are versions of scenes in their longer form that I thought were so funny, but in the context of the movie, were very obvious they couldn’t stay as they were. There’s like a 10 minute cut of the barbershop scene that had me crying. [laughter] In a movie that obviously had a lot of satirical aims and political aims, there were a few scenes like the barbershop that were just pure stupidity, that were so funny, but also not story-driven.
We had one scene which you see a moment of in the trailer where he learns how to golf. That was part of a storyline that we wound up throwing out. And there was like a 10 minute cut of that scene that’s so funny, but it’s just idiocy. [laughter] It’s Borat being completely incapable of learning how to golf, and he’s with this golf instructor that is just the world’s most patient man. It reminded me of when he tries to learn how to drive in the first movie, where the real person is not a political target, it’s not someone we hate. It’s a likable, extremely patient man. And sometimes it can be so funny just to watch someone with seemingly endless patience pushed to their limits. [laughter] Just 10 or 12 minutes of this poor guy trying to teach this idiot how to golf was so funny. But when we watched it in the cut of the movie and he gets back to America, and he’s got this mission, and we knew that the relationship of the movie, that’s the story. That’s where you want to be heading. We just didn’t have the time to take a break and watch 10 minutes or even four minutes of Borat failing to learn golf. So there’s just stuff like that that hopefully one day will find its way into the world in some form. We shot so much stuff that was really funny that we just didn’t have time for in the final movie.
Image via Karen Ballard
You sort of alluded to a follow-up question I had. Is there a plan for an extended version of Borat 2 in the works in any way?
WOLINER: It’s something we’ve talked about, but we haven’t… Nothing final or announceable yet. But you can’t help but talk about it when, on a movie like this, we shot hundreds of hours of footage, and every scene has just pages of material and jokes that we try. And then we pare it down to the best version of the 95 minute movie, but there is so much great stuff out there. He did live in that lockdown house for days with Jim [Russell] and Jerry [Holleman, two QAnon conspiracy theorists featured in the film]. That was another thing where the longer versions of these scenes show without a shadow of a doubt how real it was, how he was really living with these guys. So there’s just so much of them existing together that I thought was so funny. So hopefully one day we’ll figure out a way to get that out there.
I hope so too, I think we’d all love to see that. I do want to talk about the big “Tom Hanks patient zero reveal,” this wild cameo at the end, which you appear in, actually.
WOLINER: That’s the wild cameo you’re referring to, right?
Yes, yes, yes. You broke the internet by Hitchcock-ing it. Just, like, tell me how in the hell that sequence came to be.
WOLINER: Obviously coronavirus, COVID-19, was not part of the plan in the beginning. We shot this movie over the course of the year. We started shooting in fall of 2019 and generally shot in order, more or less. We would shoot for a few weeks, come back, edit, plan, regroup. The whole movie evolved along the way, and we would adjust to what we discovered. Like for instance, the babysitter coming back at the end was not part of the plan until we saw how incredible Jeanise was that we were like, “Oh, we should see if we can film with her again and do this story point that we wanted to hit about him realizing he loves her. Wouldn’t it be great if we could figure out a way to do that with Jeanise?” So stuff like that, the movie was constantly evolving. Then we were just about to go out again when the lockdown began, and there was a lot of discussion about, “Do we continue? Do we postpone like every movie was doing? Do we just say, ‘Let’s just call it and try to release it next spring or next summer?'” But ultimately, so much about it was that we wanted it to come out before the election, so we made the decision, once it was safe, once industry protocols were set up, we were the first or one of the first projects out there to keep going. We also had to decide, “Do we put COVID in as part of the story? Is that gonna be insensitive?” It felt risky. It’s like, “We don’t know what it’s going to be like in the fall. Are people going to want to hear the word ‘COVID-19’? Are people going to be able to laugh at anything related to this?” And then part of that in those writing sessions, this twist was pitched, “What if Borat was patient zero?” And we loved that.
And then, I forget whose joke it was, but someone pitched the idea that on his journey here, he would have encountered Tom Hanks in Sydney. And we weren’t going to try to hoodwink Tom Hanks, obviously, America’s favorite person. [laughter] So Sacha just emailed him and asked him if he was up for it. And he said yes. That was actually the very last thing we shot. We wanted it to be clear that there’s kind of the real person world of Borat, and then there’s the Kazakhstan world. We want it to be clear that this wasn’t something that we wanted viewers to think was an actual ambush, and that obviously Tom Hanks knows who Borat is, knows who Sacha is. So it was something we shot in a way that would look intentionally like something we scripted. Then just on the day, we thought it would be weird if Tom was standing there by himself. So we thought he should be signing an autograph or taking a selfie with a fan. I think Ant [Anthony Hines], the writer, might’ve suggested I do it. So I threw on some tourist clothes and ran in there. [laughter]
When you’re waiting for a set-up with Tom Hanks as his scene partner, what did the two of you talk about in this surreal situation?
WOLINER: [laughter] Yeah, you know what? He was just talking about Sydney and how his wife Rita had just done some performing there, some singing. The whole thing really only took about five to 10 minutes, and he was super cool about it. But it was just kind of your general small talk. The most surreal thing about it was, to me, I can’t remember the last time I was that close, unmasked, with a person who wasn’t my wife, and that it happened to be Tom Hanks was very surreal. [laughter] That I was arm in arm taking a selfie with someone, that alone is such an unfamiliar, strange thing to be physically near another person these days. The fact that it was Tom Hanks made it about 30 times more surreal. [laughter] Obviously we were all tested every day while we were in production, and he had already had it and everyone on the crew there was tested. Every protocol was in place. The rest of the set was all fully masked and distanced. To still be in the midst of how everything is these days, but to just be arm in arm with Forrest Gump himself was a deeply strange sensation. I haven’t been physically close to anyone all year, and now it’s Tom Hanks. [laughter]
Image via Amazon
There is a strange amount of people in the special thanks section of this film, a murderer’s row of comedic talent. But there’s one name that really threw me for a loop that I wanted to see exactly how he contributed to this film. Pete Docter, of Disney/Pixar fame. What’s the story behind that?
WOLINER: We have this incredible pool of people out here from film, from comedy, and there’s just this amazing community that Sacha is part of where everyone watches each other’s projects and weighs in. We showed a lot of versions of it to amazing, genius friends in comedy like Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and just had this kind of little group that was helping us along the way. To do a movie like this, it’s almost never really been done to do a movie of this nature, that takes place in the real world with mostly real people who aren’t aware they’re in a movie and in a comedy movie. To do that, and what we were attempting to do with this one is add this element of a father/daughter story that you would actually care about. We wanted to really get people to invest in Borat and Tutar’s story the way that you don’t typically do in this [kind of] movie. Borat 1 is my favorite comedy. When he and Azamat [Ken Davitian] have a falling out after the naked fight… Look, the naked fight is the funniest scene in movie history, [but] you’re not really sad when they’re not talking to each other. So we were like, “Can we do a crazily funny movie that has this kind of political aim and also get people to care about the story?” So that was something we really looked to a lot of our contemporaries for input on, and just, “Does this work? Do we need this? How about this for structure, for the emotional beats?” I know Sacha is friends with Pete, so I believe he was probably just a voice in the mix. A lot of those names in the special thanks are just people that we would talk to throughout the last two years just for perspective and advice on how we could make this impossible movie work, basically.
What is next on the horizon for you? Is there another collaboration with Sacha? Is there anything else going on? What’s next?
WOLINER: I loved working with Sacha on this. This was really the thrill of a lifetime, and I would love to work with him again on anything. This kind of thing is like nothing else to work on. It’s a true adventure. But right now, I’ve written a script that’s kind of an epic of small town America that is my favorite thing I’ve ever written, and Adam McKay has come on to produce it. So we are in the process of getting that going. So that is what I’m really excited about at the moment. I can’t really talk about any of it, beyond that it’s another super secret thing. But yeah, that’s kind of where my brain is and my heart is right now.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is streaming on Amazon Prime.
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Gregory Lawrence (aka Greg Smith) is a writer, director, performer, songwriter, and comedian. He’s an associate editor for Collider and has written for Shudder, CBS, Paste Magazine, Guff, Smosh, Obsev Studios, and more. He loves pizza and the Mortal Kombat movie. For more, www.smithlgreg.com
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