Sacha Baron Cohen is three for three: “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” met its deadline and was released before the 2020 election, his wish to see Donald Trump out of office has come true and both he and his film emerged victorious at the Golden Globes this past Sunday. But if it wasn’t for some quick thinking, COVID-19 — and possibly Rudy Giuliani — could have ruined all that.
Cohen — along with director Jason Woliner, writer Peter Baynham and producers Anthony Hines and Monica Levinson — joined TheWrap’s Awards Screening Series on Monday to discuss the making of one of 2020’s most talked-about films. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” was a sequel Cohen wanted to make not long after Trump took office, though plans to get the cameras rolling didn’t come together until 2019. But while Cohen was traveling throughout the U.S. last year as his famous Kazakh alter-ego, the pandemic hit.
Levinson said the crew believed the pause on production wouldn’t last longer than a couple weeks. But Cohen, who was in contact with epidemiologists, told them how serious the situation was. So even though little was known about the virus — and Hollywood guilds were still months away from installing official COVID-19 protocols — the “Borat” team had to make up their own safety rules in order to finish the film and get it released before the 2020 election.
“I think it was around May 15 that we said, ‘If we don’t start June 15, we’re not going to finish,’” Levinson told TheWrap. “We worked with an amazing group of people that advised, and in fact, we were slightly ahead of the industry. We were the first people out, so we had to be stricter in our protocols to make sure we were protecting everybody. We went out with a really cool testing machine that was brand new… we were doing five tests a week. I’m sure Sacha’s nose was not comfortable.”
Of course, when filming pranks around right-wing protesters and political figures who don’t believe in the importance of wearing masks, those safety protocols only do so much. And when it came time to film the now-infamous prank interview between Borat’s daughter (Maria Bakalova) and Rudy Giuliani, the crew had to make a last-minute decision after Giuliani refused to do a COVID test.
“We gave our word… to the rest of the crew,” Cohen said. “We had a very strict rule: no one gets in a closed room with us if they haven’t been tested. Rudy shows up and he refuses to do a COVID test. We had a sit-down with Maria and told her that there’s a risk. Maria felt very strongly that she had to do the scene.”
At the time, nobody on the “Borat” team had any idea how integral Giuliani would become to Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the 2020 election; and they certainly didn’t have any idea that Giuliani’s actions during that scene would make political headlines. They just knew that for the core arc of their film — the relationship between Borat and the daughter that has unexpectedly come into his life — the scene with Trump’s legal counsel was essential.
“We tried to ingest all the father-daughter movies, all these arranged marriage movies… for the scene where they’re trying to stop the ring from going on the finger,” Cohen said. “Structurally, it was almost like a killer with the murder weapon and Borat has to get in there and stop the fatal blow. So really, we ran out of time. If that scene hadn’t worked, the movie would not have been as impactful.”
Watch the full interview with Cohen and the “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” team in the clip above.