On Friday evening, TV and film comedy hero Larry Charles helped close the third annual BRITDOC with a Conversation masterclass at the O’Reilly Theatre in Keble College. Popular British TV satirist Jamie Campbell moderated the discussion, which also included clips from Charles’ upcoming documentary with Bill Maher, Religulous. The feature will screen at the Toronto Film Festival in September (after a sneak preview at Charles friend Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival next week) and come to US theaters courtesy of Lionsgate in October, but attendees were treated to selections from the film as well as the director’s thoughts on its very controversial subject: international religion.
The film, which follows comedian Bill Maher’s travels around the globe as he explores and investigates the people and places behind some of the biggest religions, is Charles’ first feature since the massively popular doc/fiction hybrid, Borat. Prior to that film, Charles made his name as a TV writer and producer for shows like Seinfeld, The Tick, Mad About You, Dilbert, Entourage, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. As he discussed on the panel, it was all this work in TV comedy that finally forced him to experiment with documentary style elements.
“I think doing Seinfeld, as great as it was and as much fun as it was, the artifice of a sitcom started feeling too contrived,” he told the audience at BRITDOC. “I got very tired of that. I started seeking out things that would help me find a deeper truth.”
Enter shows like HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm or adapting Sacha Baron Cohen’s popular TV character, Borat, to the big screen. For Curb, there is no script and the episodes are largely based on whatever series creator/star Larry David wants to do at the last minute. However, it’s very different than the spontaneous real-world moments that came from placing Cohen’s fictional character in front of real people.
He wants to put Larry David in real life situations with real people, but “[Curb is] a very controlled environment and even though the scenes aren’t written [beforehand] there is a structure. With Borat, we were in constant danger and there were constant threats. There were probably over 50 police incidents. It is the documentary experience, but with a fictional element.”
Now, Religulous on the other hand, is the first true documentary feature in the filmography of Larry Charles. Both he and Bill Maher found they were dealing with many of the same questions about spirituality and the institution of religion. Two like-minded trouble-makers, Charles and Maher set out to make a very funny film about some very serious realities. Among the clips previewed at BRITDOC, we saw the opening title sequence (set to The Who’s “The Seeker”) which includes clips of vintage religion epics. We also saw a funny look at the Holy Land Experience, a Christianity “amusement park” in Florida that features song-and-dance productions as well as a tourist-friendly crucifixion every day (as if it was the nightly Disneyland parade of lights). And, while it is a documentary and it is Bill Maher’s show, the clips we saw prove that Charles has done a good job of keeping the pace brisk and using comedic editing to sustain the laughs.
On the subject of editing, one audience member asked how much we can believe the truth in his films if he’s trying to go for a laugh from an unknowing subject. “I won’t violate the tenor of the conversation, to get a laugh,” he responded, noting that in the case of Borat and its many lawsuits by interviewees from the film, they never misrepresented anyone’s views or statements for the sake of comedy. Plus, as he noted, they’re working with hundreds of hours of footage which allows for the chance to stumble upon something very raw and funny.
Asked if he would ever allow himself to be in front of someone else’s camera in that way, Charles dryly responded, “I would never sign a release form. Or, at least I would read it.”
More on Larry Charles and BRITDOC, and a proper wrap-up in indieWIRE, coming soon.