Rudy Giuliani didn’t know he was in the script for “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm,” but the filmmaking team was ready for him. The shocking finale of Sacha Baron Cohen’s timely satire put a new spin on the proverbial October surprise: Released weeks before the November election, the movie provided a welcome excuse to discredit President Donald J. Trump’s sniveling, xenophobic lawyer and humiliate him in the process.
For the uninitiated: Spoiler alert! The sequel ends with Tutar (Maria Bakalova), the daughter of fake Kazakh journalist Borat, posing as a reporter and interviewing Giuliani in a New York City hotel room — but the characters have more on their minds than that. Tutar, who assumes her father will be executed in their home country if he doesn’t deliver her as a bride to Giuliani, walks into an adjacent bedroom with her day-drinking subject, ostensibly to give herself over to him. A hidden camera watch as he sticks his hands down his pants, and even though Borat bursts into the room before the encounter can take a graphic turn (“She 15! She too old for you!”), the damage has been done … to Giuliani, that is.
Though Baron Cohen and his team usually don’t discuss their process, they’ve been making an exception this year, as “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm” picks up in steam in the Oscar conversation. In recent interviews and a Zoom Guild Q&A for the movie, the key figures involved in the Giuliani scene explained how it came together. (For his part, Giuliani claimed he was “tucking his shirt in” during the scene, and that he was never “inappropriate.”)
The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
SACHA BARON COHEN, WRITER-PRODUCER-STAR: I’m not sure I realized America needed Borat to come back. But we were in a room on the day of the midterms, and we basically thought, “What can we do to show our disapproval of the current government?” We felt that we had to do something. Democracy was in peril, and if Trump had another term, America would be in a very different place, one that was democracy in name only. We had to do what we could to make a movie that would show we dissented and maybe get some of our fans to go out and vote against Trump.
ANTHONY HINES, WRITER: We knew we couldn’t just put Borat back into the same America. We realized that Borat with pro-Trump people was a potent device to say something satirical. That was a catalyst for us.
SBC: We wanted to make sure the scene was hilarious and revealed everything we wanted to reveal about the unspoken misogyny of Trump’s inner circle. But it had to fit into the movie.
JASON WOLINER, DIRECTOR: I had met with Sacha about potentially directing on “Who Is America?” for Showtime. We’re both friends with Nathan Fielder and I had directed on “Nathan for You,” so my name had come up a few times. I got an email [from] my agent’s office asking if I’d be interested in meeting with him about his next movie. They didn’t say what it was. Then I got sent an outline. It was all encrypted with code words. In reading it, I figured out pretty quickly what it was. I thought, oh my God, he’s doing it. This was early 2019, so we were already deep into the Trump era. The premise and general structure of the movie was similar.
SBC: We decided we’d have a read-through with a lot of our comedy peers. We realized we needed to write for the real people, too, so we put in dummy dialogue. Everybody heard it and said, “This is great. This is all going to be scripted, right?”
AH: We have a wish list of what we want to happen in the real world. That’s when the challenges start. You know you’ll end up with about 50 percent of what you started with.
JW: We had to do it with such a level of secrecy that most people I knew didn’t know what I was working on. My wife and I had to figure out a way to have something to say about why I was traveling so much, especially during a pandemic. We didn’t want to lie to our friends but we had to say something. She would tell them I was working on a mockumentary about politics in America. That was technically true.
SBC: The first thing we did was to look at the entire genre of parent-child movies. “Paper Moon, “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Bend it like Beckham.” In these arranged marriage movies, you often have this misogynistic character who ends up becoming a feminist. We thought, “OK, we’re going to get the world’s biggest misogynist — someone even bigger than Trump — sacrificing his life for his daughter.”
MONICA LEVINSON, PRODUCER: The Giuliani scene was one of the things Jason and I discussed with Maria Bakalova early on, even before she took the job. We were worried she’d say it was too much. Instead, she just said, “It’s great, I’m in, I’m excited.” She was super brave about it all.
MARIA BAKALOVA (“TUTAR”): I was prepared early on for a moment where I’d have to interact with somebody who is high-level. I’d been adrenalized. We had a few ideas about how this could go. You might think he’s going to start laughing and think this is a joke. Or you might think he’s going to start screaming. People do unpredictable things. Everything we did in the movie was completely legal, and I was sure I’d be safe. Sacha was in the room with me, hidden in a closet, like six feet away from me. We also had a security team that could save me if something happened.
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SBC: I’d never really talked to anyone about process over the past 22 years because I didn’t need to. I’d deal with that stuff internally. I realized I’d developed these techniques over the last two decades. One of the main ones is that you go deeper into character if someone is suspicious. You’re performing, you’re trying to get out some jokes, but you’re also doing a dramatic scene.
MB: Sacha’s assistant Nicole helped me a lot the night before. She was basically reading me Giuliani’s full biography the night before I went to sleep. I’ll always be thankful to her about that.
JW: If he had just done this interview and left, that wouldn’t have been much of a scene. So we had to figure out every idea of what could happen from a technical standpoint, and make sure that it was going to be filmed clearly. Maria was on her own to do whatever she was doing. We were hoping for some tension because it was the climax of the movie.
SBC: We wanted to make sure the scene was hilarious and revealed everything we wanted to reveal about the unspoken misogyny of Trump’s inner circle. But it had to fit into the movie. We had no idea how far Giuliani would go. As a result, we prepared for various incremental stages to the scene: One where I would try to convince Tutar to abandon the mission of sleeping with Giuliani by appearing in a room service trolley. We actually had a room service trolley come in and I was hiding underneath it, but we cut that out. The second one was about what would happen if Giuliani realizes what’s happening and walks out. We knew we’d at least have a good version of the scene. Then there was the option we used, where I come in as the sound guy, and try to convince her to get out. We decided if he walks out then, we can still make that movie work structurally. The dream scenario was that he’d go into the bedroom with her. Dramatically and satirically, that was the perfect outcome for us.
JW: When Rudy went into the bedroom, I gasped. And when he lay down on the bed, my heart stopped. I’m not sure exactly how to describe what it was like to watch that in real time.
MB: She was doing everything to save her father, and as Maria, I was doing everything to save the scene. I was using what people gave me in the scene as resources. And I wasn’t the first person who touched somebody. He touched me first.
JW: Sacha was hiding in a cubby in a closet.
SBC: For an hour and a half. It was pitch black and tiny. I had to change in there.
JW: Rudy’s just a few feet away. The phone we gave Sacha only had five percent charge on it. I’m trying to text him to tell him what’s going on. Maria’s on her own. We had no way to communicate with her. Sacha and I were trying to determine, “Do we go in now, or do we end it?” He rubbed her shoulders, sat on the bed, asked for her phone number…
SBC: I’m looking at the phone, waiting to be told to to go. I think it’s good that we went in at the moment that we did.
ML: I was very concerned after we finished filming, as he was threatening our team with federal crimes, which we all knew were false. But we were in NYC with a man who seemed to be beloved by the police department, so we had our team leave town that evening instead of the next day to keep them safe!
MB: I haven’t seen the statements that he made, but it’s all in the movie. Everybody can see it and decide what happened. I don’t want to draw any conclusions.
JW: I’ve been working in this business for a long time. I’ve never seen anyone have to lie on a bed and put their hand in their pants to take a microphone out. He went into the bedroom with a young female reporter who had just said how nervous she was around him and how much she admired him. He sat on the bed, asked for her phone number, touched her lower back, laid down on the bed, untucked his shirt and put his hand down his pants. All that is objective. So, it doesn’t look great for him.
SBC: That scene is not just a sketch — it’s the climax of the movie. We’ve seen it many times in movies. It’s the climax of “The Graduate.” Also, we really looked at the structure of “It Happened One Night,” where there’s this very late realization that he’s in love with the girl and can’t go through with it. And it’s also got an element of a thriller to it where the heroine is about to be murdered. Instead of the killer reaching for his gun, it’s Giuliani reaching down his pants.
ML: We were racing to the finish line and didn’t have much time to contemplate whether or not we’d be able to break through the noise of the election. But as soon as the trailer broke, it was a huge relief to see how people needed a comedic break from the world! I absolutely love that it became virtual water cooler conversation. And we have to thank Mr. Giuliani for becoming even more relevant in the days leading up to release.