Awards Daily talks to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm producer Monica Levinson about what it took to get this movie off the ground.
One of the many challenges of getting Borat Subsequent Moviefilm made was the screening process.
“You really need to screen these types of movies in a group setting,” said producer Monica Levinson, who also produced Sacha Baron Cohen’s films Borat and Bruno. “Even though we weren’t showing it in a medium that was a group setting, it was still important for us to hear that reaction.”
So how do you screen a movie for a group audience during a global pandemic? Levinson and the Borat Subsequent Moviefilm team ended up screening it virtually in New Zealand, where the group screening was in-person (because, you know, New Zealand was able to control the pandemic), and the Borat team watched the audience via Zoom.
And this was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Levinson had to deal with to get this movie off the ground. Crunched production schedules, a contentious election, and lockdowns were all involved (where is the movie about the making of this movie?). Thankfully Levinson and the team stuck to their vision and ended up with not only a slice of life of 2020, but a piece of political art to combat fascism.
AD: Was it stressful trying to figure out what was going to come out and what wasn’t? What was that process like?
ML: Oh, gosh. Wander Darkly [film starring Sienna Miller and Diego Luna] started my year, just because we premiered at Sundance and wanted to find a good home for it, and we didn’t know how to figure out how to put that movie out into the world without theaters and the specialty markets, because it really needed to be coddled in some arthouse fashion. It definitely was a curve to figure out with Lionsgate, how to distribute that movie. That was No. 1.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, we always knew we wanted to put it out before the election. That was the whole point of the movie, to make sure we got it out. We’d always set October 23 as our date, and when it became very clear that we weren’t going to have the ability to reach a wide audience with theatrical, we knew we had to pivot—which I know is the word of the year—but pivot to a streamer, so we could have as many eyeballs on it as possible. That was our goal, to make sure we not only made the world laugh, but also we hoped we could at least shine a light on some pieces of our society that might need some change, which is why we end with “Now Vote.” It was a year of figuring out of how to make it work in this new world.
AD: Yeah, for everybody in some capacity. I watched Borat Subsequent Moviefilm twice in less than 24 hours. I loved it that much. And given the timeliness of it, with the deadline before the election, there had to be so much pressure to get this film out. Were you at all worried that you had a film that wasn’t even gonna come out?
ML: Listen, honestly, being a producer, my job is to make it happen and we delivered. I never thought the movie wouldn’t come out before the election. The thoughts I had going through my head, “Will the election be pushed because of the pandemic?” So, would that change our date? That was my only thought of whether this movie would come out at a different time. Then, as it became very clear that we needed to go out to finish the movie and we couldn’t keep waiting because, ultimately, Sacha, [director] Jason Woliner, and I sat down and started going through the schedule and Sacha kept saying to me, “How are we going to make this?” I said, “We’ll make it, we’ll make it, we’ll figure it out.” At some point, I shot up and said, “Oh my god, we really have to get started!” That was around May 15 that we just declared June 15 as our date, and we need to get all of our clearances with the unions. We were talking about going from a five-month post-schedule to a five-week schedule, which is what we ended up doing, which is insane. So when we went back out June 15, we were the first people out after the pandemic shutdown and we had so many procedures in place to make sure everyone was safe, and that was what I spent my entire three months until that point, making sure that we were prepared and that we would keep everybody safe. At the same time the writers were working on pivoting the story to reflect what was going on. It came at a perfect time in the story as we were right there, because it’s documentary-style. We were following the year. It made sense to us at that point to have the two of them [Sacha Baron Cohen and Maria Bakalova] part their ways and go into their separate lockdowns in the story. We were able to make that work for the movie and reflect what was happening in 2020.
AD: It seems like a miracle movie, to be honest. The way it all came together.
ML: It really is. Sacha’s a genius, and he really has a great vision. Jason is wonderful and was able to steer the ship. We all just had to do what we had to do. My job is a producer is to make it happens and we delivered. I’m very proud of the film.
AD: You should be. Since you worked on the first Borat to the second one, how much has the industry changed and what’s it like seeing the reception for the first one versus the sequel?
ML: I’m really happy that the movie changed with the times. We couldn’t make the same movie that we did. The world has changed. Donald Trump has changed the world. Sacha wanted to go back [to the world of Borat] because he felt democracy was in peril. The daily and weekly late-night shows were doing topical Trump jokes in their immediacy as they were happening and there was no way to do that same thing and be current. We couldn’t be fresh. So the writers and Sacha had to come up with a way that was different than the first one, and I think bringing the humanity of the world into this movie was part of that, shining a light on Jeanise Jones and Judith Dim Evans at the synagogue—that was part of this movie, because we really wanted to show wonderful people in this world. This was really showing that there are people out there that will speak up, speak their mind, and try to bring peace. When he found out she [Judith Dim Evans] passed away, it was really important to Sacha to dedicate the film to her. Although the synagogue scene, from early feedback, was was slowing down the movie, Sacha especially felt, to have a woman that survived the Holocaust star in a movie—that opportunity won’t likely come along again.
AD: You mentioned this film couldn’t be “fresh,” but it felt so of the moment.
ML: Thank you! I meant, we couldn’t do Trump jokes in the normal way, because everybody else was doing those perfectly, daily. So it was about coming up with a fresh way of making this character live in this world, and by having the pandemic in the movie, we obviously were making it very fresh and very of the moment.
AD: How do you feel about this film being a slice of life from 2020, almost like a scrapbook of this year?
ML: I think when you’re making a documentary-style film, you really are making basically a documentary of that time period. Borat and Bruno are very reflective of those time periods as well, what was happening in that world. I think we saw the rise of antisemitism, and Sacha’s work—where we are today—he started to see those people early on, trying to expose those people early on. Antisemitism, racism, sexism—all of it has been in his work. And here we are at this boiling point. I do think they were slices of life and he’s been trying to expose people for his career.
AD: It’s hard not to think about the January 6, 2020 Insurrection at the Capitol and not connect it to the Trump rally/festival scene in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
ML: It’s a lot of the same types of people. When Sacha said democracy is in peril and that’s why we need to move forward and combat Trumpism, he couldn’t have been more right. Because these films are not easy. They’re incredibly challenging for all of us. All of us need a year-long nap. We have the best cast and crew that you can imagine. But it takes a toll, and it’s really hard on Sacha especially, because he’s out there and the target. I have to commend him for even embarking on it again, but he did it because he felt like it was for the greater good.
AD: I think it was. There’s never been such a necessary sequel to a film, I think.
ML: I have to say, when he first told me he was doing a sequel to Borat, I was like, ‘Ehh, I don’t think so.’
AD: That’s how I felt until I watched it. And I loved it more than the first one.
ML: It was at the start of the #MeToo movement, and I’m very active with Women In Film and different women’s groups. But when it was about the patriarchy and about women’s rights and this misogynist character learning that women have a place in society, that really drew me in. That was the hook for me.
AD: You don’t see forgiveness of people like him a lot. He’s a character that is a misogynist and he comes around. I think that’s really important.
ML: He’s a loveable misogynist. It’s like the guys in the lockdown house. They are so kind, they are misguided, they have been fed a whole bunch of lies, but yet they are so lovely, and they really cared about Borat and Tutar. It gives me hope in the world, because there are these beautiful, wonderful people that do care, but have just been fed these lies. If we can figure out how to make sure that they get the truth, humanity still will exist.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is available on Amazon.