As he stood in front of a packed movie theater with his long beard and longer hair, sporting a porkpie hat and tinted glasses, Larry Charles looked like a lost member of ZZ Top. It was August 2006 in Traverse City, a resort town in northern Michigan, and in a few minutes Borat, the Sacha Baron Cohen smash that Charles directed, would be screened for its first audience. Though the movie would officially premiere a few weeks later at the Toronto International Film Festival, Charles agreed to debut it at the festival his pal Michael Moore throws each summer near his home.
Before Charles had left for Michigan, nervous lawyers at 20th Century Fox, the studio behind Borat, had given him a list of things he was forbidden to say. “It’s an outlaw movie,” Charles explained to the crowd. “We made it like bank robbers. We’d go in, shoot and escape. So there are things I’m not supposed to say, legally.”
He uncrumpled the memo and began to read. No. 1: “That any of the persons appearing on camera were in any way tricked, duped or misled.”
“All right, I won’t say it,” said Charles. Another no-no: “That we knew in advance that people were likely to get angry.”
“I had no idea!” he exclaimed.
After he had worked through the list, the film began to roll, and the audience soon descended into the kind of roll-off-your-seat laughter that would sell $261 million in tickets. The movie was made for just $18 million—making it so profitable that the studio’s corporate parent, News Corp., singled out the film in its earnings reports alongside big-budget features including Live Free or Die Hard and the Fantastic 4 sequel.
But sitting in his West Hollywood production office more than a year later, Charles, 51, is still wearing the same suit he wore that night in Michigan and sounding as modest as ever. “We had tremendous luck with finding people and the scenes coming off well,” Charles says. “The film had a kind of a blessed existence that I can’t explain.”
When it was clear that Borat was going to be a giant hit, Charles was deluged with studio offers to direct what he calls “big-budgeted bad comedies.” He sent all the scripts back. “I have a moral qualm with a $100 million movie,” he says. Instead, his next project is a $2.5 million snarky documentary called Religulous.
His friends aren’t surprised. “I don’t think he likes to be ordinary,” says Larry David, cocreator of Seinfeld, for which Charles, one of David’s closest friends, was a writer. As Moore puts it: “I think Larry will be remembered as one of our great satirists. That’s the field that he toils in, creating satire for the masses.”