Larry Charles

Borat director sets his sights on religion

Once you’ve filmed Pamela Anderson being stuffed into a “marriage sack” during a mock-kidnapping wherein the former Playmate flees through a parking lot screaming from your film’s antagonist, what’s left?

The man whose credits include directing the aforementioned Borat, serving as a writer and producer during Seinfeld’s heyday (think episodes like “The Chinese Restaurant” and “The Bris”) and working as a director and exec producer on Larry David’s masterful HBO show “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, has fixed his lens on that most sacred of sacred cows – religion – for the divisive doc, Religulous.

Alongside outspoken political commentator, actor, talk show host and blatant doubter Bill Maher, Charles travelled to holy cities and religious landmarks to investigate the current state of the big three world religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Charles himself used to belong to one of the big three – he was raised as an “Americanized, secular Jew” – and approached this film with a skeptical eye towards religion, he told recently.

Despite the fact that at one time he was "really into it," he started to distance himself from Judaism when he felt there was no one around to engage him and ultimately left the synagogue feeling there was no room for questions: “That’s what religion does – it shuts down that inquiry.”

But there's no lack of probing on the parts of Charles and Maher in their facetious doc and the director was more than willing to chat about his experience making a comedy about religion when we opened up the floor to questions from mycineplex members.

Bill Maher and Larry Charles
Bill Maher and Larry Charles.

Q: What do you think about your film Religulous being compared to Ben Stein's Expelled? The approach taken seems to be very similar: another documentary using mockery to ridicule people interviewed, hiding the real purpose of why they are there from those being interviewed, etc. Is one just another carbon copy of the other?Catwoman

Larry Charles: The answer is no. Expelled is a narrow-minded film with a narrow agenda that’s about the argument between intelligent design and evolution. I haven’t seen it but I don’t think they’re similar at all.

Q: With the Democrats forced to pander to the religious right at their convention in order to have a chance at winning this election, has "sincere Christian faith" become as much a mandatory accessory as a flag pin for political hopefuls? Can you ever foresee a day when an atheist will have a shot at running the US into the ground?sokoto bt

LC: (Laughs.) I think you have to be a faith-based person to have a shot at running the country, yes. But that was only a recent development. Like gun laws, they’ve been perverted into something else over time. It wasn’t until Jimmy Carter brought Jesus into politics in 1976 and then lost the election to Ronald Reagan in 1980 that the moral majority and all those groups were founded and the relationship between the church and the state became permanently blurred.

Q: Did you run into any challenges or threats of physical altercation during the interview process? Any close calls you needed to defuse with fast talking? - AndreG

LC: Every day, everywhere we went. From the Vatican to the Western Wall, nearly every place we went, we would get kicked out or would be challenged and there were always situations we had to defuse. But when you’re doing a movie like this, you have to expect it.

Q: Mr. Charles, what inspired you to make this film? In what way is it similar to Borat, and which ways is it not? - Kronos

LC: Sure, it’s similar to Borat. But it’s like birth. At the end, you have a baby, but the process that goes into making each one is so different. But [the films] were both incredibly fun to make.

Q: I would like to know what was the one thing that you learned while making this film that you were surprised to find in common with the three religions you examined?The Bazman

LC: All these religions have an apocalypse scenario. Most people know of the Catholic apocalypse but I was surprised to know that all of them had a scenario where carrying out God’s will meant the end of the world.

Q: Without having seen the film yet, I am curious as to whether you see the biggest issue, aside from the blending of church and state, as organized religions, fundamentalism or faith in what can't be proven?The Dude

LC: They are all part of the same thing, so yes that’s the problem. Monotheism served its purpose for a while, much like polytheism and Norse mythology. But now it’s no longer sufficient to explain ourselves to ourselves. Religion used to be this vital, alive thing but now it’s become calcified.

Q: Did u find each religion felt theirs trumped all others? I was raised Catholic but we should all believe in our Gods so long as we don't encourage others to hate others, or impose our beliefs on others to convert people. I'm talking to you JWs! I'm sure u spoke with many ignorant folk. Many from English-speaking Western countries. We have our own interesting bible-belt here.RoxyRita

LC: I don’t think that’s really true about Catholicism. They send out missionaries proselytizing about Catholicism and they aren’t tolerant of other religions. If you believe your god is the only god, then you can’t believe in my god because that’s believing in a false god. So it’s a situation that breeds hatred of one another's religions.

Q: Do you feel that, as both an entertainer and someone with an agenda, sometimes the punch line takes precedence over the in-depth discourse?exubai

LC: With a movie like this, you can never truly please everybody. We did our best to achieve a balance. I wanted to make a Saturday night date movie about religion...a rollicking rock and roll movie about religion that people would find illuminating, funny and entertaining – and I think we did that.

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