'Borat' Turns 10: Real Stories Behind the Making of the Satirical Documentary

Sacha Baron Cohen's award-winning film premiered 10 years ago today.

ByABC News
November 3, 2016, 4:08 AM

— -- Ten years ago today, movie audiences met fictional character Borat Sagdiyev -- a Kazakh journalist who traveled to the United States on behalf of his country's Ministry of Information to create a documentary about American culture.

The satirical film, entitled "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," documented Borat's trek across America, the colorful people he meets during his travels, and his burning desire to meet "Baywatch" actress Pamela Anderson.

Played by British actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who first introduced the character on his television series, "Da Ali G Show," Borat's anti-Semitic and sexist comments often tested his subjects' patience and exposed their prejudices. It was also a hit with audiences and critics alike, raking in more than $261 million at the box office and earning Baron Cohen a best actor Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

"In a way I hope people are still rediscovering it because in a way, it's never been more relevant, particularly just bringing up the way our country feels about immigrants," producer Jay Roach told ABC News. "'Borat' exposed all of that ten years ago but at that time it seemed shocking. That was one of the amazing things about Borat: He had an uncanny way of getting people to talk about things that we we weren't hearing in public."

To mark the film's anniversary, ABC News spoke with executive producers Monica Levinson and Dan Mazer, Roach, co-producer Peter Baynham, and Ken Davitian, who played Borat's sidekick Azamat, about the making of the movie and what made it so successful. All interviews have been condensed and combined for space and clarity.

DAN MAZER: Sacha and I had made an "Ali G" movie which was entirely scripted. It was good and people loved it but we felt slightly that we copped out. We weren’t using real people and that sort of thing and it left a slightly odd taste in our mouths, having done a movie that didn't feel as maverick or groundbreaking as we'd been in the TV stuff. Then we made an HBO series that was really popular, "Da Ali G Show," and the other character was Borat. The more we did him and took him out and performed him, the more the character grew and developed, and the more we loved him. [We thought], "Maybe there's a bit more there than with Ali G, and maybe there's a narrative story that can be told. Would it not be interesting to see if we can do it with real people and piecing it together?" It was a challenge that we decided to take on at that point, and Fox was kind enough to say, "We like the idea."

JAY ROACH: I'd seen all the "Ali G" episodes, but it took a long time to figure out how to mix reality with scripted. It took many months to sort out what the story would be and what would be a relatable journey for a character you would worry about and who would go through an arc -- an emotional and identity-oriented crisis. That was a big part of it. People were surprised by how a skit-based concept would elicit an emotional connection with this unlikely character.

PETER BAYNHAM: Somebody came up with the idea of a simple structure being Borat comes to America to make a documentary, falls in love with Pamela Anderson and decides to cross from New York to L.A. to meet the woman he plans to marry and meets lots of people along the way. It was a thing to hang things on: Whether he met frat boys or went to a megachurch, it was a way to find reasons for those things to happen. We realized that no matter how hilarious the material is, people will get tired and you need some stakes and some kind of [explanation in terms of] "Why is he doing it?" Then people don't mind, as long as there's a reason for him to be doing these things.

A scene from the movie "Borat" is seen here.

MONICA LEVINSON: The movie was supposed to be made with Todd Phillips as the director, and I was hired for three months to come in and pull it together, go out, we'd shoot it, and then I'd go on my way. Well, we shot for 11 days with Todd and the collaboration didn't work out. It truly was creative differences. He wanted it to go in a different direction. It was a different movie, a lot of the outline was there, but there were different characters involved and there was no Azamat. Then Sacha broke his foot two weeks later -- he was playing basketball at Garry Shandling's and either Garry landed on him or he landed on Garry -- and we were down for another eight weeks or ten weeks. During that time, we found Larry Charles and they worked on the outline and got it all ready.

While much of the movie was improvised, there was a script of sorts, written by Baron Cohen, Mazer, Baynham and Anthony Hines.

JAY ROACH: Sacha's an incredible improviser but he's also a diligent preparer. It looks so much like it's happening on the fly but they really had fantastic preparation and had lots of ways to go pre-written. One of the things I'm most proud of was the writers got nominated for an Academy Award.

DAN MAZER: The dictionary that Sacha had was filled with jokes. So every time [Borat]'s looking at his dictionary, he's looking at jokes that we'd pasted in. At the end of production, I think we had 1,500 pages of jokes. Just pure jokes and options of jokes, most of which probably wouldn't be used. It was almost psychology, trying to figure out human nature and how people would react to certain jokes so we could write the next one. It was like writing a script for one side of the dialogue and preparing for every eventuality of response. It was insane.

But before they could get to work, they needed to cast Azamat, Borat's trusty, non-English speaking sidekick. The role inevitably went to actor Ken Davitian.

KEN DAVITIAN: I wanted the part to impress my younger son who is a great fan of Larry Charles. I had never even heard of this Ali G character! The character breakdown described Azamat as a sloppy, foreigner who must speak a foreign language. So I had my agents call and they kept saying, "No. Ken's an American actor. That's not what we want." But we called again and the girl that we spoke to didn't know who I was so we got an appointment. I went in dressed in character.

DAN MAZER: Sacha and I sat there and just, "This guy is a genius and hilarious," but we weren't sure if we were laughing at him or with him. He was such a weird, lunatic presence. He didn't seem to understand a word we were saying. Then he came back in the room and in perfect American English went, "I'm sorry guys, I left my hat in here," or something, and were were like, "Oh my God, done! Amazing! That's the best performance we'd ever seen," and that was it. We didn't see anybody again. He absolutely nailed it. It was an amazing Eureka moment. We knew we had our guy.

They also had an a strong legal team.

DAN MAZER: We knew we were legally water-tight where ever we went to film. We had a brilliant lawyer. Hilariously, he used to be Public Enemy's lawyer and he had sort of semi-retired to an ashram in India. Whenever we called him, [we'd hear], "Can you wait an hour? He's just doing some ashtanga yoga." [We'd say], "We're in Idaho and about to be arrested." He'd get on very calmly and tell us what we needed to do. I look back on it now as the most bizarre year and a half.

A scene from the movie "Borat" is seen here.

MONICA LEVINSON: He was really versed in First Amendment [laws], the freedom of assembly, the right of privacy and indecency laws – all those thing that he could really advise us on and we had a lawyer who was associated with Fox.

Preparation was key. Mazer compared every day on set to a bank robbery: "It was lunacy. Actual lunacy: Physical danger, mental stress, combined all while trying to be funny."

MONICA LEVINSON: Field supervisors who worked with us would call and pre-interview people. Sometimes we would give them a little checklist of pop culture knowledge that we would have them fill out or just ask them questions and bring up, "Have you ever seen any of these TV shows?" and we would throw "Ali G" in there. [Also], they needed to be interesting and they needed to be people that would interact well with Borat - or not interact well.

DAN MAZER: We traveled in an incredibly small posse. There were 10 of us that went around in vans and shot it like a small documentary, and we were always with escape routes. Everything had to be in two vans so we could escape anywhere in 30 seconds. Logistically, we pared ourselves down so we were super-efficient.

PETER BAYNHAM: I remember being in a bar and I think it was in Alabama for something that didn't make it into the final movie: Borat entered a talent contest. They started out really liking him and but then they gradually got annoyed with him and they turned. We were a small crew and there was one DP who oversees everything -- he was quite a big guy but the rest of us were weedy British types. So the people in the bar started to get a bit irritated at him and he stayed in character because he would be in character from the moment you got there until several hours after you left. And I remember this guy called him over in this bar and just started having a go at him and Borat kissed the guy. I remember this guy said, "Around here, guys don't kiss guys" and it got really, really scary. I remember just hearing people saying, "We have to get to the van and get the hell out of there." I was totally convinced we were going to be followed back to the hotel.

KEN DAVITIAN: Do you know about the plantation? Our base camp was I believe in Mississippi and we went to Louisiana or vice versa to a plantation where a lady gives reenactments of that time. So we went over there and [during the reenactment] she is telling people in their twenties what to do and how to do and Borat says, "Why are you so mean to them?" "We're doing the reenactment." He doesn't know what the word "reenactment" is, and he’s complaining about how she’s treating the young people. They get into a confrontation and she calls her husband, whose brother is the sheriff of this county. So the husband calls the sheriff and now the two of them -- the wife and Sacha -- are screaming in front of an old makeshift wagon the husband comes and he says, "I’ve called my brother and I’m gonna have you arrested." As we hear the word "arrest" we have to leave because Sacha's on a work visa, so if he gets arrested, it’s gonna postpone a lot. I jump into the ice cream truck [that we traveled in] that does not go more than 50 miles per hour, because it was really a mail truck, and we’re going down that road blasting 50 mph and we met a tow truck where they put the ice cream truck on the bed -- that's how we drove it from state to state. Sacha and I tried to get into the cab of the tow truck, and the driver turned to us and says, "Get out of here. You can't be in here. They're going to spot me." So we get out and finally somebody comes to pick us up to go from one state from the other. We're going over a bridge, and we see they pulled over the ice cream truck. The police are searching everywhere, looking for me and Sacha. We put our heads down on the ground and the driver passed through the road block and we were gone. That never made it into the film.

DAN MAZER: Everything could’ve gone wrong, honestly. Everything felt dangerous. The rodeo was pretty dangerous because there were probably about 3,000 people who wanted to kill us after that happened as opposed to the four or five people that would want to kill us on a day-to-day basis. We had our escape route plan and everything because we'd have to bury the state lines overnight to make sure we couldn't be arrested.

MONICA LEVINSON: I was one of the two people arrested for something that didn't make the movie. When we checked into the New York hotel -- it was the scene that took place right after that. Being in jail, one of the lines of questioning was, "Who are you working with?" I really couldn't give too much information. They finally came back to me and said, "Who is this correspondent that you keep talking about?" I finally said, "His name is Borat." And they said, "Who are you working for?" And I said, "Do you want the person's real name?" And they said yes. "Sacha Baron Cohen." They said,"Who are you working for?" Finally I realized they were asking me to say "Ali G" and I just said, "I'm not working for Ali G. I promise you I'm not working for Ali. I do not know Ali G." They figured it out but they thought his name was Ali G. But we learned so much for being in jail. We learned we couldn't do two things in one place. Sacha’s so amazing about keeping it real in the conversation that when they walk away and have a moment to think they go, "Wait a second. Something's weird about that." So that was where we learned we couldn't go back to the well. Once you do it once, you have to get out of there.

A scene from the movie "Borat" is seen here.

JAY ROACH: It was a challenging production. You don’t get retakes and you don't have room for error. So you had to have multiple cameras at the same time because whatever is going to be amazing about [a scene] is only going to happen one time – and it’s a very tense experience, I would imagine, but it's also kind of exciting. I just watching the dailies and I always sensed it was getting funnier and funnier just as the police sirens were coming – that’s when you could tell that some of the best stuff was happening, once they knew it was getting pretty hairy. I suspect the audience senses that - that it's very live, it's very unpredictable and spontaneous and dangerous.

Perhaps one of the most famous scenes in the movie -- the scene in which Borat and Azamat wrestle, naked -- was one of the most most harrowing to shoot.

DAN MAZER: We had to shoot the naked fights -- the bit where they run into the mortgage conference and Borat and Azamat had to wrestle -- three times, and that was the most dangerous shoot because of public nudity rules. We had to go to certain places and the first couple times that we tried it implausibly [failed]. The first time we tried it they ran into an engineering lecture in a [Dallas] hotel. They ran into the lecture, the lecturer gazed up, all the attendees gazed up, and they all just went back to whatever they were doing, not reacting even remotely. We did it again somewhere else where nobody reacted and we couldn’t understand it, so we did it a third time in the San Diego mortgage convention, and what's interesting is we chose that place specifically because because [legally] they would allow us to do it.

KEN DAVITIAN: I don't remember three. I remember two. I kept saying, "Guys - fat guy in boxers! It's hilarious! Let's just do it that way!" Everybody was fine with it except Sacha. After we did the naked fight in the room, and that took about three hours, we ran into the elevator and into the room where the banquet was and all I remember thinking, "Get to the stage." So we’re running and he’s faster than I am, and I slipped, he fell on top of me and we finally got to the stage. Hotel security took me out and I’m totally naked. At the time you’re thinking, "I need bigger hands!" I’m standing in the hallway, and another cop walks up, says "I’ll take it from here," and takes me outside. He says to me, "Get in that van." I stayed naked in the back of a van for 45 minutes. I thought I was getting arrested. Nobody wanted to tell us anything. That was a way to get a reaction.

PETER BAYNHAM: In the end you want the best movie. We're trying to make the funniest movie we can and make points and be satirical and be pointed and the thing with that is, there's a large turnover of stuff. So normally if I'm on a regular film set with nice food and coffee and a lot of people and security, in those situations they would shout out to me or Dan, "Have we got the scene yet?" and if we're not sure we'll go, "Maybe another take!" and the scariest thing would be a production manager scowling at us because we're spending studio money. With this, he'd get in situations where he'd do it once and we'd say, "We've got it, let's go!" But [Baron Cohen] is very, very thorough sometimes he'd say, "Let's do it again." When you got into the editing suite, you're grateful - assuming you make it to the editing suite.

DAN MAZER: [Baron Cohen's] commitment is amazing. He lived in that mustache and the hair for the year of his life and wherever he went, we never changed the suit because we thought Borat would smell. He only had that suit and that underwear the whole time and he reeked.

MONICA LEVINSON: You could smell him from a mile away.

DAN MAZER: In the writing room he’d shoot [bonus cuts] as Sacha, but for 12 hours stretches every day he’d be Borat. They’d call him Borat or Mr. Sagdiyev, so he completely lived it. We almost thought he got Stockholm Syndrome: He would carry around underwear that would be authentic Kazakh underwear. He'd have a Kazakh passport. Everything was completely legit.

MONICA LEVINSON: Number one, he didn’t want to lose his accent which I understand but number two, he didn't want anybody from the crew to make a mistake. So when he put on the suit and he had his hair done and he was Borat, you needed to call him that. You could slip up otherwise, so we all were put in a place where we only thought of that man as Borat, and that was important because everybody is playing a part when you go to those interviews. It's not like he's a method actor - it's because it's part of what he does so well, which is become a character.

He's also talented behind the scenes, his colleagues say. Mazer credits him with convincing Pamela Anderson to agree to do the movie.

DAN MAZER: Once Sacha got in a room the room with Pamela Anderson, she was incredibly game and willing and signed on pretty immediately, but there was a degree of wooing. We toyed with one other name -- Paris Hilton, who was the prototype Kim Kardashian - but she wasn't quite as ubiquitous as she later become. We wanted somebody who epitomized America and was the embodiment of America and its values and Pamela Anderson was our number one choice. She didn't know she was going to be put in a sack and chased down the street. There was a sense of panic and fear.

KEN DAVITIAN: She ran out of the store and into a Jeep Cherokee. The driver opens the door and she hops in, and we thought it was her people they thought it was our people. Somebody thought she was in trouble picked her up drove her around! After they dropped her off and said they sent a letter to her agent and said, "I have her shoe! I’ll send it to you if you send me an autographed picture."

After the movie was completed, the crew got to work thinking up creative publicity stunts to raise awareness of the film and pique curiosity. Two of their most successful? Baron Cohen wore a neon green "mankini" on the beach in Cannes, where he was ultimately photographed by hordes of photographers, and he also held press conference outside the Kazakh Embassy in Washington D.C.

MONICA LEVINSON: Every premiere was a production. Usually I would just be going to a premiere, getting dressed up and enjoying myself - but now we were finding gypsy women to carry a chariot that Borat would be on top of and every city had its own theme. That was Sacha working really hard.

PETER BAYNHAM: That part was fun because you’re not in a car park somewhere with people in pickups circling your van! It was all hard work [though] because we were writing that stuff and all these appearances.

It paid off. "Borat" had a huge opening weekend, topping the box office and earning $26 million.

JAY ROACH: I had this unique experience in going around as we were showing the film around the world where during the naked fight, I would look around and people were slapping each other, people would pull their shirts out of their heads - it was out of body. At one screening, two guys ran to the screen and ran back, high-fiving the crowd and it just became this mad, almost a holy roller [reaction]. It kept building and building and building and I had director friends who respect, all of us were saying, "We may never achieve this level of comedy that Sacha and Larry got to." It was intimidating. I felt this way too: I may have to retire. I don't know if we can ever do this again. If this is how far one has to go, then we may just have to leave it at this and bow before Sacha.

PETER BAYNHAM: The weird thing for me was that it was the first thing I’d done in Hollywood and I remember just being so wrapped up in the stress of it all and going a little bit bonkers as we say in Britain. I remember we got to the weekend it was opening and it was looking like it was going to do well, and [I was] in Chicago with my girlfriend, who's now my wife, and we went to see it on Friday night. People were falling down laughing in the cinema and I couldn't enjoy it. I came out and I remember being in the lobby of the cinema and people were walking past and me saying to my wife, "That guy didn't like it! I could tell that person hated it!" We went with her friends the following night - such a masochistic thing to do - and I perceived one of her friends was slightly offended and I was so upset. You end up caring about it so much. We really cared about it because we loved it and we wanted it to be a hit. I don’t read reviews anymore because of that.

However, in spite of the film's success, the team behind the movie decided it would be too difficult to attempt to shoot a sequel.

DAN MAZER: We were in Dallas for two-and-a-half weeks and what we were worried about was a local newspaper getting a hold of the fact that we were around. [Today] there would be people with cell phones, it would be on Twitter: "Sacha Baron Cohen is in town." That would crush us.

JAY ROACH: I don't know how you could do it. The character is so well-known now and even Sacha himself has gotten more well-known. I hear even my parents, who are really conservative, imitate Borat. We certainly always wondered about it but there’s no easy way to do that again. I also think people are so well-connected that once it happens, it would get out so quickly. It may have been a one-time incredible thing that he was able to pull off.

MONICA LEVINSON: I'm super-proud of the movie. It was a great experience – especially as we came to the other side of it. It was fun to figure out. And then also, everybody that worked on that film - there's such a bond between all of us. We're all really close because it was a bonding experience. It was a secret process so we spent a lot of time together and I'm very proud of everybody that worked on the movie. I'm happy to have it as part of my past.