Larry Charles: Beyond Belief
Someone should have told American comedy pioneer Larry Charles, you don’t mess with God. Here, he meets Alistair Harkness to talk about his new satirical documentary Religulous, which carries on cinema’s uneasy relationship with organised religion
‘The controversy of people standing in front of a theatre with placards means nothing to me,’ announces Larry Charles. The Borat director and US comedy colossus, famed for his creative input into genre-redefining TV shows Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, is referring to the predictable protests that greeted the premiere of his latest film, Religulous, at last autumn’s Toronto Film Festival.
Why were they predictable? Because Religulous is a satirical documentary that puts faith under the spotlight – and if recent cinematic history has taught us anything, it’s that a lot of people get bent out of shape when they feel their belief systems are under attack.
Need proof? Just run through the roster of religious-themed cinema over the last few decades. Organised outrage tends to accompany all but the most devout onscreen representations of religion. Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1973), was condemned as blasphemous, banned in many countries and outlawed – sight unseen – by local councils across Britain (the mayor of Aberystwyth only got round to lifting the ban earlier this year). Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary (1985), a retelling of the virgin birth, went one better, receiving a Papal denunciation for heresy. More distressingly, French Christian fundamentalists firebombed a Paris cinema to protest Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1987), the theological merits of which were overshadowed by months of baby-brained speculation about the natuare of a love scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
Then there was Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999), a love-letter to Catholicism (albeit a profanity-laden one), that led to death threats against the director and saw Disney kowtow to pressure from the Catholic League by offloading it to Lionsgate. Even that hulking chunk of hokum The Da Vinci Code (2006) sparked global protests and demands for its ban from Catholic groups.
Why such hysteria? Religulous provides some answers. Made in collaboration with veteran US stand-up Bill Maher, the film pulls the curtain back, Wizard of Oz-style, on the flakier, shakier aspects of religion, in many cases exposing the twisted rationale – if any rationale exists – behind a strict adherence to a specific belief.
‘One of the things we learned while making the movie,’ nods Charles, ‘was just how much people want to talk about their religion but how little they actually know about it. We did a lot of studying so we’d be prepared for the discussions we were anticipating, and yet we found a lot of the people who were willing to talk had never really explored the depths of their own religion and were really quite ignorant about it.’
What’s likely to make the film more inflammatory however, is that it actively argues against the value of organised religion, specifically targeting the tyranny of fundamentalism in all its guises, whether associated with Christianity, Judaism, Islam or some fringe cult. It’s a funny and refreshing approach – and brave too, especially given the fate of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, murdered in 2004 by Muslim extremists for questioning aspects of Islam with his provocative short film, Submission. Religulous mentions this case and despite the risks that come with such territory, Charles knew he and Mayer couldn’t be selective in choosing which religions to focus their humorous gaze upon.
‘We’re fairly experienced comedy minds and we felt like we had to figure out a way to find the satire in all of it,’ he says. ‘We’re also two middle-aged white guys who don’t have a lot to lose. I want to do something that has some impact and mines humour from places that most people wouldn’t dare to go.’
Charles reckons such iconoclasm stems from his Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn. ‘I’m from the same neighbourhood as Woody Allen, and if you remember in his movies, he was constantly talking about the universe and the meaning of life. I had those same questions, but I never got any encouragement in the asking of them. Whether you term them metaphysical or theological, they’ve plagued me all my life and I’ve always been looking for ways to explore them in my work. Religulous was a very pure way of doing that; so there’s been a nice synchronicity to the way it has worked out.’
No kidding. That Jewish upbringing also planted an early seed for his comedy career. The son of a failed singer (his mum) and a failed comedian (his dad), he remembers being taken to The Ed Sullivan Show as a kid and being fascinated by the realisation that there was a whole other reality behind what got broadcast on television. That deconstructionist mind made him a perfect fit as a head writer for Seinfeld, where he was credited for ratcheting up the show’s absurdist elements, developing the arcane anti-authoritarianism of kooky Cosmo Kramer in particular. It also made him a perfect fit for Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s genius follow-up, Curb Your Enthusiasm, which he was tapped to direct. ‘After that I realised I kind of had a knack for directing,’ he says. ‘That fork in the road came at just the right time.’
So did Borat. Having made his feature debut with little-seen Bob Dylan collaboration Masked & Anonymous (2003), he slipped effortlessly into the director’s chair on Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical assault on Middle America and quickly realised the power that came from making a raucous, commercially successful comedy. ‘I found with Borat that the amazing thing about a packed house acting in concert as they respond to a movie is that you can use that to question things even further.’
That was a guiding principle on Religulous, though as with Borat, some participants are now crying foul, claiming the film misrepresents them. ‘Not true,’ says Charles. ‘They’re really just seeing a second opportunity to get some media attention. Ultimately a lot of these people are media whores.’
In the end, Charles reckons it would be great if the people aghast at the very idea of this film found themselves at a multiplex on a Saturday, and having seen everything else, decided to see Religulous despite their resistance. ‘To reach that group would be very exciting and controversial,’ he says. Failing that, he’d settle for it acting as a rallying cry for the large, diverse minority of religious doubters out there whose secularity is gradually finding a more prominent, cohesive voice thanks to books such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great. ‘They’re generally okay with not being a part of something, so they’re not particularly well organised,’ laughs Charles of the film’s natural audience. ‘There’s no umbrella organisation, so maybe if this movie could help them get organised in that respect, that would be great.’
Religulous is released on Fri 3 Apr.