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A script for ‘Borat’ surfaces just in time

Times Staff Writers

Maybe it’s another sign of the approaching apocalypse or simply a signpost along the evolutionary trail of comedy screenwriting, but “Borat” -- a film that relies heavily on the unscripted reactions of nonactors -- had no fewer than four screenwriters, including the hit film’s star, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

If the generally high-minded Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences were to embrace the low-brow mockumentary and give an Oscar nomination to “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” on Tuesday, it could set the stage for yet another show-stopping acceptance speech (if you watched the Golden Globes, you know what we mean) and raise new questions about how much of “Borat” was scripted, how much was improv, and, at the end of the day, if that matters.

When 20th Century Fox released “Borat” last year, the studio’s production notes said “there was no script” on the film.

“The movie was an experiment -- a new form of filmmaking for an age in which reality and entertainment have become increasingly intertwined,” the production notes explained.

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At a Writers Guild question-and-answer session last week, Baron Cohen portrayed the film as the handiwork of its screenwriters and said that 80% of the film contained scenes that they “set out to accomplish.”

“We’d sit around the writers’ room and imagine the scene -- ‘What do we want it to look like?’ ” he said. “Looking at the script and the finished film, they’re remarkably the same.”

He did concede that the studio was none the wiser. “We sent them a five-page outline, but secretly we had a 60-page outline and pages for each scene. If there’s one lesson to learn, it’s don’t ever give the studio your script.”

Fox declined to comment.

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For the uninitiated, the film follows a character who purports to be a Kazakhstan journalist named Borat Sagdiyev as he sets out across America.

Along the way, he pulls one outrageous prank after another on a host of unsuspecting people. “Borat” is based on the character Baron Cohen created on HBO’s “Da Ali G Show.” Baron Cohen shares screenplay credit with Peter Baynham, Anthony Hines and Dan Mazer.

“Borat” is just the latest example of how comedies are rewriting the rule book when it comes to scripted material.

The guild, for example, which honors both TV and film writing, has previously recognized Larry David, creator of the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which contains both scripted and unscripted material.

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Unconventional, yes. But undoubtedly still the work of a writer, experts say.

“Any time you have a traveling plot that moves from episode to episode as you do in ‘Borat,’ you’ve got a screenplay,” said Jeanine Basinger, who chairs the film studies department at Wesleyan University. “He has to have an idea of what kind of people he is looking for and what he is going to ask them.”

In this month’s edition of “Written By,” the WGA’s in-house publication, Mazer confirmed that “you sort of know how people are going to respond in some ways. You plot their responses, and it’s like a flowchart.” He added that the writing was carried into postproduction “in order to make it fit and meld together.”

For his part, Baron Cohen added: “The principle that we use is we go in as scripted as possible. But then you’ve also got to be prepared to throw everything away if new opportunities present themselves.”

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The WGA has a history of recognizing new formats. Four years ago, the WGA took a controversial step when it nominated Michael Moore’s anti-gun documentary “Bowling for Columbine” for best original screenplay. It was the first time in the guild’s history that a documentary film had been nominated in that category.

“I think the guild really respects the creative voice,” said guild spokeswoman Jody Frisch. “It comes in all forms -- not a narrow A, B or C.” The guild, which has about 7,000 members, voted at-large on the nominees. Also nominated alongside “Borat” in the best adapted screenplay are “The Departed,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Little Children” and “Thank You for Smoking.”

Veteran screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, whose writing credits include “Reversal of Fortune,” sees the “Borat” nomination as “a tribute to the insane and wildly inspirational nature of what Sacha Baron Cohen created. The part that is fictionalized is so crazy that people feel he deserves to be applauded.”

But Kazan adds that he might have felt otherwise if he was one of the other nominees, especially writers who may have labored long hours over a 120-page script. “Certainly, there are many lines in ‘Borat’ that were not written by any of the credited writers but written, as it were, by people who were lured into the farce. Perhaps they should be credited too, which would make for a very long list of screenwriters.”

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Ed Solomon, whose writing credits include “Men in Black,” believes the issue is not whether what the camera captures is planned or unplanned. “The point is, there was a group of writers who designed and shaped the movie and whose work is represented on screen,” he said. “How they came about getting what they got is almost irrelevant.”

robert.welkos@latimes.com


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