Larry Charles is out to provoke

Special to The Times

Larry CHARLES sees the world as a place of chaos and anarchy and describes himself as an “apocalyptic thinker.” His sense of agitated intelligence and playful subversion has come through in everything he has been involved in, including the television shows “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the feature films he has directed, “Masked and Anonymous” and “Borat.”

His latest film is “Religulous,” which opens Oct. 3. Starring comedian-satirist Bill Maher, the film takes as its topic the broad notion of religion, covering the big three of Christianity, Islam and Judaism as well as other stops along the faith-based way. As insightful as it is impudent, as thoughtful as it is hilarious, “Religulous” fits in perfectly with Charles’ previous portraits of a world gone wrong, except this time it’s for real.

“This is definitely a nonfiction film, and it’s a comedy,” Charles says recently in his West Los Angeles office. “Beyond that, you can call it anything you want. I don’t mind if it’s not even called a documentary, even though technically it is.”


“Religulous,” filmed over three months in the winter of 2006-07, found Maher and Charles traveling across the United States, Europe and the holy sites of Israel. The techniques used on “Religulous” are similar to those Charles used to make “Borat” -- a small, fast-moving crew in run-and-gun situations, creating an anything-goes attitude for Maher’s relentless but fair-minded questioning of those he encounters. This time, Charles even makes a few furtive appearances, and some of the most disarmingly candid footage in the film comes from Charles casually probing Maher as they roll in a van from one location to the next.

“I’m not a control freak,” Charles says. “I don’t want to impose my will on things. I want things to just sort of happen, and I want to capture it.”

There was a certain method to the madness, however, as situations were shaped for maximum effect. At times the subject would not know that Maher would be conducting the interview until the entertainer walked into the room. Charles, for his part, remains unapologetic about how any of his subjects may feel for the way they come off in the movie.

“The fact of the matter,” Charles says, “and I swear to God this is true -- no pun intended -- in most situations, people never asked who the interviewer was. If they didn’t ask, I didn’t volunteer it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If you don’t ask who it is, and I’m not volunteering who it is, and you sit down for the interview and find out who it is, you’ll deal with it then, and that will be a real moment.

“I was surprised on ‘Borat’ too how few questions there are that people have in these situations.”

Rather than simply shooting fish in a barrel, however, Charles and Maher have tried to ensure that “Religulous” takes on all comers. Those who laugh the hardest at others may be the ones who find the message of the film’s finale most disconcerting of all.


“The surprise twist, we turn it back on you,” Charles says. “You don’t see that coming. You think it’s going to be an easy romp through everybody else’s [beliefs], but when you’ve got to deal with your own, it’s harder.

“And that was a conscious decision we made. We wanted it to be uncomfortable at the end. We want you to walk out not necessarily happy. Entertained but also provoked in some way.”