David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, screenwriters of Sacha Baron Cohen's latest film, "The Dictator," were bantering in the comic actor's office as Alec Berg, their co-writer, joined in by speakerphone (he was home babysitting his young daughter).
Baron Cohen, star of the prankster mockumentaries "Bruno" and "Borat," was about to move out, and the office was bare except for some black leather furniture, wigs from his turn as a gay fashionista in an antechamber and posters of "The Dictator" looming large.
Notoriously reclusive, Baron Cohen eschews interviews except in character, and on this day he was behind a closed door in a nearby office, where the screenwriters were about to join him to concoct further publicity stunts for his dictator character in advance of the film's release on May 16.
Among other stunts so far, the writers helped plan Baron Cohen's spilling "ashes of Kim Jong-il" all over Ryan Seacrest (it was actually pancake mix) while Seacrest was live on camera on the red carpet at the Oscars. They also helped Baron Cohen — er, the dictator — blame "The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Zionists" for banning his character from the ensuing awards ceremony.
There is a philosophy behind even the crudest of their pranks and scenes, the writers say.
"What Sacha always tries to do, with 'Borat,' 'Bruno' and even 'The Dictator,' is to make sure your victims are worthy, so that there's a satirical aspect to the comedy," said Schaffer, who, like Berg and Mandel, is a Harvard graduate in his early 40s with executive producing credits on "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." "These aren't innocent victims. And nobody is going to feel sorry for Ryan Seacrest."
Baron Cohen became an international sensation in 2006 with his character Borat, a sexist, anti-Semitic TV anchor allegedly from Kazakhstan who descended upon the United States only to elicit the worst in American culture. In one cringe-worthy sequence, he enlisted unsuspecting patrons of a country-and-western bar to sing along to supposedly traditional Kazakh song, "Throw the Jew Down the Well." In 2009's "Bruno," his fashionista character tries to broker peace between dour Israelis and Palestinians while confusing the word "hummus" with "Hamas."
The social satire is pushed even further in "The Dictator," Baron Cohen's first scripted film, for which he shares writing credit with Mandel, Schaffer and Berg. The story spotlights Adm. Gen. Shabazz Aladeen, a fascist, misogynistic, Zionist-hating North African despot who arrives in the United States to address the United Nations, only to be kidnapped, shaved and stripped of his identity and left to wander the city until he is rescued by a naive grocery manager played by Anna Faris.
Along the way, Aladeen spars with his ex-head of security (and "chief procurer of women") Tamir, played by Ben Kingsley; teams up with his former top scientist, aka Nuclear Nadal; encounters post-Sept. 11 prejudice; and has a run-in with the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.
During the interview, the three writers, who met while working on the Harvard Lampoon, weren't above skewering their own Jewishness — or lack thereof. Mandel is an Upper West Sider who attended Hebrew school until his Bar Mitzvah and not a day afterward; Schaffer was such a prankster at his own religious school that he was expelled; and Berg has a Jewish wife but is actually a Swedish-American non-Jew — not that that prevents everyone from assuming he's a member of the tribe. Berg, in fact, said he was the inspiration for a "Curb" episode in which Larry David's prickly character is mortified to discover his divorce attorney, also named Berg, is not Jewish and is thus, he fears, "out to screw him."
Baron Cohen's work hasn't been without its critics. Back in 2006, the Anti-Defamation League worried that "Borat" might enhance rather than dash anti-Semitism in some quarters; "The Dictator" could well elicit charges of encouraging instead of deflating Islamophobia since the World Trade Center attacks.
In The Jerusalem Post, Palestinian writer Ray Hanania suggested that the observantly Jewish Baron Cohen would do better to satirize his own people instead of "picking on easy targets," such as Arab dictators.
Mandel, Schaffer and Berg quickly stop joking when confronted with these questions. "Let's be as clear as humanly possible," Mandel said. "Technically speaking, the dictator is North African. But he is not Muslim. There is no mention of Muslims, or Muslim humor."
"Of course, Aladeen is clearly not a Zionist," Berg added. "He dislikes Jews, but only as part of an anti-Zionist, anti-West agenda. To us, he's always been an amalgam of world dictators, like Kim Jong-il, Idi Amin, Gadhafi and Serdar Turkmenbashi of Turkmenistan," Mandel said.
The writing team came up with the idea for "The Dictator" after Baron Cohen, who had brought them in to collaborate on "Borat" and "Bruno," asked them to pitch ideas for a new film. When they described a spoof based on the crazed despots of the world, Baron Cohen was hooked.
"You can't make this stuff up," Mandel said of some real-life events that inspired scenes in the movie. Turkmenbashi really did pass a law naming two days of the week after himself; Kim Jong-il, according to North Korean propaganda, hit nine holes in one the first time he played golf; and Moammar Gadhafi traveled with his all-female security force, so of course Baron Cohen's dictator "travels with his virgin guard," Schaffer said.
And don't forget the kitschy, pseudo-heroic black-light portraits that Saddam Hussein's sons hung all over their palaces. "So, in the movie, there's sort of a black-velvet painting of a muscular Aladeen riding a jaguar, clutching the severed head of Albert Einstein," Mandel said with a laugh.
The writers describe "The Dictator" as the first mainstream-studio comedy to take on the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing fear of Arabs — or people mistaken as Arab — particularly where air travel is concerned.
"We do a scene in which Aladeen is somewhat innocently taking a ride in a helicopter, but it's really about what the two other passengers, Midwestern Americans, are seeing and hearing," Mandel said. "He's having a normal conversation in his native tongue about all the wonderful things that New York has to offer, like the Empire State Building, while the other passengers begin to get worried. Then he's telling a story about how he crashed his Porsche 911 so he's hoping to get the new 2012 911. But he couldn't be more innocent."
The Arab Spring, which took place while "The Dictator" was shooting, required copious revisions of the script. "None of those countries took into account how much rewriting we had to do," Schaffer quipped.
But for the trio, anyway, writing a scripted film may have proven in some ways easier than Baron Cohen's previous mockumentaries.
"Whereas in 'Borat' and 'Bruno' you're going, 'I hope this person says this'; in a script, you just go, 'he says this,' " Schaffer said.