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How to win auds, subvert genres

'Borat,' 'Men' use different strokes to score points

Chances are that many moviegoers who stumbled into “Borat” and “Children of Men” weren’t expecting to bite into social commentary with their popcorn. But in both cases, that’s precisely what the screenwriters had in mind.

What could have been a mere sci-fi thriller turned into a subversive bit of agitprop in the hands of director-screenwriter Alfonso Cuaron.

“I couldn’t care less about infertility, because that goes into the realm of science fiction,” he says of his film “Children of Men,” in which only one woman on earth is pregnant. “But I saw that infertility could be a point of departure to explore the themes that I cared about” — themes such as immigration, terrorism and paranoia.

“Borat” broaches those same issues from an altogether different angle, using broad comedy — best defined by a “Jackass”-style scene of two naked men wrestling — as a vehicle to satirize contempo American attitudes.

“Making it funny was the No. 1 priority,” says Anthony Hines, a member of the four-person “Borat” writing team. “But we were aware that this was an opportunity of holding a mirror up to aspects of America at quite an interesting time, when cultural and religious differences are more exaggerated than they’ve been for many years.”

While Sacha Baron Cohen’s shtick depends on adopting an air of unenlightened prejudice (particularly toward women, Jews and African-Americans), the actor-screenwriter himself is anything but. Baron Cohen wrote a thesis on the American civil rights movement while attending Cambridge and uses all three of his “Ali G Show” characters — Borat, Ali G and Bruno — as a litmus test to expose normally latent attitudes in his unsuspecting interview subjects.

“When Sacha first came up with the idea,” says co-writer Peter Baynham, “the satirical device was to get a guy in the room who’s sort of to the right of any reasonable person in terms of his extreme views and see if he could get people to agree with him wholeheartedly.”

Take the rodeo scene in which Borat declares unconditional support for Bush’s “war of terror.” It was designed “to see how far we can push the pro-Republican line on what America’s doing overseas before we go too far,” Baynham explains.

Since Cohen is one of only three professional actors in the entire movie, the screenwriting process was unlike any other film. Cohen, Hines, Baynham and Dan Mazer devised scenarios in which Borat could get himself in trouble and then turn him loose on real people tolerant enough to humor the vaguely Middle Eastern character. Cohen then maneuvered the scene toward specific pre-planned gags.

A reasonable indicator of the writers’ agenda can be seen in purely scripted scenes, such as the “running of the Jews” or Borat’s reaction to the cockroaches in the Jewish bed-and-breakfast. Here, the writers unearthed ancient anti-Semitic mythology to reveal just how backward such superstitions can be. “People who would not otherwise be open to a message, because they were feeling preached at, might accidentally think about what Sacha is doing,” says producer Jay Roach.

Cuaron readily admits that an action-movie plot served the same purpose in “Children of Men,” based on the P.D. James novel. With the focus of every scene being Clive Owen, the near-future milieu was used to examine the present.

“The main character is as important as the sociopolitical environment that he goes through,” says Cuaron, who first received the screenplay by David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby as he was finishing “Y tu mama tambien.” “At the turn of the century, I wanted to do something that thematically would be about the state of things,” he says, “the collapse of the utopia of global democratic capitalism, which was already starting to show cracks.”

Partnering with Timothy J. Sexton, Cuaron set out to write a fresh adaptation with his own themes at the fore: “We said there was going to be a war in 2008 that was going to last until 2020 or something like that — and that was before even the war in Iraq — but it’s not because we were prophets. If you read the right people, they were already predicting all this stuff.”

The pair referenced “The Battle of Algiers,” favoring a documentary aesthetic that avoided melodrama and exposition — hardly the standard format for a sci-fi chase movie. Writing continued into post-production, as Cuaron and Sexton fleshed out the universe with further commentaries hidden in news broadcasts, propaganda posters and advertising.

The “Borat” team did critical rewrites in post as well, testing the film to make sure the more overt political jokes didn’t elude auds. “Focus group after focus group, we couldn’t find an audience that didn’t get it,” says Roach. “Because Sacha found a way to mix satire with comedy in the middle of a fleshed-out story, they get it.”

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