ALI G INDAHOUSE
Movie Interview by Kris Griffiths
PHASE9 meets up with director Mark Mylod, writer Dan Mazer, actor Martin Freeman and actress Kellie Bright.
At this moment in time there isn't really anyone in the UK who has not heard of the nation's 'Voice of Yoof', but a lot of them don't know much of Ali's background and how he suddenly rose to fame. Here's the story. Born in Staines Hospital, Alistair Graham grew up in and around Staines in the southern county of Berkshire. Now residing in West Staines with his Nan and long-term girlfriend, Julie, or Me Julie as she is better known, he is the leader of the West Staines Massive (not to be confused with the East Staines Massive). His right hand man and best friend is Ricky C with whom he co-founded his pirate radio station Drive By FM. Ali is also a resident DJ at The Crooked Billet pub, Iver Heath, where he DJs every Sunday, supplementing his income by signing on the dole and dealing.
It was at the Crooked Billet that Ali was spotted by TV executives and offered his first big break as youth correspondent on THE 11 O'CLOCK SHOW - a crap topical 'comedy' programme that instantly turned him into a national phenomenon. Only a year later Channel 4 gave him his own award-winning series DA ALI G SHOW, and the new millennium saw him break into the music industry following an invitation from Madonna to star in her video. Soon afterwards Ali presented an MTV Europe Award in Stockholm and was invited back to host the whole awards ceremony in Frankfurt, having proved such a success hosting the Staines and Egham News 'Search For A Star'. ALI G INDAHOUSE, for which he has recorded a duet with Shaggy, marks Ali's big screen debut.
The film was written by the man in Ali G's shoes, Cambridge graduate Sacha Baron Cohen, and the character's co-creator Dan Mazer. Discussing the script's initial concept Mazer says, "the fact is we were very lucky insofar as we had a character that we'd built up a whole identity for, a history for, who is funny in his own right. You can place him in any number of situations and know that funny stuff will happen." However, adds Mazer, "everything we'd done before had been completely real and in real situations and that's how it worked best. We had this template of a character who had his own idiosyncrasies and his own identity in this world of Staines, and had to transfer this onto the big screen creating a film that would be funny in its own right."
With that in mind, when working on the script Cohen and Mazer had to place Ali into a fictitious world that would maximise comic effect. "It's classic fish out of water," says Mazer on the idea behind the political setting and narrative of the film, "we knew that Ali existed best when interviewing pompous, self-righteous individuals and worked best against a framework of seriousness. Therefore we thought 'well what is the most serious and austere surrounding in which we can place him?' and that's the world of politics, so the two naturally fit."
Also making his feature film debut, director Mark Mylod expands on how the actual construction of the comedy was the key: "In comedy films, you get a joke going and roll with it. If you get a joke right and don't flog it to death, you get an audience on a roll and you continue to build on that. That's where film comedy works incredibly well." This is not quite the same for TV, where Mylod was used to working in half hour slots. "With television you can hit viewers more consistently and not worry so much about pacing. Over 90 minutes you have to try and take the audience on this ride where you give them a laugh, then give them a break, then hit them with something from a different angle. So it's important to get the structure right because no one can laugh for 90 minutes. People will say they laughed all the way through THE FAST SHOW but in film you have to give them breaks."
Fresh from the success of British mockumentary THE OFFICE, Martin Freeman steps into the shoes of Ali G's homie Ricky C. What was it like working with the main man? "One thing you have to remember about Sacha/Ali is that he ain't right... he is ill," quips Freeman pointing to his brain. "He could no more direct me to act than I could direct flight traffic. The man is a big lumbering fool."
On the other hand, both Mazer and Mylod found the working relationship between themselves and Baron Cohen very constructive and creative. "Sacha and I have been doing Ali G from the very beginning," explains Mazer. "We know how Ali would react in every situation because we've been through most situations with him and we know his character inside out. Mark has an amazing track record - he's done some of the best comedy of the last ten years and it's a good kind of reciprocal relationship because we've never done any real comedy drama before and he has that experience which is brilliant. He knows instinctively what's funny and then we chip in with our kind of Ali-ish take on things."
ALI G INDAHOUSE was shot almost entirely on location in and around London, Staines and Manchester with a week of interiors shot at Bray Studios in Berkshire. Mazer insisted that shooting on location was vital to maintain the film's veracity. "It all comes back to the same thing, the reality. It relies on people believing that this person could actually exist, so when it came to choosing our locations we wanted to really reflect that world." He adds, "he is a suburban homeboy so we had to go to the suburbs and recreate this genuine world of bleakness, almost boredom, that these people live and thrive in."
And so on a hot day in May, Staines High Street was brought to a standstill when Ali G and his posse stepped out in his hometown. The pubs and buildings were adorned with the graffiti art of the East and West Staines Massives and the two customised Renault 5's of Ali and archrival Hassan B made chase through the town. Mylod describes the practical difficulties of shooting in Staines: "the Ali G character is so bloody popular we were swamped with people like a mini version of Beatlemania - just gangs of small children and the occasional adult running around desperate for an autograph, and some of them even wanted Ali G's." Ha ha.
The very first week of shooting was spent in Los Angeles, capturing the film's opening sequence where Ali dreams he is caught up in some real gang warfare. For Mazer and Mylod, stepping onto the streets of LA for their first time ever on a film set was quite mind blowing. "You've been working away very happily on a script for a bit and you think 'ok a movie might happen, it might not' but the thing about films is that everyone says 'yeah, yeah, yeah' but 90% of films fall through at any time up to the last minute," says an optimistic Mazer on the prospects of getting his debut film off the ground. "So to walk into the middle of East LA, you know, gangstaville, with a crew of 110, shooting a movie, was a slight mind fuck." Mylod adds, "It was weird going in on day one of the shoot and doing this heavy sequence, but I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. We worked hard out there, but I love the way the Americans work. It was all my fantasies come true."
But what exactly was the reaction to the film in the USA? Did they 'get' the joke? Mazer expounds in detail: "we did do a test screening where everyone actually laughed dramatically, which was weird because we went there with incredible trepidation expecting it to go down in deathly silence. But they loved it and I think they did get it. Obviously, certain aspects of it completely passed them by and some scenes didn't make any sense to them whatsoever, but what they got they really got. The joke is slightly different there - instead of a gangster coming from Staines it's a gangster coming from England, and that's the running joke for them."
With respect to all the other jokes in the film, were the writers not worried about crossing lines of taste and decency? "I think that I was the taste police," replies Mylod, "and Dan Mazer has no scruples whatsoever. If something was in bad taste, the worst of taste, the more Dan would love it." Mazer retorts: "Let's bear in mind that it's a 15, so it's all kind of tongue-in-cheek. We didn't show anything too graphically - there aren't any breasts or any naked bodies or any shit like there was in KEVIN AND PERRY. We were very keen not to get an 'uurgh' reaction instead of a laugh and I think there were definitely more laughs."
What about Charles Dance dancing in a rubber skirt? "Well that depends on your personal sexual predilections," responds Mazer. "That was definitely an 'uurgh' but for some it might be an 'aah'. Ali G has always trod a very narrow line which will appeal to some and won't to others but we used our judgement to try and make sure there were more 'aahs' than 'uurghs' in the film."
Concluding this interesting discourse, Mark Mylod has the final word: "Take it or leave it. I'm not going to run around with the press gang saying 'come and see our film'... just come and see it if you think it'll make you laugh. I think it's really funny and I hope other people will, so anyone who doesn't think it's funny, well they can all go and watch IRIS." Oooooh...