In The City of Devils: An interview with filmmaker Ash Baron Cohen

By jes. on June 29, 2009

LOS ANGELES (Herald de Paris) – Ash Baron Cohen is not your ordinary filmmaker.  Unlike so many fresh-from-university types, who emerge on the cinema scene with MFA degrees in-hand and no practical experience understanding people, Ash, a cousin of BORAT‘s Sacha Baron Cohen, holds a degree in experimental psychology from the University of Sussex.  With such an analytical insight into what makes his actors and characters tick, and why, Ash, short for Ashley, has quickly become known for producing films of great depth.

How deep are Ash’s compositions? Oliver Stone called Ash, “A young British filmmaker who has undoubtedly flourished to become one of the most gifted directors of his generation.”

Best-known for 2003’s A Girl’s Life, Ash is currently in pre- and post-production, directing three separate films, Novella, RadioActive, and Little Warriors: Big Fists.  On the latter two, Cohen carries not just director and producer credits, but also owns the writer’s title.

We sent veteran Hollywood film critic and interviewer John Esther for an insightful, introspective, and intensely fun chat with Cohen:

Why do you call Los Angeles “The City of Devils”?
It probably brings out the best and worst of people. It brings out the devil in people.

In what way does it bring out the devil in you?
Well, it gets me a little bit creative and mischievous.

What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I’ve got a few different projects. I’m casting a female Scarface project called Radioactive. I’ve been sitting down with some great actors like Ed Harris, Donald Sutherland and Diane Kruger. It looks like we’re about to land a great Oscar-winning actor whose name I’m not allowed to reveal quite yet but he’s a master comedian who’s going to be doing a serious role as a godfather. It’s set a gangster film set in contemporary Los Angeles. Then we’re casting a film for the Yari Film Group called Novella, Lenny Kravitz is attached to it. He plays the male lead. It’s a Basic Instinct movie world of rich-wary college.

Is it about an aspiring novelist?
Yeah, it’s about an aspiring novelist and literary professor who’s desperate to get another hit novel and what will one sacrifice for the quest in creating an original piece of art.

What have you sacrificed over the years for your art?
The lower half of my body. I’m trying to make sure that still works. Hopefully I haven’t had to make too many sacrifices. I’ve been lucky to follow my passion, which is a lucky thing in this life.

Why are you drawn to writing and filmmaking? Why is it a passion of yours?
That’s a good question. I sort of feel I have to do it. If I don’t I feel horrendously guilty. It just nags at me. I tend force myself to sit down at a computer.

Is there a lack of what you want to see on the screen?
Fortunately or unfortunately the movies the studios are making tend to be the big tent-pole movies or X-Men Part III or Part XXIII. It’s harder to find scripts that are really original like Slumdog Millionaire. For me you have to dig really deep inside yourself to find something really original. What’s good about that is that it will attract all these buyers and talent.

How would you describe your work? Comedic, political….
As a kid growing up in London I was very influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s work. His work has a social slant or perspective with a lot of integrity to it, but at the same time he managed to make movies that were commercial successes, too. His movies will probably be remembered for the rest of human consciousness. He seemed to be able to figure out the hybrid or marriage between a movie that could make a quite a bit of money and had a real cultural value. I definitely would like to try and make movies like that, that would excite people.

Speaking of Kubrick, the moment I realized movies could be more than just entertainment – on a subconscious level at least – was the “Singin’ in the Rain” rape scene in A Clockwork Orange. As a kid I felt an indescribable nausea as I watched this brutal assault and violation of human dignity, identity and pathos.

A protagonist was not necessarily admirable. Did you have a similar experience where you realized film could be art?
I was a 10 or 11-year-old boy who snuck into a screening of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth. Having taken a look at Macbeth in school and suddenly seeing how Polanski portrayed it on screen and how visceral and bloody and sexy it was; and then seeing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a movies that didn’t feel like a movie but like you were in a documentary. I grew up in England skipping school and watching documentaries on TV. My shooting style has definitely been geared and influenced by documentaries.

Your cousin is creative, too. Did you two grow up creating together, feeding off each other’s work? What was your relationship?
Sacha has always been very supportive. Consequently he’s gone on to be a master in the entertainment world. I’ve gone to all of his screenings. He’s come to all of my screenings, or the majority of them. We’ve always been fans of each other’s work, championed each other’s work. It’s good to know there’s somebody there who’s family who will always have your back and encourage you when you’re creatively down and champion you when you’re up.

Did you feed off each other during the early years?
We’ve both been independent when it has come to our creative endeavors. He has his own comedic style. I have my own style; mine is more serious than his. His vein is comedy but, having said that, a lot of his comedic stuff has serious undertones.

Lastly, how do you feel about these interviews where you talk about your work? Does it serve the work? Should the work speak for itself?
That’s a good question. I feel, preferably, the work should speak for itself. That’s sort of the reason why I’ve stayed behind the camera. But at the same time I realize that the world is one of curiosity so I’m open to share a few words or few thoughts along the way.

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