Quint talks religion with Larry Charles and Bill Maher!
Published at: Oct. 14, 2008, 7:52 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a chat I had with RELIGULOUS director Larry Charles. I had a blast talking with Charles about religion and his work with Bill Maher. I think we cover some very interesting ground.
There was a fuck-up with my interview with Bill Maher, which I’ll go into detail about below this interview, but suffice it to say through no fault of Maher’s I ended up getting only one or two decent questions in and I’ll slap those on the bottom of this interview, with a lead-in to how things went so wrong.
But up first, the interview that went off without a hitch! Especially keep an eye out for the possibility of a Religulous TV series! Enjoy!
Larry Charles: How are you?
Quint: Hi, I’m doing very well man, so I hear I’m following up Charlie Rose?
Larry Charles: Yes, so you don’t have much to live up to, which is good.
Quint: (laughs) Yeah, he’s not known for doing pretty good interviews, so…
Larry Charles: No, he likes to hear himself talk, but it was actually good, it’s fine.
Quint: That’s awesome. I guess we should start by saying I saw the picture and I really loved it. It’s weird, the picture struck a weird balance for me, because going in being a regular viewer of Bill’s show, I expected there to be a little bit more of a sarcastic tone to it, which as a nonreligious person, I can appreciate and laugh at, but I also don’t share a lot of his vitriol towards a lot of religions, so…
Larry Charles: Right. With the movie, I think what we accomplished in the movie and part of this has to do with the way to present Bill, because you know we show his mom and his sister and we kind of show a little bit of his childhood and you start to kind of connect to him in a way that you don’t on TV or through his stand-up and it softens him a little bit. It doesn’t compromise him, but it softens him a little bit and makes him a relatable person, a character really and so the movie is really, really funny, but it’s not as mean maybe as it might have been under different circumstances.
And of course I had fourteen and a half hours of cut material. I have four hundred hours that I shot, fourteen and a half hours that I actually cut that was stuff that was going to be in the movie in one way or another until I started making those final choices and a lot of that stuff was at times much more sarcastic and mean-spirited and stuff like that. Although I found it very funny, we wanted to strike the balance that you are talking about.
Quint: Definitely man, extremists on any side and especially the Christian extremists just seem to be so entertaining and such easy targets, what I loved about…
Larry Charles: Until they push the button and it’s World War 3, it’s all fun and games.
Quint: Until that point, until they bring about Armageddon, but what I loved about the balance is that very much like Sarah Palin now, if you attack her, you just kind of make her a little stronger, but if you letter just stick her own foot in her mouth she completely deflates herself.
Larry Charles: Precisely. That is a big part of what we wound up doing in the movie. There was a time when I was not as confident in letting people hang themselves, but slowly as I massaged my way through the material and I waded through all of that material, I started to feel much better about just letting people talk and hearing what they had to say and so that you as a viewer are watching this and going “Wait a minute, I kind of believe in this, too, and it sounds ridiculous!” It sounds religulious I guess.
Quint: I’ve always really enjoyed… My best friend is a Christian and I’m more agnostic, I really don’t pretend that I know and I have no idea, I’m open to the idea, but I love having theological discussions with my friend, because he is very level headed and he’s able to look at his religion and say “Well, I look at Genesis and it’s written in Jewish poetry, we know that…”
Larry Charles: The thing is though, if religious people were more like that, there would be no reason to make this movie, because that’s a reasonable approach, you look at it as a metaphor, you look at it as poetry, you gleen from it the wisdom that it offers you, but you don’t take it literally, but you take the lessons hopefully literally.
What we have in this country and around the world unfortunately is a lot of people, whether it be the KORAN or THE OLD TESTAMENT or THE NEW TESTAMENT or THE BOOK OF MORMON or whatever the hell it is, you have a lot of people who do not see this as a metaphor, who do not see the allusions and the literary quality of it. They just see it as the literal truth given by God. Their God, not your God.
Quint: And one thing that you guys touched on in the movie is people cherry pick religion to bolster their own biases or bolster their own ideals on life.
Larry Charles: You should read THE OLD TESTAMENT and THE NEW TESTAMENT really carefully, as I have been forced to do many times… the cherry picking is so true. There is so much stuff that is ignored, because of course... even to people that believe it’s ridiculous, but it’s all part of the same book you know, so…
Quint: It’s like if you don’t wash your hands twice on one day then it’s a mortal sin and that kind of stuff.
Larry Charles: Even worse, if you light a fire on Saturday, you are supposed to be killed and stuff like that.
Quint: So it is a really interesting thing then, where you have people who can look at that and just say “Well that’s just ridiculous,” but then at the same time believe that God took one of Adam’s ribs and molded that into a woman or…
Larry Charles: The thing is we are implanted with these thoughts. It’s almost like a science fiction movie, we are implanted with these thoughts as children, before we have any choice and even as we become sort of rational adults, there’s a part of us and I’m as guilty of this as anybody, a part of us cling to it. You want to believe in it. It’s a very comforting story on that level. But it’s much harder to get rid of those thoughts or to come to terms with those thoughts, because they had been implanted with you before you really had the consciousness to make the decision for yourself, which is a very insidious part of religion.
Quint: Yeah, well let’s go back to the beginning. How did you originally hook up with Bill? Where did the idea start? I know that’s the most boring question that you are asked about this movie, but…
Larry Charles: I have been asked that quite a bit as you could imagine, but you need to know as well as everybody else. Bill basically wanted to do some kind of project like this. He wanted to make a movie about religion, but didn’t really know what it should be, how it should work, what the tone should be and he kind of felt… he wanted it to be a documentary, so he talked initially to a couple of documentary filmmakers and just found them to be so far from his own sensibility that he didn’t feel good about collaborating with them.
Someone suggested that he talk to me and I, having been a… I’m sort of a metaphysical thinker anyway and I’m plagued by a lot of these issues and thoughts and themes plus I come from kind of a similar background to him in terms of our comedy and all of that stuff. Then when we met, even though for 25 years we had the same friends and we kind of ran around in the same circles, we had never met, so when we finally did meet it was as if we knew each other for our entire lives, we were friends forever and we just started riffing right away and within a few minutes we realized we could make a great movie about the subject.
Quint: At what point did you guys figure the basic structure of Bill going around and talking to many different faces of all the different religions? Was that something that he originally wanted to do or is that something that you guys came up with?
Larry Charles: Well, I think he had certain themes and ideas that he wanted to test out and it was still in a very embryonic form at that time and so I was able to kind of take those ideas and elaborate on them and expand upon them and kind of come up with a plan and come up with a vision for the movie that would actually accomplish all of those goals. It was very collaborative.
Quint: What about the tone? I really loved that it took a fairly level headed approach, at least the cut that you made. Did you realize as you were going along when you were getting what you were getting what the final product would be or was that something that really had to be found in the editing room?
Larry Charles: There are a number of layers to making a movie like this, kind of conceptualizing beforehand in preproduction and then there is the reality of what you shoot and you really don’t know what you are going to get in these situations, “Is this person going to be interesting and exciting, funny, surprising, shocking,…” You just don’t know from person to person to person that you interview. You don’t know what situation you are going to find yourself in also and I tried to keep as low a profile and the script down approach to the filmmaking process, so I could be flexible, move on a dime and change directions if I had to.
So in the filming I started to see we were getting some great stuff, I could just feel it you know? I could just feel like we were getting gold and then of course I took that 400 hours of gold and 400 hours of archival footage and I had to go into editing and myself and three editors spent about a year really working on it. In fact, I kind of hit a wall at a certain point and at that point Bill came in and he kind of gave his thoughts and we also showed it to a couple people and got some really good opinions about them and that helped us kind of shape and structure the movie finally.
Quint: And it’s also kind of a different documentary in that I think you are hand in hand having something that’s a fascinating look at a very heavy subject matter and something that pushes a billion buttons just on the surface without even digging deep, but you are also making something that is very entertaining.
Larry Charles: Right. Again my hypothesis for this movie was “Can I make a Saturday night date movie about religion?” “Something that people looking for a great time on a Saturday nigh, looking for a great movie at the mall, might choose this movie and go see it and actually find themselves laughing really hard and having a great time and maybe at the end having something to think about as well.”
Quint: Ok, so when you were there getting this footage, what made you happier? Finding somebody who was so balls out crazy entertaining, but like was every bad stereotype for their particular religion, like specifically I’m thinking of the ex-gay priest. When you saw that, was that something that made you happy or when you found the guy that Bill interviews in front of the Vatican, who was my favorite...
Larry Charles: It all made me happy. The scenes that are in the movie are all scenes that made me happy.
Quint: (laughs) I hope so!
Larry Charles: (laughs) But the truth is, there’s a lot of stuff that I love just as much that didn’t make it into the movie for one reason or another, so there are choices that we had to make and those are aesthetic choices and again, I was trying to make a ninety minute non-fiction comedy, so the stuff that was fascinating or interesting or compelling, but didn’t quite fit into the format or the structure that the film started to evolve into, that stuff fell by the wayside.
My hope is that the movie is successful enough, and I’ve already talked to Lionsgate about this, but I would like to take the 400 hours and cut it into half hours and like sell it to HBO or something, so people can see a lot of the stuff that didn’t make it into the movie.
Quint: That’d be cool. That’d be cooler than just doing it as extra features on a DVD.
Larry Charles: I think so.
Quint: I think that could be really interesting.
Larry Charles: I think it would be very entertaining and then you get to see a lot of the stuff that we shot that we couldn’t use in the movie and you would get to see expanded versions of a lot of the stuff like the Father Foster in front of the Vatican, you can see more stuff about him and there was a lot of great stuff that didn’t make it in from just those interviews.
Quint: Well, I can also see that as being something that if it’s successful, being something that continues on being its own series.
Larry Charles: Absolutely and I would love to be involved with that. I mean I could work on this movie in one form or another for the rest of my life really, I’m happy.
Quint: Were there any moments that you kind of knew the weight of what you guys were talking about, that you were fearful of your lives?
Larry Charles: We had confrontations at virtually every location we went to in one form or another, sometimes more tense, sometimes less tense, sometimes really scary, sometimes less scary, but essentially we were thrown out of virtually every location we were in. We were thrown out of the Western Wall. We were thrown out of Dome of The Rock. We were thrown out of Al-‘Aas Mosque. We were thrown out of Jefferson Memorial. We were thrown out of the Mormon Tabernacle. We got thrown out of every place you know, so in each of those situations there was a confrontation.
[Someone rings a doorbell]
Larry Charles: [To the person] Hey, hold on a second. Who could that be? Hold on a second. (in the distance) Hi, I’m on the phone. I need a little quiet, please. Thank you.
Quint: I was about to say, there comes the hit man from one of the various religions.
Larry Charles: That would be good timing. What if you heard gunshots while we were on the phone…
Quint: Then I probably would be freaking out a little bit and hoping it was a good prank.
Larry Charles: The only thing is if I would get murdered, that would make a good DVD extra, so there’s always an upside.
Quint: It’d guarantee you a number one weekend, right?
Larry Charles: That’s right, exactly. I’ll do anything to make the movie successful! I’d put a Fatwa on my own head just to get a little buzz going.
Quint: (laughs) So, you met resistance from every branch or religion. Was there any in particular that were scary?
Larry Charles: I think being in The Dome of The Rock, which is in the middle of Jerusalem, and is probably the most controversial site in history, was probably the most intense thing and we didn’t really belong. I’m born Jewish, not that I’m a practicing Jew, but Jews are not allowed there and you walk through there and there are people with guns everywhere and there are bullet holes everywhere and there is angry people everywhere and you know this is the seed of all the conflict in the world from the very beginning of civilization and you feel the weight of that, no question about it.
Quint: That’s insane. I really expected a lot more of Bill traveling America, but it really did surprise me actually going to all of the religious landmarks and I think it opened the movie up a lot more than I was expecting.
Larry Charles: I didn’t want to make a dry documentary. I didn’t want to make something that was like medicine. I wanted to make something that was fun, like a road movie and very handmade and very intimate and very small budget and you know, I was trying to accomplish a number of things and make a very valid movie and not just a series of talking head interviews and that’s why the music is fun and the clips are fun and all of that stuff, too.
Quint: You keep mentioning that there was a lot of stuff, what was the thing that you would love for people to see that’s not in the movie? What is the thing that you would be most excited if you got the TV show?
Larry Charles: That’s a good question. The thing that pops into my head when you ask the question is that we interviewed a guy in Rome, although he doesn’t actually live in Rome, a guy named Rayl and Rayl was a very minor pop star in France, just a crappy pop singer who was walking through the park one day by himself, of course, like most prophets, and was abducted by a UFO, taken into a UFO and basically told that it’s his job to save the world and he started a cult and he came to see us in Rome and he walks into the room and he is wearing like, I don’t know if you remember PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE…
Quint: Oh yeah!
Larry Charles: He’s wearing this spacesuit like PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, but the weird thing is he’s got a growing cult and it’s mostly of young hot chicks and so the interview was so crazy and he brings all of his followers in with him… It was just a very surreal kind of moment, so that will be fun to see, but you see I didn’t want to overload the movie with wackos, because I knew people would be criticizing that and in fact they are even criticizing it even now and they forget that we have high level Muslim Clerics, we have senators, we have high level Vatican priests, we have these scientists, but people have been so pointing out the more fringed people, but really in the movie we really diminished the amount of fringe people, because we didn’t need them to sound crazy, the regular people sounded crazy, you know?
Quint: And you also didn’t focus as much on scientology as I was expecting. I guess they’re more of an easy target.
Larry Charles: We gave scientology it’s due, but the fact of the matter is what we are saying is as crazy as it is, it’s really all that much crazier than Christianity or Judaism really, it’s just newer. Everything started out as kind of a crazy cult and then as it got bigger and older, it became religion, you know? Scientology is the same way and so is Mormonism and both of those are very fast growing religions also by the way.
Quint: Definitely. I don’t know, it just seems… It’s so funny, it’s almost a no brainer, like when Bill goes through the original Egyptian legend that’s essentially the Christ story…
Larry Charles: That’s just one example. There are dozens of examples of that kind of rattling around the Mediterranean of a Messiah figure who was born of a virgin, who died on a crucifix, who was resurrected, who had twelve disciples, that was a very common tale. The names changed, but the story is the same.
Quint: If you remember when…
Larry Charles: Let me just add, there is no tangible proof or evidence whatsoever that Jesus even existed. That’s a shocker and that was something that I discovered in my research. There were many historians living in Jerusalem at the time who wrote about what was going on in Jerusalem and talked about cult leaders and religions and stuff like that and false Messiahs and all of that kind of stuff and Jesus is never mentioned in any of those things. The only people that really wrote about Jesus are people that lived decades later, long after he supposedly died. No one who wrote about Jesus actually met him.
Quint: It’s just weird that as a society we kind of at least in the past needed to have that religion to explain some things and I think it’s really interesting that the movie closes with Maher pretty much telling us, “That time is over, we don’t need religion to explain to us where the sun goes at night.”
Larry Charles: Monotheism was a movement, you know what I mean? Before monotheism there was polytheism. Before polytheism there was animism, there was Greek mythology. There was Roman mythology. There was Norse mythology… All of these things were the religions of their time and they died out when they were no longer relevant.
Monotheism to me is in its death throws, because there were so many important questions to ask, “Who are we?” “Where are we?” “Where do we come from?” “Where are we going?” and in my opinion, what has happened is religion has thwarted that inquiry. Those are important questions worth exploring, but we are not allowed to explore them as long as organized religion exists.
Quint: Let me put this to you. It turned out to be nothing, but like a year ago they were talking about having found Jesus’ remains and that ended up being nothing, but one of the concerns with a lot of people was that if they found Jesus’ remains, it could prove “OK he was here,” but it also disproved that he ascended bodily into heaven…
Larry Charles: That he was mortal and I suppose that’s possible, although like I said, there was no proof of that. I mean look, if he did exist, I could guarantee you he was not the son of God. That part of the story that he existed is fine, I have no problem with that, but the idea that this guy was the son of God and he’s really God and he was killed and was resurrected and he walked on water and all of that kind of stuff… I mean he sounds more like David Copperfield.
Quint: I think one of the interesting points though was that if something came out that fully disproved Christianity or something that fully disproved another religion, do you think that if religion ended essentially overnight if that would cause a whole lot of instability?
Larry Charles: The problem, like if you could imagine like a headline in the NEW YORK TIMES “JESUS NEVER EXISTED,” I think it would be shattering and you would have some chaos there, the thing is though, you would have to also… I have a section of this that didn’t make it into the movie, but even Allah is just one of three hundred and sixty gods inside the Kaaba originally and was arbitrarily chosen to be “THE god,” so all of these stories, when you really examine the history of these stories, you start to realize how they were cobbled together by man, not by God.
Quint: Do you see us being kind of kept in a continuing cycle, like a snake eating its tail, when you see the rise of stuff like Mormonism and Scientology and smaller cults?
Larry Charles: I think where we are at is that we know so much more than we knew when monotheism emerged and so we need to stop calling it religion, we need to start asking the important questions about ourselves and the species if we want it to perpetuate. If we want to evolve into another level of consciousness, we need to kind of remove the shackles of organized religion which is stopping us from exploring those questions.
Quint: Well, I think it would be a very fascinating world. I don’t think I will ever see it in my lifetime, seeing religion at least in the incarnation it is now, kind of take that back seat.
Larry Charles: Well, let’s see what happens this weekend. Who knows, religion might be over by Monday.
Quint: You guys can be the new prophets.
Larry Charles: You’re right. That’s all we need.
Quint: Well thanks so much for your time man, I really appreciate it.
Larry Charles: My pleasure. Thank you so much for your kind words.
Quint: Oh definitely man and good luck with the flick.
Larry Charles: I’ll see you around.
So, you have that interview, which was supposed to be followed up with an interview with Bill Maher.
I’m a fan of Maher’s, as I’ve stated earlier. If there is one person I don’t want to sound like an idiot with it’s him.
When we were originally scheduling this interview, it was to be on a Thursday, but that was moved to a Tuesday a day or two before the interview. However that change did not stick in my brain, so I was sleeping when the call came in. I wake up to hear the publicist leaving a message on my answering machine going, “Quint. I have Bill Maher on the line. Where are you? I’m going to try calling back."
I jump out of bed, run to grab my recorder and pick up the phone when she calls back. It was at the end of his interview cycle, so I was left with 6 minutes instead of 15 minutes and I was half-asleep, trying to shake the cobwebs out of my head.
In short, I’m totally embarrassed and as a result I will post the little bit of the 6 minute interview that isn’t me rambling into his ear and him being nice about me being a stuttering dumbass. Here you go!
Quint: I had an interesting talk with Larry yesterday about how he arrived at the final cut. He told me he had 400 hours of footage…
Bill Maher: Well, that’s Larry’s method. He’s like a sculptor who wants to make a sculpture of a butterfly and starts with enough clay to make an elephant. It’s a long process, but you know… it kind of works.
His other great genius innovation, I think, and I guess he learned this on BORAT, is you never ask permission to do anything. You just do it. We were thrown out of everywhere, but his idea was if you ask no one is going to let you go anywhere. Just do it. They’ll throw you out, but by the time they do you got your film.
Quint: It’s one thing to do a movie like BORAT, but I can only imagine… when you’re dealing with religion as a subject, every joke you make is a deep cut to someone, a deep insult…
Bill Maher: Exactly. It’s the last taboo. The word “faith” is a magic work in America. You say the word faith and everybody just backs off and goes, “Okay, well we can’t go there.” And I’m saying, “We can go there.”
I don’t think we’re doing it in a mean way. People don’t see this movie as condescending or judgmental. We’re laughing all the way through it, we’re making people laugh all the way through it. I think that’s the saving grace. I’m not judging people, I’m just asking questions.
It’s amazing because faith is such a magic word they have never been asked these very basic questions before. (laughs) Why is faith good, for example? Why doesn’t God, who is all powerful, get rid of the devil? Why doesn’t he just obliterate the devil and be done with it? Why are we having this game? Why doesn’t he just tell us all what the skinny is on him and religion and the world instead of always going through prophets?
Why does he take one guy up on a mountain or out in a field when nobody’s around and say “Okay, here’s the deal… now you go back and tell everybody.”Why doesn’t God just come out and tell us?
Quint: Because there’s no money in it that way.
Bill Maher: Exactly. There’s no money in it. Once you beat the devil… it’s like Batman needs The Riddler.
Quint: The movie played much differently than I expected… I expected you taking a much harder line on religion based on seeing your work on both Politically Incorrect and Real Time…
Bill Maher: Right. It was very important for us to let the audience know that I’m not any different from them. I was brought up a Catholic. I’ve got a crazy family, too. We have our religious stuff, our beliefs, so I think the audience feels from the get-go “Oh, he’s not that different.”
Also, we take great pains to point out that throughout my life, before I got to this point… You know, I was not always where I am today with my Agnosticism. I lived for years with this imaginary man in my head. God, whatever. I didn’t really think of it a lot. I didn’t really put a face to the name, it was just somebody I bargained with when I was in trouble, pleaded with when I fucked up… (laughs) You know!
It took me a long time to get to where I am, so I’m kind of telling people that they can go on that same journey and they should give themselves a break. You don’t have to worship anything.
So, as you can see, there were a few interesting things to cover, especially when I actually started to wake up a little bit.
That was my fuck-up and I apologize for not being on the ball with that one. Judging by our brief conversation I think there would be an amazing half-hour chat on this topic, but it was not meant to be on this one. Hope you enjoyed what I could salvage.
RELIGULOUS really is a fun film and is out in theaters now.
Stay tuned for a lot more interviews hitting this week including an hour-long exclusive chat with a certain fan-favorite director about a certain fan-favorite movie getting a sequel. Stay tuned for that one!