ping pong table: Another Baron Cohen sets his sights on the Hollywood Hills
11 August 2006
After early acclaim for his independent films, director Ash Baron Cohen is about to hit the big time with a $15million Hollywood feature film, writes Bridget Galton
WHENEVER Ash Baron Cohen has enough of the loopiness of la la land, he goes round to cousin Sasha's house and thrashes the hell out of a ping-pong ball.
The film director, and the creator of comic character Ali G, grew up around the corner from each other in Hampstead Garden Suburb and are now near neighbours in Los Angeles.
"Sasha is the only real family I have here and when the whole Hollywood thing gets too much we get together and knock it out of each other on the ping-pong table," says Ash, who admits to pretending that their bats are swatting selected hate figures.
"I see a lot of him, we play ping-pong twice a week, he has the table and I bring my balls."
After studying experimental psychology at Sussex University, Baron Cohen headed out west to study film in Pasadena 12 years ago.
He wrote and directed his first independent feature Bang in 1995, about an actress who assumes the identity of an LA police officer for a day.
It was listed by the LA Times among the top 10 movies of the year and championed by Hollywood veteran Oliver Stone, who became his mentor and called him one of the "most gifted young film makers of his generation".
But Baron Cohn struck unlucky with his second film Pups, which starred Burt Reynolds and a teenage Micha Barton before she found fame in hit TV series The O.C.
His clever script about a bank heist gone awry saw an FBI head of ops teasing out the psychology of assorted hostages and teen robbers to prevent events from escalating into bloodshed.
Hailed as a Bonnie and Clyde for the MTV generation, the subject of kids with guns was deemed too sensitive for release in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre.
"It happened 48 hours after we premiered the movie at the LA film festival. We had big studio deals, which would have put Pups onto 1,000 screens, which is pretty good for a small independent movie," says Baron Cohen.
"When we heard the news it seemed so incredible that these kids had shot their fellow students. All the news stations were calling us asking had we somehow predicted it and linking the movie very strongly with what was going on.
"It was surreal and almost funny that people who had queued up to tell us about its commercial potential the previous day were now screaming down the phone; 'how could you think this was a commercial movie?'"
Fortunately US TV channel HBO bought the movie and ran it regularly, ironically ensuring more exposure than any movie release.
Baron Cohen went on to make This Girl's Life, about a porn star balancing the demands of her job with caring for a father with Parkinson's, and a short film with Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, about a military prisoner unapologetically confessing to torturing Iraqi suspects.
He is now casting his biggest movie to date. The $15m RadioActive, which Baron Cohen describes as a "multicultural view of the gang culture in LA with a social slant," has the producers of last year's best picture Oscar winner Crash on board.
"With the really small indie movies you wear three or four different hats so it will be nice to wear just one hat and concentrate on directing," he says.
"Although it will be less stressful, you also realise how much money is at stake."
Baron Cohen has written the scripts for all his movies. He jokes that being both director and writer leads to "interesting schizophrenic arguments with myself about who is compromising who?" But adds: "Orson Welles said the three things that make a great film are a great script, a great script and a great script. At first, writing my own seemed the best way to get started as a director, but after 12 years seeing hundreds that follow familiar trends I know finding an interesting original script in Hollywood is a bit like the gold rush back in the old days - a lot of fool's gold but very little of the real stuff."
Baron Cohen knows that making a good movie is also about the professionals around him.
"Most directors don't make two good movies in a row because there are so many different people involved. If one isn't up to standard the whole thing comes down.
One miscast actor can ruin the chemistry of all the others, even the music can ruin a movie. You have to have all the stars in alignment make a good one. The directors who are consistently good usually always work with the same crew."
Despite a dozen years in Hollywood, he has not fallen under its spell and hopes to return to work in the UK where there has been interest in one of his scripts.
But he admires the way the US accepts outsiders commenting on their society.
"One of the best things about America is it allows levels of self reflection. As a culture they have grown up on having therapists and talking about their lives. Film is a form of therapy for them. It allows them to look at what's going on in their country."
Last week, Baron Cohen saw the UK premieres of Pups and This Girl's Life screened during a special weekend event at Hampstead's Everyman Cinema in Holly Bush Vale.
He loves returning to his roots and hooking up with the multi-talented Baron Cohen clan he jokingly calls his "disturbed, chaotic family".
As well as famous cousin Sasha, whose new film featuring spoof Kazakstani reporter Borat is released in November, Ash has a nephew who is an up and coming TV director and a brother Simon who is director of Cambridge University's Research Centre for Autism.
"Neither Sasha's parents nor mine have anything to do with film. They viciously dissuaded us from getting into this industry so the only potential link is both our fathers were creative and had a warped sense of humour that required some sort of medical assistance," he says.
His future ambition is simply to "make movies that people care about and can relate to".
And although he wants them to reach as wide an audience as possible, it seems his psychology degree, which disposes him to examine human behaviour, will propel him away from mindless action blockbusters.
"Movies are human vehicles. People like to watch different behaviour whether to identify with characters or be entertained by them. Budgets have never been a determining factor for me, a good movie is a good movie no matter what it cost.
"The cinema and theatre are such odd phenomena where people sit in a room with strangers for two hours in the dark not saying anything. That in itself is a psychology experiment.