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Beyond Belief: Bill Maher Searches for God in 'Religulous'

By Tom White

On location at The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida during production for 'Religulous'

Religulous, the forthcoming documentary directed by Larry Charles (Borat; Curb Your Enthusiasm) and produced by and starring humorist/pundit Bill Maher, follows Maher around the world as he talks to believers about God and religion. Documentary spoke with Charles prior to the film's Toronto premiere.


Religulous is your first documentary. What inspired you to take the leap into the documentary genre?

Larry Charles: I've always been into documentaries, and I've seen a lot that got me much more excited than much of the corporate Hollywood product. Jean-Luc Godard once said that he doesn't make political films; he makes films politically. That's an interesting thought: What means are you using to make a movie? Where's the money coming from? How subversive can you really make a product if it's being paid for by a multinational corporation, ultimately? So I wanted to see if I could make a low-budget movie outside the system, in an alternative way.

Bill had an idea about wanting to do something about religion, and my thesis was: Can you take a nonfiction, volatile, controversial, serious subject-maybe the most important subject of civilization, in a sense-and make an entertaining Saturday night date movie about it?


You were at BRITDOC this year, where the running theme was the fact that documentaries are stigmatized as too serious. How is humor more effective in exploring a deeper truth about a subject?

In some ways, it really boils down to who's going to go see it. What I've admired about Michael Moore, Errol Morris and Morgan Spurlock is that they have transcended those boundaries that come with the label of documentary. They're making nonfiction essays, really. With their humorous personalities, they're reaching an audience that is usually not reached with the more serious, somber documentaries-which, while essential, often don't reach any kind of an audience at all, and because of that, they are, at best, preaching to the converted. So I'm interested in reaching as large an audience as possible with something important and impactful.


You found an intriguing cast of characters in Religulous-mostly unknown, and mostly eccentric. Talk about the research process.

The research process was extremely extensive. What happens with a subject like religion is that you can't get to the top-of-the-line leaders, so we tried to get as close to the powers-that-be as we could. We cast a very wide net with people who were interesting. These people are out there-they have websites; they have advertising. We had a research staff, many of whom had worked on Borat, who are very resourceful people and know how to follow a lead.


How did you convince your subjects to be on camera?

With certain people who are willing to talk-and this is something I learned from Borat-no matter how absurd their beliefs are and no matter how they're perceived by others, they themselves perceive themselves as having something important to say and [as being] compelling speakers. They have enough ego and hubris to want to appear on camera, regardless.


Have they seen the film? Have you had screenings for them?

They're so spaced out [geographically] that it would be hard to do that, so no. The irony is, they'll probably be unhappy, but if the movie is successful they'll brag that they're in the movie. There are three phases in the aftermath to a movie like this: There's the complaining about it, then there's the embracing of it to get the publicity, then there are the lawsuits.


Religulous is Bill Maher's personal journey and inquiry into faith and spirituality-

-Which he felt was important because there are certain assumptions about him. We thought it would be very useful and fun and illuminating to see that he's a person, he has a background and a family, and he didn't just wake up one day and decide this is what he thought. It's an evolving process. That seemed like a crucial aspect of the story, so that we could listen to what he has to say and not assume immediately that he's got a point of view that we don't agree with or we do agree with or whatever. We wanted that aspect of it to have some grounding and also be unpredictable because of that.


How did this journey impact your faith and spirituality?

I kept learning things along the way; I tried to keep my mind open. I'm very open to many questions that revolve around spirituality and religion and theology. But as I became more convinced of what I don't know about the universe and the world and the future and the past and our destiny and our fate, I also became convinced that the belief system to which we cling to help us through that is utterly false. So I expanded my spirituality, and diminished a certain aspect of it as well.


Religulous opens October 3 through Lionsgate.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.