Larry Charles discovered his two great loves as young boy growing up in Brooklyn. "My father was a failed comedian, and I think there was a lot of emphasis on comedy in my house," he says. "And just by coincidence, it happened that I grew up at a time when foreign movies were really being introduced into the American mainstream."
"On Sunday nights in New York when almost nothing else was on TV, on channel 4, they would show either a foreign movie or a very out-there independent movie, like a Monte Hellman movie or something. I would be up all night long watching these movies," Charles recollects. And so it was, he was officially head over heels for both comedy and cinema. "Then I was interested in figuring out if there was a way to have those meet."
Following a stint as a stand-up comedian — because, "comedy was a more direct way of being in show business" — he wrote for Seinfeld and directed episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Charles made his feature directorial debut in 2003 with the surreal drama, Masked and Anonymous, which he co-wrote with Bob Dylan. He is also the filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated Borat (2006), Religulous (2008), and most recently, Dicks: The Musical.
"I'm looking for something that nobody else could do. I'm looking for an impact. I want to make something exist that doesn't exist. I don't want people to look at it and go, 'Well, that's just like that.' And I don't think I have any movies that are like that, fortunately," the filmmaker says of his body of work. "They're all of their own, and I think that's what connects them."
"I'm interested not so much in you going, 'Oh, it's another Larry Charles movie,' but giving you an experience. That's the goal. You're going to walk out different than you came in," he adds. "I'm going to take you on a trip of some kind. Trust me, we're going to go on a trip."
Below, Charles shares with A.frame his Top 5. "These are all movies that had an impact on me, that I carry with me, and that became part of my sensibility, and they're from different parts of my life," he explains. "Now, I could pick 100 movies — there's a lot of great movies, obviously — but I tried to narrow it down."
Written and Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
When I was a teenager, I went into Manhattan and saw Weekend, the Jean-Luc Godard movie. At that time, you could see all kinds of foreign movies in New York, and you would see a totally different kind of filmmaking. Weekend was, like, this anti-Hollywood movie, and it broke all the rules. It was boring and annoying and angering, but it was also brilliant. And I thought, 'This is a way that you can make a movie — you can know the rules, but you can break all the rules, too.'
The great artists learn the rules and then break all the rules. So, Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend is this epic anti-movie in a way. At the end it says, 'The end,' and then it says, 'of cinema.' And there's a lot of humor in it too.
Directed by: Luis Buñuel | Written by: Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière
I also have a list of 50 great comedies and this one is a comedy, but it's a special one. Luis Buñuel had a massive impact on me. He is one of my favorite filmmakers, and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is my favorite of his. Like Jerry Lewis and The Three Stooges, in a way, it taught me about surrealism and humor — that you can juxtapose things to get laughter and show how ridiculous things are by placing them together. There are these tableaus, where the bourgeoisie are served dinner sitting on the toilet, and if they want to eat, they have to go into the actual bathroom. I thought that stuff was hilarious and also very pointed and satirical too.
As a teenager living in Brooklyn, I had a book that was given to me of movie reviews by the Village Voice critic, Andrew Sarris. I'd read these reviews of movies that I'd never seen, and I was like, 'Wow, if I ever get a chance someday, I'd like to see that movie.' Discreet Charm I saw at a revival house in Manhattan during that same time as Weekend. It would have a Luis Buñuel double feature with The Phantom of Liberty, which I also love.
Directed by: Lindsay Anderson | Written by: David Sherwin
O Lucky Man! is kind of an epic. It was made after A Clockwork Orange, and it's a picaresque, sort of Candide-like story of this very innocent coffee salesman who goes on this road trip and has these surreal, intense, blackly comic adventures. It's also this musical, with a live band in the studio and they actually cut to the band doing the music for the movie. There's that layer of they're not just doing the music, they're also there. And at the end, all the different characters and all the crew and everybody come together.
I love taking influences like this and then applying them somewhere that don't fit at all, and one of the things about that movie that really struck me at the time, I used in Seinfeld. So, Malcolm McDowell becomes an experiment in a hospital and he's walking down a corridor and he hears noises coming from a room, and he walks in and there's a pig-man in the room — like a man's head with a pig's body. That image always struck me. So, in one of the Seinfeld episodes, I had Kramer see the pig-man in the hospital and help him escape. That comes from O Lucky Man! I love doing stuff like that.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick | Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern & Peter George
I saw Dr. Strangelove on TV when I was a kid, and I was like, 'Wow, you can do this?!' It was super comical. Peter Sellers was amazing and plays three parts — I love that. The supporting characters, like Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott, are also hilarious. It's this super funny movie about the most not funny subject in the world. That was a lesson for me: To seek out things that aren't normally considered funny and try to find comedy in them. A lot of my career, I could define that way — taking subjects that aren't thought of as being funny and finding the humor in them. And Dr. Strangelove is perhaps the greatest example of that.
Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky | Written by: Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky
Stalker is a Russian movie based on a Russian science-fiction book, which I've read also. And it's not a movie that I would make in terms of style, but it's very interesting to me in terms of ideas and themes. It's very philosophical on one level — what's important to you? What are your dreams? What are your delusions? — then it has this science fiction-like layer to it, but very quiet, very thoughtful, very philosophical science fiction. That was influential even for Dicks. I like throwing in surreal elements to real situations. In Army of One, God was a character.
Stalker is not a real situation, but I love the flow of the movie from philosophical questions into strange phenomena and then bringing it all back around the way they did. I thought that was incredibly skillful filmmaking that is hard to get permission to do in a lot of countries. Like, he wouldn't probably be able to make Stalker in the United States. He made Solaris, too, which is pretty special. I have an interest in Russian cinema for some bizarre reason. Don't ask me why — I don't know!