RSN Fundraising Banner
FOCUS: Sacha Baron Cohen Breaks Down 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' With Aaron Sorkin
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=59354"><span class="small">Vanity Fair</span></a>   
Thursday, 06 May 2021 11:45

Excerpt: "Over a decade went by. Donald Trump was elected, and Stephen thought the time to make this movie was now."

Sacha Baron Cohen in 'The Trial of the Chicago 7.' (photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix)
Sacha Baron Cohen in 'The Trial of the Chicago 7.' (photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

Sacha Baron Cohen Breaks Down 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' With Aaron Sorkin

By Vanity Fair

06 May 21


n this episode of Vanity Fair's 'Notes on a Scene,' Sacha Baron Cohen and director Aaron Sorkin take us through a courtroom scene from their film 'The Trial of the Chicago 7' and explain why Sacha was the perfect fit to play activist Abbie Hoffman.

Hello. My name is Sasha Baron Cohen.

And I'm Aaron Sorkin.

And this is notes on a scene

for The Trial of the Chicago 7.

You know why you're on trial here?

We carried certain ideas across state lines,

not machine guns or drugs or little girls, ideas.

I first heard about the trial of the Chicago 7

when I was a student at the age of 20,

and I came across this incredible character, Abbie Hoffman.

Cut to 13 years ago, and I hear that Steven Spielberg

is making a movie about the trial,

and it's written by the very brilliant Aaron Sorkin.

Cheekily, I call up Steven Spielberg, introduce myself.

I'd just starred in a movie called Borat.

I said, I wanna audition.

It was after I think my first or second draft

of what would end up being 32 that Sasha was cast.

Aaron had written the screenplay,

and unfortunately, for a variety of reasons,

including the tragic death of two of the cast members,

the movie ended up not happening at that time.

Heath Ledger and Phillip Seymour Hoffman

had both been cast originally.

Steven became the producer.

He wanted someone else to direct it.

It went through the hands of a number of directors.

Over a decade went by.

Donald Trump was elected,

and Stephen thought the time to make this movie was now.

By then, I had directed for the first time.

I directed Molly's Game,

and Steven thought I should direct Chicago 7.

Sasha found out that the movie was happening,

got in touch with me and let me know

that the part was still his.

He hadn't given it up. I was thrilled.

I jumped for joy.

When we crossed from New York to New Jersey

to Pennsylvania to Ohio to Illinois, we had certain ideas,

and for that, we were gassed, beaten,

arrested, and put on trial.

This is the moment where Abbie takes the stand.

He is chosen out of the Chicago Seven or Eight,

including Bobby Seale,

to be the representative of the group,

and it's incredibly surprising because he is seen

as a clown, as a fool, as a prankster.

But over the course of the trial,

they realize he may well be the smartest man in the room.

The most important thing about every element

of this scene was simplicity.

Finally, after all the fireworks of the film,

it needed to be very simple

with the least simple of the Chicago 7.

We had a discussion early on with the costume department

where I said I'd really like to wear some

of the outfits that Abbie chose because he actually chose.

He was very purposeful and very aware of the camera.

This is one of the more simple ones,

and then there's the hair, the hair.

I felt that there was a specific choice with Abbie.

It's something that I read in his autobiography

where he actually grew his hair

to that length for political reasons.

He knew that he could get what were referred to

as hippies to join the movement

in droves if he looked like them.

I let all the actors know they were not required

to do a physical or vocal impersonation

of the people that they were playing.

The one exception was gonna be Abbie,

who has an iconic look.

He has an iconic dialect.

It's not quite a Boston accent.

It's not quite a Brooklyn accent.

It's an Abbie Hoffman dialect.

I really wanted to be able, in order to inhabit Abbie,

to really master the accent.

And so I was lucky enough to work

with the greatest dialect coach in history, Tim Monich,

and we basically compiled a list of audio recordings

of Abbie to listen to how his voice changed.

In between setups, really, I was really just listening

to various speeches that were nothing to do with this

by Abbie Hoffman to get the rhythm,

feel him, feel the vibe of Abbie Hoffman.

My recollection was that you had earbuds in right

until the moment you started hearing,

Okay, camera's up, sound speed speeding.

It's interesting.

That shot beforehand,

we did a number of different camera setups.

I did one version where I'm looking that way.

The jury are over here.

So I did a bunch of takes where I was looking that way

where I'm looking at Rylance or here is Jerry Rubin,

the rest of Chicago 7.

Then when I'm looking at here,

we're looking at Frank Langella.

We didn't have much time to make this,

and so I felt part of my job was

to give Aaron options in the edit.

Ordinarily, take after take,

the director is sitting next to the script supervisor,

and you'll say, Circle that one,

or It's takes two, five, and six.

Those are the ones that you want the editor to work with.

When we got done shooting the scene,

I just said, Circle the whole thing.

In 1861, Lincoln said in his inaugural address,

When the people should grow weary

of the constitutional right to amend their government,

they should exert their revolutionary right

to dismember and overthrow that government.

And if Lincoln had given that speech

in Lincoln Park last summer,

he'd be put on trial with the rest of us.

That's a brilliant bit of writing

by Aaron there, fantastic.

They're accused of being unpatriotic,

and he basically makes clear that Lincoln himself

would be put in jail for doing what they did.

I hate saying this

after Sasha just gave me such a nice compliment.

I can really only take credit for being a good editor.

Everything that Adam says on the stand,

it's not stuff that he said on the stand.

It's stuff that he said that I turned into testimony.

So how do you overthrow or dismember,

as you say, your government peacefully?

In this country, we do it every four years.

Wait a minute. Is that your line, Aaron?

That's me. That's a great line.

Now we're getting into me. And barely-

That's all.

[footsteps shuffle]

[chair scrapes floor]

That little pan going from Mark Rylance

over to Joseph Gordon-Levitt is actually simpler than a cut.

I'm gonna draw a pan. That's a bit difficult.

Here, we have moved that way.

We have here Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Mark Rylance is heading over there,

and these are the extras who were actually incredible.

I've gotta say they loved the movie.

They loved listening to it,

and they at times reacted.

You do a take, and you'd see whether it

was good or not afterwards.

They, for Sasha,

erupted into applause time and time again.

It was something. By the way, these are props.

[Aaron laughs]

This table is a visual effect.

[Aaron laughs]

That was-

Yeah, that table wasn't really there.

We have the Star Wars visual effects team

create that one.

This one was real, but this leg,

this leg is created and taken from Lincoln.

So Chicago was just a massive voter registration drive.

[laughs] Yeah.

The light's beautiful.

Phedon Papamichael, our DP,

50, 60% of the film, we're in that courtroom.

Phedon Papamichael found ways

to change the lighting conditions depending

on what time of day it was,

depending on the trial went from September to February.

One of the pieces of advice that Steven gave me was,

Make sure there are windows in the courtroom,

because he knew we were gonna need

to change lighting conditions.

The other thing was I wanted the courtroom

to feel big, cavernous, and oppressive

so you really felt the weight

of the government coming down on these guys.

I wanted to have a certain sound to it,

a kind of cathedral sound.

And if we're saying the whole world is watching,

it should feel like the whole world is watching.

There should be a hundred people out there.

Shane Valentino, our production designer,

built us this courtroom inside

of an abandoned church in Patterson, New Jersey.

Did you hear the tape we played in court

of Tom Hayden at the band show?

Yes. You heard the tape?

Yes. And did you hear Mr. Hayden

give an instruction to his people to take to the streets?

His people? Hayden's not a mafia don, and neither am I.

Did you hear him say, If blood is gonna flow,

let it flow all over the city?

We haven't talked about Frank Langella,

who's obviously there.

He was wonderful and incredible support

throughout this scene.

We did the first take, and he took me aside,

and he said, This is beautiful.

Frank Langella basically helped teach me

how to act between the camera setups.

It was a Frank Langella School of Acting.

Had our first meeting.

He had said, Listen, would it be okay with you

if I didn't joke around with the others,

if I to the set a minute later,

if I came in through a different door?

He wanted them to experience him only as this judge,

this 80-year-old incredibly famous actor coming in

to scare them to death.

And at the end of the first day,

he waved me over and said, Those guys look

like they're having a really good time over there.

Remember what I said? Forget it. [laughs]

He still scared the hell out of all of us. [laughs]

The beginning of that sentence

was supposed to be...

Yes, yes I did.

Here in this scene, I know when Schultz comes,

brilliantly played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt,

that this is the boxing match now.

We're similar ages, and we representing almost two sides

of America, him, the establishment

and me the antiestablishment.

I say me. I mean Abbie.

What'd you think of that?

I think Tom Hayden is a badass of an American patriot.

Abbie has just said, I think Tom Hayden

is a badass of an American patriot.

It's the first nice thing he has said about

and to Tom Hayden in the entire film,

and it's the greatest thing that Tom could hear from Abbie.

So here we cut to a reaction shot of Tom.

This means that there was an entire camera setup

where Sasha's off camera.

Is that you? [laughs]

That's an Oscar.

Yes. Eddie owns an Academy Award. [laughs]

Oscar winner.

It wouldn't be uncommon for either Sasha

or Eddie to say, Can I just get one more?

They think they could do it better.

They think they could do something different.

Eddie [laughs] asked for another.

We're just getting a reaction shot from him now.

This is it, and it takes the entirety

of the scene to get this.

We don't just roll camera for four seconds

and say, Eddie make a face.

We do the entire scene except this time,

the camera is on Eddie,

and Sasha is 20 feet behind the camera.

By the way, look at that.

It's the face of a little boy who realizes

that his brother loves him.

Very well drawn there.

This is the relationship of two brothers.

I didn't know that when we started shooting the movie,

and Eddie Redmayne said to me before we did the scene,

he goes, Yeah, this is

where the two brothers are fighting.

I go, What brothers? He goes, Abbie and Tommy.

Aaron always said this is a movie

about the relationship between two brothers, right?

This is sibling rivalry.

And I go, When did he tell you that?

He goes, From the beginning, the day he hired me.

I go, Aaron never told me that.

I just forgot. I swear to God, I just forgot.

I didn't ask what you thought of the man.

I asked what you thought of his instruction of the crowd.

I've also heard Tom Hayden say,

Let's end the war, but nobody stopped shooting.

The way I learned the accent,

I would write it out the way it sounded, essentially.

So war was W-A-H-U-H.

Let's end the war.

One of the things you sacrifice

with a tight budget is rehearsal time.

But by the time we got here, we had shot a lot

in the courtroom, and people simply knew how to do it.

You start with the master.

The master is the widest longest possible shot you

can do of the scene.

Once you get in the editing room,

you're hardly ever gonna be in the master.

In fact, I haven't been able to find a moment

in the scene when we were in the master,

and then you're slowly moving in closer and closer

so that, by the time we're doing the setups

that are gonna count, they have done it 40 times.

Do you have contempt- He'd just seen

his best friend get hit in the head with a nightstick.

The police, Mr. Schultz. There, right there.

Another setup, a whole 'nother time,

several times that Sasha is doing the scene

but not on camera.

We're going for this three shot.

I'm sure that there's coverage of all seven.

I'm sure there's coverage of the two lawyers.

In other words, a lot of the shooting day

is spent on coverage.

I know that this feels like a scene

that's just between Sasha and Joe,

but you have to include everybody.

You have to include the defendants and the lawyers,

both the prosecution and the defense.

You have to include the jury and the judge,

and you have to include everyone sitting in the gallery.

It takes hours and hours [laughs]

of film to create a five-minute scene.

Do you have contempt for your government?

Do I? Yeah.

Do you have contempt for your government?

I think the institutions of our democracy

are wonderful things that right now

are populated by some terrible people.

That line, was that written?

Yes, that's the thing that line

was written before Donald Trump.

Really? Never did I make a change

in the script to be as a reaction

to something that was going on in the world.

That was the only line I was tempted to take out just

because it sounded so much like I had written it

as a reaction to Donald Trump and the whole MAGA gang,

but then I just said, Stick to your guns.

I was thinking about Donald Trump when I delivered that.

Do you have contempt for your government?

I'll tell you, Mr. Schultz, it's nothing compared

to the contempt my government has for me.

It's one of my favorite moments in the film right there.

We've heard testimony from 27 witnesses under oath

that say you hoped for a confrontation with the police,

that your plans for the convention

were designed specifically to draw the police

into a confrontation.

Well, if I'd known it was going to be the first wish

of mine that came true, I would've aimed a lot higher.

Can these glasses who put on in post?

They were not. [laughs]

There was a feeling that Joseph Gordon-Levitt

was not commanding enough, looked too young, boyish.

Glasses were put

on by three-time Oscar winner Rob Legato in post.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt comes to play every day.

If you look at the reflection here,

you'll see one of the walks from Star Wars

because that they had to stay with the glasses.

Sasha is making that up. [laughs]

Eddie Redmayne is CGI here.

Actually, circle Alex Sharp for a second.

You can't really see it in this. We'd have to get closer.

My only concern about casting Alex

was that I thought if you put Joseph Gordon-Levitt

in a time machine and sent him back 10 years,

he would look exactly like Alex Sharp.

It's a yes or no question.

When you came to Chicago, were you hoping

for a confrontation with the police?

I'm concerned you have to think about it.

Give me a moment, would you, friend?

I've never been on trial for my thoughts before.

Six different camera setups

in the last 15 seconds of that scene,

and I would say there are about a hundred ways

to play that moment badly.

Sasha didn't avoid it all of them,

but just not pressing, by keeping it simple.

And when I say simple, I mean simple,

but I also mean honest.

It's a wonderful experience on set,

and you completely trust Aaron as a director

when he says, You've got the scene,

because if you've pleased Aaron Sorkin,

you've done a great job.

Nice thing to say. Yeah, I was just read it.

It was on the prompter right next to that.

Okay. [laughs] your social media marketing partner