Grimsby: A Zany Action-Comedy From Sacha Baron Cohen
When it comes to creating dynamic characters who delight, entertain and infuriate, Sacha Baron Cohen is the only one who knows how to bring his creations to glorious life in the films Borat, Bruno and Ali G, and now brings us a new character in Grimsby, Nobby Butcher, a terminally unemployed but fun-loving football fan who is forced to save the world.
In Grimsby, which was filmed England and South Africa, Nobby has everything a man from Grimsby could want – 9 children and a girlfriend he loves more than anything (Rebel Wilson). There’s only one thing missing in his life: his little brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong), from whom he was separated as a child.
After 28 years of searching, Nobby has finally tracked his brother down in London – unaware that he’s an MI6 assassin. After a disastrous reunion in which Nobby accidentally ruins Sebastian’s life and puts them both on the run, they uncover a plot to destroy the world.
In order to save humanity, and his brother, Nobby has to embark on a global mission and undertake a complete transformation from lovable idiot to sophisticated secret agent.
The screenplay for Grimsby is by Sacha Baron Cohen & Phil Johnston & Peter Baynham, from a story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Phil Johnston, and directed by Louis Leterrier, France’s highest grossing director who gave us The Transporter at the age of 26, and also directed Unleashed, The Incredible Hulk, Wrath of The Titans (and its sequel) and Now You See Me.
Sacha Baron Cohen is best known for creating wildly original, hilarious characters and putting them in the most unlikely circumstances – from a faux-streetwise hip-hop personality-turned-talk show host, to a Kazakhstani journalist on his first visit to America, to an Austrian fashion icon looking for fame, he has created characters that are impossible to forget.
In his new film, Grimsby, Baron Cohen once again invents another wholly original creation – the story of an idiot (Baron Cohen) and his brother, the spy (Mark Strong), with whom he reconnects after 28 years.
Just as in his previous films, Baron Cohen puts the emphasis on a commitment to making the character seem as real as possible.
“When writing for Ali G and Borat and Bruno, everything had to be believable. Ali G or Borat could never do anything out of character,” he says. “So when it comes to writing our movies, everything comes from that kind of basis, that pure idea – what would the character do? Sometimes we think of really funny jokes, but they wouldn’t come out of that character’s mouth. It has to be authentic and believable, so we create this real world around the characters for the comedy to exist in.”
For Grimsby, that meant creating a world of spies as real, as believable, and as serious as any action franchise. In short, it couldn’t be a spy spoof.
“We wanted to create a real action movie, with the stakes, the great stunts, and the jeopardy of a real action movie – and then throw an idiotic character in the middle of that, and see how that character changes the course of the movie,” says Baron Cohen.
With that in mind, the filmmakers approached Louis Leterrier – one of the most in-demand action-film directors to take the helm.
Leterrier says that when he was approached to direct Grimsby, he was gratified by the chance to work with a star he had long admired.
“I remember, at the beginning of the DVD era, people were passing around DVD box sets of ‘The Ali G Show’ – ‘Have you seen this stuff?’” Leterrier recalls. “I remember going to see Borat on the day it came out – the 11 am show, first show, and crying laughing, and going to see it again that weekend with friends. That’s what I love about Sacha’s movies – you want to be the first one to see it, and then you want to bring your friends to see their reaction. I was quite starstruck with Sacha, because he was one of the guys that I truly admired.”
“When Sacha makes a movie, there’s not a quota of outrageousness, but there is a quota of comedy,” says Todd Schulman, Baron Cohen’s producing partner.
“It is a credit to Sacha’s ambition and creates a huge challenge for everyone involved, because he is always pushing to make the scene funnier, to take it further, to make it bigger and better.”
In Grimsby, Baron Cohen’s original character is Nobby. At first, it seems that Nobby is a lowlife, but maybe he’s got it figured out after all.
“He’s a welfare cheat – he has nine kids and he’s cheating the system to get as many benefits as he can,” says Baron Cohen. “But the thing is, he loves his kids and his girlfriend. She’s a curvaceous beauty, Rebel Wilson, who he’s crazily in love with. He’s a great dad. He’ll do anything for his family. His whole life is about family – and the one missing hole is his brother.”
Separated 28 years ago when Sebastian was sent to a foster home, one would think that Sebastian – who has grown up to become a spy – would have it all. But when he reconnects with his brother, Sebastian finds out just what he was missing.
Playing Sebastian is Mark Strong, fresh off of his success as Merlin in Kingsman: The Secret Service. “We cast someone who we thought could actually be cast in a real action franchise, and Mark Strong is that guy,” says Baron Cohen. “He’s incredibly tough. He does all his own stunts. He’s a brilliant fighter. And he’s totally real – you completely believe him.”
“I knew Sacha’s past films, but I didn’t know what it would entail, to be honest,” says Strong, about joining a Sacha Baron Cohen comedy. “The process is quite extraordinary. Sacha is on a mission to poke fun at everything he can and create disorder wherever possible. But within that anarchy, the process of finding the laughs is actually quite scientific. There’s a very structured narrative and the writers are specific about the lines they write and the words you speak. If I missed a word here or there, it’s important, because the word is in there so that the comedy flows and works in that way.”
“Mark is the perfect straight man,” says Leterrier. “He’s smart, fun, and intelligent; he gets the joke but doesn’t lean into it. So often, the audience’s reaction is the straight man’s reaction – so Mark’s reaction to Sacha is where the comedy lies. We couldn’t have asked for a better actor than Mark, and he and Sacha behaved as brothers.”
Producer Todd Schulman says that the director’s experience combined with his natural personality made him the perfect choice to helm the film. “For this movie to work, you have to believe in the action,” Schulman explains. “It has to feel like you took an action movie and dropped an idiot into the middle of it. We knew Louis was incredibly talented in terms of shooting action for huge movies, but everyone was really impressed by his sense of humor. He has a really light touch, which was perfect for the movie.”
Still, Leterrier says that shooting comedy was unlike any other kind of filmmaking he’s ever done before.
“I had longer takes, 45 minute takes. I was putting several cameras on a scene, doing crossing overs. It was a new kind of filmmaking for me,” Leterrier says. But that’s what you have to do when Sacha Baron Cohen is performing. “In this movie, he’s like a stream of consciousness – he never stops. He has a surreal mind.”
That surreal mind, as a co-writer of the screenplay, dreamed up quite a bit of punishment for the actors.
“One particular day, Sacha fell on me and smashed a bottle over my head repeatedly,” says Strong. “Then I was drowned in a car; I was trapped in a tiny, sleeping bag-sized costume; I had a day on the African plain in freezing cold winds; and I was subjected to three days in a small house with Nobby’s entire family. It wasn’t just Sebastian enduring these tasks – it was me.”
“Whatever Sacha asks of other actors, he’ll do ten times worse. Sacha will do anything to get a laugh,” says Leterrier.
Plus, Leterrier explains, he wasn’t about to let the actors get all the fun – the director thought it was only fair that he himself endure whatever he was requiring of Baron Cohen and Strong.
“When they were wet, I was wet. When they were cold, I was cold. When they were naked, I was naked. Sacha was one of the writers of the movie, so he was prepared, but I didn’t want Mark to feel abused. So, I was with him in there.”
“Watching Sacha do comedy is like watching Michael Jordan shoot hoops,” says Isla Fisher, Baron Cohen’s real-life wife, who plays Jodie, Sebastian’s love interest in the film. “It is an education in how to be hilarious and I’ve learned so much. For the rest of us, though, we had to play it straight – Sacha’s character is so heightened that we needed the whole rest of the world to feel very real.”
Fisher trained at clown school, so the chance to work on Grimsby was a true homecoming. “Once I’m inside a funny character, there are so many opportunities to tap into my inner idiot. It’s the most fun I can have,” she says.
Fisher previously teamed with director Louis Leterrier on the hit film Now You See Me. “It’s great to see him branching out and doing comedy, because Louis has a fresh and exciting way of shooting things,” she says. “He keeps the camera continually moving – it has a mercurial, animal feel. He can create this spy world but still has a great sense of humor.”
Of course, Fisher is Baron Cohen’s real-life wife, and she says that Nobby is one of her favorite of her husband’s characters – for her own reasons.
“I’m really lucky with this character, because Sacha wore a wig,” she says. “I had to sleep with someone with a handlebar moustache when he was Borat; I had a blonde Mohawked manorexic in my bed when he was Bruno. Nobby was my favorite of all his alter egos to bring home – despite the northern accent that he never shook off, at least he looked like himself.”
Nobby’s girlfriend, Dawn is played by Rebel Wilson. “The thing that everyone loves about Sacha’s comedy is that it really pushes the boundaries,” says Wilson. “I love edgy material – I’m known for doing some very edgy standup and sketch comedy – but this film really goes to the next level.”
Coming onto Grimsby just two weeks after completing her work on Pitch Perfect 2, Wilson says that she went straight into “research.” “Sacha wanted Dawn to be an authentic Northern girl, so I went on a massive six-day research trip to the north of England,” she says. “I went to hair and nail salons – I even worked in a fish and chips shop in Blackpool for an afternoon. It was intense – and now I know everything about how to make fish and chips..well kind of!” After soaking up the atmosphere, Wilson worked with an accent coach on perfecting the Northern accent. “Sacha was on me – ‘You know, Rebel, it took me a month to get the accent. You have to work really hard if you’re going to get it and I want it to be perfect.’ I tried my hardest, and I hope my accent is authentic in the movie.”
Shooting Grimsby in South Africa
Grimsby was shot in two major locations – England and South Africa. “Initially, the plan was to shoot maybe 10 or 15 days in South Africa – the elephant sequence, and that was it,” says director Louis Leterrier. “But our executive producer, Louise Rosner Meyer, was very smart – she knew that the end of the movie was set in Chile, and she started to look for locations that would work. By the time I visited with her – I’d never been to South Africa – going from location to location, by the end of the second day, we’d found every location in a long list. Cape Town is not a big city, but you can drive 10 or 20 minutes and it looks completely different. It has two oceans, you’ve got the hot wind from the African plains coming down in the summer, and the cold winds from Antarctica going up in the winter. It just makes a tremendous location – so much that we ended up shooting about half the movie there. They were very welcoming, and the government created a few bridges for us to come there – not to mention that the crews and talent pool are absolutely unbelievable.”
In South Africa, on the Lourensford wine estate, the filmmakers built the luxurious safari lodge where Nobby is supposed to conduct a high-level meeting. “It was a great location,” says Leterrier. “And for our purposes, the sun was shining in the right position for the entire day. We got this amazing construction – in the mornings, I liked to walk up to it from our base camp and look at it – as the sun rose behind the mountains, it was absolutely beautiful.”
”At first, we had planned to build a set in the UK for that scene,” says Quinn. “But then the thing is, if you look at all the very exclusive safari lodges, what’s exclusive about them is that the environment is part of the location. We realized that we’d never fully achieve that as a set in the studio in the UK. So, when it came to pass that we were going to have more time in South Africa, we just decided that it would be good to try to find an incredible location to build that set, which we did.”
However, as beautiful as the set was, there’s only one thought that goes through an action film director’s head when you give him a location like that: “I thought, we have it, we might as well destroy it!” he laughs. “And then, when we destroyed it, I thought, we should build a miniature and blow it up even more, just for fun.”