Essays

A Handy User’s Guide for Tricking People Into Acting Foolish for Your Film

You had the concept, the financing, and some production partners, but you were waiting to see if the Large Hadron Collider destroyed the earth by creating a black hole at its core and if Team Sacha Baron Cohen was going to survive the myriad lawsuits stemming from their sneaky interviewing malfeasance.
By  · Published on September 18th, 2008

We all know you’re planning on making your own documentary featuring some wacky real people (as opposed to real wacky people) that you want to look ridiculous for the entertainment benefit of the paying public. How do we all know? Don’t ask. But, yes, it has to do with government surveillance and my top level security clearance.

You had the concept, the financing, and some production partners, but you were waiting to see if the Large Hadron Collider destroyed the earth by creating a black hole at its core and if Team Sacha Baron Cohen was going to survive the myriad lawsuits stemming from their sneaky interviewing malfeasance.

You probably noticed by the lack of a black hole forming this week that the Borat lawsuit was thrown out. Congratulations! You can go forward with your project. But you’ll probably want to figure out how Team Borat beat the system.

Stage 1: The Greenlight

You pitched your idea to pose as a stodgy expert psychologist in order to lull normal people into giving you deeply personal and embarrassing responses to posed questions, and your financier has agreed to give you the full $1 million you’ll need. He doesn’t like your working title – Couch Surfers – but he’s impressed with everything else. That’s…the easy part.

Stage 2: The Call Center

You set up a sweet command center to make your calls from, away from the rest of your production crew who are playing Halo 3 in the living room, and start calling your marks. You call the female marks under a fake name like Daniel Davis (avoid the all-too-obvious Pat McRotch) and have your female production coordinator to call the male marks. It goes without saying that members of the opposite sex can be fairly persuasive.

You’ll be upfront, claiming to be calling from American Creative Productions (another fake name) saying that you’re making a documentary that seeks to expose pompous psychologist quacks who are using unlicensed methods, but that it’s more for entertainment purposes than for whistle-blowing. People love being featured in television shows and movies, so you find more than enough volunteers.

Stage 3: The Bait and Switch

As with most cons, timing is the most important element. Keep the mark rushed on the day of the interview. Lull them into a false sense of security by thanking them profusely, having a make-up artist give them the star treatment, and paying them upfront in cash. Most importantly, wait until the very last minute to hand them a twenty-page release form.

This release form needs to cover some bases or you will be sued successfully later on. Most notably – waivers against claims of invasion of privacy, defamation and publicity rights. You want to avoid claimants suing you for using their image incorrectly, videotaping them without consent or profiting directly from their image. Write the contract in excruciating detail, tell marks that it’s a standard agreement, and you won’t have to worry about them paying too much attention with a fist full of bills being handed to them.

You’ll also want them to agree not to bring suit against you for 1) injury brought on by acts of God 2) injury caused by war or terrorism 3) misleading portrayal 4) emotional distress 5) trespassing 6) breach of contract 7) deceptive business practices 8) copyright and trademark infringement 9) alleged intentional harm 10) fraud 11) breach of ethical rights and 12) interference with contracts or business. Make no mistake – you will be engaging in some of these actions which is exactly why you want participants to waive their right to sue you over them.

Remember, the less they actually read, the better.

At the end of the road, a smart lawyer might be able to argue the contract was signed under false pretenses, and she’d be right, but here’s where your production team has an edge. As long as you don’t prompt the mark to say anything, they’re embarrassing themselves of their own accord. And they do so knowing full well that they’re being recorded for entertainment purposes.

Stage 4: The Fake Interview

Your fake doctor starts off being serious, asking personal questions and delving into some understandable psychological issues. He spends some time making the mark comfortable, then moves abruptly to the strange questions. If the mark thinks that the quack psychologist is the mark, he’ll be more likely to play along. Catch them off guard and don’t give them a lot of time to react. The natural responses will be the funniest. Do this for fifty different marks, and you’ll get 5-10 that make your $1 million production budget worth it.

The Lesson

We can’t condone going through with this sort of charade. For one, you’re probably not as funny as Sacha Baron Cohen. For two, even if you cover your bases as strongly as possible, there’s still a threat that you could be sued and could lose. Big time.

But if you were already planning on it, go forth freely! Make fun of unwitting people all you want! With Baron Cohen getting off without paying a dime – except for, you know, court costs – the door is wide open for copycat filmmakers and a new emerging genre of invasive non-candid cameras. Plus, if you execute the release correctly, you have an even stronger argument when you get sued: the Borat precedence.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.