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Chris Morris’ Four Lions met with glowing reviews at Sundance, but while the festival’s lesser lights were snapped up in the weeks and months that followed, Morris’ movie remained without a U.S. distributor for nine months. Despite Morris’ status as one of the U.K.’s most revered—and, in some cases, most reviled—comedians, the thumbnail description of the film as a comedy about suicide bombers was too much for some to swallow. (It was picked up, finally, by the newly formed Drafthouse Films, which will release it November 5.) There’s no question that Four Lions is one of the boldest and most necessary comedies to come down the pike in some time, a dizzyingly absurdist and surprisingly touching portrait of four generally affable, mostly incompetent British Muslims edging ever closer to a deadly attack. Playing both ends against the middle, Morris somehow manages to skewer the absurdities of religious extremism while humanizing the low-level grunts who fall prey to it.
Morris is no stranger to taking on extremism. With Steve Coogan and In The Loop’s Armando Iannucci, he created the simultaneously scathing and surreal The Day Today and its radio predecessor On The Hour, which tore into the stentorian excesses and soft-minded blather of broadcast news. With the satirical documentary series Brass Eye, he drew real-life figures into his trap, prompting a conservative member of Parliament to inveigh against a fictitious drug called “Cake” and leading Phil Collins to endorse a non-existent anti-pedophilia charity called “Nonce Sense.”
In the U.K., Morris is legendary for his insistence that his work speak for itself. He refuses nearly all requests for interviews, and those fortunate enough to be granted one may find themselves the subject of an elaborate practical joke; one journalist who asked for Morris’ contact info was given a number that led to a voicemail message explaining that there would be no follow-up questions. Even at Sundance, Morris remained elusive, leaving the festival ahead of schedule and without warning. But The A.V. Club caught up with him in Park City to talk about the intersection between terrorism and farce, avoiding “mad guys with beards” jokes, and why jihadists love Johnny Depp.
The A.V. Club: It’s interesting to measure Four Lions against your TV work. It’s very much in the same spirit, but it’s more character-driven, more approachable in some ways. How did the story fall into place for you?
Chris Morris: I was, out of curiosity, just reading about the subject. I was reading a book by Jason Burke on Al-Qaeda, and I came across an example of a bunch of people from Yemen who wanted to blow up a U.S. warship on Millennium Eve. They went down in the middle of the night, 3 a.m., they filled up a boat with explosives, and it sank. I thought, “Ah.” I laughed out loud when I read that. I wasn’t expecting to laugh when I was reading that book. Then I came across a couple more examples—a guy who set out to blow up an officer at a compound, I think it was a Kurdish compound. He went off on a job, he was called back, so he built up over another week and a half, basically got himself psyched up to do it, went up to the compound. As he was going through the gate the guard said, “Who are you here to see?” He said, “I’m here to see the chief officer.” He said, “All right. By the way, what’s under your shirt?” The guy said, “Oh, yeah, it’s a bomb.” And again I thought, this is just ridiculous. How he got to that point. And then I started pursuing that line.
I read a few other books, and similar little silly things happened, things that were sort of stupid-level, ordinary human behavior funny. Then I went to a high court case. There were a bunch of guys in the docks for buying fertilizer making very loose plans what to do with it, and there was about three months of surveillance from MI-5. Page after page of absolutely ludicrous, pretty much stoner drivel. Drug-free, but it was hard to believe when you read it. I thought, wait, we’re on to something here. The ideology is terrifying, but it’s somewhat modified when it’s juxtaposed with conversations about what a great actor Johnny Depp is, how cool he’d look with a big beard. Just silly things, which seem surprising, until you think, “Why would these guys be any different to any other bunch of guys?”
AVC: Suicide bombers are very much the cannon fodder of the jihadist movement. They’re not the best and the brightest. Osama bin Laden isn’t going to drive a truck bomb into a military compound.
CM: But you know what? Even the guys higher up the chain—for example, I read an interview with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was one of the architects of the 9/11 plot, and he was interviewed by an Al Jazeera journalist in Karachi shortly before his arrest. I was struck that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed took an hour to get himself ready for the camera, because he kept wanting to choose a costume that didn’t make him look fat. You have this, I think, right the way through the top. It just started to ring true. It just seemed, “Of course.” Take anyone. You can probably hang around with Barack Obama and find out he does some silly things. It just seemed such a mind-blowing scene of dissonance, when it appears to be the case.
[The next question and answer contain spoilers for Four Lions.]
AVC: The movie is very adept at mingling tones. A lot of it is pure farce, but toward the end the consequences become quite real. You play the death of a character within the rhythms of comedy, but we don’t feel like laughing. There are some very real, even sobering moments in the film.
CM: It is quite real, but I think it’s interesting with the audience, they think they’ve lost a guy that some were hoping might get out of it. Then they laugh when the police reveal to have shot the wrong guy. These sort of things, they are basic comic tropes. It’s funny that people laugh when Barry dies. They don’t give a stuff about the guy who goes with him. These things are pretty hard to parlay on strict levels of propriety. But I do think you have to go all the way with something like this. A comedy war film, like M*A*S*H or something, doesn’t avoid the realities of the situation. So I felt as long as we kept making sure the beats were true—in other words right or plausible—that’s what we should do.
AVC: How did you decide on the tone of the film?
CM: Well I think the tone was sort of there really from the moment I decided that this should be a film rather than something else, and that decision was informed partly by the fact that this story would go the full distance. It wouldn’t be like a sitcom, a kind of dwelling with some people who are trapped in an existential fault. It’d be following a plotline to its endpoints. Therefore, you can be as dark as you like. Anyone can slip on a banana skin, but you knew where you were going. So that informed the writing I did with Sam [Bain] and Jesse [Armstrong]. It informed the meetings that we had before the writing started. We had a lot of meetings for the shape of the plot and that sort of thing. And it informed, obviously, the way things worked on set. That said, of course you do deliberately vary tone a little bit in your takes, just because you’re not within a single thin line. You’re within a bandwidth. You want to cover the bases.
AVC: Does the final film look the way you thought it would?
CM: Well, yes. It did. One of the actors, the guy who plays Ahmed, the conservative brother, came to see it. We had a screening in Northern England for cast and crew. He said to me—because of course, I would say “Yes,” right?—he said to me that’s exactly as he saw it in the script. Story elements change. I always knew we’d be shooting on two cameras. I always knew we’d be shooting very fast in order to try to get it as realistic as possible. I knew it would be brisk and I knew we’d be jump-cutting. I did the edits. I did rough edits myself, which were a disgrace, but plotted things out for the editor to then put his magic on. We both knew we’d be chipping it about a bit. I knew what the sound would be too, but it may be just because we had some delay in the funding that I had time to think these things through.
AVC: The most interesting relationship in the film is between Omar (Riz Ahmed), who’s planning the suicide attack, and his brother Ahmed (Wasim Zakir), a conservative Muslim. The argument between them illustrates that the extremists are not always, or even often, the most devout Muslims. The 9/11 hijackers went to strip clubs.
CM: It’s a very, very complicated field, and I wanted to have some element that reflected that. You find it, actually. You find that somebody who’s gone radical, he may well have done it against the will of his family or he may have become a little bit estranged from his family. There’s a difference between old-fashioned, conservative, quite strict behavior and radical behavior, and I think that is reflected in the relationship between the two brothers. The brother with the beard follows a lot of rules. It doesn’t mean, as it were, that he’s a “proper” Muslim, because there’d be lots of other practicing Muslims who would say he was ridiculously old-fashioned and orthodox. Often the two will get lumped together. An extremely orthodox Muslim will be seen as one step away from becoming a dangerous radical, whereas, in fact, often they’re just following an old-fashioned tradition, which may not be too much fun for you and me.
AVC: There’s so much misunderstanding and fear in the air. I was delayed on the way out here because a flight from New York to Louisville was diverted when one of the stewardesses saw an Orthodox Jewish teenager putting on his tefillin to pray and thought he was attaching a bomb to himself.
CM: Those kinds of things do happen. One of the things that made the film such a crunchy journey is seeing things like that—how culturally estranged people are from each other, even if they live in the neighboring street. That sense of strangeness. People are shockingly insular. I’m sure people would feel a great deal happier about what Muslims wear generally if they just bothered to hang out a bit more, and certainly if they did that in Britain they’d be in for some very, very good curry. There’s little communities keeping to themselves. It’s not just Muslims being insular. It works the exact opposite way as well. I don’t want to say we’re a bunch of hippies aiming for world peace, but you only have to traipse around and talk to a bunch of Muslims, which I did, and found many, many delightful, friendly people, who were sort of desperate to associate and get sucked in and talk about things and bring more sharing social attitudes.
AVC: What kind of research did you end up doing?
CM: Pretty involved, actually. Apart from reading—the most valuable research really—and looking over court cases to get the sharp end of what happened, what was rather delightful was going around and meeting a lot of people and following chains of contact. Going to hang out with people, whether they were just young lads blazing up in their car or people’s fathers or cousins or sisters, just to get a picture of the landscape within which these tiny, radicalized exceptions operate. Because without knowing the full context, you’re reduced to making “mad guys with beards” kind of jokes. To see the contradictions close up and see how it feels to be these people, to be a first-, second-, or third-generation Pakistani lad in a northern mill town, regardless of your politics, you see that’s the context, and then you follow the political lines, and then you start talking to radical people. It could be endless, but I did it as much as I could. Actually, I spoke to a guy in the FBI last time I was here, as well. He was following a case in Sacramento, which, interestingly, he said he’d been asked to come in to look at the evidence for the prosecution. He’d left the FBI, but they wanted him in as an expert, and he said the evidence was so flimsy, by far and away the worst-prepared evidence he’d ever seen. He actually flipped and became a witness for the defense. But that was about a small group of Pakistani immigrants in Northern California.
AVC: How did you decide on the film’s perspective? You could easily have made a satire about the extremism of the Western response to terrorism instead.
CM: Yes. I mean I wanted to make sure that there were some security blunders in there—they’re part of the picture—but I felt you can’t do everything in a film, and in terms of the tone, I wasn’t really interested in the cartoon level. Obviously I’ve laughed at funny versions of that. But I felt you don’t have to push into a subject very much to get there, to do that. Part of the process of this kind of thing is asking questions, following your own curiosity. So, as a result of following your own instincts, if you throw up quite a lot of details that fall outside the realm of the cartoon version, then why not play with them? I wanted it to be realistic at some level. One of the ironies is, you talk about the research, and quite a lot of research is plain. It’s plain, straightforward life. If you’re Larry David you would never have to do any research, because your life is your research. You know what I mean? But if you’re sort of talking about a bunch of people with whom you’re not very familiar, a lot of the research is not, you find some examples as you go along, but it’s sort of just getting the essence of existence.
AVC: The movie encourages us to feel for the characters, despite their extremism. It’s not like the James Cameron movie True Lies, where the death of Arabs is played as a Three Stooges routine. Here the death is part of who the characters are.
CM: I think that one bounces both ways at once, quite deliberately, I suppose. That’s what happens if you hang out with characters. You start to at least empathize with them, if not sympathize with everything that they think. That’s just a product of how films work, unless you go out of your way to make them thoroughly objectionable. I felt that was part of it. Actually, not least, it’s just a mechanical necessity for making a film work. You can’t spend 90 minutes hanging around with people with whom you make no connection.
AVC: The movie has been described as a satire of jihadism, but on a larger scale it’s about extremism of any kind, which is a subject that seems to consistently fascinate you. The “Paedogeddon” episode of Brass Eye is a great example. It’s not satirizing pedophilia, but the hysteria that surrounds it. Do you feel an interest in deflating that kind of discourse, taking some of the pomposity and overwrought rhetoric out of it and getting back to the truth underneath?
CM: Here’s a pitch, and I’m not sure if it’s necessarily true, but if you’re dissatisfied with forms of discourse on subjects that seem to be driving the whole issue way off course into a sort of flaming field, then there are a number of ways of coming at it. One of them is to attack the style and approach of that discussion directly, but another way is to try and get beneath the very mechanically rigid limitations of the discourse by finding out yourself. So I was just thinking, “We’re caught up in a big situation here, and we get a very limited tick and tock of discussion, the way it all works in the war on terror or however you care to describe it, and we’re missing tons. We all know that there’s a lot of bullshit flying around, but we can’t really call it for what it is, because we don’t know the backgrounds. We just sense innately that it’s crap. So much stuff is spun, and I thought, “This cannot be real in the way it’s presented.” So I just went forward that way. You could say that’s coming from the same place and taking a very different approach. It’s a dissatisfaction with idiocy. Idiocy and petrol bombing.
AVC: Going all the way back, even your character on The Day Today is sending up that incredibly self-serious, almost angry style of British newscasters.
CM: I know. Although, actually, come on. Look at people like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. It’s just a different thing. I think it’s partly, you go back to The Day Today and stuff, it’s just reveling in the sheer pomposity. They used to call it, actually, quite without irony, a certain style of BBC news presentation they used to call “The Voice of God.” I think actually that that gravitas is just about gone now. I think there’s been a cultural shift. Or at least it comes in a different way. Everybody’s so desperate to ironize themselves, to make sure that they look like they have a sense of humor and that they know they’re being ridiculous. Nobody’s really worked out a way of replacing it. That sense of authoritarian voice isn’t as secure as it was.