The elusive director discusses his hilarious jihad comedy about four inept terrorists attempting a suicide bombing
England's Christopher Morris has created a thoughtful and hilarious treatise on terrorism with his latest project, Four Lions. While a comedy about Jihadi suicide bombers might sound like its trying to court controversy, the film is being lauded as one of the most important essays ever made about the subject. Some critics have even hailed as it the best film of this year.
It is certainly ripe for discussion, and in a rare instance of communal intelligence, audiences are actually viewing Four Lions before making any rash judgment calls about the story's contents. It has seen an outpouring of support from all political affiliations, and there hasn't been any real debate about Four Lions's impending release in the States at all, actually. People genuinely love it.
The plot follows a group of young Muslim men living in Sheffield, England. They have become radicalized and decide to carry out a suicide bombing on one of their on mosques. Rather inept, this gang finds that acts of terrorism aren't as easy as they sound. And what transpires is a comical twist on one of the touchiest subjects in the world.
Director/writer Christopher Morris is a satirist known for spoofing news and current affairs in such popular UK series as The Day Today and Brass Eye, the later of which set off a firestorm when Morris decided to tackle the "dangerous" subject of pedophilia. Out of the public's eye for the past couple of years and notorious for bucking interviews, Morris has recently taken on the challenge of touring Four Lions across America. And one of those stops was Los Angeles, where he agreed to chat with us for a couple of minutes.
Here is our conversation:
You are taking Four Lions all over the place these next two weeks. How is this experience so far? To be touring America?
Christopher Morris: Its great fun. I'm saying this on day one. I haven't been here twenty-four hours. But it's been great fun. It's been a glorious tour. It has exceeded all expectations. You can run that if you are posting this in two weeks time. Or I can give you another one that says: Rank disaster! I can't believe there were empty theaters. I can't believe there were people running out. We had death threats. That's your other one, if in two weeks, things have gone completely wrong. Basically, I am really looking forward to this. Because our experiences with American audiences so far have been really fantastic. I have been bowled over. I am hoping that will continue, and that we haven't hoovered up all the people who will like the film. I hope that we are not heading into some badlands.
Even with this touchy subject matter, there seems to be an overwhelming outpouring of support. There is a certain lack of controversy over Four Lions' release. Has that aspect surprised you?
Christopher Morris: Well, I have gotten used to being not surprised. I thought there might be a little bit of controversy. But I knew that you could only sort-of react with a loud, outraged noise with this film. If you were contrived, and a bit stupid. If you actually watched it, it sort of converts you away from the controversial idea of the title. Or at least the strap line. "A comedy about jihads? What the hell are you doing?" Once you realize that we were taking the material seriously enough to be properly funny, and we're not saying, "Hey, terrorism is high-larious!" But we based this on real life, the pursuit of these complicated and tightly wound plots involve a great deal of error, argument, and foolishness. Then, it is open for anybody to laugh at it.
I know you delved quite deeply into the details, and that you studied what actually goes on in Jihadi circles, and what goes on in carrying out acts of terrorism. One of the scariest, and funniest aspects is that they actually do use children's chat rooms to communicate. Is it possible that our kids are conversing with terrorists on a daily basis?
Christopher Morris: (Laughs) No! I think this is another good idea that I would be quite happy to sell on for a certain fee. But I would want a good auction. My kids used to go on a website called Club Penguin. I thought, "You know what? If you were planning some secret communications? You could dress up as a cartoon penguin, and talk in a rough code. You'd probably get away with that." You are not allowed to swicky-swear on Club Penguin. Then you are out. As long as you keep it clean, and you communicate around a code that is based on The A-Team or The Simpsons, and you do find that these people do this...They text, and they amateur message, and the email...They have email addresses. There was a guy whose email address was @ilovekyle.com. And there was @kewlankinky. At Google Mail, or something. One cell had a communication system made up entirely of album reviews. There was a U2 album review, and a Chili Peppers review. They discussed Big Brother. That was there code system. Why not?
Not watching the film as a scholar, but as an average filmgoer who just went into see a funny movie, I certainly got lost in the story of these four characters as actual, real people. And I want to know, where did you find the line to draw between making a character that is likeable, and someone we can identify with, and maybe even empathize with on some level. But also have us understand and know what this person is up to, and to get us to a place where we understand, and almost want to see, these guys blow themselves up at the end?
Christopher Morris: The fact is, the distribution of personality doesn't pay attention to your final acts on a moral scale. You can find people who would be charming, and great people to hang out with socially, who were in a terrorist cell. Then you would find other people who were sociopaths. There are jokers, and there are non-jokers. There are uptight people. There are boring people. There are a whole lot in there. So, why wouldn't this be the case? Really? The evidence is there in real life. Even Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is on trial, is a mastermind behind certain attacks, and he communicates with a sort-of joke. He has a strong sense of irony in the things he says while in court. I wouldn't say he is the most hilarious man on earth. But, there is humor there. One of the things is, to run a group, you have to be a bit charismatic. And you have to be a decent character at some point. At least to those people in their group. Look, the guy that ran the plot to blow up the trains in London five years ago was a renowned local school teaching assistant. He had a particular habit of helping out the underprivileged kids and giving them lifts when they were having difficulty getting to school. That whole kind of thing, That was the same guy that planned to blow people up on trains.
Its crazy. Me and my friend had gotten off one of those buses just hours before that happened. On July 7th.
Christopher Morris: Whereabouts did you disembark?
I'm not sure off the top of my head. I was visiting my friend in London. It was the bus that was blown up in half, that was left in the middle of the street.
Christopher Morris: Jesus, in Tavistock Square?
Yes. We had gotten on another bus after that, and then the bombing happened while we were on a boat heading for Amsterdam. We heard about it while we were walking around Amsterdam. We were a little bit out of sorts...
Christopher Morris: That could have sent you into a very bad place. If you'd been rash and gone straight for the strongest stuff in the café.
It did get the whole day off to a weird start.
Christopher Morris: Did you find yourself laughing historically about the terrorist attacks in London? Or wanting to eat a lot of chocolate as a result of the terrorist attacks in London? Or what? Were you trying to pull your eyes out in a paranoid state, wishing that a hospital would deliver you from this Hell?
It was weird. What we were actually thinking was that my buddy, Tommy Lloyd, had been in South America the year before when something similar had happened. Maybe a year before. Then this happened. And he was worried that someone was going to do a cross check on his passport. Paranoia had set in with him.
Christopher Morris: Ah, of course. Yeah, two is enough to make an unbreakable pattern.
He was kind of spooking me out. Hanging out with him. When we got back a few days later, they still had the two halves of that bus in the street, draped with a giant sheet. It was weird experiencing the people's reactions to it happening in London, and also having experienced the reactions in America on 9/11. Do you personally see a difference between how Americans handle these situations compared to Londoners?
Christopher Morris: Look, I'll make two statements. The first of which undermines the second. Generally, I have been amazed at how phlegmatic and, indeed, ready to embrace the film American audiences have been at the screenings we have played so far. I haven't had any problem getting through that barrier that you suggest might exist. People have really gone for it wholeheartedly. Secondly, if anything, you can't begin to generalize. To generalize an American audience is an act of madness. Ever locality sees the film in a different way. We screened it in New York a few weeks ago. I thought, here if anywhere, they would have the right to be perhaps a little oversensitive about the contents of the film. Not at all. They completely went the other way. They were like, "Come on, dude. This happened to us. We are the fist people to get over this." It wasn't bravado and thick skin. People from both sides of the political spectrum had been in that audience. They were working two blocks away from Ground Zero. There was a guy who'd lost his friend. They were all capable of seeing the film and laughing at it. The American response so far? I have been very pleasantly surprised by it.
Was it similar to what you saw when the film was released in England? I'm not sure when it was released there...
Christopher Morris: It was released in May. We had a good run. The response was incredibly positive in Britain. Sort of a cross spectrum, which I hadn't really anticipated. We felt it played equally well to Muslim audiences as it did to really quite conservative audiences. The take would be different. It was like, they would both laugh. Then they would come out and give different reasons for their laughter. In some strange way, a lot of British agents felt positively included by the film. Which, at first, felt paradoxical. Why would they think this was one of the most inclusive films that they'd seen in Britain? When it was basically about terrorists? But it's about the fact that these are a bunch of guys with feats of clay. They are portrayed as purely that. British Agents are used to being portrayed in more stereotypical, cartoonish ways. Then, on the other side, the conservatives see it as a gesture on behalf of free speech. You should be able to make a film about anything and laugh long and hard about it. Even if you are a soldier who has had friends blown up in suicide attacks. I was surprised by the spectrum. The film was able to have a good long run. Its probably still playing somewhere, in a lovely little seaside resort that has an art cinema.
I don't know how it was in England, but after 9/11, in the States, there were a lot of retrospectives and a lot of documentary segments on shows like 20/20 about how actors of Middle Eastern decent had come out against Hollywood, and they were very disappointed that the only roles they could get were as terrorists. What was your experience like when you went to cast this film?
Christopher Morris: Oh, yeah, man. When I was talking to actors for this, they were all saying, "Ah, okay! Right!" All the Asian guys were saying, "We have a permanent bid on these roles now. We know the only part we're going to be up for is a terrorist. So why even bother to shave? We just go around looking like terrorists all the time because that is all we get." To be honest, there was a whole industry built around these kinds of two-dimensional, off the shelf, cut and paste together type representations that were going on. That is one of the things that frustrated me. I thought, no one is getting anywhere near this. It is all the same. It is all monotone storytelling. No one is getting inside these people's heads. This is all real bullshit. There was a staggering lack of curiosity. Which is still actually the case. Most people cannot be bothered to get anywhere near this. My feeling is that this film should be made many times over by lots of people. Why it hasn't is basically a judgment.
How do you think this material would fare if put in the hands of a more serious-minded director? Which isn't even exactly fare to ask, because this is quite a dramatic film, one that has comedic overtones. It's not a straight up comedy. But do you think we'll see a more dramatic take on this story told from the terrorists' side of the fence?
Christopher Morris: There should be. Look, why not? The information is out there. It's not secret. People are out there to meet. It's just a matter of will, and whether you are prepared to do it. If you make a film about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, you talk to people who worked in that bomb disposal unit in Iraq, and you use those people to help you get a film that is accurate. Why would you not do the same on a subject like this? When you talk about comedy and drama, I think it was Sandy McKendrick who said structure and comedy is structure squared. Or cubed, or something. That was an appalling misquote. But what he was saying is that you need to understand dramatic structure to do drama. And you need to understand it in triplicate to do comedy. Because comedy is drama with the turns more heightened. The gaps are more heightened. If you don't have some dramatic development, or spine to your film, you are going to have just a string of jokes, which then stops.
Your film seems to carry so many truths, and I know you did dig on this to make it the accurate portrayal that it is. Wouldn't it be hard to make a film like this without an element of humor? It seems like every single laugh in the film is earned, and comes from a natural place. There is no true slapstick.
Christopher Morris: You just described why the movie became what it is. I wasn't looking for jokes. I was just reading into the subject. And I came up against examples of silly, recognizably foolish human behavior. Whether it was the head of the 9/11 plotters being interviewed, and for two hours, he tried to choose a costume that didn't make him look fat. Or whether it was the fact that when he went on camera, he then tried to talk like a sheik, and he changed his voice, and he wagged his finger. He came up with some tantric quotes. And he was stopped by the journalist, who realized he was getting all of his tantric quotes wrong. There is a rather doltish quality just in that. There were lots of court cases that had ample intelligence and surveillance material. Which gave an insight into the everyday conversations that these guys had, sitting around in their bed sheets planning cosmic war. But in a very frail way. They would get caught up in conversations about Johnny Depp. Who was cooler? Osama Bin Laden or Johnny Depp? How The Lord of the Rings related to jihadism. All these kinds of things. That The Lion King scene in the film is not from nowhere. The Lion King is a reference I came across several times describing a moral universe between good and evil. Which, if you apply it to your radical ideology, you say, "We're the good guys!" And off you go!
Its funny. The Lion King is also embraced by the gay community in a similar way.
Christopher Morris: The Lion King speaks to everybody. It would be possible to rationalize a jihadi cell with nothing more than a good, general sense of disaffection and a copy of The Lion King. I don't think its wrong.
If you are Jihad, you don't have to get permission to use a registered trademark or image like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle to go out and blow up a building. How did that apply to you? Did you have to secure the rights to use the likeness of these characters we see being used at the end of the movie?
Christopher Morris: They have all been dying to see their characters used as terrorists for years. Its good for business. Come on! You just have to be a little bit careful. But then, maybe what I said is true. Maybe they are dying to have their characters used as terrorists. After all, it is a pretty good way of extending the franchise. There are baddies as well as goodies.
I can imagine that the two guys who created the Mutant Turtles have a great sense of humor, and don't mind seeing their character used here, in this manner. Now, the main character's costume? This furry monster? I don't know if that is a real character or not...
Christopher Morris: It is in Britain. It's basically a big fluffy, idiotic creature that has been used to advertise a breakfast cereal for about forty years. He is instantly recognizable, like Mickey Mouse.
I figured as much. I personally wasn't familiar with it.
Christopher Morris: I hope that didn't destroy your sense of the film.
No, it didn't. But let me ask you this. I recently talked with an Irish filmmaker, and he had subtitled quite a bit of his latest film, even though it was in English. He didn't feel that some of the accents were understandable. The same could be said about your film. There are times when I couldn't understand some of the dialogue. Did you ever consider having subtitles on Four Lions? Or did you feel that would, as you say, destroy the sense of the film?
Christopher Morris: It has come up in conversation. We have not had a conclusive vote on it. When we first came to the states, we thought this was a live issue. But 70% of the people who see the film don't come out saying, "Man, I would have gotten so much more from this experience had it had subtitles." There are maybe one or two people. How would you know what the bits were that you didn't hear? But let me ask you anyway. What were the bits you didn't hear?
I think the bits that I didn't understand were slang terms I wasn't familiar with anyway.
Christopher Morris: Yeah. There are a few things. When I introduced the screening last night, I did mention the rapids, which is a ride in a theme park in Britain. It is a cross between a log flume and something that involves dirigibles. You get into a little rubber boat and you go sliding down some very fast rapids. The other thing was mini Baby Bells. But people know what Baby Bells are, yeah?
Its little round, white pieces of cheese. Right?
Christopher Morris: Yeah, exactly.
I have read a lot of the essays that have come out in regards to Four Lions, and one word that keeps coming up is "dangerous". We haven't realty seen a film in a while that could be considered "dangerous", and it does certainly feel like the types of films that came out in the 70s. Do you think we will see a trend towards more thought provoking material in the coming years? Or is this just a rare instance...
Christopher Morris: Wouldn't it be great if I could answer on behalf of a general plurality rather than myself. I have no idea. How could I know? I do like those types of films that you refer to in the 70s. The French Connection. Dog Day Afternoon. Whatever they are, those things that are kind of raw. They take you into a world in a way that films frantically try to distance themselves from most of the time, these days. Is that a trend? You are in a better position to tell that than I am. I have become a monomaniac. I can't comment on anything other than this picture with the damn crow.
And you will be talking about Four Lions for the next two weeks straight...
Christopher Morris: As I have been for the last year. It is a pretty surreal experience. I think I am going to need to spend a year just sitting by the seesaw, communicating with turtles and sea otters, and probably crabs. They are about my level.
Everyone of these essays references a TV show you made in the UK that I wasn't familiar with. It dealt with pedophiles...
Christopher Morris: Yeah, it was basically a satire on the media's overreaction to the portrayal of pedophiles. It wasn't just a satire on the media portrayal, it was a satire on society's general knee-jerk reaction. People responded so quickly, it bypassed their thought circuits. That made it easy to get people to speak nonsense on behalf of a campaign that seemed to be against pedophiles. We made an early recording with a media celebrity in Britain. We got him to hold a live crab. He held it up in front of him and said, "Pedophiles have more genetically in common with a crab than they do you are me." He said this as serious public information broadcast. Then he went onto say, "There is no scientific evidence for this at all. But it is fact." I thought, once you can get people to say that, you are onto a winner in terms of how much, and how completely they bypass their ability to think about a subject, because they have snapped into a hysterical state of mind. In a weird way, that kind of thinking underpins the impetus to making Four Lions.
Is this show of yours available in America? Maybe I am just behind the times on this...
Christopher Morris: Its almost like we supplied you the question, just so I could give you the answer. Which is, "Yes!" I am sure some distributor is doing a deal right now to distribute it in the states. It is possible if you have the right Region Coded DVD player, you can get it on Amazon. But we are discussing an American distribution deal with somebody. But I wouldn't hang around. I'd nick one.