It’s rare when a debut film is anything but amateur, few nail a “Blood Simple” or “400 Blows” at first swing. Even those that are mediocre “show promise,” and those that reveal a sign of brashness are “future cult classics.” So how is it that British satirist Chris Morris’ first film “Four Lions,” a comedy following a Jihadist cell, is not only hilarious and ballsy, but works really well? Truth be told, it could be his years of experience in the biz — starting off as a disc jockey, he worked on many radio shows and later in television, including “The IT crowd” and “The Day Today,” which featured a very young Steve Coogan. It wasn’t until 2002 that he approached film-making, directing the short “My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117” based off of a comedy monologue he had included in a previous show. It proved he was a force to be reckoned with, as it collected the best short BAFTA and kicked off Warp Records’ film joint, who have birthed some great films including Shane Meadows’s “Dead Man’s Shoes” and his break-out “This is England.” After a brief siesta, Morris decided he was unable to shake the cinema bug, and he finally hit back with the charging farce “Four Lions,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to much fervor. Though it certainly feels like his TV background rubbed into the feel of the film, its humor is near impeccable and it offers more depth than your average comedy. We recently sat down with the man behind the very first terrorism-comedy, and after a healthy discussion of Opie and Anthony, Howard Stern, and “Observe and Report,” we got down to brass tacks.
What was the impetus for the film?
Well, real life is the short answer, without being glib. It was examples that came through general reading about the subjects that started to form a pattern of unexpected humor. The Yemens wanted to blow up a U.S. warship with an exploding boat, you know, it was a big plot, a lot of planning. It got to three in the morning, they put the boat in the water, filled with explosives and it sank. And you think…they’re gonna feel a bit stupid right now, and there’s gonna be a conversation about that and probably a pretty funny conversation to overhear. And then it started to be wherever I looked. I was reading a Terry McDermott book “Hamburg Cell” about the 9/11 plot, and within that group there were jokes. There were guys exercising hard, training up, and there’s a fat guy and the best training he did was cycle around the block with his bike. The others used to rip the shit out of him for that. So when plans great and small started to share these kind of characteristics which you would find between police chiefs, soldiers, any bunches of guys trying to organize anything… then I came across a theory which intelligence calls the “bunch of guys theory,” which defines how these Jihadi cells tend to work. I’ve just come off the Opie and Anthony show, I could turn those guys into a terrorist cell in a week. Bunch of guys, group dynamics in there, leaders, followers, and little bit of drive… maybe caused by a bit angst, and, you know, I’d need a copy of “The Lion King” as well, some radicalizing document just to concentrate the thoughts. A big narrative of good and evil, and off you go.
It sounds like you did a certain amount of research…
About a day and a half. (laughs)
Was it tightly scripted? Did the comedic vignettes come first and then the narrative string? How did you get the two together?
There’s no set process, you know the picture, it’s like having a series of charts, so you have the big general shape, and then you have at the opposite end you have a pile of rubble which is basically funny ideas which are homeless. In the middle, you have ideas which are born out of progressing your way through the plot and discovering new twists and turns and working out “If they do that, what’s this person going to say”. You just sort of end up making sure your progression occurs through jokes, because you’re trying to be faithful to the idea and stuff that you found funny in real life. That’s your defining tone. The “Lion King” scene came at a point where we knew that at some level Omar had to question himself, because they screwed up at training camp, is he going to carry on with the cell or should he pack it all in? We wanted to express his internal dialogue, he’s come home, he can’t stand the other guy Barry, his rival for leadership, is chiding him and saying “You fucked it up, didn’t you?” And then he’s at a point where he’s like “Oh god, am I really going on with it?” And so we thought it would be funny to have a bonding scene with his son, he’s sort of telling him about the Lion King taken over by his internal thoughts. I’ve met some pretty radical guys and they love “The Lion King” because of the good and evil narrative. We cut scenes which we really liked because they stalled momentum, and that’s what you get. Once you set off at a certain speed, it feels bad if you sort of slow down too much.
Often times comedies are either too sentimental or too cold. You play a good tonal line, having both warm scenes such as Omar bonding with his son but also include dark humor such as a character accidentally tripping and blowing himself up. How did you properly balance these two?
I think you just have a gut instinct, maybe you could contrive a color part between those two poles, but you just go for it… I don’t like things that are sentimental, maybe the whole idea of the subject is it just gives you a gift in terms of subverting the language of sentimentality. Any scene with the family is given that by virtue of being about these particular people planning this particular plot, but I find sentimentality as a dead end, and outright coldness is ultimately disengaging. I think that’s actually why a comedy film is a really – and I don’t say this to make myself seem clever or anything – but I mean, it’s a really hard thing to pull off. Those are really magnetic traps, sentimentality is a really easy way out. You could argue that “Spinal Tap” has a sentimental pull, at the point where Tufnel’s left the band, you do realize suddenly that you’re wishing he’d get back in. So, in a kind of buddy movie sort of way, you get a little element there, but it’s hardly ever played, is it? So you can go near these kind of gravitational forces without yielding to them, and I think that yielding flat out to anything kind of means that you’ve abandoned your journey and plunged into a warm bath.
Were you worried about offending audiences with the subject matter?
The film’s not meant to offend audiences and so far it hasn’t, so I’ve become progressively more blase about that. We started off screening at Sundance, and it was weird that the first public screening we had was in the States. Never been to Sundance before, never screened a film in the States before, couldn’t even begin to calculate how it would be. Then we’re analyzing every laugh, sitting in the back, thinking, “Hey Laugh #12, did you think there was a racist tinge to that?” You know, hyper-analytical. Screening twice in New York, they’ve been amazing, so I’m going to abandon preconceptions. The film has sort of been given the thumbs up by loads of British Muslims that I’ve met that have said “Bring it on, it’s about time we laughed about this” or police, so as soon as people understand that the jokes are not trivializing suffering, then I think people go “Okay, I can see my way through this.” If someone says to you here’s a comedy about Jihadi terrorists, well, where are the jokes in that? It takes a beat, or twelve, just to get near that idea.
So the film is also a different way at looking at them, to understand them.
Well I feel that the sort of “beyond evil” guy in life doesn’t exist. And there’s a pretty good track record of getting inside the mind of people who do strange or repulsive things in other areas. It’s weird how happy we are to go along with sort of gun slinging criminals who have no real moral compass at all because we kind of like it. So there’s a whole range of cultural roots in this which aren’t the ones that you get in the cartoon baddie version, and they probably tell you more.
There was a lot of different references to film: Omar works security watching cameras, they make terrorist videos, they review the footage, does this have anything to do with film-making, maybe referencing the art?
It’s demanded by circumstance that you have people recording their video statements as Jihadi, that’s part of the form. And then you see in court cases where a cell is being busted before they got anywhere really, the formative stages of those, you see guys running out of words, forgetting their ideology, forgetting their Koranic quotes, really the bad spitballing rubbish faze of all of this, and that demands its way into a comedy about this subject. That was the language through which we know these people, so I wanted echoes of it to be there like the low resolution security cam footage and the martyr video after the whole case is over. There are bits in the film that are found footage, then there are bits which are clearly our cameras, and then in the middle, I wanted to suggest that there was not an actual surveillance but a feeling of being watched, a feeling of inside and outside the group.
Even the establishing shots, they zoom right into where they are. So it gives you a feeling of they’re being watched, and we’re watching them…
Right. You have an inside/outside thing. There’s a bit where they’re argument, and I just suddenly thought it would be funny to see an exterior shot for a moment because they’re arguing so loud that you would hear it coming through the walls and then back in, just to sort of contextualize what they’re doing from the outside. Like “French Connection” there are great sort of zooming establishing shots, they’re rougher than these, they’re doing a different job, I remember a shot where they’re setting up a surveillance zoom, and it’s a roughly guided zoom and it’s an effective way of taking you in to a situation. And that shot in the movie is most clearly a POV, and as you say, it’s more of a sense than saying this is actually footage from a camera.
Did you pull from other films, “French Connection” or other films comedic or not?
Well, bits, there’s one where I don’t think we really got it, but there are things that really stick in your mind, like in “French Connection” there’s a chase, and I think the way the running is achieved, it’s just a tracking shot, but just the way Roy Scheider‘s really running fast, it’s fantastic. When we were shooting, guys would have to start running fast, like the emergency at the marathon, I had that movie in the back of my mind. It’s just an imprint of something that has impressed you when you’re impressionable, rather than actively consuming a whole bunch of films in order to find ideas to use… Good example, physical comedy, “Blazing Saddles,” punching out a horse, just a casual wide shot, and bam there it is.. not assisted by edits, it just happens in a relaxed way, in an effective way to do it. Whereas in “Conan the Barbarian” there are four, maybe more cuts when Arnold punches out a camel, it’s sort of like.. he does that, then you cut behind, the camel falls, they change real camel to a fake camel… the joke has just died. Things like that, you’re guided by. But that’s old, Buster Keaton, you’re not assisted by edits, those things really happen. It’s the same principal really like “Jackass” or YouTube clips where something goes wrong. Those kind of things.
Your past work involves a lot of strong comedic players, such as Steve Coogan, and this is your first feature film. Normally these would be littered with with “favor acting,” you didn’t do it, did you purposely stay away from that?
Kevin Eldon plays one of the snipers… I think what happens there is that you think, who can play that part really well. Julia Davis… in fact, when we were filming that, we met people 8 times more mad than that character, these fairly sad, left behind people. I don’t mean left behind as in the scary book series sense, I mean, washed up on the sea shore of life sort of people. And the same with the two marksmen, you know Darren Boyd I hadn’t worked with him so much but I wanted to, so it was great to find a part where those guys were sporty enough to come in for a day and do it. But I did also think that it can be a destabilizing moment, and that’s a risk you take.
What would be your next project as a director?
I’m following various ideas that have caught my interest, and I’m going to have to see which one of them outlives the others and that’s just a case of sheer Darwinian selection. I don’t know which one will, and I don’t know if they’re all films either. Pretty impatient to find out. One of the things about ideas at this stage, is that, thank god they don’t see the light of day in the form at which I would talk about them if I chose to. The dead ideas I found in the waste bins along the way of this film, I couldn’t believe we actually sat down and discussed them, they were utterly appalling. Even if I could answer, well, actually, I could, but I don’t think I should, for fear of sounding like a total idiot.