Chris Morris Talks Terrorist Comedy

UK hit Four Lions touches down in Austin

Four Lions

It's been a rough season, war-wise. In light of Wikileaks release of 391,832 classified military documents pertaining to the Coalition occupation of Iraq and the fact that theatregoers haven't been in the mood for current-conflict filmmaking, perhaps it's time to to initiate another popular strategy altogether. To wit, comedy.

To be sure, enacting the subtleties of farce as refracted through the shattered lens of the Global War on Terror (and all that that implies) would seem to be a fool's errand. In the United States, particularly, Al Qaeda and its myriad offspring remain anything but a matter for laughter.

This should change, incrementally, with the upcoming release of celebrated British satirist/writer/filmmaker/television and radio personality Chris Morris' film Four Lions, which aims to do for homegrown UK enfant-terrorists what Ealing Studios' The Ladykillers did for scrappy-but-clueless thieves and semi-"hard men" five decades ago. Four Lions follows a quartet of young, Muslim, Pakistani immigrant-misfits from modern day Sheffield who, eager to "make a difference" and strike a blow against a xenophobically complacent Great Britain, embark on an ill-advised and hilariously uncoordinated plan to shake up the status quo, literally. Exploding crows and Morris' common nonsensical subtext of ripped-from-the-headlines satire litter the screen; it's only when the lights go up that you realize just how hard you laughed and how melancholy you are.

The Austin Chronicle spoke to Morris on the eve of the Four Lions release (the first picture distributed by fledgling outfit Drafthouse Films, which you can read more about here) and discovered why terrorist-comedies are well overdue, what the international press has been saying about Morris's wildly successful (at least, in the UK, thus far) film, and how pedantry is anathema to a damn good comedy (C4 or no C4).

Austin Chronicle: I can't imagine Hollywood making a downbeat film about hapless suicide bombers, much less one that ends on such a pure, emotional note, as Four Lions does. It seems you can get away with this sort of razor-edged comedy much better in the UK than we can, generally speaking, on this side of the pond.

Chris Morris: You're not the only one to say that in the States. I want to turn the question around on you and ask: Why should that be? Because there's so much creativity and imagination and, indeed, wit at play in those relatively few square miles. There are very funny people there.

AC: You mean in Hollywood?

CM: Yeah! Why would it be so? Why?!

AC: Well, corporations and men and women who run them have supplanted even the most basic ideas of artistic freedom, be they making a really good Adam Sandler film, as Sandler used to do, or green-lighting a genre script that's not based on a previously existing property, whether that means J-horror or comic books or 80s slasher films. It's a serious case of paralyzing financial fear, really, and that ends up with mediocre and generic do-overs at the cineplex. Hey, you asked.

CM: I did. And every now and again something comes along that bucks the trend and then immediately everyone sort of jumps all over it. But to me, it doesn't seem unimaginable that someone in the States – and it doesn't have to be a film, it could be anything – should [make a film like Four Lions ]. The time is ripe.

AC: It might not play in Peoria, you know.

CM: Well, right when Four Lions played at Sundance there were a number of British journalists who were very keen to express an early opinion on it. They made all sorts of sweeping statements about who it would and who it wouldn't play for and I'm pleased to say they were all wrong. And they were wrong whether they suggested it wouldn't go down particularly well with the Muslims or the Pakistanis who live here in [London] or whether they suggested it would be a cause of massive outrage to those people who saw themselves as victims in this kind of event. We had loads of protests literally lasting a day just before the film's release but it was very low-key. People across the spectrum of political and social backgrounds saw themselves as fairly represented, that's all.

AC: I know it was a tremendous success in the UK, but has it opened in the rest of the EU yet, and if so how is it translating into other languages? It's a very "British" film in terms of local patois and the use of regional slang…

CM: We've opened in Greece, Scandinavia, we're opening in France in December, Spain, Italy, I think we just opened in the Czech Republic. I've been to festivals in Greece and the Czech Republic, and I'm going off to another one in Stockholm later, and everything I've seen so far has been very positive. They seem to get it. It depends on the quality of the subtitles in bits, but they get it. And that's because in Europe most countries have their version of this sort of indigenous, ex-colonial, immigrant population, and its aftermath. Four Lions is dealing with the same kind of thing. I think you guys have it, but it's smaller and it's only beginning to emerge, this idea of home-grown jihadis.

AC: Popular satire, parody, and farce have long been highly effective arrows in the anti-xenophobia/mindless fear quiver, as your BAFTA-award winning BBC series Brass Eye consistently proved. Do you have some slim hopes that the comic elements of Four Lions will be cause for audience conversations in the U.S.? We're not used to this sort of thing outside of The Daily Show, frankly, and it'll be a wonder if you and Drafthouse Films don't end up being pilloried on Fox News sometime soon.

CM: Yeah, I hope that there's a few granules of, ah, exquisitely-flavored protein in the mix. I will always try and write jokes which are based on something. If you write jokes which are based on what feel like your true observations then you're more likely to cause a bit of thought. But it's not a lecture, you know? It's an entertainment. One of the funny things was that because there hadn't been anything done in this way on this subject [in the U.S.], the odd journalist seems to require that the film then answer every unanswered question on the subject. As if anything could! Hopefully it gives you a slightly more interested and saturated feeling than something you can just drop at the end no matter how much you've enjoyed it.

AC: You may have noticed that here in the U.S. we tend to get our lectures and our entertainment confused, and then we end up with Fox News and Jon Stewart. Which may be the only way to parse global realpolitik in these allegedly fraught times. Frankly, I'm looking forward to Glenn Beck crying chalk dust over you, or Bill O'Reilly smiting you with his Staff of Righteous Ire. Perhaps it's just a case of socially-aware, British black comedy versus whatever we have (or lack) in the U.S.?

CM: No, I think there's a lot of thought that underpins what, to use a really common example, South Park does. You wouldn't guess it from just glancing at the texture of the program, but I think a lot of the best things do indeed contrive to hide their depth or their learning because, you know, it's gets in the way, to be honest. It's not the right place. The right place for it is not onscreen. It's more buried that footnotes and it has to be in the texture and the visceral sense of the thing. There's nothing worse than dealing out polemical dialogues onscreen. There are some very clever things being written for American cinema and indeed for American television as well.

AC: Getting back to Four Lions, I'm curious how much and what sort of research you did vis a vis homegrown jihadis in the UK, how the indigenous Muslim population feels about the situation, and so on.

CM: I started off by reading all sorts of documents and meeting people, and what happened was that I just kept finding examples of events which I wasn't expecting to find. Funny events. Things kept popping up that I thought were much sillier than they should be.

AC: For instance?

CM: Oh, things like incidents of people giving Bin Laden a dressing down, for example. There was an Algerian terrorist who was summoned by Bin Laden and trekked across the desert and made this dangerous journey to visit him in his cave in Afghanistan. Bin Laden offered him the opportunity to work for Al Qaeda, but this Algerian terrorist had no intention of working for Al Qaeda and basically told Bin Laden "Get lost! If I ever hear from you again I'll come back and chop your head off!" Which had the effect of making Bin Laden suddenly look like a sort of spurned suitor or a slapped child. These kinds of thing struck me a funny, or potentially so. And then I realized that finding some humorous examples of this sort of thing was not going to be enough to fashion an entire script out of. So I just set off. I got in touch with anyone I could, whether they were Islamic jihadis or people in the Muslim community, friends of friends, and made acquaintances, many of whom became friends.

AC: Was there some cultural resistance there?

CM: Well, most people thought I must be a cop because I'd turn up and they'd wonder, What the hell is this white guy doing being interested in all this? Sometimes it would actually count for me that I'd actually been identified by The Daily Mail as "the most hated man in British television," because then they'd go, "Oh no, it's that guy off the telly, we can talk to him, he's the one who made jokes about paedophilia fine." I ended up talking to people who'd fought in Afghanistan and I knew, early on, that there couldn't be any shirking on my part if I was to do this properly. I had to understand not only their position – the position of Pakistanis in [the UK] – but also I had to learn Islamic history, read the Koran, and really come to understand the nuances of Islam in the UK and how it is influenced by, well, everything. It was quite an undertaking.

AC: How much of that research, comedically speaking, made it into the script?

CM: More than you'd think. I had a conversation with a night watchman who was afraid of crows. He was guarding a building and he was a radical Muslim and he was convinced that the crows were out to get him. And I was like, "Well, you know you can teach them to talk and everything." It must've been hell for this poor man, but honestly it was like a one-man script meeting. By the end of that conversation I was saying to him, "Well, what you could do is you could train the crows to be suicide bombers," and so on. And that was an idea that I ended up using for the film. All because this rather curious man was terrified of crows.

Four Lions opens in limited released on Friday, Nov. 5. Go here for review and showtimes; go here to hear what Tim League has to say about getting into the distribution game with Drafthouse Films.

[Clip from The Day Today, Chris Morris' 1994 parody of TV news]

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