If the politically correct think some subjects should be off-limits when it comes to comedy, they shouldn’t tell that to writer-director Chris Morris. For he isn’t afraid of throwing egg on their faces, let alone the bombs of a group of inept Muslim extremist terrorists who comprise the British cell called Four Lions. In what’s easily the ballsiest film this year, the satirist behind such English spoof news shows as Brass Eye and The Day Today once again turns current events on their heads with a feature debut where nothing is thankfully sacred. Morris uses his impressive flair for cinema verite to track the groups’ bid to put themselves on the terror map by scattering themselves (along with unfortunate innocents) across the London Marathon. Tracking their argumentative pilgrims’ progress from recording awkward sacrificial video testaments to getting an F at a terrorist training camp, all before seeing their plans unravel in a flurry of soot and kids’ costumes, Morris dares us to laugh at the unthinkable. And he succeeds brilliantly while not negating the horrific suspense of it all, walking a razor thin line between political thriller and engaging in the kind of foul wordplay and nutter characters that British thinking-man humorists get like no other nationality. It’s enough to get even Osama laughing, let alone American audiences who thought they’d never be able to crack a smile at the extremists out to kill them.
Daniel Schweiger: Do you think extremist Muslims have a sense of humor?
Chris Morris: I came across an extremist Muslim who nicknamed himself "Osama Bin London." I think that qualifies as having a sense of humor. The fact is I don't think senses of humor get doled out on the basis of your ideologies.
DS: Four Lions creates some radically opposing emotions at the same time, where you’re feeling terror, hilarity, and pathos. How difficult was it to achieve such a difficult balance?
CM: That's called tone, and we were very careful about how we got there. We knew we weren't going to trivialize death and that we were going to stick to making jokes out of the areas in real life that are unexpectedly funny. While researching the movie, we came across a Canadian cell that wanted to murder the Canadian Prime Minister...except they forgot who he was. That's pretty silly. That same cell designed a remote detonator to blow up bombs without having to blow themselves up...but the detonator had a range of only ten feet! When you come across these kinds of silly examples in real life, they tell you where the jokes will be in the film. As long as you stick to that, you can find that these people can be exceptionally human on one level, without endorsing what they're doing. Then you can hopefully get from beginning to end of the story without committing a major cock-up.
DS: You could almost look as this as the “funny version” of Paradise Now, where two Palestinians argue if they should detonate themselves in Israel.
CM: Paradise Now is a great film. And like this, it’s a film where two guys go on a suicide mission, the mission goes wrong, they have to run for it. There are also some funny things in it. Unlike that movie, we have explosions, which I didn’t want to avoid. That would have seemed peculiarly self-protective and set our film in a marshmallow world. But just think about the number of explosions and on-screen deaths you see at the movies every year. I mean, Christ! There are about eight million that I've experienced. And there are so many war films that want to have you see the dismemberment, eviscerations, and people losing their heads that result from these explosions. Just think of the latest Rambo movie. They're offered like a delicacy for your enjoyment. So if you show an explosion, you choose to show degrees of gore or not. But the truth is that when there's a really big explosion, there's really nothing to see unless you fish around with a macro-lens looking for tiny bits of tissue. Stuff is indistinguishable from dog food... I don't mean to get gory, which I've already done. But you don't want to shrink away from the fact that there are lethal consequences to these kinds of activities. To do that would be like putting your head in the sand and, in some weird way, to exonerate the guys involved in the plot.
DS: What's also surprising is the visual quality to the film. It opens with a shitty high-8 videocam recording of a terrorist, which is also deceptive to the scope you demonstrate as a first-time movie director here...
CM: We just imagined that they got a second-hand camera from a charity shop, but it was always our intent to use different camera methods. You've got intimate scenes in domestic settings which makes it seem like Four Lions is a romantic film with candlelit dinners, smooching, and caressing. No! But close-up conversations in small rooms is something you'd want to shoot differently than the London marathon race, which has thousands of people in it. Training camps on the borders of Afghanistan are in very beautiful, mountainous regions. You want to give scope to that when you've got the opportunity. But you can't be that beautifully expansive about a conversation in a rented, filthy old flat.
DS: Did you shoot those training camp sequences in Pakistan?
CM: No, we actually shot them in Spain. The hustle and the bustle of them in the city was shot in Hyderabad, in India, which is near the border with Pakistan and has a strong Islamic element.
DS: Four Lions benefits from that busy, hand-held, documentary style you use there. It feels incredibly real for all of its seemingly improbable situations.
CM: Thankfully, many films, from The Battle of Algiers onwards, have done a lot of hard work in their rendition of scenes through apparently accidental camera techniques, so we had that on our side. You also need to make sure your effects are believable, like the explosions. I was really meticulous about how they worked. American kids have put themselves on YouTube showing how they’ve manufactured the same explosive, TATP, and used it to blow up microwave ovens in fields. That gave us a very good running demonstration on how that explosive works. And it's not the same way Hollywood explosions work, with all the sparks and the flame. Here, that sense of realism adds to the grit.
DS: Were you ever worried that someone would mistake what you were shooting for the real thing?
CM: You do have to tell someone that you're going to blow up their Kebab shop! You can't do that surreptitiously, no matter how much of a guerilla filmmaker you think you are.
DS: Reporters have recently been fired for criticizing the Muslim religion or saying that Muslims scared them after 9 / 11. Do you think people have the right to make those kinds of criticisms?
CM: People have the right to make ignorant and incorrect criticisms, of course. It's part of free speech. But your statement is also there to be judged, especially if it happens to be shot through with prejudice and ignorance. Yet you’re still allowed to make it.
DS: Four Lions is like American History X: it doesn't tell you how to feel about a controversial subject. You can watch that film and still have your racist ideals upheld, or think that racism is completely wrong. In that way, do you think people could think that Muslim extremists aren’t indicative of the religion, or assume that all Muslims are terrorists?
CM: I would say you could have many different opinions, but I don't think you could watch it as an active terrorist and feel that you weren't being criticized on some level. I think the film’s criticism is inherent in the way the terrorists' operation unravels. And indeed, in the laying bare of the thinner elements of the motivations which get people to that point. Conservatives tell me that they should be able to laugh at anything, and they laughed all the way through our film. One up for free speech and all the rest of it. And people from a different point of view have felt the attachment to certain characters in Four Lions. So people have laughed at the movie from all ends of the political spectrum. Even Muslim audiences have laughed as much as policemen involved in fighting terrorism, so you feel that's happening because there are inarguable accuracies about the film, yet I think you'd have to have an appallingly low level of information on the subject to walk in and think that the film spoke for anything other than a few, fictitious characters, as opposed to thinking that we were representing the average Muslim here. I don't think anyone would think that. Do you?
DS: You certainly “love” and hate these characters. But you want to stop them, no matter what.
CM: I think it would be nothing more than outright masochism, watching people plotting to make an attack on what you might broadly see as yourself, and sit there willing them to go on with it. But on the other hand, you have to grant that anyone involved in a lethal operation of any sort is bound to take the point of view that the people they're attacking have lost their right to be fully considered as having the right to life. If you're involved in a lethal operation of any kind, you make that calculation. But if you make the identification with the people who are being attacked, you think the same thing about the people who are attacking you. All these narratives are the same. If you're hanging out with the Sopranos, you can get to a point where your moral perspective through the telling of a story is completely flipped. We're all subject to that in everyday life.
DS: Would you say there's a particularly English sense of humor to Four Lions?
CM: Not really because I don't want to put off any American from going to see it. I also don't agree that there's that kind of thing. You could say that all the screenings we’ve had in the states have had an American sense of humor. Either that, or it was an audience made out of Americans with a very British sense of humor. I think we all understand that blokes living on a banana skin can be a joke. Two people having an argument over some arcane subject of belief that you'd expect them to agree on can be a joke. So I think the film does have a very approachable sense of humor--one that appeals as much to liberals as it does to conservatives. So there's no general rule I could say about it, other than Four Lions is a film for everybody!
DS: It's almost unimaginable that you could've watched a film like Four Lions a year after 9 / 11. God forbid if something like that happens in the future, do you think people could view this picture with the same sense of absurdist enjoyment?
CM: I don't know. I obviously wouldn't say "Let's test it" if that happened again, but the proximity to an event is just a matter of numbers, I think. The further you are away from it with distance and time, the more people will think it's fine. It's interesting that, when we played this in New York, I thought the audience would have a more heightened sensitivity to the subject than, say, an audience in Texas would. But actually, the New Yorkers were up for it and all over it. They said, "Come on. We actually lived through this stuff! We were the ones who were attacked, so we had to deal with it." So in a way, it's the people who are furthest away who are still dealing with an abstract version of that event who are much more likely to continue to have an undigested, hysterical version of it. So maybe if you ran Four Lions the day after a terrorist attack, some people would still turn up. It wouldn’t be invalid if they laughed at the film, but at least you'd know they had a strong stomach!
DS: Even after your award-filled film festival run, do you think the fact that it took someone so long to pick up Four Lions for theatrical distribution shows that a movie like this could never have been made by a Hollywood studio?
CM: I'd love to see the Hollywood version in a nightmare and then wake up and realize it didn't happen. Of course, Hollywood should be making movies like this all of the time instead of the crap they make.
DS: Four Lions certainly doesn't chicken out like their version of the story would have.
CM: What's Hollywood for if not being the biggest storytelling industry on the planet? And if it's not for telling stories that aren't relevant, then it should basically fuck off and take itself into the Pacific.
DS: What were the toy companies that sent the children’s costumes the terrorists wear for the end?
CM: I'd love to give you a list of disgrace, but the truth is that we didn't ask! You have a broad right to show these things in a particular way. I'm not sure of the legal niceties, but I can assure you that it was all done above board! However, you certainly don't want to get into a position of asking Disney. That would be the one, wouldn't it?
'Four Lions' opens in select theaters on November 5th.