Last night satirist Chris Morris picked up the ‘Outstanding Debut by a Writer, Director or Producer’ Award at the BAFTA film awards. James Bartlett talks with him about his dark comedy, Four Lions.
Even though movie fans are crying out for something original, it’s hard to imagine a tougher challenge than pitching a movie about Muslim suicide bombers – a comedy about Muslim suicide bombers – but British satirist Chris Morris has pulled it off in his directorial feature debut Four Lions:
‘It makes me sound like a fool when I say I had no hesitations, but after getting into the research I knew enough to feel that making this film was not taking a copy of the Koran and chucking it into a sewer. Most Muslims stare at these people (suicide bombers) in shock and dismay as much as anyone else, and the most common response I got from British Muslims when I said: ‘By the way, this will be a comedy about jihadis’ was that they said ‘bring it on’ CM:. That was what emboldened me and ushered me forward.’
Set in an unspecified town in the Northern part of England, <em>Four Lions</em> is the story of four Muslims – Omar (Riz Ahmed), Hassan (Arsher Ali), Waj (Kayvan Novak) and British convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay) – who decide that the time has come to put their plan into action; they’ll attack the London marathon. Unfortunately, Omar is the only one with any real brains, and the cell quickly starts to unravel – cue the exploding crows, the bickering and the bizarre party costumes.
With the continual round of screenings and interviews, Morris admitted that he’s ‘sort of brainwashed himself’ into a place where he can only talk about Four Lions (though ‘I could be talking about giant squid in the next sentence and I wouldn’t know it’) and this dynamic also came into play during shooting:
‘The actors and us all lived in the same hotel, and we sort of realized that we were forming a parallel cell in real life, which had morphed out of the group dynamics you see on screen. Literally, it would have been possible to convince them to do anything by the end.’
Morris was initially inspired by a story he read about a plan to ram a US warship with a boat filled with explosives. The cell loaded up the boat, launched it into the water and then watched it sink:
‘And I read about a guy last week trying to deliver bombs in Indonesia. He was cycling to his target and he swerved to avoid a hole in the road, hit a lamppost and exploded. To see such frailties means that they’re not hard-wired, alien, not 100% of the mineral evil – it’s more complicated than that. Laughing doesn’t make the situation change, but it helps to see that this stuff is often a lot more ridiculous than you think, and that these people are as capable of making the same stupid mistakes as you or I.’
Four Lions had been well–received in the UK, but coming to the US – and especially the first screening in New York – was more nerve-racking:
‘They of all people have a right to respond to this in a sensitive way, but not at all. ‘Yeah come on, we’ve got over this. This actually happened to us years ago, so we’re the last people on earth to still be mithering about it – we’re cool with this, it’s everyone else who needs to catch up.’ In screenings in Britain we had people in the army, who had lost friends in Afghanistan and Iran to suicide bombers, who laughed all the way through the film. Basically, people laugh, people get the jokes. Maybe we hoovered up the few thousands that lack that sensitivity and all the others will run screaming from the room!’
Famous and infamous in his native Britain as a comedian and broadcaster who regularly courted controversy, Morris seemed pleased not to be in that place with Four Lions:
‘Pissing people off is incredibly boring, because it’s just a binary switch. It’s fine the first time you do it, then it becomes really dull and there’s no gray area. I’ve just been pleased not to have to deal with idiots deliberately misunderstanding what the film’s about.’
There is however the moment in Four Lions when things start to take a more serious turn, and Morris wondered if there’s a scale regarding how much laughter is allowed when characters die:
‘People blow themselves up, people die, how far do you go? But the explosions – we’ve seen them before in films. I mean really, how many of those have you seen in your lifetime? Eight million? I was obsessed with the accuracy of the explosions, and that came from a lot of clips on YouTube featuring, I have to say, mainly American kids, manufacturing TATP and blowing up microwaves in fields and laughing hysterically.’
As for the tricky question of getting funding and distribution, Morris did get asked one question several times:
‘Could it be about people who are sort of like Muslims, but could you make up a religion?’ But then you’re doing ‘Battlestar Galactica’ or Dune. The most absurd thing was having a conversation with a man, on the phone, who was hiding in a stationery cupboard. He was talking in a weird, muffled, boxy voice and called from there because his board was split, and he didn’t want the others to hear that they could make this happen. That was the maddest it got really – and he accepted it.’
As for Morris, he’s carefully tending his next ideas to see which one is going to make it out alive:
‘You get the small pets and lock them in a hot box, then see which one survives. At the moment they’re rattling around and shrieking quite a lot. In a month’s time or so I’ll kind of know which one I’m doing. One of the pets is a little, invisible shriek radio pet. If I open the box and the others are dead, I’ll know it’s a radio idea I have to do.’
Four Lions was also nominated for Outstanding British Film, but unfortunately lost to The King’s Speech.
Click here for Steven Galvin’s review of Four Lions