FOUR LIONS: CHRIS MORRIS' JIHA-HA-HAD MOVIE
Director Chris Morris talks to Boing Boing about suppository bombs, human bottle rockets, and his new feature film about a pathetic cell of bumbling terrorists.
Xeni Jardin: Many Boing Boing readers know and love your UK television work—"Nathan Barley," "Brass Eye," your role in the "IT Crowd." Your first feature film, "Four Lions," comes out in US theaters on November 5 (Cory's earlier review during the UK release is here).What compelled you to take the leap, and why a terrorism comedy, of all things?
Chris Morris: I was reading into this subject to fill out this thin version we get from mass media of the war on terrorism and how it works, and kept coming up with things that were funny and surprising. When that happens, you want to share it with someone. If making a film is the right way to do that, you make a film.
The documents I read suggested a story about sorry characters getting in over their heads on a lethal project, and it was a pretty compelling idea for a film. The idea of doing a comedy is right there in the record of the facts, whether you're talking about these Yemenis who planned to blow up a US warship with an exploding boat, and got as far as putting their launch in the water and when they filled it with explosives, it sank—okay, that's a little like something from a caper.
Or, the behavior of the 9/11 hijackers, contriving to find enough space between themselves and the leader of their group, Mohammed Atta, so they nickname him "The Ayatollah." You wouldn't expect that there was enough room for them to see him as an extremist, but that's what they were saying.
Or, these Canadian guys who were going to assassinate the Canadian Prime Minister, until they forgot his name. The world is crying out with these examples, and after a point you can't ignore it anymore.
XJ: I laughed so hard watching the film, I was in pain. It's like "Keystone Cops" meets Al Qaeda.
CM: In the high court, often you'd find police and journalists agreeing at the end of a day's session that it was exactly like the Keystone Cops, and they'd even call it "the keystone cops trial." But then you'd read the papers the next day, and all you'd get was: some terrorists tried to blow up a nightclub.
The great mass of evidence actually documents these people running around like idiots. There were things we didn't dare even put in the film that were so outrageous, and true, and so far-fetched.
XJ: Like what?
CM: Reading the documentation about this cell of seven guys who have 600 kilograms of fertilizers in a storage space they want to make into a bomb. They go to Pakistan to learn how to create a bomb from this material. They come back, sit around talking a bit more, and forget how to make the bomb. They start making phone calls to Pakistan, "Listen brother, can you tell me the bomb recipe?"—at which point the line goes dead.
There was a point in that trial transcript in which the leader of that cell has been banned from going to Pakistan by his parents. The cell comes up with this idea to send the whitest looking guy in the group, who is a Moroccan, to see the parents and pretend he's from [the British government's security division] MI5. This white-looking guy has a habit of turning up at the flat where the cell members congregate and saying to the other guys who are all Pakistanis, "Alright you hairy hobbits!"
XJ: That's actually in the court documents, "You hairy hobbits"?
CM: Yes. So, this man who calls the other guys "the hairy hobbits" goes off and pays a visit to the cell leader's parents' home. He says, "Hello Mr. and Mrs. Khan, I'm from MI5. Now, we know your son wants to go to Pakistan and we'd like you to let him go, because we'll look after him and he'll lead us to some interesting people. So for the sake of queen and country, could you please do that?"
And mom and dad, being loyal citizens, said, "Alright yes of course." So the white-looking guy comes back to the car—by the way, every beat of this is being recorded by the real MI5—"Yes, bro, yes! I killed it! We done it! We fooled your parents! Let's go to Pakistan!"
Your jaw drops when you read this stuff. And the police tell you, "Oh, listen, that's not the half of it, listen I got a ton more where that came from."
XJ: When I first heard about this film I thought: Chris Morris has spun a comedy from of a sad and serious subject. After seeing the film, and now hearing you talk, it seems that the comedy was all there—it's just not politically correct to bring it to light.
CM: I suppose, in a way.
Look, the cartridges that were bombs, that were intercepted in the FedEx parcel bombing attempt last week—the guy who made those bombs turned his brother into a bottle rocket last year. That whole group are basically displaced Saudis in Yemen. They don't like the Saudis. This guy wanted to blow up a Saudi prince. And he persuaded his brother to use a suppository bomb.
The suppository bomber turns up at the Saudi prince's place, says hello to the Saudi prince, pulls out a trigger, fires off the bomb, then blasts himself vertically, straight through the ceiling. The Saudi prince picks himself up and says, "Right, now then, where was I?" And that's the end of that. It's a perfect sight gag. For everyone other than the guy's mother, it's a funny story.
XJ: I thought of you immediately when the news started to come out about the Yemeni bomb—but had no idea there was a sight gag buried in there.
CM: You never have to look far. I get this a lot from people I speak to, who work in intelligence. It's called the "bunch of guys theory," and it's what we show in "Four Lions." The dynamics of a small group of blokes who are forming a rather intense plan. Wherever it is, you will find funny stories, including about intelligence operations and how screwy they can get. It's all there, so you might as well deal with it.
XJ: Your past television work—"Brass Eye," for instance—you're known as someone who takes news and current events and satirizes it or spins it in a funny way. You were digging into different kinds of source material here.
CM: The common theme is that you're getting inside something and rattling the perception around a little bit. If you think the way the news works is innately silly or ridiculous, why not play with that? If you think the people who stand up on behalf of knee-jerk, high-intensity, high morality subjects are not talking with the greatest authority, why not play with that?
And here, if you feel that the description of the way this wheel is turning around radical Islam isn't the whole picture, then go behind the scenes and find out what's going on. If it emerges as comic, then it's comedy.
XJ: Can you talk a little about the actual source material? Talking with intelligence personnel, or reading court transcripts, this sounds like the same sort of process an investigative journalist might take on when doing a documentary report on the same subject matter.
CM: You make jokes about topics you know something about. But the striking thing is how very little we know about this culture: about Islam, about how the history of all the different cultures in Islam and how they relate to each other, let alone how hard-baked radical Islam marches off from that and gets involved with us.
There's a lot of digging you have to do, but I feel this is a subject we're all involved in one way or another. Your tax dollars and my tax pounds are going into this. We may as well be interested.
Most of the talking I did was to people from these cultures who are not radical. But I got a clear picture of what it's like to live as a Pakistani Muslim in Britain in 2009-2010. And that is what feeds the film. The things you get up to in the course of research are pretty ridiculous. You're hanging out with guys or girls and their families, having meals with them, talking about scrapes they get into, cousins who may have fought in Bosnia, the stories rack up.
I spent a lot of time driving around with young Asian lads in cars, and observing their customs, which sometimes on a Saturday night means shouting at all the girls out the window. You think, "What am I doing: I'm over 40, I'm white, I'm sitting in this car, calling police women pigs. What has happened to me?"
But that sort of behavior is courtship. If you roll down the window and call some girls some white slag pigs, the next question is, "So where are you going later?" And that sets a context for the rare moment when a bunch of guys get a radical idea, and get involved with other people who help them foster it.
XJ: You were also digging through also court transcripts of real events and mining that for information that doesn't really get told.
CM: The cell I was talking about that sent the Moroccan guy off who pretended to be MI5, that's where that information came from.
These transcripts also contain daily snippets of dialogue, the way these guys talk to each other…
So, they had some pet rabbits on the balcony. One guy comes in with a dog, an Alsatian. But then some of the other guys are confused, they don't know if the Alsatian is a breed of dog in and of itself, or if it was a baby Doberman, and they get into a panic that it looks very docile and it might get beaten up by the rabbits on the balcony. And they thought that would be hilarious if you had to explain that your dog was beaten up by rabbits.
This is not the conversation one expects from a hard-baked mastermind of terror.
XJ: The film was released in the UK this past May, and opens in the US this week. Any difference in reactions to the film?
CM: It's staggeringly similar. I was expecting a marked difference. Audiences seem to laugh in the same places, they don't seem to be reserved about it. We played in New York and I thought maybe there, but—not at all.
I spoke to a guy who voted for Bush both terms and lost a friend in the 9/11 attacks, and he was laughing all the way through. New Yorkers seemed pleased to tell me, "Hah, I bet you thought you were going to get a hard time here, or a reserved reaction. Think again, because we actually went through this, and out the other side, and we're waiting for everyone else to catch up."
It wasn't just New York. I can only chastise myself for expecting otherwise. And you, for suggesting it in your question!
XJ: Forgive me! I don't want to spoil it for people who haven't seen the movie yet, but there's a little cosplay action that happens towards the end of the film. The Honey Monster, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a "sexy ostrich" costume. How on earth did you settle on these characters?
CM: Three of us were sitting in a room thinking up terrorist plots, and the sad truth is that had we been brown, we probably would have been arrested. There was more than enough evidence in our email chain to arrest us for planning a terrorist attack.
But we felt we had to have a story that was viable, and I happen to think that placing your bombs under a costume is a pretty good way of smuggling them into a crowd. Once we were there, it was just a matter of—which costume do you like? And the costumes seemed to select themselves. Sexy ostrich, not so much. I've never come across sexy ostrich costumes in real life. The ostrich costume in the film, I don't think anyone would suggest is remotely sexy…
XJ: Hey, speak for yourself, Chris.
CM: Oh, great.
Well, the rest of the costumes—the Honey Monster is an icon of advertising for the last 40 years for a brand of cereal in Britain. It's recognizable for most people, from their childhoods. The only one I didn't know we were going to use was the upside-down clown. I was cruising costume websites to find the remaining character, and when I came to the upside down clown, I immediately knew I could stop searching.
XJ: Has anyone told you that this film hurts America, that you're helping the terrorists or whatever?
CM: No, because the film is a blueprint for failure. Even if you cause the odd explosion, you're not necessarily a winner.
The guy I interviewed who fought aside Osama Bin Laden left him in 2000, not a moment too soon, because he believed he'd embarked on a mission doomed to failure and that Bin Laden was a total loser.
The people I've spoken to who know this material close up in real life see it as expanding our knowledge. You wouldn't think so, because it's a comedy—but if it shines a light on something that's really part of the story, how can it be bad?
You'd have to contrive a lot to see it the way you suggest. I would like to challenge Glenn Beck: I want to see him running around the studio ranting about this, dressed up as an airliner crashing in to model buildings.
XJ: Has there been coverage from Fox News?
CM: Not so far, to my knowledge. But the fact that I've been invited to play this for an anti-terror division of a police department would mean that Fox News would have to stretch so far from reality to make that argument work. Good thing they never do that!
XJ: At Comic-Con next year, I hope the authorities look more closely at Ninja Turtle cosplayers as possible threat vectors.
CM: Looking at them with X-Ray vision, I hope.
XJ: You've spoken about the nuances of language—there was a matter of cursing being against the Islamic faith, but cursing in another language… Muslim guys in Britain can get away with more in Punjabi than they can in Urdu, something like that?
CM: It's not just a religious thing, but a matter of cultural decorum. In the court case, there was a recording of guys sitting around in the flat laughing about how unguarded their elders are about swearing. I asked around, and some of the Pakistani men I was speaking with said, "Oh yeah, you can drop some total howlers in Punjabi and it's totally acceptable."
You can talk about any sexual part you want and traffic in and out of it, various animals burrowing through the sexual organs of human beings, and human beings being involved in multiple animal sexual pile-ups, and on it goes.
This is a very rich swearing language, very richly vulgar. And I thought, well, this is a gift, a little reward. But you have to be careful: you don't swear in certain circumstances, but you do among your friends.
Riz Ahmed [who plays the character Omar in "Four Lions"] said when we were filming, "You realize this is actually quite a radical move? It's not done, to show this as being the case."
Riz was actually using Urdu for swearing—he was more comfortable speaking in Urdu—so we contrived to use a more courtly, a more formal language to swear. When Riz's parents saw the film, they couldn't get over the amount of sheer, wanton vulgarity that was pouring out of his mouth. And I think it's just that when you're making a film like this and you have the structure, the shape, it's a nice little reward when you discover that you're also allowed to play around with words.
When I was talking to a lot of these guys, they'd sometimes flick into Punjabi when they got heated or excited, or when they wanted to say something that one guy wouldn't understand. It must be great, to be a third-generation British Pakistani and have so many languages at your disposal for swearing!
XJ: Will we ever see "Brass Eye" on DVD in the US?
CM: You're asking the wrong person. There's no reason why not. Can I say it more clearly? I once found someone advertising my entire works on eBay for one pound ninety-nine.
XJ: What has been the most surprising thing about the unfolding of this film?
CM: To see the film make a mockery of the idea that it might be offensive to Muslims is pretty good. And, to see it make a mockery of the idea that it would be offensive to someone who's lost someone to the war, or suicide bombing—we have people in the military seeing this film, saying, "Bring it on." That punches through the haze.
We haven't had anything really bonkers. At a screening in Washington, there was one person in an audience of more than 100 who was mystified as to why everyone else was laughing. I felt sorry for her, because I could understand—she asked why people were laughing, and the only answer you could give is, "Because it has a load of jokes in it."
XJ: I have no idea what her problem was. I can't remember the last time I saw a film that made me laugh so hard I couldn't breathe, as this one did.
The one really negative review I've managed to dig up has such a memorable last line: "BBC Films and Channel 4 refused to invest in the film but, somehow, it got made and for the record, I hated every second of it."
CM: We should put that on the poster. I love nothing more than the spectacularly clear declaration of opinion. You've got to admire that.
Four Lions opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, Nov. 5. [Official site]
Read Cory Doctorow's review of the film, during its earlier UK release. [Boing Boing]
Text: Xeni Jardin • Photos: Alamo Drafthouse/Wild Bunch/Film4• Design: Rob Beschizza