I knew immediately that this interview might be a small treat when I entered the Four Lions press-room at The Standard hotel in West Hollywood and was greeted by a tallish British man in an otherwise mostly empty suite. The man offered me some refreshments. As I took a bottle of water from him, I was surprised when he introduced himself as Chris Morris. Now, I’m not one to praise celebrities for behaving like decent ordinary people (a journalistic practice that always reminds me of Chris Rock’s routine about praising a father for taking care of his children), but generally I expect the interviewee to be the last person I meet, not the first. Things got a bit more surreal when Tim League (founder of the famed Alamo Drafthouse, and whose newly formed Drafthouse Films is releasing Four Lions in America) entered the suite, followed by ex-CHUD dynamo, Devin Faraci. It was interesting to see Devin here performing his new Drafthouse Films behind-the-scenes duties, and not the one doing the interview.
Prior to Four Lions, Morris was notoriously press shy, which may explain part of why he was so much fun in our interview – he simply hasn’t been burnt out yet. But I suspect the bigger truth is just that Morris is an engaging personality. What was supposed to be a fifteen-minute interview with Morris, two other journalists, and myself, wound up lasting a full half-hour. Under Morris’ lively guidance, the roundtable interview felt more like a group discussion, full of random tangents and side-jokes (like when he drug us three reporters into a compare-and-contrast powwow about our respective audio recording devices). Alas, due to roundtable interview decorum, I can’t share with you the entire interview, but I would like to give you the gist of the overall discussion.
When one of the other journalists started us off with a leading question asking if Morris’ time in LA promoting the film has been crazy thus far, Morris pithily quipped, “We just had a traffic jam that was threatening to make us late for the film and then to make a non-story truly a non-story… then we got there on time.” Discussion soon shifted to Four Lion’s reception by audiences, which Morris has found almost uniformly positive. “Basically – people laugh. People get the jokes. I sort of felt a bit of an idiot for having wondered if people would approach it with deep caution or reservations.” Also noting, “Maybe we just hoovered up the few thousand people who have that lack of sensitivity.”
Regarding American reception of the film: “New York was quite an interesting case… What are they going to think? I thought maybe they of all people have the right to respond to this in kind of a sensitive way that would be very different from seeing it in Britain. But not at all. It was the exact opposite.” Morris even recounts a story of some soldiers in the Army, who had lost friends to actual suicide bombers, who sat through the film and laughed at everything. When asked what kind of reaction Morris expected the film to receive, he explained that “by the time you’ve made a film, to be perfectly honest, you’re in such a tunnel that you’ve lost all capacity to anticipate anything objectively at all. It’s enough just to deliver a finished film.” Though after continuing to elaborate, he did concede that he never expected the film to be so warmly embraced by such a wide array of the public spectrum.
An interesting turn in the discussion occurred when one of the other journalists hypothesized that audiences enjoyed Four Lions’ dark satire because it worked as a bit of therapy for them, and Moore disagreed. “It’s not like you can laugh at this stuff and it will evaporate like a hologram… like a bad dream.” Once the film is over, you have laughed for 90 minutes but are also left with the unsettling reminder that people are still blowing themselves up out there. But Morris grants, “Laughing – it helps.” Then Morris goes on to say that laughing at terrorists can maybe help you understand them. “If you can see that they’re basically capable of slipping on a banana skin – there was a guy last week who was trying to deliver some bombs in Indonesia, and he was cycling to his target and he swerved to avoid a hole in the road and hit a lamppost and exploded. The fact that you can see this evident frailty in all these people gives you a chance, really, because it means…they aren’t made 100% out of the mineral “evil”.”
CHUD: Since you’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reactions –
Morris: Obviously I left out all the unpleasant surprises! That would be ridiculous. I’m trying to represent the film in a positive light!
CHUD: Is there any disappointment that people are so warmly accepting the film, that you’re not pissing anyone off?
Morris: That is a great question. The question you’ve just asked is, “Are you disappointed that absolutely everybody loves the film.” Of course I am! No. The question you ask is about controversy and pissing people off, and I feel like really, when you do that, it is incredibly boring. Because it is a just a binary switch. And it’s fun the first time you do it, and then it just becomes really dull. There is no grey area in that. So to be perfectly honest, no, I’ve been pretty pleased not to be having to deal with clamorous idiots, deliberately misunderstanding what the film is about. But having said that, you normally only get that if you actually write the script of outrage for them and literally hand it to them and say, “Stand outside my house and read that in an angry voice.” If you don’t actually make those tools as obviously as that for any of the media, they don’t really have the wit to do that themselves. [Morris pauses for comedic effect.] He said, risking a great deal.
When asked if Morris ever had any reservations about tackling his sensitive subject matter, he flatly states: “It makes me sound like a fool when I say no…” But, no. After he’d done enough research to write the script (several years worth) he felt comfortable that he wasn’t just “taking the Koran and chucking it in the sewer.” While researching, Morris often told the various Muslims he met that he was working on this terrorism comedy, and they all encouraged him, which Morris said, “emboldened me,” then quickly adding “or maybe it blinded me.” So Morris was always comfortable. But what of the other people he showed the script to while looking for financing? Morris says that one production company asked him if he could change Islam into a fictional religion. “Then you’re doing Battlestar Galactica, or Dune.” Morris also related a story of a creative executive talking on the phone with Morris while hiding in a stationary cupboard because he didn’t want the rest of his disapproving board members to hear him.
CHUD: Do you have a specific approach when writing comedy? Do you tend to improvise dialogue with the other writers while you’re working?
Morris: No. I mean, we had to devise our approach, because we’d not worked together before, and I certainly had not written a three act structured film script before, so there was a lot of learning it as you go along. But the dialogue was definitely the last thing we did, because it is the easiest and the most fun. And you can really convince yourself that you’ve done the writing job if you go to dialogue – I find – too early, because you can put all sorts of flashy verbal twists in and you sort of think, “this is pretty good!” and it can paper over all of the cracks and all of the faults lines in your structure. So we just kept it meticulously pared down, as sort of a chart, and then how we wrote the dialogue, it was not improvisation – I think I just sort of absorbed a lot of the way – when I went and hung out with a lot of Asian lads and girls, they talk in a particular way and there is certain regional variations, but the rhythms you just sort of pick those up. We’d work out the beats between us, Sam [Bain], Jesse [Armstrong], and I, so that we’d see where the funny fall was, but then the actual dialogue, I’d just rewrite the scene in Asian British. Or my version of it. And then when we came to film it, so there was a degree of fluidity to the way it was rendered, we’d shot the safety version, as it was on the page, and then we’d sort of so loosen it around a bit, so little elements of people’s own coloration comes in there as well.
CHUD: When you were laying out the original structure was there ever a wildly different version of the film in the works?
Morris: I’ve managed quite successfully to erase all the rubbish, so my direct answer to you would be, no, it pretty much evolved as you see it! In actual fact, we went to a writer’s festival earlier this year and I looked at some of the notes from before we started writing it, and they were terrible! Just terrible. But you get those things down, in order NOT to us them. And what they chart is sort of a journey into, I suppose, understanding the subject.
On the subject of doing these interviews, and – as I said above – talking endlessly about Four Lions: “I sound like I’m stringing words together in a roughly sensible way – I have no idea what I’m saying. I’ve been talking about this so long, I could mention a giant squid in the next sentence and I wouldn’t know it… I’ve brainwashed myself into a place where I can talk about nothing else [except the film].”
Speaking of brainwashing, I particularly enjoyed a moment where Morris, unprompted, strolled off into a tangent about how a film crew is a bit like a terrorist cell – noting that by the end of the shoot his crew/actors would have been willing to do anything. “I suppose one of the serious theories that underlies the film, is what’s called the “bunch of guys theory,” which has been written about by intelligence experts. There’s a guy called Marc Sageman, who wrote a book about it which I read in the early research called Understanding Terror Networks, where he talks about just that, where you have basically a group of people who get closer and closer and closer. It’s all about the in-group relations, and what’s outside the window becomes less and less important… it’s all about the dynamics of that group… There are many theories that brainwashing is not this sort of mechanical kind of brow beating process but it’s a drift once you’re in a group… If we stayed in this [hotel] room for a year we’d be capable of anything!”
Morris also stated that he was never worried that he was “going too far” while working on the film, and was far more concerned with making all the details accurate. For accuracy on the bombs and explosions Morris said he got a lot of his inspiration from a logical yet unlikely source – American youtube videos of teens blowing up microwaves (and the like) and then laughing hilariously about it. Apparently things got very accurate on the set sometimes – such as the day a member of the art department claimed he’d managed to make “the real stuff” while working on the prop bombs.
I also loved Morris analogy about selecting an idea for his next project: “It’s like getting small pets and locking them in a small box and seeing which one survives.”
For all the interesting and often thoughtful discussion we had, this is the excellently ridiculous way the interview ended. The final question…
Reporter A: So… is a Wookie a bear?
Reporter B: A Wookie is a Wookie.
CHUD: It’s its own species, man.
Morris: Yeah, come on.
Four Lions is currently in theaters in select markets. Support your brain and go see it.