Although notorious in his native England for the satirical shows 'Brass Eye,' 'Jam,' and 'The Day Today,' Chris Morris is probably best known in the United States for his appearances as Denholm Reynholm on 'The IT Crowd.' Now, as Morris' directorial debut, 'Four Lions,' prepares to open Stateside, we sat down with the filmmaker to discuss the inspiration behind his bumbling terrorist comedy, the transition from TV to film work, the role cultural sensitivity plays in making jokes about jihadists, and what it means for a certain American journalist to have made a "British mistake."
The inspiration for the film:
"With this, it was a case of stumbling into the idea. I had no idea there would be funny things going on within serious terrorist operations. It was only in reading about it and finding out that, time and again, people are... flawed. There was a Canadian cell. They were planning all kinds of nefarious deeds, and they were constantly sort of bumbling along as they were doing it. They bought guns and then suddenly realized they had to hide them, and didn't know where, so they buried them in a public park. When they went back to pick them up, they'd been nicked. They went into the woods to do training camp stuff around Toronto, but the leader of the cell set himself on fire whilst trying to add fuel to the campfire. A mouse ran into their tent, and two of them got scared and had to go sleep in the van. One of them invented a detonator that made sure they could set off a bomb without getting blown up, but it only had a range of 15 feet... Some of the incidents made me laugh, and I thought, if this is as surprising to other people as it is to me, if you pursue that surprise, maybe you'll find something."
Approaching the subject matter with comedy as opposed to drama:
There's definitely something that comedy can do that drama can't do, but you lose as much as you gain. It depends on how things strike you, I guess. I think it's Sandy McKendrick who says, 'Drama, you have to get structure right. Comedy, you have to get structure-structure-structure-structure right.' Part of me thinks that drama is just doing half of the job. Comedy, you have to do that job as well and then make it funny.
How much was scripted as opposed to improvised:
It was all precisely written, but then we shot loose. So you get the version that you think you know you want, and then you've got some time to play around with it, when ideas come up while you're on set and you see dynamics evolve between people, or the script will get tired and you want to revitalize it by getting people to reformulate the words but say the same thing.
Making the transition from television to filmmaking:
These days, particularly when you shoot on HD, many aspects of the transition are done by the time you're filming. It's really in the script that you feel the work, because you're creating something that stretches across a three-act structure and that just multiplies the amount of correct weaving you have to do to make sure the thing is an integral piece at the end. By the time you're filming it, it's much more similar to how you would make television.
Whether comedy should target or avoid areas of sensitivity:
You're always, in comedy, going to be going somewhere near somebody's sensitivities, and that -- as anybody knows -- is part of the fun as well. You make a joke deliberately in the middle of a sensitive area to set off a little laughter grenade. That kind of joke, you identify the soft spot and you go for it. That's part of the artillery, but with this, we weren't doing that. We weren't saying that a dangerous, exploding, viscerally destructive weapon is -- as we all really know, if we weren't in denial -- a hilarious thing. We weren't doing that. There's no way we were doing that; it doesn't fit the category. The way you treat that kind of sensitivity is different... The thing that's at the core of a bomb, violence and death, is not something where you want to detonate a little charge on people's sensitivities because normally, those jokes are aimed at a kind of denial about something, not just a fact of carnage.
Having characters in a farce be more substantial than mere buffoons:
(This regards a subplot in the film involving Omar's wife and son supporting his terrorist goals.)
You get examples where all the axises seem to have just been switched 180 degrees, but that's partly because of the way you look at it. If that was a scene which involved a soldier, someone who we'd automatically accept as a goodie, who was having doubts about going on a lethal mission from which he'd probably never return and his wife was saying, 'You know what you've gotta do,' we'd probably accept it more. That is sort of like a joke going off with a lid on it.
How victims and Muslims have felt about the film:
When we've played it to Muslim audiences in New York, they've invariably gravitated towards it. They just recognize a lot of it. There's a guy who fought alongside Osama bin Laden in the '80s who I spoke to in research for this ... he laughed his head off when he saw the film. Of course, I didn't know that was going to happen when we made the film. You don't avoid things. You just make sure that you know what you're doing.
I spoke to a guy who'd been sitting next to one of the bombers on the London Underground and survived, amazingly, without appalling injury, not because I wanted to stop or start the film, but because I wanted to know what someone in his position might think and feel; without speaking for anyone besides himself, he said, 'Yeah, I can imagine the film being funny. I don't know that it's going to be funny, but I'll be interested to see it when it comes out.'
How Americans might feel about the film:
(I brought up some of the initial comments made when Drafthouse Films announced that they'd be releasing the film in the U.S., and as I tried to ask whether or not Americans seem more sensitive to matters of terrorism than any other audience that's also seen attacks, the wording of my question got away from me...)
You'll find a negative blog anywhere you play it. It's not a film that is completely seen the same way by everybody. We had a guy last night who was a Republican, was working two blocks from the World Trade Center when they were hit, he voted for George Bush twice, etc. And he claimed that he loved it. He was very detailed about the way he got it. So I can't anticipate what people will think. You've made what might be classified as a "British mistake." The way you were talking about America just now -- which I hope you're going to keep in, to damn yourself -- is a bit like the sort of comments you might hear a Brit think. Those kind of generalizations never really make any sense... Your suggestion was that Americans were too caught up in being victims?
Perhaps, and again, that's obviously a generalization, but if this film had come out five years ago instead of today, would people be as receptive to it?
You know, I was in a cab leaving New York City, and I had a certain feeling as if your own city had been attacked. It's not the same as an attack on London somehow. New York is such a massive statement of architecture, and they seem over and past it. Someone was telling me that a kid's toy horse was blown up. I saw it on the news. Some kid had left a little toy horse outside their school in some small town in the Midwest, and it became an incident -- could this be a bomb? -- and it got blown up by the local police, which is behavior considerably less cool than you'd find in NY. It probably depends on how people get whipped up.
'Four Lions' is now playing in select cities.