As the promotional materials for Four Lions will express to anyone willing to take a gander, the film is seriously funny - and eager to prove it. Crowning the absurdist image of a crow with a bomb strapped to its tiny, feathered chest on the poster is a mesmerizing grid consisting of the word 'funny,' repeated over and over, quotes pulled from the likes of The Hollywood Reporter, Time Out, and The Onion. Considering the film is about four desperately misguided young dudes trying to become successful terrorists, a pretty sober taboo that few would be willing to touch with a ten foot pole, it is understandable that the distributor wanted to make the fact that it is actually enjoyable on some level as clear possible.
According to filmmaker Chris Morris, who I had the opportunity to interview at New York City's historic Russian and Turkish Baths during a rare break from his US promotional tour, he didn't have to dig deep to find the funny. The bizarre-yet-believable situational gags that appear in the film, from an intense discussion and demonstration on whether bombing a mosque to mobilize non-violent Muslims is like punching yourself in the face, to a rocket launcher fiasco that takes place in real life more frequently than you'd think, are not contrived for the sake of naughty or shock value. Apparently the history of Islamic extremism is filled with these kinds of mishaps and bloopers that are inherently humorous.
The mastermind behind such classics of UK television programming as The Day Today and The Brass Eye, shows that pushed the boundaries of satire before satire was cool, Morris is no stranger to revealing a more complex and often absurd reality beneath surface perceptions. While Four Lions does in fact live up to its advertising, by turns uncomfortably, surreptitiously, tragically and uproariously funny, it is more than just novel comedy, though bringing some much needed levity to the subject of terrorism is an accomplishment in its own right. Despite some unfocused moments and a what I found to be an abrupt tonal shift in the second half, overall the film is both exceedingly well researched and unexpectedly tender, offering real insight into the phenomenon of terrorism while simultaneously mocking its ludicrousness, daring to depict these people as hopelessly flawed to the point of sympathetic while never condoning their behavior. Morris shows us that terrorists might have friends and families, they might worry about whether they look fat on camera, and, in the case of this film, they might have no fucking idea what they're doing.
I shared a few words with Morris inbetween profuse sauna sweating and heart-jolting dips in the pool just before he made his way to BamCinematek for a special preview screening, one of several that have taken place around the country to raise awareness for the opening on November 5th.
How did you end up taking on this subject matter?
Chris Morris: Well it was some unexpected eruptions from reality. There is a book by Terry McDermott about the 9/11 hijackers called Perfect Soldiers, which included anecdotal stories about their different characters. Like, they're all on a fitness drive but the heaviest one, the most overweight one, sort of rides his bike slowly around town claiming that that's his exercise. These kind of just blokey, guys-y kind of things...They tease Muhammad Asad, the ring leader, for being so extreme; they used to nickname him the Ayatollah. In fact he was so extreme that when he wanted to found an Islamic discussion group, in a week or two he had sacked them all for being not Islamic enough. Reputedly he only ate mashed potato and chocolate. There's anecdotes about him sitting at a table shoveling cold mashed potato into his mouth saying, "food is boring, I hate eating, food is boring."
Which is actually antithetical to Islamic philosophy about food.
Morris: There are so many elements of this kind of activity that contradict so much [in Islam]. That's why the guy in the film who is sort of rule-bound is not advocating violence. I think if you're going to get involved with blowing people up on a bus or something you have to extrude just the right bits of the sharpest noise from holy tradition in order to get yourself there. I mean that's been done for over a hundred years, it's now cooked and ready to go.
And yet there is the flawed, logistical side of things?
Morris: The stories are always silly. The guy who designed the cartridge bombs last Friday is basically a disaffected Saudi, and one of the things that his group wanted to do was assassinate a Saudi prince. So he convinced his brother to turn himself into a bomb by shoving explosives up his ass and getting an audience with the prince, which he duly did. He hit his button and blasted himself straight through the ceiling. They'd gotten the explosive dynamics wrong because in a hard room it's much more destructive to let off a bomb than it is in a tent where charges disperse. So that was just a ludicrous sight gag almost. The Saudi prince survived and may have said, "What's the next entertainment? What's next?"
Why aren't these stories reported on more often?
Morris: It's the nature of reporting. There's a program about cars called Top Gear on TV, and there's a scene in the film where the characters are saying they like the presenter, who's kind of right of center and known for his sort of rather oafish opinions. And then they sort of mention that they might want to blow up a night club because that would be really cool, there are a lot of slags, and that's the bit that gets pulled out by the media. But to me in a way it's more interesting that they like Jeremy Clarkson, which is a bit like them saying that they like Glenn Beck. You wouldn't really expect that, would you? I think journalists like to shout, "Fire! Duck! Bomb!" Not duck-bomb...but you know, they're in a noisy environment, they're trying to hold your attention. I think sometimes they're looking for a broader story and their editors will trim it back down. There's all sorts of different reasons, Chomsky-esque reasons. To have hardwired movie-style evil men you are dealing with a cartoon, not reality. Evil men don't trip over themselves, they don't start swearing or get into a stupid argument when they realize they've been too stubborn for their own good but they don't know how to back out of it.
Were there other sources you drew on for the film?
Morris: It's in the reading. I was talking about the Terry McDermott book Perfect Soldiers but also Nick Fielding and Yosri Fouda wrote a book called Masterminds of Terror in which Yosri Fouda interviewed Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, the two men behind the 9/11 attacks, and there were bits of silly or just recognizably human behavior in that too. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed spends two hours looking for an outfit that won't make him look fat, gets all his Quranic quotes wrong, and has to be corrected by the journalist. Then it was court cases and anecdotal evidence from people who'd been involved, either in training camps themselves or had friends who'd been there. And all these pieces formed a sort of unified picture.
Many works on the subject of terrorism fixate on the idea of how someone becomes a terrorist. Why did you avoid that part of your characters' lives completely?
Morris: Orthodox film language requires you to supply one single sort of catapulting moment. And I don't think it works like that from what I can gather from reading and talking to people on both sides of the line - either those who've gone down a radical line or those who've been in intelligence and studied these people. So I wanted to leave the evidence there in the motivations of the most intelligent member of the cell, and include the motivations of some of the others on a visceral level. But I think it's more likely, or more often, a combination of small steps rather than a single moment of empathic outrage which is so vast that it ends up as an armed struggle. So in the film there is a texture, there are motives which are to do with injustice, there are the romantic dreams, the excitement, there's a sense of perhaps defining your identity. I met one guy who wrote quite a provocative thesis, but one that sort of made sense, where he said he thought some suicide bomber did it as a way of winning an ultimate argument about their identity.
You do show how the wannabe-rapper character is recruited by the group.
Morris: Well he's a sort of wannabe generally, isn't he? We imagine that he'd spent his first year of college pretty normal, pretty anonymous, and then fallen in with some guys with some strict rules during the summer and come back with a shaved head and taking great delight in saying, "I'm not going to party, you shouldn't be drinking brother we have mosque on Friday and all of this, and love the effect, love imagining people going away and say "what's happened to Hassan he's really changed!" He gets pretty high on that. You can see it. There's a scene of the film where he's effectively totally high on the smell of his own farts. He gets into trouble as a result, but he can't say no, he's sort of intoxicated by the idea that maybe he really is bad, maybe he really is hardcore. And that is his undoing.
You had some peripheral characters that I think would describe themselves as faithful but relate to religion differently than the main group, Omar's brother for example.
Morris: Well Omar's brother is very orthodox and strict and full of rules but is against violence. The stereotype is, somebody's got a beard, and they're very very strict in their religion, okay they're on their way to being a terrorist. And that isn't really the way it works at all. It's just that people have gotten confused by an overlap between the violent strain of Islam and the strict strain of Islam. There's a lot of people who are strict but not likely to be terrorists. He's also in a typical situation I think of knowing something is going on and sort of wishing he could do something about it. Omar knows that too, and there's a point in the film where he nearly asks him for help but there are personal reasons that stop him, there's a sort of very understandable sibling moment.
There's a turning point where the film suddenly becomes much darker. Was that intentional?
Morris: We didn't draw a color chart for the film and say here's our gradient, but made a film which deals with life and death but nonetheless contains funny elements continuously all the way through it. You just stick with it, and you make sure you don't make the mistake of trivializing something which shouldn't be trivial in that context. You could say the same thing happens in Dog Day Afternoon, which is a really favorite film of mine, and it's a brilliant combination. It's a film that is funny right the way through to the end but when Saul gets shot it's shocking and rightfully so, but it doesn't undermine the rest of the film.
If in your past work the news media has been the butt of the joke, or the celebrity has been the butt of the joke, who is the butt of the joke in this film?
Morris: You tell me. I think you don't work it that way around. You do something and then you can work out how to bullshit about it afterwards, but you don't go, right, those people must become the butt of a certain type of joke and off you go.
It may not have been so carefully planned, but you are laughing at someone.
Morris: You are laughing at characters, and in individual situations it changes. It's not a film which has a butt. It's a multi-butted film.
As many butts as possible?
Morris: Yeah. We're all butts.
Are you using humor to humanize terrorists?
Morris: Yes, but it's not magic to turn a human being into a human being.