The poster for Four Lions, which you see at right, says it over and over again: "Funny!" Since premiering at Sundance in January, Four Lions has played its way across many festivals in the country, cracking audiences up with its story about five bumbling British guys just trying to get ahead in life. The twist, as you may know, is that these five guys are extremist Islamic terrorists, and plan to blow themselves up in as public a place as they can find.
I promise you, the movie truly is funny-- read Eric Eisenberg's review from the Los Angeles Film Festival if you need more proof-- but it also doesn't shrink away from violence or the extremely solemn truth at the center of the film. And, as director Chris Morris will tell you over and over again, the absurd things we see his terrorist characters do aren't even as silly as the things that happen in real life. As he has done interviews for the film, Morris has recounted countless anecdotes about real-life terrorists arguing over who is more attractive, pulling ridiculous pranks on each other, and botching operations due to sheer idiocy. As he explains it, we're all capable of idiotic behavior, and why should Islamic terrorists be any different?
Four Lions opens today in New York, and I caught up with Morris at the end of an exhausting cross-country press tour, where he was on hand to present several special screenings of the film (including one to the NYPD anti-terrorism squad!). At the beginning of the interview he got a text from a friend who had learned that one of their sources on the film-- a "dodgy" source as Morris described him, meaning he was about as inept and goofy as the film's terrorist characters-- had been revealed as an informant for MI 5. That led us into a conversation about how the government learns about terrorist behavior, some of the other more ludicrous real terrorist stories Morris has heard, and whether he feels any comfort learning that the terrorist aren't genius masterminds, but every idiots like you and me.
The first part of the interview I captured on video until my camera died, and you can read the rest below it. After you do please, please find a way to see this subversive, hilarious and dark film; it's one of the more original and thought-provoking comedies you'll see in this, or any year.
Whether it's that level, of the 9/11 hijackers teasing their leader for being too extreme, to the extent that they call him the Ayatollah. Or the architect of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, spending two hours selecting an outfit for an interview that didn't make him look fat. They're slightly rubbish. On a level you're trying to reflect reality, so don't dodge the bullet.
After thinking about terrorists as long as you have, and thinking about them for the publicity tour too, how do you feel about them now?
I don't keep re-engaging on the level that I did, so most of the time it's different belts of different channels. When we were writing, I said to Sam and Jesse, OK, they're the Beatles, which one's John, Paul, George and Ringo. We did assign, pretty accurately I think, who was who. It's at that stage you realize you're thinking about them in a way that's not normal.
Did you find yourself more sympathetic to them?
Did I brainwash myself? Look, people go, oh, you humanized them. You go, yeah, but they were humans anyway. Humanizing them doesn't mean everything they do is fine. It depends on your view of humanity. Idiocy is the great leveler. We're all idiots at some level. It hasn't really shifted my perception. Right at the start it was a sense that of course these people will behave as badly as anyone else. Their level of competence is going to be average, as are most people's. Anyone can look ridiculous.
The incidence of converts, on a regular basis they crop up in these cells. I'm not saying all converts are terrorists. Converts are part of the picture. People described anecdotally Barry-ish kind of things to me. There was a neo-Nazi who caused bomb attacks on behalf of the far right against gays and blacks in the 90s in Britain, but when 9/11 happened he converted to Islam, because he thought this is better than the game I'm playing, I want to ramp up a level. That sort of pattern is recognizable to someone with an extreme position, going from one radical ideology to the next. Barry was necessary to the dynamic of the cell. Just as we were reflecting other things, I thought we'd get one of him in.
Have there been things that happened in real life over the course of making this where you worried that you'd have to abandon the film, or change directions?
Like, life is getting sillier than we could match? One of the cases involved is sort of prankish, an unbelievable prankish trick from this cell of six Pakistanis and one North African guy. All Brits, but those are their origins. The leader of that cell had been banned form going to Pakistan from his parents, because when he was 19 he'd been over there in radical company, and they had to send an uncle to bring him back. How are the cell going to deal with this? "Oh, I know. We'll get the whitest guy in the group, the North African, to pay a visit to the parents and pretend to be from MI 5 and say, 'We know your son wants to go to Pakistan, but we'd like you to let him go. We'll be looking after him. He's on our side and he's going to lead us to some pretty undesirable people.' Like loyal citizens they went, OK fine, thank you very much. He gets back to the car and they all high five. It was childish, but it worked.
I discovered the other day that the guy who designed the cartridge bombs for the other day's escapade also turned his brother into a bottle rocket. He sent his brother on a mission to blow up a Saudi prince with a bomb up his ass. But the fatal mistake there is you can kill someone in a room with an explosion if it's got hard walls, but he met the Saudi prince in a tent. So he hit a button and fired himself straight through the ceiling of the tent. The Saudi prince was fine.
I thought, OK, I wish I'd known that. That is so Jackass I don't know if it would have fit. I think there would have been a lot of questions, like, "Come on. I was buying the film up to that point where the guy blasted himself in the air with a rocket up his ass." And I would be protesting afterwards, no, you don't understand, that's from real life.
Do you feel like we need to hear stories like this, to demystify these guys and reveal them as idiots? Does it help, since the world is pretty scary?
I felt I did, to the extent that I was interested enough by the examples I had found that seemed to be from the wrong book-- a funny book, not a book about terrorism. Do we need it? You don't want to be prescriptive. I think there's a colossal amount of ignorance, and I'm not really a fan of ignorance.
Do you feel better knowing so many of them are stupid?
It's not really a comforter, as if to say, all the stuff we've been worrying about the last 10 years doesn't really exist. There's a sense of proportion that may come from it.
I feel better. Our SWAT teams are probably better equipped than these guys, and that's comforting.
Yeah, but the SWAT teams have their own versions of this kind of foolishness.