Chris Morris may not be a household name in the U.S. But in Britain, he is an extremely well known writer, comic performer, media prankster, and all-around agent provocateur. Certainly, he is the only man to get a British MP to gravely ruminate in the House of Commons about an entirely made-up drug called “cake.”
Morris made his TV reputation in the early ’90s with fake news show The Day Today, on which his demented if convincing anchorman routinely declaimed such hilariously nonsensical headlines as “’BRIAN FERRY BATH MAT POISONOUS,’ SAY LAB” and “NEWS!!! LONDON TRANSPORT SAY THEY MAY HAVE TO CLOSE THE UNDERGROUND SYSTEM DUE TO AN INFESTATION OF HORSES.” Morris was also responsible for the much more contentious Brass Eye, another faux current affairs show that lampooned media hysteria but which itself caused controversy with a special pedophilia-themed edition. More recently, he co-wrote the sitcom Nathan Barley, a vicious dissection of London hipsters, and appeared in writer Graham Linehan’s award-winning show The IT Crowd.
Morris has now made his big screen directorial debut with Four Lions, a comedy about Muslim suicide bombers in the north of England, which opens today.
After the jump, Morris, who also co-wrote the film, talks about how he located the comedy in terrorism, and why it’s okay to shoot a Wookie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Given its subject matter, I’m fairly surprised Four Lions is being released in cinemas here.
CHRIS MORRIS: We’ve done 12 or 15 or something screenings, and it doesn’t seem to be the case that people have a problem with it at all. We screened it here in New York three or four weeks ago and people came up to me and enjoyed saying, “I bet you thought we might find this a bit hard to take.” They were all too pleased to say, “We were the ones who actually went through this stuff and we really don’t take too kindly to other people taking up anxiety on our behalf.”
I was also surprised by the broadness of much of the humor in Four Lions. You’re not someone who’s too high-falutin’ to feature a funny walk, or people dressed up in ludicrous outfits.
Well, I was talking to a guy in D.C just the other day who is a sort of an intelligence analyst. He was saying that a bomb maker in the Yemen persuaded his brother to blow himself up, but accidentally turned him into a human bottle rocket. The idea was to assassinate a Saudi prince and [the brother] shoved the bomb up his own [rectum]. He went into the room where the Saudi prince was, hit the button and shot straight through the ceiling, leaving the Saudi prince untouched. And that is a sight gag, right? If you’ve got your camera in the right position.
Why did you decide to make a comedy about suicide bombers?
Putting together these kinds of plots involves behavior that is all too recognizably flawed. Much as you would find in an office or anywhere else. Even people who are halfway competent often get a lot of things wrong, have stupid arguments. So why would it not be the case here? [There were some] Yemenis who wanted to blow up a U.S. warship by ramming it with an exploding boat. They put their launch in the water, filled it with explosives, and it sank. And that feels like something maybe out of a caper.
What kind of reaction did you get from the Muslim community in the UK?
When I was researching it, they were saying, “Thank god, bring it on,” and when it was released they duly went to see it. We went to screen it recently in Bradford, to raise money for the floods [in Pakistan], and [the lead actors] were basically mobbed like rock stars. So I think they took it pretty warmly. People realize they’re not being insulted.
Did you not get any negative reactions from Muslims?
No. I mean, it’s not impossible to imagine. But I received death threats for playing the wrong Frank Sinatra record when I worked in local radio, so nothing’s impossible to imagine.
What’s the “wrong” Frank Sinatra record?
Actually, I think it was the wrong version of “Mack the Knife.” Frank Sinatra had been requested, and I played Tony Bennett. So perhaps it was understandable. No, I think if you flush a succession of holy texts down a filthy lavatory then you might rile somebody who took their faith seriously. But when you get into this subject you find that you go further away from what Muslims really consider to be holy and unassailable. I found that people who are very orthodox were the furthest away from justifying any kind of violence really.
In the film, a cop shoots someone dressed as a Wookiee. Did you have to get permission from Lucasfilm for that?
It would seem not. [Laughs] You can’t undertake a film without having it all legally triple checked at every level. And it would seem that you are allowed to shoot a Wookiee.
At another point in the film, there’s the headline “ASIAN MAN’S HEAD FALLS OUT OF TREE,” which immediately made me think of The Day Today.
Yeah, although it lacks at least two degrees of complication. It’s not as bizarre as “DEAD RHINO BLOWS THROUGH GLASGOW,” OR “HEADMASTER SUSPENDED FOR USING BIG-FACED CHILD AS SATELLITE DISH.” Those things were almost like a haiku exercise. We’d have rejected “ASIAN MAN’S HEAD FALLS OUT OF TREE.” But in context it seems to ring the bell.
On The Day Today you once convinced pop singer Kim Wilde that the authorities had started clamping (AKA “booting”) homeless people, as if they were illegally parked cars. Did you ever pull a stunt and then feel bad for the victim?
Kim Wilde gave her permission for that to be used on The Day Today. So she in some way must have thought it was an endorsement or something. [Laughs] I don’t know. Maybe she still does think that the homeless are being clamped!
Watch the trailer for Four Lions — which features a spot of moderately bad language — above.