Chris Morris and the writers of 'Four Lions': interview
Chris Morris, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong are the writers behind 'Four Lions', about a terrorist plot to bomb London. 'You can make comedy about anything,’ they tell Mark Ellen
Morris read a story three years ago about five jihadis planning to ram a US warship. They packed their launch with explosives. They stepped in. It sank. He found himself laughing. With credits that include ‘Brass Eye’, ‘The Day Today’ and ‘On the Hour’, he thought the subject had potential for satire and recruited two other writers, Jesse Armstrong (‘In the Loop’, ‘The Thick of It’) and Sam Bain (who, with Armstrong, writes ‘Peep Show’). We’re in the boardroom of a film distribution company in Soho and all three have just wandered in.
This seems the perfect team, the man behind ‘Brass Eye’ and the writers of ‘Peep Show’ and ‘In the Loop’ which look at the dark, claustrophobic workings of the male mind under pressure…
Sam Bain ‘You’ve found a unifying factor!’
Jesse Armstrong ‘Well, if Sam and I can do anything, we can write men arguing in those claustrophobic environments. But could we write some guys of different ethnicity, different religion and different cultural backgrounds? And we thought: Well, they’re still basically blokes arguing.’
Chris Morris ‘The Universal Male! We’ve ousted Martin Amis! I went to the high court and watched the Bluewater terrorist trial and got to hear a lot of MI5 surveillance tapes of the suspects, and you start to realise these people are klutzing around in a very average way – like men at stag parties or five-a-side football. Everyone reporting on it knew it was like “The Keystone Cops”. There’s a recording I heard where one guy says, “Hey bro, what’s the date today?” And the other guy says it’s the twenty-third. “So is tomorrow the twenty-fourth?” You wondered if they were stoned but the police said no.
‘There’s a bit where they’re arguing about who’s cooler, Bin Laden or Johnny Depp. You hear ridiculous things like, “My wife’s really pissed off with you ’cos she made you these sandwiches and you didn’t eat them and then you ate a load of chocolate spread. Hey, wouldn’t it be brilliant if we pulled an airliner out of the sky? Yeah bro, that’d be fantastic! What’s on telly tonight? Ah that Richard Littlejohn, I don’t like him. When’s Jeremy Clarkson on, he’s brilliant?”
‘You have to unload a lot of cultural and factual stuff to create a context for these – actually really normal – reactions between blokes. The one who wants to be leader, the thick one, the bullied type…’
I was surprised by how conventional the film’s structure was: one clever guy surrounded by a troop of sheep-like idiots…
SB ‘I suppose we found the character directing the cell to be the thing that sustains the film, really. Even with the other, slightly bigger jokes about religion, it all comes down to those characters. And they are a bunch of idiots – he’s the stupid one, he’s the smarter one, he’s the arrogant one – but you can get a hook into people you wouldn’t normally be able to hook into that easily by thinking about it in those comedy terms.’
CM ‘Sam and Jesse are masters of that character comedy. And this film is obviously not a polemic. It’s attacking things from a different way round.
‘In that “Brass Eye” special [on paedophiles], there was a bit that never got made as it just didn’t fit the kind of “Crimewatch”/David Jessel-bashing structure. It was a mini-documentary about a group who organised a sort of Paedo Pride Parade, the ninth Paedo Parade in Bournemouth or somewhere, a really sad bunch of people who were all in this house saying, “Oh dear, another brick with a load of shit on it thrown through the window!” They all wore these kind of trust-me trousers designed to disguise an erection. You imagine if you did organise a Paedo Pride march – “We got about 80 metres last year before we got beaten up!” – so it’s a normalising joke.
‘And I was a bit sad to lose it in a way, as I thought it gave you so much room to explore. “Four Lions” takes that kind of approach. Once we established that a cell is about character dynamics, we created the whole arc of the film. We could see it in three clear acts, but then we realised we’d left a few questions behind.’
What sort of questions?
CM ‘Well, they’re a bunch of blokes but they’re not just a bunch of blokes. You have to understand something that seems, paradoxically, not to fit into a universal experience until you look at it this way. I mean – call me sick – but I remember going to a test match once and thinking: I could take this one out! There’s a guy going round with this wheelbarrow thing full of beer, so… It is quite fun, walking around London. You start working up bomb plots. We came up with ten great ones. Sadly if we’d been brown and the room had been bugged, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now.’
JA ‘Most Londoners are doing that in reverse anyway. When there’s been a recent event there’s a bit of you thinking: Is this place safe? Is this tube safe? But we discarded 98 per cent of those ideas trying to write the ending as it’s not going to be funny seeing a tube train blow up. Because, sadly, we know too much what that’s like.’
There must have been potential investors who said they couldn’t get involved as it was too controversial?
CM ‘Well, we wouldn’t hear from them. The more dangerous kind of idiot is the one who’ll put the money on the table in front of you and then, at the last minute, say, “Oh by the way, you can only have the money if you do this. Can’t you reflect reality in other ways? After all, some bomb plots don’t come off. Could they all survive?”
‘And you sort of think: What on earth would be the point of that? You might as well make a film about absolutely anything. A machine could have chosen the subject. If you make a film like this you have to have consequences. Imagine “The Guns of Navarone” without actually blowing up the guns.’
What’s your response to people who think you can’t make comedy out of something whose subject is, essentially, mass murder?
JA ‘You probably shouldn’t see the film? You can make comedy about anything. It’s about being sure-footed and having the correct point of view.’
CM ‘Well you would say that as you wrote a comedy about people being ghastly to each other, and undermining and lying and being evil in every respect, and causing a war, skullduggery, backstabbing, viciousness, insult after insult, and a lot of dead people at the end of it. That’s the film you did last year, isn’t it? How funny. It’s called “In the Loop”.
‘But it’s like, what’s funny about death? Perhaps the biggest laugh in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a man pulls out his sword and gets shot. He dies but we all laugh. I remember watching “The General”, a Buster Keaton film, the climax of which is a massacre in a canyon, basically soldiers falling off a cliff and then blundering around in mud while they’re shot to pieces by cannons and rifles. Ahahahaha! And Buster’s doing some sort of routine around it. You can include these things.’
How do you calibrate the success of a project like this?
JA ‘Calibrate? You mean like a big thermometer next to the church?’
CM ‘Yes, we’ve got a target and when we hit that target – it’s like a “Blue Peter” fundraiser – we’ve got various dares. If we get a million at the box office, Sam’s going to run around in his chicken costume and Jesse’s going to shoot someone in the leg!’
SB ‘I suppose it’s that Chris has achieved a tone that I’m proud to be associated with. It’s good. We’ve done it, a fun film about terrorists. I just hope it gets a good reception.’
CM ‘It’s not like you think: What’s the most difficult subject imaginable – terrorism – and then do it as a Nietzschean superman challenge. You’ve got a lot of rubbish thoughts buzzing round your head but this particular bee won’t get out of your bonnet how ever many times you dismiss it. It’s is a very dominating subject so it seems weird not to do something about it. You want to do something funny but the subject seems to suggest itself.’
Read our review of 'Four Lions'.
Author: Interview: Mark Ellen
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