Chris Morris, The Most Hated Man in Britain™ according to The Sunday Times, is the fearless Jack-of-All-Trades whose satires have kept Britain laughing since the late 1980s. E. Zeynep Güler-Tuck chats with him about Four Lions, his debut film project, which will screen at this year’s !f Istanbul Film Festival
When did the Four Lions project begin and where did the risky concept of humanizing extremists come from? What kind of research goes into a project like this? Why were bringing elements of humour to the project important to you?
I was looking into the subject already. What you get from the media is thin, and I was reading about a serious subject but kept finding examples of events that were funny and ridiculous, like a Canadian trying to assassinate the Canadian prime minister, then forgetting who the prime minister was; or terrorists creating a device that would protect them from explosions but making the extension only 10 feet long; or extremists trying to turn fizzy drinks into bombs on airplanes. There was this one guy who wanted to hide a bomb in a hole in the ground and police found a Google search on his computer on “how to dig a hole.” If you read about anything; an armed police unit; or a bunch of guys in the army; or a football team, you’ll come across the same kind of thing. People make mistakes and get into arguments, even those in a Jihadi group. It feels like a revelation. it felt like one to me. It’s a gift if you are interested in making something funny; it’s not an abstract or a fantasy. Your limited understanding of religious, cultural and political backgrounds increases so that you understand the area enough. Every step you take serves up a chunk of knowledge to base jokes on. [Making this film] was an organic progression.
Has Four Lions been screened in other Muslim countries, or will Turkey be the first? Have you been receiving any flak from the Muslim world regarding the radical implications of this film?
No flak. It’s geared to Muslim audiences in places like Britain, since there are lots [of Muslims] in Britain. It played the longest in strongly Muslim cities. They enjoyed it and gravitated toward it. I spent 3-4 years meeting with Muslims [in the UK] and overseas. [Muslims] understand the jokes. It plays in Pakistan; it’s selling like hotcakes in Karatchi. It was presented in Islamabad and it didn’t bother them that we hadn’t released it there. A friend in Pakistan played it for his buddies and they were doing the raps from the movie. We bothered to look into the subject properly. If you bothered to get it right, [Muslims] recognize people that they know, even if it’s a satire. A friend of mine does a satire show in Westminster and the politicians working there love it. You’ve done a few current affairs show spoofs and pranks. On your "Brass Eye" show, you convinced celebrities and politicians to back campaigns and generate awareness for fake social issues.
What was your favourite “fake public awareness” prank that you pulled to-date?
I don’t have a favourite; it didn’t seem to me to be any other response, when people make statements for the wrong reasons and thus inflame public opinion for their own benefits... Others will [speak out] with better motivations, but to make a goodhearted plea is a problem. Any kneejerk issue works in the same way. I think the fun thing is challenging reality to catch people. You dream up something that no one will fall for, in the full fear of failure, and if you pull it off, you surprise yourself and others. Some places we went were really dangerous, where, if they had found out it was a joke, we would’ve been toast. Other places had to do with sheer silliness, like the conflict of electricity falling out of wires. This [convinced people] to complain about western countries abusing third world countries by using the wrong kind of energy that would fall out of the wires and onto people’s heads, making them look like an 18th version of themselves. You can fool people at all sorts of things. When I was a student, I would walk around with a tape recorder and put non-existent ideas to [passersby]. I’d say, “What do you think about slope velocity, should it be higher or lower?” And people would respond, “I think it’s dangerous, it should be lower.” By choosing something abstract that sounds real, I challenge things that don’t exist, like hairball disasters. It’s like you’re finding out some missing elements of the human brain. We heard about your success at Sundance Film Fest – being shortlisted for the World Cinema Narrative prize and all. It was great but scary, since Sundance was the first public airing in the U.S.
We’re ecstatic that Four Lions is being screened as part of the 2011 !f Istanbul Film Festival. Have you ever been to Istanbul? What are you looking forward to doing and seeing while you’re here?
I haven’t been there since 1981. I am very much looking forward to it. Galata Bridge was a pontoon and I would go down there for breakfast and eat fish that was flung right out
of the water into my mouth. It’s such an exciting place! I’ll be fascinated to hear what sorts of questions people have in Turkey, since the film discusses 2nd -3rd generation British Pakistanis. I think there’ll be a Saturday night multiplex screening that will be connected to various cinemas across the country. I’m really looking forward to it!
*Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Time Out Istanbul in English.