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Chris Morris Talks “Four Lions”

Chris Morris Talks “Four Lions” (photo)

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This interview originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Infamous in Britain for his shows “The Day Today” (which helped launch the career of Steve Coogan) and “Brass Eye,” British comedy legend Chris Morris is generally regarded as something of a recluse, and rarely gives interviews. Not that he’s shy. Dear god, no. To say that Morris’s work has flirted with controversy is a bit of an understatement: A “Brass Eye” TV special he once did on the pedophilia scare reportedly broke records for complaints it generated. And back in early 2002, he penned, with fellow Brit satirist and “In the Loop” director Armando Iannucci, “Six Months that Changed a Year,” an “absolute atrocity special” satirizing the response to 9/11.

Telling the story of a group of hapless terrorists plotting a coordinated suicide bombing, Morris’s feature directorial debut “Four Lions” takes his work in a decidedly new direction. The kind of film that can use someone blowing themselves to bits as a punchline for a gag, “Lions'” tone is darkly ironic rather than confrontational. It’s also the product of years of scrupulous research, which resulted in a surprising degree of cooperation from the British Muslim community. During his visit to Sundance, where the film premiered, I spoke to Morris about bending genres, preferring Howard Stern to Jon Stewart, and the psyche of suicide bombers.

This film is a very strange hybrid — it’s got a lot of broad comedy, but it’s also very serious and tragic in some regards.

I think the appropriate word for it is “tragicomedy.” If you just made a film that said, “Guys making these kinds of plots are ridiculous,” you’d be lying. After the research I did, which included going to court cases and talking to loads of people, I wanted to convey the point that a terrorist could also be a humorously flawed person. But the companion thought to that is, of course, they’re also people, which in itself is subversive to the notion of what a terrorist is.

01292010_FourLions3.jpgA lot of films I like bend genres as well. “Dr. Strangelove” is really a half hour thriller stretched out to give you enough time to include lots of comic routines. If you look at the film, the seriousness of the mechanics of what’s going on — the assault on the airbase, the detail inside the airplane — that’s definitely transgenre. Those could be outtakes from a serious war film. And I think comedy can be left frivolously flapping about on the high tide end if it doesn’t dig in somewhere.

In some ways, this is a much darker film than “In the Loop,” which, despite being about the run-up to a war, makes it quite easy to sit back and watch and enjoy without feeling at all uncomfortable.

I absolutely adore “In the Loop” — I laughed from beginning to end — but it’s affirmative, basically. It’s a universal rallying cry to say, “Fuck politicians!” and “Aren’t they a bunch of conniving gits?” It’s never going to rip the carpet off from under your feet. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, ’cause I’m fairly intolerant of stuff that calls itself comedy. How rare is it to laugh at all at a film that calls itself a comedy, let alone to laugh all the way through?

01292010_FourLions2.jpgSome would say that satire is a dead art nowadays.

There’s satire out there. “South Park” is satirical. “Team America” is pretty satirical of genre. But satire in itself, as a raw element, can be pretty dull. “Dr. Strangelove” could be dull without some sparked up performances and its beautiful tone. I actually do think satire can get formulaic: “It’s a satire so I don’t really have to have any jokes.” There’s a certain Route 1 satire shape you can fall into, and I’m really concerned about that, actually. It’s a formula that is given too much license.

For example, I prefer Howard Stern to Jon Stewart. There’s something innately, intuitively subversive about his take on things. Really, really funny, without rules. You wouldn’t call it satire — I’d say it’s better than satire. And I often think of films as comedies when they’re not comedies. “Festen (The Celebration),” I thought, was very funny. It had much more value, because it kicked hard. Whereas something that comes along and says, “Hi, I’m a comedy,” like “Tropic Thunder,” makes me want to rip up the whole cinema — just a godawful waste of money and time.

Tell me about the “fatwa-proof research” that you did for “Four Lions.”

That’s an unfortunate non-quote that’s being spread around. It’s attributed to my producer, but I’m pretty sure it’s a journalistic product. I did do a lot of research. I wanted to make sure the scenarios in the film came from a real place. I met lots of Muslims who had nothing to do with anything radical whatsoever, which gave me a fair sense of how the landscape lay in Britain, and all the differences between the different village communities that ended up in different mill towns. That puts into sharp relief what happens in these tiny radical pockets. Making this film [had] nothing to do with attacking the Koran or casting aspersions about the Prophet or anything like that. 99.99% of the people I met shared those precious things but weren’t remotely interested in blowing up anyone.

I was impressed that the film also didn’t offer up a list of grievances — some obligatory, politically correct scene where we see all the horrible things that the West has done in Muslim countries, or something like that.

10042010_fourlions5.jpgThere are works of fiction which seek to explain jihadi terrorists as the militant wing of Amnesty International. I don’t buy that. I wanted to avoid it for dramatic reasons as well. I didn’t want some scene where Omar was confronted with terrible footage from an Afghani school that had been blown up by a drone or something. In a way, that would be too specific. We know that this sort of thing happens, of course. I thought with all the characters you could basically pick up why each of them would be involved with this and to categorize them. The “Black Widows” [Chechen female suicide bombers in Russia] were very different than some lads in Surrey planning to blow up a nightclub, for example. And it’s not fair to pretend they’re the same.

A guy who fought with the Mujahideen against the Russians, who’s now 40-something, told me that the only way he could understand someone wanting to blow up a busload of civilians in a country where there was no turf war being fought is that they’re living a very abstracted form of existence, which is very modern. They can place themselves somewhere thousands of miles away, and then harden themselves as if they’re somewhere they aren’t. It’s the dream of being a soldier. That romantic notion is very important. But this film is not a guidebook to jihadi motivation. It reflects some of the realities one encounters.

I spoke to a guy who fought with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance — which is an interesting moral quandary, because the Taliban are obviously “bad” — but he told me, “When you come across a farm that’s been massacred by General Dostum’s people, the whole family eviscerated and the grandmother left sobbing in a chair, then you know you’re on the right side, because you’re against the people who did that.” It blows your sense of right and wrong. He left that world long ago, but he talked about that band of brothers feeling, almost like a fratboy with a gun in his hand.

Can you discuss the character of Omar’s wife? She seems like the scariest character in the film, in a way. In one scene, she’s progressive, fun-loving, etc. and then in another, she’s totally behind the idea of her husband blowing himself up and killing tons of people.

The non-comic, factual explanation is that I felt there was a myth about terrorist bombers being medieval-minded, “fundamentalist, primitivist” people. There seems to be a lot of evidence to contradict that, especially in Britain. Some of the ideology behind what has become modern jihadism was socially progressive, certainly in Egypt, for example.

10042010_fourlions4.jpgWhen we see Omar’s brother, he’s the one who insists that women be in separate rooms — but he’s also the one who’s not a terrorist. The character of the wife is deliberately given not much space, but I wanted to show that someone like Omar would need support. There was a video recorded by one of the London bombers back when he thought he was going to Afghanistan, where he was certain to wind up dead, and he’d recorded the video with his nine-month-old daughter in his lap, explaining why he’d gone. He thought he was going to fight the good fight, and wanted to make sure she knew that when she was older and could understand. Obviously, I haven’t hung out much with a family that’s plotting this kind of thing, but that was an imaginative leap where the wife would be included in the discourse.

What was the response of the Muslims you interviewed to the fact that you were making such a film?

Weirdly, the common response was: “Oh great, about time, bring it on.” Which I wasn’t expecting. I remember when we were making the film, we had to shoot in a halal kebab shop. The owners asked to be there while we were filming, and I told them they could. But we eventually had to remove them from the room, because they were laughing too hard. Muslims in Britain like the idea that a lighter note might be introduced into the discourse. That’s not why I made the film, but I was surprised to find that was their general response. Maybe it’s cause I was mostly talking to younger people. The older ones might take a more dim view of some of this stuff.

“Four Lions” will open in New York and Los Angeles on November 5th.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.