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'Four Lions' director talks about finding comedy in odd places

Matthew Odam
Chris Morris, center, directs Riz Ahmed, left, and Nigel Lindsay as bumbling British terrorists in 'Four Lions.'

Did you hear the one about the terrorists in Yemen who, planning to destroy an American warship, loaded their own boat with so many explosives that it sank?

British satirist Chris Morris did.

That story, along with other tales of bumbling acts of terrorism, led the director to make his first feature film, "Four Lions," a tragicomedy about a group of semi-competent jihadists. The movie, distributed by Alamo CEO Tim League's Drafthouse Films, opened Friday in Austin.

Years before Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert ruled the cable airwaves with their skewering of American politics and media, Morris was making a name for himself as a wicked satirist and master of parody, as he trained his comedic eye on British society and politics with both his radio and television programs.

Over the years, his work stirred much public controversy, arguably none greater than when Morris, on his show "The Brass Eye," satirized the hysteria surrounding pedophilia.

Speaking by phone from England recently, Morris said that his early forays into entertainment came from "a predilection for hijacking thoughts and sort of giving them a joy ride."

It is no surprise then that the comedian's sense of mischief was suddenly piqued when he started coming across absurd stories about terrorism. But, unlike some of his more notorious acts of comedy over the years, Morris thought that the topic of ham-fisted terrorists was relatively safe ground.

"With this film, to be honest, it didn't interest me to inflame people. It was very easy to become too pumped up about (terrorism)," Morris said. "So what I wanted to do was subvert that. It was never really going to be viable as a sort of controversial object. We found that even right-wingers here — who some people early on had predicted would be up in arms — were thoroughly on board with the film because they were laughing and because they could see there were things to be laughed at."

In reading about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the principal architects of the 9/11 attacks, Morris said he discovered that the diabolical holy warrior actually spent hours before a taped interview worrying about whether his outfit made him look fat before proceeding to mangle recitations of Koranic scripture.

"They used to tease the leader of the 9/11 group, Mohammed Atta, because of his (religious) strictness," Morris said. "He was so strict that when he formed Islamic discussion groups with students in Hamburg, you could guarantee that within two weeks they would all be dismissed for not being strict enough. And they called him the ayatollah, the other guys in the cell. That's not the sort of joke I had previously imagined some extremely radical Islamic terrorists would use on each other."

It turns out these faceless cabals were, naturally, made up of humans with ordinary fallibilities enduring mundane personal squabbles and false starts. The strangeness of it all made it all the more realistic to Morris.

Unlike his 2002 "absolute atrocity special" about 9/11, "Six Months that Changed a Year," co-written with "In the Loop" director Armando Iannuci, Morris' "Four Lions" focuses on the terrorists themselves and not the way in which the bogeyman-creating media reported on acts of terrorism.

"Bizarrely, once you move away from attacking the media narrative directly, you can get away with a great deal more," Morris said. "The things that I have done which are much more questionable in terms of taste and decency, but are not media attacks, have not got into trouble."

Morris said that, through his research, he was appalled to realize that there was so little comedy that was actively mocking what he saw as a ripe target.

"An American friend of mine was saying recently that he believed the Ku Klux Klan had gone from being sort of a feared, monstrous organization to a bit of a sad joke by being mocked," Morris said. "The point when people realized that the Klu Klux Klan was mockable, he felt, had a sort of significant impact on the public perception."

But just when you feel it might be safe to sit back and laugh at these hapless fools as they ricochet one-liners off one another, Morris weights the movie with an undeniable conscience. Without sermonizing, Morris challenges the viewer while examining the ambiguity that is inherent in holy warriors.

"We wanted to find the people who (participate in suicide bombings) without making the standard and, I believe, rather bogus apologia for their position, which tends to be, 'His family were wiped out by a drone attack or he was just brought to a state of psychotic fury by repeated images of villages being eviscerated by vicious attacks by Western forces,'" Morris said. "I don't think it's quite as simplistic as that. We wanted to find not the sort of rather dry and rather bogus psychological road map but the flesh and bone of people involved in it. And some of them do have their wives in on it, and some of them do operate from a position as seeing themselves as doing exactly the right thing. And then there's (others) who sort of revel in the fact that they're doing the wrong thing. And we wanted to engage with that."