Chris Morris takes questions at the Sundance Four Lions premiere
British films play every year at the Sundance Film Festival but rarely do they generate quite so many column inches as Chris Morris’s directorial debut Four Lions has done – but then, if you choose to make a group of wannabe suicide bombers the subject of a comedy feature film, that sort of thing is likely to happen.
Morris certainly hasn’t shied away from hot-button issues in the past – the right-wing press branded a Brass Eye episode satirising the media’s stoking of fear surrounding paedophiles as the “sickest TV show ever” and he also courted controversy with an episode in which he convinced people to condemn a made-up drug called Cake.
It’s perhaps a surprise, then, that it has taken the maverick writer so long to have a go at bringing his ideas to a wider cinematic canvas, where the censorship is arguably less stringent than on television. But Morris has spent years on research for his debut and faced funding delays over the contentious subject matter.
The end result is a surprisingly accessible and, in many ways, gentle affair, albeit with an acidic undercurrent. As Morris said when the film debuted at Sundance: “I feel in a weird way that this is a good-hearted film. It's not a hate film, so I would hope that that aspect would come through."
In person, Morris is as sharply funny as you might imagine and has no qualms about self-deprecation. Introducing the film in the Egyptian Theatre in Park City's Main Street, the 44-year-old expressed his gratitude to festival-goers, saying: “I’d like to thank you all for turning up and making it properly ‘real’. This is the first time we’ll have shown it to a proper audience and if you’ve been making a film for four years, you’ve been living a fiction for most of that time. Because people say to you: ‘What do you do?” you say: ‘I’m making a film’. But there’s absolutely no evidence that that is what you’re doing. You’ve got no money, you’ve pretty much lost all your friends, you’ve got no cast…you’ve pretty much lost everything. You are deluded and so you [the audience] are helping bring us out of a rather difficult hole.”
After the premiere screening, he revealed that he had taken his inspiration from real life - a story he read about a group of jihadis who, rather than blowing up their intended target, had loaded a boat so full of explosives that it sank. And when he began his research, he discovered this wasn't an isolated event.
"There were more incidents like that, where you got unexpected moments of humour, " he said.
"And, I thought, ‘maybe there’s something in this’ and I started going to things like court cases, when there was a lot of surveillance material available. And it was absolutely staggering. There were some guys in the High Court in London who had 600 kilos of fertilizer. They kept talking in their bedrooms about what they were going to do with it. They had pretty much forgotten everything they’d learned about making bombs, but they did have this incriminating evidence.
"They were basically like a sort of Ealing comedy. They called each other ‘hairy hobbits’, they dressed up and pretended to be MI5 members in order to con their parents into giving them permission to go to Pakistan. And all of this was ludicrous. All the journalists were noting it as a kind of Keystone Kops scenario but in the papers it was recorded with a hard-edge of the dramatic things they wanted to do. And I thought there was a kind of missing element, in that these guys were, basically, pretty foolish.
"The more I looked into it, the more that happened," he said. "Because, basically, if you get five average blokes to try to organise something, they're going to f*** it up. And the sort of dynamics of that - whether it's a five - a - side football team or a stag party - mean it's going to go wrong and these kind of operations are no exception. Even if they get away with it, they sort of just get away with it and they get away with it with things that go wrong.
"You may remember even on 9/11, the so-called 20th hijacker went to flying school and said: 'Listen, I just need how to learn how to take off and fly, I don't need to land.' You think, this can't be real. So there was something to dig up and reflect a sort of reality.
The film, which was shot in Sheffield and partially funded by Film Four, sees an average dad-of-one, played by up-and-coming actor Riz Ahmed, encourage his friends, including a gung-ho white Islamic convert Barry, into bombing the London marathon.
Four Lions pokes fun at the fundamentalist attitudes of many wannabe bombers, featuring spoof terror videos in which one of the characters wears a box on his head because he says to show his face would break Islamic law.
Despite previous attempts at finding humour in Muslim fundamentalism provoking protests - and in the case of a Danish cartoonist who drew pictures of the Prophet Mohammed, even death threats - Morris is adamant that there is no attempt to offend the Muslim community. But how does he think they will react to the film?
"That's almost a question that's impossible to answer," he said. "As regards the Muslim community, one of the first things I found in my research is that there isn't really any such thing. The more you look into the subject, the more likelihood there was that a community fragments.
"We had Muslims working on the film, we had Christians, lapsed Christians, Jews, we have Muslims obviously on the production... there wasn't any fighting."
He is keen to point out that although he doesn't want to "overemphasise the racial bonding aspect" a multicultural cast and crew screening, held before the film was brought out to Utah, was a success.
"Afterwards I came up on a cluster of them all standing around, slapping one another on the back, laughing about it and agreeing that when this film comes out it would be a great one to download illegally - they'd found common cause."
Although there is certainly an Ealing comedy vibe to the early part of the film, a much darker tone is present later on - and Morris makes no apology for this.
"We felt that you just have to keep riding into this, not shrink from it," he said "Otherwise, why have you set off on making a film about this subject? So long as what we were doing was truthful and the jokes kept coming, that was fine."
Morris says the film, which will be released in the UK on May 7, has already been sold to some territories in the Arab world, and the Israelis. And even though the film has already become a talking point, he isn't worried about the press reaction.
"I'm looking for trouble when I say this," he said. "But it's actually quite boring. Because it's bits of newspaper. It's very hard to feel that's directly personal. So, I think you overestimate the resolve or bravery. It's a bit of a fictional process, the media process. Or maybe that's just a product of being prepared for that anyway – you don’t lumber into it and think ‘what a surprise’."