Entertainment

‘I Was Told It Was Career Suicide’ – The Oral History of ‘Four Lions’

"There might have been some police questioning over a loud explosion we made in a field."
July 30, 2020, 12:09pm
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Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak and Arsher Ali in 'Four Lions'. Photo: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

A comedy about suicide bombers doesn’t exactly jump off the page as a workable film idea. Yet in the 2000s, Chris Morris – creator of the paradigm-shifting comedy shows Brass Eye, Jam, The Day Today, On the Hour and Nathan Barley – decided to spend years researching the subject to see if he could pull it off for his debut feature.

The result was the beloved and quote-packed 2010 film Four Lions, which follows four bumbling wannabe jihadis as they plan to blow up the London marathon. A box office and critical hit, it was a film that focused on farce more than it did ferociousness.

Ten years on from its release, I caught up with Morris, his co-writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, Thick of It, Veep, Succession), producer Mark Herbert and stars of the film, Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay and Kayvan Novak, to hear about how it was all made.

INSPIRATION

Chris Morris (writer/director): The light-bulb moment for Four Lions was pretty dramatic, because it was the release of the build-up to what you might call a constipated filament. It suddenly burst into life. Since 9/11 I’d been running all the political shifts through my head. I was trying to find out the true engine of all this change and nervousness. I was reading Jason Burke’s book on the history of Al-Qaeda, and there was this unexpected discovery of funny moments.

The one that really struck me was these guys going to attack an American warship in Yemen. They assembled at the dockside at 3AM, loaded up their explosives, and the launcher sank. I just pictured that very vividly. There was a moment of farce, and I thought, ‘That's what it is.’ These people make mistakes like everyone else.

Plus, it counteracts the idea that these are people implacably opposed to everything we do in the West, relentlessly pursuing us all to the death. The reality is that the practitioners of this cause are composed of human frailty. Once you're looking at it through that lens, everything landed in place. Time after time I started to see these kinds of events, and they were shot through with human stupidity.

Mark Herbert (producer, Warp films): We’d worked with Chris on his short, My Wrongs, and I was excited about him directing. I wanted Warp to be the place that did Chris's debut film. I was in. Getting on board was a quick decision, but then getting it off the ground was a long slog.

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Photo: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

WRITING

Chris Morris: As soon as I realised I had a funny idea and that it was a group of guys – like a stag-do-gone-wrong – Sam and Jesse, in my mind, were standing there, grinning, waiting to jump in. They are experts in the school of male psychology, plus they have technical expertise and experience of comedy dialogue.

Sam Bain (Writer): We had a couple of meetings with Charlie Brooker and Chris about Nathan Barley series two, and he mentioned this idea. Chris is the kind of figure who sort of inspires people so much that the feeling was, ‘Yeah, whatever you want to do, I’m up for it.’ There wasn’t really much of a dilemma.

Jesse Armstrong (Writer): I had some anxiety about getting the tone right. However, it was evident that his level of research and depth of knowledge about the issues around the topic meant that a whole load of concerns were alleviated. He emanated a sense of confidence with the material that made us feel confident. It was obvious he was aiming for something that was intelligent and bold, but also sensitive.

Chris Morris: I spent years doing the research. I would be off chatting to people from Muslim communities in Gloucester, Blackburn and Halifax, and then just coming back with stories to tell them.

Jesse Armstrong: I remember endless visits to this office, sitting in uncomfortable chairs and having Chris talk for a long, long time. It felt like a university tutorial more than a normal writing room. But a funny one, with some weird, weird, weird stuff you're allowed to bring to the room. A very different tone to usual.

Chris Morris: We were modelling characters together, and we tried various models for the guys to get the dynamic right. The Beatles was actually a useful template, because you’ve got these very unique and disparate four characters. There was also a tangential connection to a lost Brass Eye sketch called the Paedo Pride March. It was more the texture of the idea, really. The funny thing about that sketch – which we rehearsed, but never filmed – was the tone of the little group of paedophiles who were organising the paedophile pride march. This kind of sad and disappointing tone to discover that, for the 14th night in a row, someone had pushed a turd through their letterbox. But that idea was a lot more abstract, and Four Lions was based more on this permanently moving conveyor belt of real life instances.

Sam Bain: After all the talking, Jesse and I wrote a first draft and Chris then went away and just rewrote it and rewrote it, which was fine by us, since it was his film.

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Riz Ahmed and Kayvan Novak. Photo: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

CHARACTERS

Chris Morris: The recorded conversations of jihadis were really something. Often, the night-time chat – when they’re going to sleep – was extraordinarily revealing. There was one where they were talking about this Bin Laden project, and where their hearts and minds were. One said the answer was in your heart and to listen to that, and the other other was like, “Well, right now my heart is more with ‘Lord of the Rings’_._” On another tape they were arguing between who was cooler: Bin Laden or Johnny Depp. These guys are not difficult to understand, but the whole narrative has always been that this is an incomprehensibly evil, foreign culture that is absolutely outside of our understanding.

Nigel Lindsay (Actor; Barry): Chris gave me a couple of ideas for Barry and I went off and did my own research. I based Barry on a guy who’d been the janitor at the Finsbury Park Mosque, where Abu Hamza, the hook man, was. He was a Cypriot and he’d been converted while he was there. He was extremely eloquent, but extremely stupid at the same time. He ended up getting six years. I had his voice in my head, although Chris said I sounded more like Ali G when we started, so I toned it down.

Chris Morris: There was a guy who’d been in the BNP and decided he wanted to beat Muslims in arguments, so he bought a copy of the Qur'an and accidentally converted himself. He became a highly pedantic, pro-Islamic caliphate-type character who used to go around universities giving talks about how the world should be under Islamic rule. That went into the formation of Barry.

Nigel Lindsay: Chris and I got a backstory together for Barry. Because you ask: why is he there? He's white, he's from London, everyone else is northern. We decided he'd been kicked out by his wife and was living in a shed at the bottom of the garden, and at night he'd sit in his shed and hear his wife moaning as she's having sex with her new boyfriend.

Riz Ahmed (Actor; Omar): I turned the film down initially. I’d just started out in that world, and done this film called Road to Guantanamo, about real-life situations taking place there, like torture. As a Muslim brown actor just graduating into the industry post-9/11, that was most of the jobs that were out there. I made the decision that I didn't want to do films that reinforced false and negative stereotypes, I wanted to do work that challenged stereotypes. The day we came back from the Berlin Film Festival - where Road to Guantanamo had screened - myself and the other actors were all illegally detained by intelligence officers, harassed and physically assaulted at Luton Airport. I kind of found myself in this post-9/11 circus. I recorded a track about it called “Post-9/11 Blues”, which got Chris's attention. It was totally in his wheelhouse of satirising stuff.

I didn't really know his work – I thought he was someone who pulls spoofs on people, like Ashton Kutcher or Noel Edmonds. I didn't realise what a legend he was, but that was probably for the best because we just struck up a friendship. We'd meet for a coffee every couple of months and I would download him on where my anxieties were as a socially and creatively engaged British Muslim. What I soon found out was that his knowledge of street-level British Muslim life outstripped mine. He knows his shit. A year down the line I got a script and he asked if I wanted to do it, but I was like: nah. He said it would be different and to trust him, that it was a comedy and not more stuff feeding into stereotypes. When I said yes I didn’t think anyone would even end up seeing it.

Kayvan Novak (Actor; Waj): When I auditioned, Chris told me my performance was way too big and that my accent was slightly cartoonish. He sent me some clips from the film Kes and asked me to look at that for tone. We spent some time in Bradford to get a sense of the banter between northern lads. There was no guy that Waj was based on entirely, but the closest person was a doorman at a strip club in Bradford. He had a bit of a friendly giant vibe to him.

Chris Morris: Kayvan had done some torrid research up in Bradford, that involved some kind of raging all-nighter trying to consume all the things I’d said were typical of the Bradford experience in one 24-hour session. He came back pretty wide-eyed. It was a night of debauchery.

GETTING IT OFF THE GROUND

Mark Herbert: Some members of my family thought I was crazy for doing it, thinking I was going to be kidnapped or something. I went to this New York pitching festival thing and, literally, people thought it was a hidden camera gag.

Chris Morris: Time and again the conversation about money was dull, because it was, “Yes, yes, yes – but actually we've had a conversation about it, and no.” It was a lot of just: keep going, trim your ambitions, and then just keep going. The Film Council was going to fund us, but they asked us to change the ending. The characters had to fail or something; they couldn’t go through with it. It wouldn’t be a film about what it’s about if they just went, ‘Ah, let’s not.’ The whole point is that you’re trying to live inside the heads of people who will go that far.

Mark Herbert: I had a couple of investors who said, “I really love the script, but I'm terrified.” I actually had some investors tell me that it was career suicide. I never lost faith in the project, but I questioned whether we'd ever get it made.

Jesse Armstrong: After a while, I do remember feeling like, ‘Fucking hell, is this ever going to happen?’

Chris Morris: We started a crowdfunding thing called Funding Mentalism that got over 2,000 responses. In the end we got a final bit of funding and didn’t have to ask those people [who had responded to the crowdfunder], but they made us think, ‘Oh, this is worth it.’

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Chris Morris on the set of 'Four Lions'. Photo: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

ON SET

Nigel Lindsay: We were all living in these appalling student digs together in Sheffield. When I got there, they were still building it – there was a concrete mixer outside my room. It was horrible. We had no changing rooms. Every time I go into a crappy caravan when I'm filming now, I think: it's not as bad as Four Lions.

Chris Morris: I think even the Ibis would have been pure luxury in comparison.

Kayvan Novak: We were always together – we lived together, we got driven to work together. It created a camaraderie that worked so well onscreen. It was a piss-take - a lot of banter. So when it comes to being on camera, you're already warmed up and ready to roll.

Nigel Lindsay: There were no egos on that set at all.

Riz Ahmed: Unfortunately, there weren't any egos on set. I prefer it when I can throw mine around a little bit. It was basically the same off-camera as on. Nigel would stay in character as Barry, and there was a lot of joking around. Kayvan can't turn it off – he's like that guy from Police Academy who makes all the noises. So many scenes, I couldn't get through with a straight face. The “widdle in my gob” scene, we were running out of time we had to reshoot it so many times.

Chris Morris: We didn't want disrupting on set. If you're recording as much sound on location as we were, it means you're committed to the live sound situation. A police siren or passing airplane can be a pain – or, worse, a person turning up with an airhorn because they read about you in the Daily Mail and don't like the idea of making a film about jihadis. I didn't want to be dealing with mischief makers or the press when we were really against the clock.

Nigel Lindsay: Every time we were filming outside, it never said “Four Lions by Chris Morris” on the slates. I think it was called “Boilerhouse”, and the director was Rodney Bun. We didn't get call sheets, we got party invitations with balloons on them, saying, “Please be at the sewage works at 6.30AM, bring a bottle.” Scripts were given back at the end of every day and shredded. I don't think I ever had a full script.

Mark Herbert: Even the vans we had, which would normally say things like “film and television services”, we put on fake signs pretending to be removal people. Paddy Considine happened to be up in Sheffield when this journalist got wind of us, so we got Paddy to come to set and give him an interview to divert the attention. We just had to be creative and on our toes. It’s quite hard being a complete secret when you've got to blow up fake sheep.

Chris Morris: There might have been some police questioning over a loud explosion we made in a field.

Nigel Lindsay: The police were called a few times. One time we were on a motorway bridge praying, and someone thought we were about to bomb something. Because the camera was hidden a lot of the time, people didn't always know we were filming. Chris would try to hide the cameras when filming in public. I've never been more scared of filming things in my life.

There was one scene where it was market day in Sheffield and I was hiding in a white van dressed as a Ninja Turtle, and on action I had to run into this market square and shout at this woman's tomatoes at her greengrocers’ stall – the plot being that I thought her tomatoes had been bugged by the CIA. She was the only person who knew we were filming. I was shitting myself. The cameras were hidden, so all people saw was this six-foot Ninja Turtle running down the street, screaming, “Fuck off!” at these tomatoes. The lady who ran the stall was laughing, so it wasn't usable. Chris told me, for the next take, to go and destroy the stall. I said, “Is it her stall?” “Yeah, it's her stall,” he said. I said, “Are you sure I should destroy it?” Then there was a long pause and he said... “She'll be compensated.” So I went back and smashed it to pieces, and she was so fucking angry. She couldn't believe it. It didn't even end up in the film.

Mark Herbert: There was one day that Riz couldn't do, and it was the day of the Sheffield half-marathon, so we couldn't re-stage that. I'm roughly the same height, so I was stupid enough to put on this Honey Monster costume. It was absolutely roasting. I went to play football afterwards and literally passed out.

Nigel Lindsay: Chris would sometimes shout things to us during takes, which no director has ever done with me before. There would be a line with someone asking me, “Are you serious about blowing up a mosque?” and Chris would shout to me, “Say, ‘I'm serious as beetroot.’ Or he'd shout, ‘Talk about rivers of milk.’”

Kayvan Novak: After we finished in Sheffield, we had a week in Spain to film the terror camp scenes that were supposed to be in Pakistan. Chris had got really ill and he was on his ass, but he got a flu shot and pushed through. We were at the airport at 4AM, flew at 6AM, then we got to the hotel in Spain and Chris is like, “Great, this is Javier and he's going to teach you how dismantle and put together an AK-47, so he's coming to your bedroom to do that.” We were like, “Mate, can't we just get a BLT on room service and have five hours’ sleep?” But no, we're assembling AK-47s from Javier the armorer, who doesn't speak any English."

Chris Morris: When we were filming in Spain, the guy from the art department had to take a fake rocket launcher through customs. We were stopped and searched and had our van emptied, but at the end of that exchange the customs officers were asking to have their photos taken with it. By that point I was wiped out. Myself and the designer were knackered, and we had to get up at 2AM to catch a flight to go and reccy Spain. On the way there we’d both fully planned out how we were going to get out of the car at the other end and then just run away. My weird brain was saying, ‘It’ll be OK, they’ll let you off with doing this.’ And then you catch your own brain and ask, ‘Well, who is they?’ It’s my film.

Nigel Lindsay: Chris worked so hard. We'd do full days and then he'd go off scouting for locations at the end of it, or get us to shoot some more martyr videos. I used to look for wires in the back of his head. One day we were filming in the Peak District – by this stage we’d been filming every day for five weeks, getting up at 5.30AM. We were in complete camouflage gear, and the first thing we had to do was roll down a big hill in full army gear. I rolled into a patch of stinging nettles and my whole face blew up. It rained all day and then, at 7PM, when we were supposed to be finishing, there was a river and Chris said, “Right, I think it would be a good idea if you jumped in.” I'd had enough by that point and just said: “Why don't you fucking jump in?” He said, “Oh, OK,” and jumped straight in. He wouldn't even have an umbrella over him on set. He led by example, and you'd do anything for him.

Kayvan Novak: We'd shoot a scripted version and then Chris would be like, “OK, now let's do the Disney version.” So we'd goof around and do something ridiculous. He allowed us to be as indulgent as we liked. There's one line that I improvised that I’m quite fond of: “Fuck mini Babybel.” I said it off the back of Riz's speech about the Taste the Difference cheddar.

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Photo: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

THE FINISHED FILM

Chris Morris: It's a deliberately rough-looking film, partly because that was the characteristic of the research footage, and also because it's characteristic of that world – there's a lot of homemade footage.

Sam Bain: I'm very fond of when they’re singing [“Dancing in the Moonlight”] in the car. We auditioned a couple of songs for that. The other was “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis, but I always wanted Toploader.

Riz Ahmed: I didn’t have a clue if it had worked. The beauty of independent film is that there’s no pressure going in. You don’t have a sense of expectation; you don’t presume there’s going to be an audience for it. We didn’t have a clue if it would land.

Sam Bain: You do have a gut instinct about these things, but it can often be wrong. It's really hard to know – that's the million-dollar question on any project, because no one knows if anything is going to work. I felt like Chris had a special something, though.

Chris Morris: I didn't have music in mind for the closing credits initially. The Aphex Twin music, “Avril 14th”, is the product of starting to see the film for what it actually is, as opposed to the experience of gathering the visual material. That's when your brain starts engaging and thinks, ‘Well, you need a melancholia coda here.’ Richard James [Aphex Twin] was brilliant. He re-recorded it because he'd sold the rights of the recording. He had it on some old ancient thing – it might have even been on a floppy disk, or something – so he dug that up. He played the piano part and recorded it with mics set up in various different parts of the room, and then he ran it forwards and backwards and in all these various different sequences. Then he sent them over. What a bloody geezer. Really good bloke.

THE PREMIERES

Riz Ahmed: At Sundance, people came out of that screening looking like they’d been to a funeral. People were coming up to me and being really earnest, saying, like, “That was devastating, just devastating.” I was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t think people get it.’

Kayvan Novak: American audiences had trouble with the accents, I think. It's probably quite impenetrable to hear these northern blokes talking about bargain buckets and Boots, the chemists.

Nigel Lindsay: There was silence in the cinema in America. Afterwards, a woman behind me said, “I’m so glad you were laughing, because I couldn't understand what they were saying, so I just laughed when you laughed.”

Sam Bain: Sundance wasn't great, to be honest. People seemed a little bit unsure whether they were allowed to laugh. It was a bit of a muted response.

Jesse Armstrong: The reception in America didn’t have the warmth that we subsequently felt when we had the UK premiere in Bradford. That Bradford screening was memorably, like, ‘Fuck, this is gonna be alright. This works, people get it.'

Chris Morris: Bradford was a real test of the film’s authenticity, so I had some wind in my sails after that.

THE AFTERMATH

Chris Morris: A miniature version of what we feared may happen a year before release happened a week before release. In classic style, somebody who hadn't seen the film decided to contact the lawyer who represented one of the families of a victim of the 7/7 bombing in London, and asked them, “Do you think somebody should be making jokes about suicide bombers?” Absolutely understandably, some of them said: that doesn't sound funny at all. If the question is framed that way, without having seen the film, how else are you going to respond? A little campaign developed and they were going to blockade cinemas that were showing it, but it never really developed into anything. Due to its popularity, they had to start screening it at more cinemas across the country.

Kayvan Novak: We had to do media training for the release of the film. I knew the film was funny, and I knew the heart of it, but I also knew people would see it was a comedy about suicide bombers and say, “How could you possibly make that film?” Or, “I refuse to find that subject matter funny.” Any joke has to be executed skilfully and sensitively, and with the talent of Chris, Sam and Jesse, that was done. People underestimate how moving the film is – it's not just a goofy film. We're invested in these guys emotionally and we don't want them to commit this heinous act.

Riz Ahmed: I remember going back up to Bradford for something on the train, and I was minding my own business, and before I knew it the whole carriage was just full of people standing up shouting, “Rubber dingy rapids, bruv!” I’ve encountered people all over the world who love this. People in Pakistan love this film, man. There is so much love for it out there. It’s considered a classic.

Nigel Lindsay: I got stopped in the street recently by four different Muslim police officers because of Four Lions. People really, really love the film.

Kayvan Novak: It's a film that is always playing in my head. I know it so well, it's always there. I have a poster on the wall in my kitchen, so it's never far away from me. It's probably the most special film I’ve ever been in. Four Lions is number one for me.

Riz Ahmed: I feel proud to have been a part of it. It still stands up, and seems to be one of those films that's just had this kind of consistent word of mouth reputation for over a decade. I don't think people would have allowed the film to be made today. They would say, “Why is a white middle class guy making a film like this?” I think it potentially would have been shouted down before people had even seen it, and people on Twitter would have torn it apart. In this kind of hyper-woke tyranny of Twitter, I don't know if a film like Four Lions would have found an audience. I think that's something worth thinking about. Chris involved Muslims in every part of the process. He wanted to get it right. I totally subscribe to the idea of “nothing about us without us”, and even though I’m an advocate for that, I think it’s worth noting that probably the most beloved film about British Muslims, by British Muslims, is made by Chris Morris.

@DanielDylanWray