When crack comedy-writing duo Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain got into a room with Brass Eye provocateur Chris Morris, to discuss how to make a comedy about home- grown Islamist suicide bombers, no lines were drawn, and "anything", says Armstrong, when we meet in London, "was up for grabs".
They were clear, however, where their target lay: "None of us wanted to write a film ridiculing Islam or Muslims," Bain says. "But we did want to write a film ridiculing terrorists." Or, his writing partner interjects, suggesting "that there was a ridiculous nature to some of their actions".
They "weren't afraid" of offending Muslims, Bain claims (a few days before Islamic extremists make thinly veiled threats against South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone); that just wasn't the point. And anyway, he and Armstrong, whose output includes Smack the Pony, That Mitchell and Webb Look, Old Guys, and the wonderful Peep Show, while Armstrong also worked on The Thick of It and co-wrote the Oscar-nominated spin-off In the Loop, are not writers who have made offence their stock-in-trade.
"We do not go around thinking, 'What's going to prick the bubble of pomposity of bourgeois society by pulling down our pants and showing them our thing they don't want to see?'" Armstrong laughs. "'We've shocked you now' is not really an impulse we're interested in."
Nor, they insist, is it Morris's modus operandi. He, nonetheless, became Public Enemy No 1 in some sections of the media, in 2001, following a Brass Eye special about child sex abuse called "Paedogeddon!". Knee-jerk reactionaries accused Morris of turning the issue into a sick joke, when, in fact, his real subject was the media-generated hysteria and moral panic that had made any kind of reasoned public discussion about paedophiles almost impossible. The backlash against the programme merely confirmed its thesis.
"Chris just follows his nose," says Armstrong, "and sometimes his nose goes, 'You know what? Everyone is going on about paedophiles and it's slightly mental', and sometimes it goes, 'Everyone's going on about terrorism and there's a side of it people are missing'."
According to Morris, terrorist activity can often contain elements of farce – petty behaviour, bungling, egocentricity etc – even if the end results are frequently devastating. His research, he has said, revealed a "reality [that] played against type. Then the penny dropped. A cell of terrorists is a bunch of blokes. A small group of fired-up lads planning cosmic war from a bedsit – not a bad pressure cooker for jokes".
This was perfect territory for Bain and Armstrong, whose work on Peep Show (it happens in The Thick of It, too) deals with "small-group dynamics". Moreover, they were fascinated by the fact that a lot of the momentum within terrorist cells, according to specialists, is "caused by not hatred towards the outside", says Armstrong, "but love towards fellow members of the group. . . We always knew that we could write what it's like to be men together, bickering, but also having this fondness. So I think that was a good route in for us".
For the writers, the opportunity to work with Morris was thrilling. He had made a huge impact on them, through groundbreaking programmes such as The Day Today and Brass Eye, even before they'd got into writing themselves, so "we were quite star struck and probably would have said yes to anything", Armstrong admits, smiling. Apparently, Morris had a number of projects on his mind when they first met, of which Four Lions was one. He talked a lot about Conrad's novel The Secret Agent, a seminal literary treatment of terrorism set in 19th-century London, during their early discussions, Armstrong recalls, and "I think he was just intrigued about whether this could be done".
Nobody, including Morris, had the answer at his fingertips. Consequently, "the writing process was us sitting around coming up with a solution to how we could write a film which isn't..." Bain pauses, "you know: wrong. There's all different ways it could be wrong: unfunny, too offensive, too inoffensive. I think all of our energies went into trying to get the balance right".
Given the sensitivity of the subject, did they self-censor more than they normally would? "Self-censorship is the biggest enemy to anything creative," Bain opines, "and I don't think we've ever done that." The advantage of having a writing partner - partners in the case of Four Lions – adds Armstrong, "and this probably happens in Peep Show, too, is that the contract between Sam and I is, 'Write anything, write whatever you want'. So you don't self-censor. But, as the writer, you know that somebody else is going to look at it, and you go, 'You know what? Tonally, if we do this material, it's not going to work'". "All we need to censor is the shit," chimes in Bain. "And believe me, there's a lot."
The discussion phase on the film lasted for around two years before they set to work on the first draft of the screenplay in the summer of 2007. By this point, they knew "there was more than enough stuff for a movie that's not blunt-edged; that's sharp-edged but also funny", says Armstrong. "It would have been very terrifying to go into a development process where you had to write a film in six months, a suicide bomber comedy, that's sketchy."
Extensive research undertaken by Morris, in the form of court transcripts, books, articles, and personal contact with people inside Muslim communities, gave the writers the freedom to "play more", but still stay within the realms of plausibility. "So it was sort of us trying to dumb down his research into the sort of people we could find writeable, in a way," says Armstrong.
At one point, they thought about making the leader of the film's Sheffield-based cell like Mohamed Atta, one of the key figures in the 9/11 attacks, but "we never really cracked that, because he just seemed so unlikeable and unsympathetic", says Bain. Instead, they made Omar, played by Riz Ahmed (The Road to Guantanamo, Shifty), "more of a human being", with a wife and child who both support his quest for martyrdom.
Although there are arguably echoes of Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 London bombings, Armstrong says that in the end they "shied away" from identifying any of their characters too closely with real-life counterparts. "But we talked about every little nugget we could get of what people were really like, because it was what it had felt like to get to the heart of something so unknowable of why you would do that. It felt like everything was valuable to know."
Unlike Charlie Chaplin, who lampooned Hitler in The Great Dictator not knowing what he was really capable of, and later expressed regret over the film, Bain and Armstrong obviously knew exactly what terrorists can do. They decided early on, therefore, that the film's denouement must not pull any punches, and then "reverse-engineered" the rest of the screenplay up to that point. Armstrong suggests that not to have faced the truth would have portrayed terrorists "totally as idiots, which they're not. [But] some of them are, and it would have been a cop-out not to engage fully that some of them are idiotic, some of them are deluded, some of them are psychotic, some of them are nihilistic – that there's a whole range".
Thus, Four Lions puts a human face on people who are usually simply demonised – a way, ultimately, of not having to deal with them. It makes us care about Omar and his crew of wannabe martyrs, but does not condone their actions or ideology. Morris's research is evident in the detail, usefully reminding us that Muslims are not a monolithic group, and through the character of Omar's peaceful, traditionalist brother, that not all Muslims are potential suicide bombers.
So far, reactions to Four Lions have been mainly positive. Its recent premiere in Bradford went off without controversy, and "it feels", says Armstrong, "like people who have seen the film think it's funny [and that] it's tonally in the right area". I suggest that perhaps, through laughter, it can create a space where people feel more relaxed about talking freely about domestic terrorism and its roots, and help to counter the culture of fear and ignorance surrounding the issue.
"I remember watching "Paedogeddon!"," says Bain, "and going, 'Oh my God, thank God someone's released the pressure valve and we can all laugh at this, a bit.' I think there's something culturally healthy about that. Hopefully, this film might achieve that a bit with terrorism."
Of course, there will still likely be some who see the film's humanisation (an absurd concept, Bain argues, because "we can't humanise anyone who isn't an alien") of terrorists as a step too far; and others who will no doubt claim that it is simply too soon to be making a comedy that implicitly references, for instance, 7/7 and the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes.
Time will tell how the film is received when it reaches a wider public next month. Armstrong and Bain, though, are satisfied that Four Lions, which they ultimately regard as an auteur work by Morris, stands up to scrutiny.
"There's a whole bunch of things in the lives of these terrorists and their plots and stratagems which are funny," says Armstrong. "And then there's a whole lot of stuff to do with terrorism that is not funny at all. I don't think we try and make the stuff that isn't funny, funny." He understands if anyone who has been closely involved in a real act of terrorism doesn't want to see the film. "However, I feel like I could justify it to anybody. I think that's sort of important to anybody involved with it, isn't it?"
'Four Lions' opens on 7 May
For further reading: Disgusting Bliss: the Brass Eye of Chris Morris by Lucian Randall (Simon & Schuster)Reuse content