British Comedy Hero Chris Morris on 'The Day Shall Come,' Making Satire "With Consequences"
In a rare interview, the man behind some of the U.K.'s most influential and incendiary comedy discusses his long-awaited follow-up to 'Four Lions' and shifting his relocating skewer to U.S. shores.
“I think if you were a fan of Steely Dan…then actually I’m doing pretty well,” says Chris Morris, jokily comparing his disappointingly less-than-prolific recent output to that of the American jazz rockers, who had a 20-year gap between albums seven and eight. (Although – in fairness – 12 of those were spent disbanded.)
“Friends of mine will do three things in a year, and I’ll think, I wish I could have some of that,” he adds. “But everyone works differently. All you know from the subjective position is: is something interesting, and is it ready yet.”
Thankfully — for fans of the writer/director, a man hailed as an icon in U.K. comedy circles having been behind some of its most influential and incendiary satire, and someone who perfected the art of Fake News long before Trump got his hands on Twitter (or before social media even existed) — Morris does have something interesting. And it’s ready.
Nine years on from his directorial feature debut Four Lions, a fanatical farce about a group of hapless, incompetent English suicide bombers (a film laced with one-liners such as “Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic”), his long-awaited follow-up The Day Shall Come is finally complete.
And it’s The Day Shall Come — which has just bowed to critical acclaim at SXSW — that has forced the famously un-famous 56-year-old to briefly venture into the limelight, granting The Hollywood Reporter something of a rare interview (one of just a handful he’s given across his entire career).
"He discards every tired way of doing something," says Armando Iannucci of his former collaborator to THR, explaining the prolonged pause between Morris' projects. “I get a feeling that he can’t commit to the joke or the script until he knows every element is as honest as it can be. He’ll take a subject and treat in way never before done with such commitment.”
It was Iannucci — now better known as the man behind Veep — with whom Morris teamed up more than a quarter century ago to craft the benchmark-setting BBC spoof news show The Day Today.
Fronted by Morris’ slick-haired and comically pompous anchor, the 1994 series mashed together absurd headlines ("NATO Annulled After Delegate Swallows Treaty," "Fist-Headed Man Destroys Church") with equally absurd graphics in an almost prophetic manner. The show also served as a TV launchpad for Steve Coogan’s most famous creation, Alan Partridge (who recently returned in a new BBC series).
But it was Morris' notorious 1997 follow-up that would ensure legendary status and mark the former zoology major's emergence as the U.K.’s provocateur-in-chief.
Over just six often-quoted episodes, his current affairs magazine parody Brass Eye blazed a trail of destruction through the publicity-hungry celebrity class, duping numerous figures into endorsing fictitious campaigns (one famously against the “made up drug” Cake, the farcical dangers of which were even mentioned in parliament by one unsuspecting politician).
Charlie Brooker — then an emerging cult figure for his TVGoHome website and long before Black Mirror was a twinkle in his darkly cynical eye — joined the writing team for Brass Eye’s 2001 “special,” still considered the most daring piece of commissioning in British broadcasting history. Just 30 minutes in length, it would prompt a record 2,000 complaints to Channel 4 and see Morris’ name plastered across the U.K. tabloids.
Entitled "Paedogeddon!," the one-off lampooned the media’s then moral panic over pedophilia, a subject matter few would dare go within a mile of (one online commentator suggested Morris had “balls like a couple of cast-iron watermelons”).
Among those duped into appearing was Phil Collins, who offered his endorsement of the fake charity Nonce Sense, and radio DJ Neil Fox, who recorded a video in which he confidently declared that "pedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do you and me."
Elsewhere, bogus CCTV footage tracked a pedophile roaming the streets disguised as a school, while a — genuine — focus group nodded in agreement at fictitious plans to insert a nut-size implant in the rectum of offenders that expanded "to the size of a 42-inch color television set" on hearing a child’s voice.
Brooker — who would later team with Morris on the cult 2005 comedy drama Nathan Barley, which tore into a hipster culture that was yet to exist — wrote for the sketch about JLb-8, an Eminem-style rapper, played, as per usual, by Morris (with backwards cap and doll attached face-first to his crotch), who dated children. Simon Pegg — now a household name thanks to Star Trek and Mission: Impossible — showed up later as a militant pro-pedophilia activist.
"Unspeakably sick!" screamed the Daily Mail, while The Sun asked if Morris had created "the sickest TV ever," both papers highlighting the sort of hysteria he had been ridiculing. (It was also pointed out that the Mail’s outrage had landed around the same time it published photos of "bikini princesses," and British royals, Beatrice and Eugenie, aged 12 and 11 at the time).
Brass Eye would help lay the groundwork for future comics like Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Ali G and recent Who Is America? owe much to the subversive style honed by Morris, while many of his former collaborators have gone on to become recognizable, sought-after names in the entertainment industry.
But it’s Morris — thanks to his 90s TV credits, practically nonexistent public persona and increasingly infrequent output — who commands a near mythical status above British comedians, akin to a mischievous satirical sprite who appears out of nowhere once in a while, creates havoc and vanishes without a trace.
"I seem to remember saying something like that — that I just want to pop up now and again, but that was not the operating plan at all. I just thought that those are the people I like, the people who go away and come back,” he smiles. “You don’t think, I’m going in the dark. It’s not like you bump into Armando and there’s this strange Blake-like luminescence bouncing off him…he’s a very gray shadow of a man!”
Thanks to The Day Shall Come, the light should start shining back on Morris.
Produced by The Lion and Widows banner See-Saw Films alongside his Four Lions backer Film4, the film follows a trail of humor, no less fraught-with-danger than its predecessor, again looking at the war on terror, only this time relocating the satirical skewer to the U.S. and Homeland Security.
At it center is Moses (newcomer Marchánt Davis), a penniless, mentally unstable Miami preacher with some madcap revolutionary dreams that aren’t going to be realized anytime soon (he has an army of four and has banned guns from his ramshackle, debt-ridden mission).
The local FBI branch, however, is in need of a big hit to improve its reputation, and Moses’ harmless radical is suddenly seen by agent Kendra Glock (Anna Kendrick) as a perfect target in the war of terror, if only he could be coaxed — via a couple of dodgy informants and a $50,000 donation — into doing something they could arrest him for.
The film is awash in classic Morris lunacy, from the "Make Warheads From Cookie Dough" cover story on the (genuine) al-Qaida magazine Inspire to the Jihadi hopeful whose irrational fear of the number five prevents him from calling the mobile number needed to set off a (fake) bomb. And it’s laced with his punchy dialog (“Black targets are no longer cool,” says one FBI operative. “Cops have fucked the optics.”).
But behind the comedy lurk some eye-opening realities. “Based on 100 true stories,” it declares in the opening credits.
“It’s actually more than that, but 100 trips off the tongue easily,” claims Morris, adding that his initial inspiration was a startling 2006 news story about a religious army caught planning to blow up Chicago’s Sears Tower.
“It turned out that this army was seven impoverished construction workers planning to ride into Chicago on horses,” says Morris. “They didn’t have any money, didn’t have any guns and didn’t have any horses.”
Morris began to poke around, discovering that an FBI informant, purporting to be an al-Qaida agent, had been involved as part of an operation to give the group — which he says merely wanted to complain about conditions in the projects — $50,000 to do “something bigger,” something like destroy a building. On their arrest, Morris claims both the FBI and the targets were laughing at the situation, yet after three trials, five of the seven were convicted for a total of 43 years.
“I thought this must be the exception, but dug a bit deeper and found that it was actually becoming a standard operation for the FBI,” says Morris, blaming the “hit” the bureau took after 9/11, plus other — more mundane — factors, such as budget levels and annual performance reviews.
The seeds of a Morris-style farce had been sown, and he threw himself into several years of typically fearless research. He hung out in FBI stations, met operatives, informants, those who had turned their back on the bureau, those who had gone on the raids and — of course — many of those who had been targeted by such stings (one of which saw $250,000 offered).
“It just struck me that the real thing seems mystifying, puzzling, but then you find out that it’s sane,” he says. “So you think, well, if something that seems mad has sane rationale and still ends up looking mad, that’s a really interesting thing to look at. We’ve got something!”
Like Four Lions, Brass Eye and most things Morris, The Day Shall Come came together under a thick black veil of mystery.
First hinted at as unnamed project on a Film4 press release in early 2016, the film remained entirely under the radar until a leak in November 2017 that revealed the cast (assisted by an Instagram post from Kendrick). But there was still no clue as to the plot or subject matter.
Attempts to find out more from the producers — and even previous Morris collaborators — proved fruitless (Simon Blackwell, who wrote for Four Lions, told THR in 2017 that Morris had an “elite troop of killers” working for him).
Given the FBI-focused nature of his film, Morris claims that much of this was necessary, as he had hoped to shoot in the U.S. (in the end his team went to the Dominican Republic, which stood in for Florida). But he admits his clandestine style has become “self-fulfilling” and “very useful.”
“You don’t have to answer for something before you’ve discovered it yourself,” he notes. “It’s easier to describe something after you’ve made it.”
Now that it's ready, Morris describes The Day Shall Come as a “comedy with consequences,” which he says is the only way of making comedy — "otherwise you might as well fuck off and get a proper job!"
"If you’ve got something where it’s ridiculous, but the ridiculousness tells you something, and you can make a story in which one ridiculous step leads to the next, which leads to the next, then at some point you’re going to call in the consequences,” he explains. “You’re building something.”
Given the current state of the world, where ridiculousness appears to scream from every direction, Morris surely has other projects in the pipeline. Naturally — and perhaps understandably — he’s coy about revealing any next steps (although he admits, as the son of two doctors in 1970s rural Britain, he hasn’t been able to work out his black-and-white autobiographical "Roma puzzle" yet).
“There are always things sitting like old marmalade on the back burner, and you have a look at those and see how they’re going and sometimes they’ve developed a wonderful bloom of penicillin,” he jokes, before correcting himself. “That’s probably not accurate. You probably can’t grow penicillin on marmalade.”
The U.S. centric nature of The Day Shall Come should find Morris a new audience across the Atlantic, an audience eager to sample his unique strain of satirical penicillin.
But for those worried about what they might find, Iannucci has some words of comfort.
“You’ll spend some time asking yourself, ‘Should I be laughing at that?,’" he tells THR. "And then you'll go, ‘Yes, because it was done properly.'"