'This isn't a paranoid future nightmare': the explosive return of Chris Morris

The satirist’s new film was inspired by the FBI’s attempts to manufacture terrorists. He talks about the problem with white liberals – and his duty to provoke

Chris Morris first saw the reports on Sky News. The FBI had arrested an army planning “full ground war” on the United States. A massive jihadi battalion, trained in Miami but backed by al-Qaida, was promising to “kill all the devils we can” – starting with Chicago’s most famous skyscraper, Sears Tower.

That was in 2006. Two years later, Morris got a tipoff from someone involved in the trial that the case could be “a bit whiffy”. In fact, it was a colossal stitch-up. The bureau’s biggest counterterrorism scalp of recent times was, says Morris, “all a huge lie, before it was called fake news. Totally manufactured nonsense.”

Six broke builders in Liberty City – the impoverished suburb of Miami where Moonlight was shot – had fallen under the sway of a local preacher. Narseal Batiste’s cut-and-paste philosophy involved Haitian Catholicism, Judaism, karate – and a dash of Islam. He mouthed off but lacked the funds, foresight or any particular desire to take things further.

So the FBI paid informants, including a convicted rapist, to pose as emissaries from al-Qaida and egg Batiste on to accept $50,000 with the promise he would spend it on guns and explosives. He never did. “Instead they wanted work boots and overalls, because they were construction workers, then ceremonial swords and horses to lead a protest to the governor’s house about living conditions in Liberty City.”

Morris chucks up his hands, still agog, 13 years later. “Their idea was to push Sears Tower into a lake and swamp Chicago with a tidal wave. None of which is remotely possible. They might as well have wanted to invade Washington DC on hippos.”

‘Committed to wallop’ … Morris on the set of The DayShall Come.
‘Committed to wallop’ … Morris on the set of The Day Shall Come. Photograph: PR

Only one of the seven had any familiarity with the tower. They had no weapons or contact with anyone not being bankrolled – and scripted – by the FBI. The deputy director himself admitted any plans were “more aspirational than operational”. Eventually, five of them were sentenced to a total of 44 years in prison.

Next month sees the release of The Day Shall Come, the movie Morris made after being inspired by the case, along with the 400 or so similar ones he has come across since 9/11. He estimates one arrest is made every three weeks of a suspect the FBI has coached into declaring terrorist intent. “It’s harder to capture real terrorists than it is to manufacture your own. And as someone at the Department of Justice said to me: ‘We’re not going to stop a system unless it doesn’t work.’”

The film’s hero is Moses (Marchant Davis), who runs a community farm and preaches peaceful revolution – aided by dinosaurs, summonable by trumpet – to a congregation of four, including his wife and young daughter. But a local informant (Kayvan Novak) shops him to a needy FBI agent (Anna Kendrick), eager to impress her boss (Denis O’Hare), himself in need of a high-profile victory. With the aid of a fake sheikh, a literal gift horse for Moses (with whom he talks), and some empty uranium canisters, a case is constructed. Lives are at stake. More pressingly, so are promotions.

Save for directing a few episodes of Veep, this is Morris’s first project since 2010’s Four Lions. He says that he is not concerned the films might be seen as too similar, that only the dopey would confuse the two. “They relate only in terms of the Wikipedia heading you might lazily use. Four Lions is about a group of terrorists and the flawed male psychology of the typical bunch of guys that constitutes that kind of cell. This is about a group of people the government decides are terrorists. About governments betraying citizens in the name of some bogus war on terror, flawed in its conception and execution.”

This is also Morris’s first full interview for almost a decade. Today, the most mysterious man in British comedy is wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a checked shirt that, later, he will suddenly unbutton and remove. He has ridden to his agent’s office in Fitzrovia from Brixton, where he lives with his literary agent wife and two sons, on his own trusty steed: a white racer with brass bell and vast panniers. The bike is his own friend and confidant, “partly because it doesn’t talk back”.

Morris has the alpha confidence of having been the cleverest man in the room for most of his 57 years, and probably the tallest, even without the ringlets on top. A lean wolf dressed as an off-duty headmaster, he also has the longest fingers I’ve ever seen, which rap the table for emphasis or amazement or exasperation. It gets quite a hammering.

Make no mistake: The Day Shall Come is different from Four Lions. Like much of his TV work, that film was an audacious mockery of known bogeymen, albeit slightly more deadly than the claptrap current affairs shows of The Day Today and Brass Eye, or the hipsters of Nathan Barley.

Morris n Brass Eye.
Morris in Brass Eye. Photograph: C4

The Day Shall Come, however, is a further departure: an imagined riff on an institutional injustice that – by Morris’s own admission – has taken him 10 years to gen up on. I loved it. It has a wallop rare in cinema today; when you have done the immersive research, he says, “you’re committed to wallop”.

The films he prizes highest – Come and See, The Battle of Algiers, Son of Saul – involve “quite insane levels of commitment. False button-pushing has to be resisted as an article of faith. Resist full sentimentality! Set fire to the screen!”

But does The Day Shall Come assume too much knowledge on the part of the audience? Reaction so far seems split between those with recognition of the situation and those without. A black audience in Philadelphia, Morris reports, responded with nods. “‘Yeah, the law is a mincing machine, they’ll take advantage of any frailty you’ve got.’” They indulged Moses and “laughed across an icy divide” at the FBI. “You think: ‘Oh, this actually is the firing range. We’re sitting in it.’”

Morris’s core audience, though, has exhibited a little resistance. Perhaps such people only like to be challenged so far? “Oh God, white liberals are terrible! They’re awful! There’s a sort of feeling that they’ve done the due diligence on their own conscience and if somebody comes in and says something else bad about them, that person must be wrong.

“Of course, I’m talking about my friends here. It’s a sort of privileged position whereby your conscience is allowed to operate in a particular way, without fracturing your worldview. Then they go and have a bracing latte.”

Morris has the flippant strictness of someone who has done his homework and is unsurprised you haven’t. He didn’t feel awkward being a white man telling a black man’s story, he says, “because I felt the story had rather rudely impinged itself on me. It was a colour blind inquiry; I was trying to hunt down a lie. And I ended up looking at a system where mainly white people are manipulating mainly black and brown people. That’s the way the gradient is shaped. And people were extremely welcoming, despite my sort of alien appearance.”

He says that he never considered making a documentary, much as he delights and despairs in the zany details of the real-life cases: the FBI informant sent to infiltrate a Californian mosque who so overdid it, the mosque reported him to the FBI; the fake imam the bureau devised to try and radicalise a Chicago carjacker whose own imam denounced violence. “They made up their own ideological godfather!”

‘Betraying citizens’ … a scene from The Day Shall Come.
‘Betraying citizens’ … a scene from The Day Shall Come. Photograph: Publicity Image

No wonder people often laugh when they are being arrested. “It’s so strongly against their sense of reality. They’ve been living in a Truman Show existence, and then they’ve bumped into the wall.”

Yet he still insisted his film be fiction. “You have to be seductive. There’s a universal story at the heart of this film that’s quite hard to ignore. It doesn’t mean it’s going to work. But what can you do? You have to point things out. And if you run into a room and say: anybody who doesn’t agree is a fucking idiot, you’ve elected to preach to the converted.”

He swigs his coffee – black americano, not bracing latte – and gives the table a breather. “But I may be talking old-fashioned nonsense language. Because the way to persuade people might be to measure what they think, treat them like a Skinner animal: put some stimulus in their way that makes them behave differently.”

Spend two hours with Morris and you start to realise that, unlike most people in film or TV or comedy, or even journalism or politics, he is a scientist. – one who happens to like working in the humanities. Raised by two doctors, Morris studied zoology at Bristol, and has essentially been practising it ever since. His mind is as much analytical as imaginative. Institutional irrationality annoys, as do non-contextual metrics and linguistic slippage. At one point I ask if he thinks we need “seismic change”. He explains that the word only applies to earthquakes and volcanoes, so he would have to be “a certain kind of extreme water to suggest that’s what we need”.

Such keen observational skills might also explain the sometimes messianic impression he leaves. It’s a bit misleading: Morris is perfectly nice and kind and calm as he completely wipes the floor with you.

It was during his time at Bristol that he was introduced to operant conditioning, the system pioneered by the American behavioural psychologist BF Skinner, who stuck rats and hermit crabs in (separate) boxes, exposed them to variant forces and recorded their reactions. Morris has de facto been doing this to us for decades. Think what we can still learn from, say, the celebrities who appeared on Brass Eye’s drugs episode and Paedogeddon! special, from the media fallout and the reaction of others to what has or has not happened since to reporting, witch-hunting and moral panic.

Actual human-sized Skinner machines are around already, Morris thinks. We’re just kidding ourselves that we’re not trapped in them. The other day, an AA man showed Morris the snazzy monitoring kit in his van, which even recorded how long before a junction he indicated. “I said: ‘Isn’t that creepy?’ He said: ‘Not really. My daughter’s just passed her driving test and I’ve got half-price insurance for her. And all I have to do is install a black box recorder in the car and a camera on the dashboard that measures exactly how she drives and the character of her facial movements. As long as she stays within the parameters set by the insurance company, her premium stays low.’”

Four Lions.
Four Lions (2010). Photograph: Publicity image from film company

Soon, such tech will run in real time, thinks Morris. “So any change in her facial alignments will be picked up and a friendly warning on the dashboard will say: ‘You’re looking a bit tired, there’s a Costa three miles on the right. If you pop in, your insurance level stays low.

“Suddenly, you’ve got a Skinner machine that will nudge you in the direction that it wants you to behave. And we just happily ignore it! Or think it’s amusing. The problem with Black Mirror is it’s set in the future. But this isn’t a paranoid future nightmare. It’s just casually what’s happening in the name of being helpful.”

Morris uses a 2G phone. It’s not that he’s particularly worried about being bugged, as he just assumes we all are anyway. What concerns him is the casual way we “volunteer data in the interest of some convenience we don’t really need, which is probably going to come back and bite you on the arse much harder than the FBI would”.

He sighs. People are beasts of instinct, not logic. The seriously poor residents of Liberty City – like those men stung by the FBI – voted Trump because “people’s sense of what should happen is very, very driven by exactly where they are, and what they think about the status quo. We may look upon it as rash or self-damaging, but it doesn’t feel like that.” Plus, if one person thinks they might have found an escape route, the rest of the tribe will cluster. “We were a bubble species long before the internet.”

Touring the world with Four Lions, says Morris, confirmed his view that “every human being is slightly racist and every nation has a different way of being racist”. Australia especially so, he thinks. “When did they repeal the White Australia Act? 1975? It’s like a time-slip.” America is “raw” because of its recent slavery; Britain’s racism is stranger, more complicated, but no less dismaying.

The shirt has come off, replaced by a neon cycling jacket for the trip home. Talk turns inevitably to Brexit and Boris Johnson, on whom Morris is reluctant to pass judgment because – ever the scientist – he hasn’t observed him up close. Still, he does suspect that today’s leaders are “giving signals that allow people to walk out into the street and shout their worst thoughts. When, actually, you should have just kept it to yourself, mate.”

And, just in case any of those white liberals happen to be reading: this means you. “You have very, very bien pensant liberals who are just bloody racist about Muslims. People saying: ‘Well, I think they should dress more carefully, because otherwise they’ll make you feel awkward on the tube and you don’t know what’s under those garments and they’re weird anyway.’” The table gets a final smack. “Come on, guys! We can do better than that.”

The Day Shall Come opens in the US on 27 September and in the UK on 11 October. An Australian release has not yet been set.


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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