Nine years after writing and directing his first feature film, the provocative terrorist comedy Four Lions, Chris Morris is back with another scathing political satire. The Day Shall Come tackles the world of FBI counter-terrorism stings, with federal agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) trying to bring down a radical militia leader, Moses (Marchánt Davis), and his followers in Miami. The only problem? Moses is about as threatening as the flock of chickens he’s raising on his rented urban farm, and his weapon of choice is a toy crossbow, not an AK-47.
The story of Kendra’s attempts to set Moses and his men up so she can take them out was inspired by true stories of similar operations, in which government law enforcement agencies identified and arrested “terrorists” using plans of their own creation. The day after the film’s premiere at SXSW, Morris spoke with us about watching the movie with an audience for the first time, his creative process, and what he learned while researching The Day Shall Come.
How do you feel the premiere went last night?
Beforehand, I knew (SXSW) was the right place to do it. And it’s amazing what happens if you’ve only seen a movie in a screening room, just sort of that human gravity of 1,200 people in the same place. It kind of puts you in a very different space yourself. They say that only a schizophrenic can tickle themselves under the arm and make themselves laugh, but I watched the film as if I wasn’t anything to do with it. It was brilliant.
I was listening out, to these spikes of noise (in the audience), like there was this one scene where (Marchánt Davis’ character, Moses) looks out and we see his horse, and then he looks again and his horse isn’t there, and there was a lady across the aisle who went “Oh, no,” and I thought “yes!” That’s what you want when you’re sitting in the edit. So there was this electric feeling…I was sitting on the ground floor, but I swear I could hear people’s reactions all the way at the back.
How long has this film been in development?
It’s been this on and off thing. There was this news story that was striking in its dramatic presentation of a threat that turned out to be farcical, really, and that sort of piqued my interest. Then you just look for opportunities between jobs. I’d been working a bit in the States already, so I had an opportunity to go around and visit places.
You just start to accrue information. I met an informant in Orange County who had been so bad at his job that the mosque he was trying to infiltrate called him in to the police and reported him. He was going up to perfectly devout, republican Muslims, saying “Brother, it is time we mounted a Jihad.” Actually, there’s a This American Life episode about him, where he talks about this. He’d just sidle up to people and go “Jihaaaaad,” and they’d say, “you are weird.” You hear this and think, that guy was a real informant, so I’ve got that in my pocket, so now where do I go? What’s next?
And you know you’re on a long journey because there’s a lot to find out. Not just how the government process works, but you also have to get a strong feel for the kind of lives that are invaded by this. And lots of them, like you go to the Bronx and talk to the relatives of the Newburgh Four, about whom there’s a documentary on HBO. They’re the ones who were offered $250,000 to come up with a plan. They had to be pushed that far to come up with a plan, and even then, they said, “Well, we’ll build a bomb, but we’re going to detonate it at night so that no one gets hurt,” and then forgot how to do it.
A lot of these cases, they happen and then it’s very hard for any kind of appeal to be mounted because of the circumstances in which the people live. They really have to have a strong campaign group to get something like that going. And if you’re marginal, and a lot of these people live in the margins in one way or another, then you’re farther away from the help that might protect you. I had to find that out as well.
So, you do all that, and then you think “I’ve got the scope of it now.” As you’re making your own story, you know, you want to be literate in both halves. The film is split between two worlds, and you need to know both because you can’t just make things up. So yeah, it took a long time.
For a while, between Four Lions and this project, you directed a few episodes of Veep. Did any of that experience inform your work on this film?
It’s funny, I’d worked with Armando (Iannucci) before anyway, and if you work with someone in partnership that intensely—we did a show (The Day Today) together—you sort of know their professional patterns, so there were no surprises there.
The thing I took away from Veep is that even if something seems impossible at the start of the day, it can be made to work. Nothing is impossible. The techniques I used, I’d already used. Essentially, they were familiar techniques of naturalism. But I think the idea of achieving the impossible was very useful to take to the Dominican Republic, where there are so many things you’ve never encountered before, and you’re trying to make this pristine American setting on a tropical island, you’re frequently overcoming the impossible in one way or another.
So, shooting the film in the Dominican Republic, and needing certain specific sets like that, did you need to build up a lot of locations? What kinds of elements are already in place?
Well, there’s a lot of infrastructure that’s built on an American plan, so you can work with that. But there are some elements that are disorientingly European. Like, the capitol is where Columbus landed, and it looks like you’re in a Mediterranean port, because there’s a seventeenth-century fort there. That’s not going to play as Miami.
But actually, it’s a pretty incredible place, because you can find a huge range of locations, and there’s a lot of brilliant people there. Our location guide was fantastic, and he just kept finding good places for us to shoot. All the heads of department were brilliant, our designer, director of photography, were all absolutely working two hundred percent. Once that happens, you start to make impossible things work. You’re just sort of carried along. It’s like you’re placed in a sedan chair and carried along by all these great people.
Between this film, Four Lions, and your previous work with Armando Iannucci on Veep and The Day Today, you’ve got a strong background in political satire, but also in absurdist comedy, with projects like Nathan Barley and My Wrongs 8245-8249 & 117. Is political satire what you’re primarily interested in continuing to explore?
I don’t really have a sort of heading at the top of the list. I really feel like my technique, which is not to be recommended, is to bumble along until something strikes you. It strikes you, and you don’t even think about work, but then you suddenly find you’ve come back around to it and answered a question about it, and suddenly it starts becoming a thing. Of course, you could take my psychology and reduce it to a sound bite, and that would probably cover all bases.
What’s an example of how an idea might grab you that way? How did it work for this film?
So, you could say, the story I told (at the premiere) about the Liberty City Seven case, which was an early one of these FBI stings, has an appeal because anatomically, they were still developing the techniques which have now become refined. It makes it ridiculous because, in the early iteration, they make mistakes. That caught my imagination, because when I was working in DC, I bumped into someone who happened to be working on the case for the defense, and he said to me, “You wouldn’t believe what this really is.” So, the other half of that idea hits a couple of years later, and you bring the two together and think “wait a minute, maybe there’s something here.” And when it becomes a repeat phenomenon, you start to realize how it must be happening (behind the scenes). When you visit the FBI, you realize, these are government workers. There are decisions made, that are then being operated on by a giant bureaucratic machine.
There’s a guy called Michael German, who used to work for the FBI to infiltrate right-wing groups, who says that if you put that amount of resources into finding a terrorist, let’s say, here in Austin, and you work for a year, and you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars doing it, you’ll find them. Even if they’re not there. Because you’ll find the guy who most likely fits a profile, and then you’ll get them to behave unreliably. By the end of it, you’ll most likely have someone in jail, and it’ll look like you’ve done a good job.
There’s a case in, I think, Tampa, Florida, where the FBI, who were working undercover, accidentally left their recorder on after they’d talked to a target (Sami Osmakac), and went back to the office, sat around a table, and were talking about it. One agent was going “This guy’s an idiot. We can get him to do anything, and what’s more, he hasn’t got a pot to piss in, so we don’t even need to offer him 50 bucks.” And there’s a pause, and someone around the table says, “Should we be talking to this guy?” There’s another pause and someone goes, “Oh yeah.” And that guy (their target) went to jail. We only know that because there was a recording, and by law, the defense can demand that the prosecution supply all recordings. Even though the judge excluded that from the trial, it was leaked. And that gives you a little insight into someone like Kendra (Anna Kendrick’s character).
We’re all human beings. I think every decision in a film has to be understandable. Every decision in the story has to be understandable. At some point, someone’s going to wonder if this is right. I wanted it to be represented because it would be untrue to suggest that it’s just the operating of a vicious machine. It just sort of happens that if it’s not checked enough, you end up with a 99 percent conviction rate on these things.
Has anything crossed your mind lately that you’re hoping to develop further?
I tend to stare into the void until something leaps out of it. Some people have the next thing, and then the thing after that, and I sit in admiration of that. As I say, I’m a bumbler, so once something’s finished, I tend to say that’s done, and then you sort of go back to zero. I’m not sure that’s the best way of doing it, but that’s just the way it’s happened. I know, that would be the perfect moment for me to feed a titillating scrap, but it’d just be nonsense if I said it, so no.