Armando Iannucci on ‘Death of Stalin,’ End of ‘Veep’ and Future of Satire

Chris Tilly
TV Movies
TV Movies

Armando Iannucci is the master of political satire. Thanks to The Day Today, The Thick of It, In the Loop and Veep, he’s taken on politics in both the UK and US, as well as the media covering it.

His new film tackles Russian history, with The Death of Stalin chronicling the chaos behind the scenes as men jostled and jockeyed to replace the dictator.

We caught up with Iannucci in London this week to talk about the making of the movie, the forthcoming end of Veep, Alan Partridge, and the future of satire in the current political climate.

Making The Death of Stalin

FANDOM: The Death of Stalin is based on a graphic novel, so how did you go about adapting the source material?

Armando Iannucci: Well it’s not about translating that frame-by-frame into film, because then you get something that’s just dead on arrival. If it’s an exact reproduction. It exists in graphic novel form because that’s the best way to tell that story in that form. If we’re making a film, we tell it the best way to make it in the film version. That involved taking the story but changing it so that it all happened during the funeral, so you’ve got that sense of ticking clock deadline looming. But trying to keep the tone together of what it was that inspired you about the original in the first place.

FANDOM: Were there moments in the book where you thought ‘this can’t be true’, then research showed you they were?

Iannucci: Yes. Then you discover more stories that [make] you go: ‘I can’t put that in because no one will believe that that happened.’ The opening concert where they have to get another conductor; in real life, they had to get three conductors in because the second turned up drunk. But I thought if I put that in people would just think that this is just clearly made up. So it’s about steering the truth to what feels believable.

FANDOM: And what about the respirator?

Iannucci: Yes, that’s true. They had a respirator on hand for when Stalin was ill, but they didn’t use it because it had an American plug and they were worried people would find out they had used an American machine. Or if Stalin found out they were dead. So they didn’t use it. It’s true. In our research, we did find out that Vasily lost an entire ice hockey team in a plane crash and put together a scratch team from rejects from other teams. All these things are true.

FANDOM: Did you research other dictators to inform this story?

Iannucci: Before doing Stalin I’d been looking into the idea of doing a fictional autocrat, like a dictator or a Berlusconi type. Someone who just builds a party around his personality as it were. So I was looking at that. Looking at cults; how someone can by their personality woo a whole country. And then the book came along and I thought ‘Why invent something when this is true? Just take this story.’

FANDOM: What about Vladimir Putin?

Iannucci: An element of him. It’s more a sense of watching. UKIP is a personality cult. As soon as [Nigel] Farage left, it’s collapsed. [Marine] Le Pen in France. The movements in Eastern Europe. It’s just an element of saying: ‘We think democracy is perfect and permanent, and it’s not.’ It can turn instantly. My father came from Italy, and when he emigrated in the 1950s, he didn’t take out UK citizenship which meant he couldn’t vote. And I asked him, ‘Why don’t you vote? You believe in democracy.’ And he said, ‘The last time I voted, Mussolini got in.’ It reminds you that these things can happen if you’re not careful.

FANDOM: You had an extended rehearsal period before you started shooting – what did you learn in that time?

Iannucci: It was more just sitting down with each actor, and they had done their research into the characters, so just developing the personalities of the characters. For example Andrea Riseborough – talking about Svetlana – she’d been reading about her and she wanted her continually crying and snot coming out of her nose and this kind of weeping, erratic behaviour. So the way she did that, every take was different, so everyone else on set didn’t know what was going to happen next. Because in the script we want everyone to be running around her trying to work out how she’s going to behave and how they are going to deal with her.

Steve Buscemi as Khruschev.

FANDOM: What did Steve Buscemi bring to the role of Khrushchev?

Iannucci: It’s very subtle because of course we shoot out of sequence and it was only when I put the assembly together and watched it I thought, ‘Ah my god’ because he managed to gradate very slowly and subtly throughout the film this move from the guy not taken seriously; the guy at the back, low in the pecking order, who turns up in his pyjamas, to the guy who maybe has to take over and be frightening if needs be. I can now see him working it out and gradating it in every scene. And it’s only something that you see when you put the film together.

FANDOM: Michael Palin is also hilarious, and there are scenes that feel like they are straight out of Monty Python.

Iannucci: Well, he plays Molotov, the one person who is trying to adhere rigidly to the party line. The problem is the party line changes every half hour, and this poor guy has to go through these mental gymnastics trying to make himself believe the new party line. And argue that publicly, while it’s kind of pulling himself apart internally.

FANDOM: Where did Jason Isaacs’ northern accent come from?

Iannucci: He suggested it. I knew that Zhukov comes in half-way and has to come in with a bang. I said we’re all just doing natural accents. And he said, ‘Is anyone doing Yorkshire’ And I said, ‘No, you can have it.’

FANDOM: He sounded like Brian Clough to me.

Iannucci: A little. And Brian Glover, he mentioned. And also his inner Sean Bean. But just that sense of ‘Let’s get on with it. No hanging about.’

FANDOM: Jeffrey Tambor’s Melenkov also seems to have a little of Larry Sanders’ Hank in him.

Iannucci: He did say that actually. I went to Jeffrey because I could see him playing the person who thinks he’s in control, then realising he’s not in control, but then still trying to act as if he’s in control. He did say, ‘Yes, there is an element of Hank here. Chosen to be number two, and must never be number one.’ And I was so pleased that he saw that. Again, with his performance, in some of the later scenes, he had all these lines and he said, ‘Do you mind if I don’t say anything in this scene?’ And again, when you assemble it, you can see Melenkov shrinking, almost fading into the background, as he realises events have gone beyond his control, or understanding.

The End of Veep and the Future of Satire

FANDOM: Now you are no longer making Veep, how does it feel to be watching it as a viewer?

Iannucci: Well it’s weird because I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next which is unusual and which I quite enjoy. It’s re-enforced the fact that cast are great and I’m just enjoying watching the cast now, not knowing what they’re going to do.

FANDOM: The show is soon ending – is Trump at all responsible for that?

Iannucci: A little bit, but it’s season seven – that’s a lot. There’s only so many ways you can tell that story from that situation that Selena Meyer’s in.

FANDOM: Do you think political satire is in trouble?

Iannucci: Trump calls you lot fake news and he’s created this artificial vacuum into which has stepped comedians like John Oliver and Samantha Bee, who are acting like journalists. They’re saying, ‘OK – if you’re going to deride everything that’s on the news, why don’t we get our researchers to dig out the facts, lay them out, and that’s where the comedy will be.’ What the facts tell you about Trump’s America. So that’s interesting I think. It shouldn’t take the responsibility away from journalists though. It’s interesting that he goes at fake news, but the stories that are happening now are all being driven by Washington Post and New York Times print journalists. They are driving the agenda in a way that wouldn’t happen with online. You’ve got these print journos not afraid to just go for it.

FANDOM: They are also going after Harvey Weinstein right now – have you ever met him?

Iannucci: No, I’ve been to awards ceremonies and seen him. When In the Loop came out I knew that he was hovering around it, but I’d heard so many stories about him interfering editorially. Re-editing films and that sort of thing, and it’s just not me. So I’ve always said ‘Not interested really.’ And In the Loop and Stalin have both been British and European funded films rather than Hollywood.

FANDOM: Alan Partridge is another of your comic co-creations – will you ever write for him again?

Iannucci: There’s a new project coming on the BBC and I’ve been dipping in and out of some of the writing meetings. For me it’s just unfortunately because of some of the other stuff I’m doing I’m not physically around. But Rob and Neil Gibbons have given it this whole new lease of life. They understand Alan. They know the voice. So they’ve been able to — with Steve [Coogan] — give Alan this fresh burst of energy. But a couple of weeks back I was at one of the meetings and it was just a good laugh. Alan always makes me laugh. He’s just fun. The funniest, silliest stuff comes up, and we have a good time making it.

FANDOM: Do you have a favourite Alan moment or scene?

Iannucci: I love the fireplace awards when he’s in a lot of pain and losing a lot of blood and is just banging buttons to get glitter falling. And slurring. I’m so glad that came out the way it came out.

FANDOM: Why do you think the character has so resonated with people?

Iannucci: He kind of reminds you of someone but you don’t know who. Everyone knows someone a bit like him, but they can’t quite put their finger on who it is. And it’s not necessarily a media person. It might be someone in your family, or a neighbour. There’s a kind of suburban, aspirational, non-London kind of… ‘I want to be over there.’ When actually he should be here, he shouldn’t be over there. He should just be happy here. And he’s kind of happy in himself. If he knew what people thought about him he’d crumble but he’s got this thick skin, and he’s kind of good at his job in terms of being a radio DJ. He will talk for hours, which is the fundamental quality required of any radio presenter. So he can do that. And as he’s got older, and as we’ve got older, he’s become more comfortable in his own skin. He’s less ‘I wanna be over there’ and more ‘I’m quite happy now.’ But he will tell you how happy he is. Like a reformed alcoholic — ‘It’s the best decision I’ve ever made’ very close up to you ‘It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I haven’t touched a drop. I’m very happy.’

FANDOM: I just get disturbed when I find myself agreeing with things he says.

Iannucci: That’s the thing. You think, ‘He reminds me of someone I don’t know who. Oh my god, is it me?’

FANDOM: So what’s next for you?

Iannucci: This will take me into next year because the US release is next year. Then I want to do a film of David Copperfield. I’m a big Dickens fan and David Copperfield is a book that is filled with great characters and set pieces. But also there’s a real humanity there and a real psychological insight there that I want to get my teeth into.

FANDOM: So not a biopic of the magician?

Iannucci: No. I’ll leave that to Scorsese. And then I’m doing another thing for HBO – we’re just doing a pilot next year for a comedy set in the future, in space.

The Death of Stalin hits UK screens this Friday (October 20) and will be released in the States next year.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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