"Fiction will never be as absurd as what is happening now"
As the acclaimed The Death Of Stalin is released on DVD, director Armando Iannucci tells NME about how the reality of politics in 2018 is too “absurd” for him to turn into comedy for VEEP and The Thick Of It.
Read our full interview below with the writer, producer and director who helped create the likes of Alan Partridge and The Day Today – as well as this exclusive clip from The Death Of Stalin.
Did you struggle to keep the comedy intact in The Death Of Stalin, without straying too far from the truth?
“Well, we did a lot of research. Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter, she wrote about it. As did Krushchev in his autobiography and a lot of other people subsequently, so it was just about piecing it together. You know, he was left lying on the floor in a puddle because people were too scared to interrupt. They debated for a long time whether or not to get doctors in because he put so many of them on death lists. He did recover and point at a picture of a young girl feeding milk to a lamb.
“We knew we were looking at deeply horrible and horrifying incidents. I felt that the comedy in it came from a comedy of terror, anxiety and panic. That would only work if it felt true.”
It looked great too.
“Thank you. Well, we went to the Kremlin and tried as much as possible to recreate the actual surroundings. I’ve had people from Russia asking me ‘where did you film it in Moscow?’ That’s a good test of the art department and locations team, as it was shot mostly in London. It’s funnier the more real it is. You can’t just lob in jokes that have no basis in the film. You have to earn the jokes by creating the situation that gives rise to the jokes.”
How have Russian audiences reacted since its release?
“It was banned two days before its release. There was a thing out this week saying that now 60% of Russians want to see the film because they’ve heard it’s been banned. The Russians who have seen it have said two things: it’s funny, but it’s true. It’s not offensive to the Russian people, as it were. The comedy is about the fools in the Kremlin. What’s going on outside the Kremlin isn’t played for laughs. One cinema still showed it, but it was raided by the police. But, the people there still stood and applauded it at the end of each screening. That was heartening. I think it will get a release. They probably just want to get the Presidential election out of the way, and then something will happen.”
Are you no longer allowed in Russia then?
“Not that I know of. I’ll find out next time I try to go to Moscow.”
Do you have any emails worth hacking?
“No, I should probably write some shouldn’t I? I’ll send one saying that David Davis used to spy for the Stasi or something. See if they hack that.”
Then you can make a film about the aftermath of the film.
“Yes! Brilliant. But I don’t know who I’d get to play me. Some award-winning actor.”
The story still resonates now regardless of time. Would it have felt a bit too sledgehammer and obvious to say ‘I’m going to write a Trump comedy’ or a ‘Brexit comedy’?
“Absolutely. My reasons for avoiding those is that any fictional version is never going to be as absurd as what is happening. It’s far better for comedians to just explore and outline the facts, which are already funny. That’s why I’ve said no to doing a ‘Brexit special for The Thick Of It’, and why I’m relieved to not be doing VEEP at the moment. They’re probably relieved on VEEP that she’s outside of the White House.
“Trump is his own entertainer, really. He’s saying things to get a response and a reaction. He’s not expressing an argument, he’s expressing an act.”
The ‘Newspeak’ cropping up too – like ‘Fake News’ and ‘Magic Money Tree’. That all lends itself to this bizarre fiction we’re actually living in.
“Exactly, and ‘Enemies Of The People’. Stalin used to use that for his opponents, and now Trump and various UK newspapers are doing it too. That’s why I was looking at dictators and authority figures for the film. Look at people like Berlusconi and Putin and strong leaders in the Philippines who have been democratically elected, and in Italy where we meet be about to get a Quasi-Fascist as Prime Minister. This thing has been bubbling away in democracy for the last five or six years. We shot the film two summers ago before Trump and Brexit, but now it’s come out to a climate that’s much more like the one in the film, which is slightly worrying.”
So there’s nothing over the course of the last two years that’s tempted your curiosity into wanting to touch upon these subjects?
“No, as I seem to be going either to the past or the future at the moment. The next thing I’m doing is shooting a movie version of ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens this summer, then I’m doing a new show for HBO set in the future in space. If I look at the present, I lose my sense of humour, so I’m looking to take stories from other periods and show how the present is reflected in them.”
Is there anything else you think is out of bounds for satire? Harvey Weinstein for example?
“Oh, nothing is out of bounds. It’s just about how you do it. Trump isn’t out of bounds, it’s just that I think the comedians best suited to it are the journalistic ones like John Oliver – who have teams of researchers and are interested in the facts. The Weinstein thing is all about power and open to being looked at comedically. If you’re taking on a subject that’s got pitfalls because it’s very sensitive then you just have to work much harder at comedy. With The Death Of Stalin, we knew that there were so many serious an emotional things involved, so we spent two years on the script then five months in the edit. We needed to get the balance right between comedy and tragedy, ensuring that both of them assisted each other – rather than them cancel each other out.”
Do you think we’ll be exhausted by Trump in three years’ time?
“I think people will be exhausted, but he’ll get through his term in office and stands a good chance of being re-elected because he’s a salesman and he’s very good at it. He’ll work out how best to pitch himself about whatever opponent he ends up against. He knows what he has to do to get elected and he won’t give up. What’s happened so far is that everyone else has been wrongfooted because they expected him to play by the rules. They don’t understand what happens when you deal with someone who doesn’t play by the rules. They don’t know what to do or how to respond.”
So you don’t buy into the narrative that he became President by accident?
“I don’t think he expected to. He expected to launch his own news network and make his own brand more successful and recognizable. He didn’t expect to win, not even on the day of the election. It just shows how ineffective the opposition was. Just treating him as a clown is not going to get anyone anywhere. The people who have decided he is a clown have already made their minds up, I don’t think anyone is sitting on the fence now. Those who don’t think he’s a clown have decided that nothing will make them change their minds. People are going to have to come up with another way of opposing him other than hurling insults at him.”
Have any of the events of the last few years driven you to reach for your pen and write down ideas for The Thick Of It, or is that just not on your agenda?
“It’s not on my agenda, no. If we came up with up with an episode where the Prime Minister was coughing throughout her speech while the letters on the wall behind her were falling off, you’d think ‘no, that’s just basic’. We’d shred that storyline. I’m so dumbstruck by what’s happening. We have a government that thinks it has the luxury of fighting amongst itself when it doesn’t command a majority – whose idea of doing a deal with Europe is just to tell Europe what to do and then be surprised that 26 other countries are saying no. It’s beyond any attempt to even try to explain it comedically.”
So are you just waiting for a less explicitly ludicrous time?
“Possibly, but them I’m not solely a political writer. Alan Partridge isn’t political, ‘David Copperfield’ won’t be and neither will the HBO show be.”
As for the HBO show, what kind of future is that set in?
“It’s set in the world of space tourism about 40 years in the future. It’s not flying cars and stuff, it’s about what really happens when a lot of people just have to get on with each other in space.”
Have you been watching much Black Mirror then, because they’ve really nailed that whole ‘not too distant future’ thing…
“Well, they have. I like it a lot. I try and ration my viewing of it because I don’t want to be even subliminally affected by it. It’s really well done. I watched the ‘Star Trek’ one recently. That was a fantastic story, really well performed and shot. I ration myself to one every few months so I’m not too depressed by its general brilliance.”
And do you have much involvement in the next Alan Partridge series?
“Very tangentially, in that I opt in and out of a few writing meetings – but I’ve been so busy with ‘The Death Of Stalin’ and the preparation for the next film that I haven’t been involved on a day to day basis. But Steve [Coogan] with Rob and Neil Gibbons are so good together. The Gibbons brothers are so good – they’ve understood Alan and given him a whole new, fresh lease of life. The ideas I’ve heard are very, very funny. Part of me knows some of what’s coming up and another part of me is just looking forward to being a viewer. I do that Alan must not fuck it up. Second chances like this do not come along all that often.”
Alan has been a middle-aged failure for 20-30 years now. How is that still fresh and appealing to each new generation?
“He is that sort of character that everyone knows but no one can identify with themselves. No one will say ‘I’m like Alan’. We also haven’t really flogged him to death. We take him out of his box every four years on average. We don’t do 12 series of something one year after another. That gap has meant that in our heads, Alan has grown and developed so we can move him on to the next thing. There’s always something new about him every time. That combination of the familiar and the new is why we’ve not grown sick of him over what is fundamentally a quarter of a century.”
Do you feel like you’ve developed a new understanding of him having been a bit more distant from him lately?
“Oh yeah. When we started Alan he was quite big. On ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ he was making jokes about the media. Now, he’s grown more comfortable in his own skin, is less anxious and worried about what people think of him. Now he’s convinced that people enjoy him, but he just needs to convince the decision-makers. It’s nice that he’s become a bit more rounded, and I don’t mean in terms of Steve’s stomach. He’s less of a caricature of a type and is now a living person.”
And finally, is there any other comedy that you wish you’d written?
“Oh, that’s interesting. Well, I’ve always liked Graham Linehan’s stuff like Father Ted. It’s not Graham but Derry Girls is great too. This isn’t stuff I wish I’d written, because I like stuff that I wouldn’t have written, that really makes me laugh. I like watching stuff where I have no professional concern about it. I’m just catching up on Taskmaster, that’s fabulous.”
The Death of Stalin is available on Digital now and DVD and Blu-ray Monday 26th February