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In IFC’s new film, The Death of Stalin, filmmaker, writer, producer and political satirist Armando Iannucci abandons the present day and takes viewers back to 1953 to tell the story of the demise of Joseph Stalin. You probably gleaned all that from the title. But Iannucci doesn’t lecture us about history. As anyone familiar with his work can intuit, he instead skewers history, turning the demise of the Soviet dictator into proper black comedy while adhering as closely as possible to the truth of the era. Not just anyone can mine caustic banter and cutting punchlines out of a man’s passing; Iannucci does. Not anyone can set a movie in a bygone time and place and encourage audiences to reflect on their own, either; Iannucci does that, too.
It’s both fascinating and sobering that The Death of Stalin might give us a reason to consider our current politics, whether we live in the U.S. or the U.K. or elsewhere on the globe, but that’s what makes the film such essential viewing. At a glance, a period picture may appear to fall outside of Iannucci’s wheelhouse, established in movies like In the Loop and in television shows like HBO’s Veep. Up close, it’s the exact kind of vehicle that suits his humor, his aesthetic, and his sharp sense for political shenanigans.
In discussion with Heat Vision, Iannucci parses out the challenges of creating political satire when politics practically satirize themselves, the problems we face in the age of mass information, the value of going to the past to make sense of what’s going on today, and the dangers of ignoring people whose opinions differ from yours. He also addresses harassment allegations against Jeffrey Tambor, who plays Stalin successor Georgy Malenkov and was fired from Amazon’s Transparent in the wake of the scandal.
How does a person write political satire, of any kind, but especially movies, in the time that we live in? I don’t even know how you do it.
Well, in a way, I’m not doing it! I’m looking at 1953 in another country. You know, I think that if you try to do a fictional version of what’s happening now, you’re going to run up short, because what’s happening now is so absurd. When the person at the center of it is his own entertainer, when he’s in a sense making content for television, it’s difficult to do something that exaggerates that. I mean, jokes and satire are all exaggerations that sort of take something that is recognized as true, and then they bend it, and twist it, and stretch it for comic effect. But if the person who is at the center of power bends and twists facts and truth for, I wouldn’t say for comic effect, but for effect, then the job is already done.
Interestingly, I find that the comedians who have any kind of strike rate with what’s going on now are the ones who are more like journalists, who are more like reporters, like John Oliver, and Bill Maher, and Samantha Bee, and Seth Meyers, and [Stephen] Colbert, who have teams of researchers and who have an argument, who have a point of view, who have an opinion, but actually go back to the footage and play the clips and just let the facts speak for themselves, in a way.
Right. They just present what happens, and then they talk about it in humorous ways.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. “What’s happening is so mad, I’m just going to tell you what’s just happened. There. That’s mad, isn’t it? Thank you, the end. See you tomorrow, if there is one.” (Laughs.)
Sadly, it’s a big “if.” But there’s such a difference between that and Our Cartoon President turning Donald Trump into Peter Griffin. I think the other side of that first question is that people will look for immediate allegory. They’ll see something like The Death of Stalin, and they’ll say, “Ah! This must be about Trump!” How do you deal with that? Because that’s nuts too.
Well, you know … we shot it in the summer of 2016, before Trump was even the official Republican nominee. However, I made it for a reason. In part the reason was that I knew I was finishing Veep, and I was thinking about doing something about a fictional dictator set in the present day. I just had this feeling that something strange was happening in democracies. Electorates were doing strange things. Parties were being elected that had never been elected before. Nationalist movements, and populist movements, and celebrities in Italy stuffing up their own party, plus you had the likes of Putin, and Berlusconi, and Erdogan in Turkey, and these sort of strong, very authoritarian figures bending the rules of democracy to acquire more power.
So I was thinking of doing something about that anyway, and then The Death of Stalin, the book, came along. It was sent to me, and it was something I was interested in, and I thought instantly, “This is such a bizarre, absurd, farcical and yet horrifying story, and it’s true, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
But I don’t have a problem with the fact that people might see some parallels with what’s happening today in the White House, because what’s happening today in the White House is part of that trend that I was kind of fearful of anyway, the authoritarian figure, the showman, the propagandist, the person who just wants to snap his fingers and something will happen, and is then very, very annoyed when it doesn’t happen, and it’s always somebody else’s fault. That was part of my overview anyway. Trump came along — I’d rather he didn’t, but he has — so if people see parallels, then I’m quite happy for them to see parallels, really.
Do you think that there are always going to be parallels between what happens in present and the events of the past? What I kept thinking of watching the film was the old adage, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”
Absolutely, yeah, yeah. These things happen. My father grew up in Naples. At the age of 16, 17, he was writing for an anti-fascist newspaper. Then the war broke out and became a partisan, fought against Mussolini and the fascists, and then he moved to the U.K., and he never took out a British passport, which meant he couldn’t vote in elections. I said, “Why don’t you take your passport out so you can vote? I mean, you fought for democracy!” “Last time I voted, Mussolini got in.” And that was his way of saying, “Look, don’t think that because you have democracy it’s absolutely perfect, and it won’t change, and you’ll have it forever, and everything will be good.” If people don’t participate, if people take their eye off it, it can be used and abused. I think it’s important that we see these parallels.
The interesting thing about the responses to the film has been people pointing out that actually, we don’t know terribly much about Stalin and that period in history. … I think it’s partly to do with the fact that Stalin was an ally of the U.S., and the U.K., and the French. And he won! So he’s sort of quietly had the curtain drawn over him, and we don’t really inquire too much of him, but actually it’s a horrific story. So what’s been interesting is people watching the film and then going back and reading their history books, which I’m all in favor of.
I’m struck by something you just said about how little we know about Stalin. It didn’t occur to me while watching the movie, but that’s kind of the opposite problem of what we face today. There’s a lot that we don’t know, obviously, but we almost know too much because we’re so saturated by our political turmoils.
Absolutely. In the era of mass information, it’s very difficult to know what information is true. That’s been the problem. There’s so much of it that it all looks the same. So, a website by The Hollywood Reporter or The Washington Post looks as authoritative as somebody’s website made on a laptop in a room in Bulgaria somewhere. Everything looks valid once it’s up in an official-looking news site form. That’s been the problem, and Facebook’s algorithms aren’t able to distinguish between the two, and therefore we get everything.
That’s terrifying to me, and something I’ve considered. Politically, where do you see that taking us, and where do you think it’s taking satire, too? I feel like, again, we’re talking about blurring the line between the reality and the fiction that we want to tell. I find that scary.
Yeah. I talked about comedians becoming like journalists, but if you talk to John Oliver, he’ll say, “But I don’t want to have to do this! It’s not my job to tell you about Donald Trump!” And that’s a problem! We’re so used to having people, almost curators of information, who we trusted. So you’d get a website, or a newspaper, or a news program, and you’d sort of trust the people who made that program or that newspaper, you’d trust their judgment in terms of the choice of stories they were choosing to tell you, and the prominence they gave each story. But now that everything is available, and any story can be the stop story — because you get to choose — you end up gravitating toward the stories you want to hear, and away from the stories you don’t want to hear. You know everything about the things you’re interested in, and nothing about anything else.
That’s the kind of worrying thing for me, because I think it affects how then we discuss and debate. I think political argument has suffered because democracy relies on, almost by definition, two or more different opinions being able to exist simultaneously and safely. But if we get into the habit of only listening to those we agree with and blocking those we don’t, we’ll end up with a breed of politician who doesn’t want to hear any other argument, who will categorize the opposition as traitors or enemies of the people, or unpatriotic, or un-American or whatever, or fake. That’s the problem. It’s not just from the top up. I think we can fall into that habit as well, of only wanting to engage with people we agree with, and shy away from anyone who we think might have a different view.
It’s very depressing, isn’t it? Very depressing!
Oh gosh, it’s soul-shredding. So for you going forward, are you going to be more attracted to the past for storytelling? You’ve mentioned there are a lot of things we don’t know about Stalin, but at least we have a better grasp on the truth of what happened in the past versus what’s happening today.
It’s interesting, the next movie I’m doing is Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, which we’re shooting in about three months’ time. So that’s going even further into the past. That’s going to the 1840s. And then I’m doing something for HBO which is set in the future, about 30 or 40 years into the future. I think it’s also the fact that I’ve been doing political shows for the last 10 years; I just wanted to do something completely away from that arena, just for my own sanity, really. But it’s interesting, maybe because we can come up with immediate responses to what’s happened just now, but an interpretation of what’s happened over the last four years is far more difficult to come up with at the moment, because everything is still in a state of flux. So maybe we do have to seize on stories from other backgrounds, other times, other periods, other countries, as a way of trying to interpret what’s going on today.
I’m looking forward to both of those projects, especially the future. I’m curious, what’s it like to be releasing a movie not only with the political strife that we’re facing, but with the kind of controversy of one of your stars, Jeffrey Tambor, hanging over the film too?
You know, we made the film two years ago, and it’s been out in the U.K. as of six months ago, and all these stories emerged after all that was done. And Jeffrey is fantastic in the movie, and he was great to work with, and so I’m acutely aware of wanting to make sure that everything is done properly, that the story is being investigated, that people feel free to come forward. But having known Jeffrey, it’s difficult to stand completely objectively back. My decision at the moment is not to get involved in that, other than to say it’s just terribly sad that this has happened, and I hope that it’s resolved. He’s great to work with, and great in the film, and I’m very proud of what he did in the film. It’s one of those things where I just don’t know what the situation is, and I don’t think I would help if I commented on it.
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The Gilded Age