Armando Iannucci on 'Death of Stalin' Success, Censorship and Why He Ditched His Trump Film Idea
A joke film pitch on Twitter in which Trump is drugged and moved to a replica White House received a flurry of interest from Hollywood.
Having hung up the key's to Veep's White House (a fake one built in Maryland) back in 2015, Armando Iannucci took his unique brand of political satire in a different direction, turning the clock back to 1950's USSR for The Death of Stalin, only his second feature.
First debuted in Toronto in 2016, the self-declared "comedy of terrors" – based on Fabien Nury's graphic novel – pulled back the curtains at the Kremlin to reveal a Politburo in the midst of a chaotic game of backstabbing and skulduggery in a scramble to claim power following the sudden passing of Joseph Stalin.
Despite such an unusual (not to mention dark) premise, The Death of Stalin proved to be a critical and commercial hit, earning more than $8 million for IFC Films after it was released in March 2018 for a global take of almost $25 million. Almost a year on, it's still earning plaudits, winning the best comedy honor at the European Film Awards in December and finding itself among esteemed company on Barack Obama's much-discussed list of his favorite films of 2018. It landed a BAFTA nomination for outstanding British film and adapted screenplay last year (it was released in the U.K. in October 2017), and there's now hope it could repeat the screenplay acknowledgement at the Oscars.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Iannucci discusses the film's success, why it was banned in Russia (and the illegal downloads that would follow), why he's taking a break from political satire with upcoming projects The Personal History of David Copperfield and HBO's Avenue 5 (they're shooting the pilot in spring), and how he was almost dragged back into it following a jokey tweet about a Donald Trump idea that caught the eye of Hollywood (and led to 12 offers).
The Death of Stalin isn’t your average film. Did you expect it to have such big audience appeal?
I was very intrigued to see what audience it would get. We were all pleased with it, and we made the film we wanted to make. But I thought it would be something niche or weird. But we just got the European Film Award! So it seems to have translated strangely. I’m very grateful, but it’s much more international,
Strangely enough, doing everyone with British accents rather than American accents, just making it their own voices, was about trying to make it strangely universal. Primarily the audience was going to be U.K. and then European and American, and if everyone did Russian accents, I felt it would feel removed. And that somehow seems to have given it a kind of, not contemporary feel, but kind of an immediate feel. And there are elements of, I hesitate to say because of the subject matter, visual comedy and farce, and the script was not a rat-a-tat-tat.
It had a great run in the U.S., where on opening in March it landed the second-best per-screen average of the year behind Black Panther. Did you think a film about the political chaos in the 1950s Soviet Union would resonate so well in the States?
It was great and rumbled on for months, actually. It came out in April and we were still getting box office reports 14, 15, 16 weeks later. It went on through the summer and held on in places like New York and L.A. It seems to have had a long life. It was never going to be The Last Jedi in terms of its broad box office appeal. But I’ve been very pleased, and IFC were thrilled with how it performed, and Gaumont and eOne were very happy. It got audiences who had no idea what they were walking into. Others might have thought, I don’t know what they thought they were going to get…Veep in Russia or something like that.
Was it a nice change as your first film after Veep?
Having done five years of TV, you do notice the differences. With telly, everything is very definite. You know how long your thing is going to be, how many episodes are going out, but the one thing you don’t do is ever see your audience. They’re all at home. With film it’s different, there’s great uncertainty. It might get made, you might get the money, it might get distributed, you don’t know which countries. But you do meet your audiences, because you have to go out and sell it.
And it’s been interesting with this one, going to places and meeting people. I’ve met a guy who was at Stalin’s funeral as a kid! He walked into Moscow and was caught up in the disturbances. In Washington I met this whole group of elderly Ukrainians who said they loved the film but just started crying because they said it was true. I met a girl from the Rotterdam Film Festival who had come from Belarus, where it had been banned, and she wanted to see it.
And that’s when you realize how cinema impacts, and it’s to do with the live feel and also this story. It was reassuring to meet people who said it felt genuine, even though it was funny. It’s funny and it’s true, that’s what they said. And I liked it when they asked, "Where in Moscow did you shoot this?" and I would say, "London."
Despite landing a distributor, The Death of Stalin was famously banned in Russia, where it was labelled part of a “Western plot” to destabilize the country…
And its license was pulled the night before! Somebody somewhere panicked. There was no order given, but somebody thought there might be, so they should act on it. But I have seen the statistics, and it was downloaded illegally 1.5 million times in Russia. So somewhere people managed to hear about it…I wonder how.
Where you upset, especially given that so many people clearly wanted to see it?
I was sad, because I just thought, this is 2018, and this is still happening. Do you seriously think people won’t be able to see it? You know, in Russia, of all countries, where they’re very good at going online! They found it, and all they did was more or less advertise its existence.
When you started making The Death of Stalin back in 2015, we were in a very different world, politically. Is it peculiar to see the lunacy you wrote down for comic effect now being regularly trumped – to choose a word – by reality?
Well, that’s the thing. Trump didn’t even exist in anyone’s eyes while we were making it. But it was as we were cutting it that he was being sworn in. And I remember when he brought the cameras into the first cabinet meeting, and they all had to go around saying how great he was and how God has blessed them by providing them with a chance to serve under him, and it just looked like the committee meeting in the middle of the film! And then Beria talks about false narratives, just as he was talking about fake news. It’s even got the same initials. It was just bizarre.
People do ask, is this your response to Trump, and it wasn’t shot like that, but it was my response to what I saw as a general trend in politics: the rise of this strong man, the autocrat, the person who gets elected democratically but then looks at ways of changing the constitution and acquiring more power and decrying his critics and trying to arrest his opponents. When you’ve got one candidate saying about the other candidate, "Lock her up," then you’re in that area of if you’re not for me, you’re in prison.
With Veep, you were regularly facing situations where comedy storylines would then actually happen in real life, but reality now seems to be even more farcical, right?
Actually, in season five of Veep, which I wasn’t involved in, when Jonah is running for Congress, he does this ad where he’s chopping wood. And there was this congressional candidate who did, more or less, frame by frame the same ad. And someone put them together so you could see it. It was extraordinary. You don’t know whether he had such a sophisticated sense of humor that he thought, oh I’ll copy that, people will get the joke and see that I’m a funny guy, or he watched it and thought, that’s genuinely a good ad, I’ll do that. Or whether his aide thought, for a bet…I bet you I can get him to do this.
Is this all partially why you’re now moving totally away from political satire with The Personal History of David Copperfield and Avenue 5?
Perhaps. It’s also just having done four and bit years of Veep and The Thick of It as well, it’s a solid 10 years of that kind of inner workings of politics, and I kind of felt, for my own sanity, and to avoid repetition or tedium, I should do something else and get away from it. And also, Trump calls for a different sort of response. I don’t think a kind of fictionalized version of a behind-the-scenes in the Trump administration is what’s required. I think proper journalism is required – solid investigatory powers and forensic examination. Which some comics do, like John Oliver. They act like journalists, in a way. And I think that’s possibly what’s more appropriate for what’s happening now, especially when he decries the truth and opposes the media. And he is his own entertainer, in a way. He provides the entertainment himself.
So do you think, in this current political climate, that the time is up for narrative, Veep-style political satire?
I don’t think time’s up, I just think the time’s they are a’ changing. I think Veep was right for its time. It was born out of experiencing the gridlock in Washington and the same people being around but nothing getting done, and that’s been an experience of the last 10 or 15 years, really, and is still slightly the experience today. Veep was in response to that, six or seven years ago, and there now has to be a response to this new politics of very partisan, very personalized, name-calling, disregard for evidence and facts…a highly emotive form of politics. But I’m not going to do it!
But there was that joke idea for a film you tweeted about Trump being drugged and moved to a replica White House where he carries on believing that he’s president. Suddenly it seemed to get a lot of traction, and interest from Hollywood!
It was like a comedy in itself. I found out afterwards that it was because it was during the Toronto Film Festival, so everyone was in Toronto. And I think because they were in the same room together and someone mentioned it, everyone then thought, "Oh god, I’d better put in for it else I’ll be fired!"
Film pitch.. Trump drugged and moved to a replica Whitehouse, where he carries on thinking he’s governing. Millions spent on hiring actors to play his staff, Senators, news anchors, people at rallies.— Armando Iannucci (@Aiannucci) September 5, 2018
There you go. Studios, your highest bid please.
Did you actually get studios calling up?
Yeah, we got 12 offers. But I just thought, I really don’t want to spend the next year and a half writing about Donald Trump. I just thought, I’ll get depressed. And also, in the end, the true Donald Trump movie will be in about 15 years' time. We’ve got Vice out at the moment, and that’s in response to 18 years ago, really.
I think someone on Twitter even came up with an amazing film title…
Yeah, Fake America Great Again. But the other thing was that I thought about it, and I actually thought of a storyline, but every storyline ended very, very, very bleakly. There would be no comedy in the last half hour! I did do some calls to a bunch of people, but whenever I outlined how it would end I could just hear the calls go silent, and I just thought, ah, maybe they just wanted the tweet.