Armando Iannucci Talks 'Death of Stalin' and Telling 'Veep' Team to "Just Assume I'm Dead"
Rupert Friend has joined the all-star cast of the 'Veep' creator's second feature, a comedy set in the immediate aftermath of Joseph Stalin's fatal stroke in 1953, which starts shooting Monday.
With season five of Veep maintaining the same frenetic levels of humor as before, it's easy to forget that the show's much-adored creator is no longer in the room. Armando Iannucci may have retired from the office of Selina Meyer last year just as she tussled over the keys to the Oval Office, but the British funnyman hasn't spent his time basking in the glory of his Emmy-winning HBO sensation.
Instead, he's been lining up a feature film, Quad Films' The Death of Stalin, which kicks off principal photography on Monday.
Based on the graphic novel by Thierry Robin and Fabien Nury, the historical satire is set in the U.S.S.R. in the turbulent hours and days after its once all-powerful ruler Joseph Stalin suffers a stroke and dies in 1953. As his stricken body lies on the floor of his summer retreat in the Moscow suburbs, his senior advisors grapple to assert control in the ensuing power vacuum, plunging the Soviet Union into violent uncertainty.
Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine and Andrea Riseborough were announced as joining the cast of the film in Cannes, where co-producer Gaumont kicked off international sales, and now Homeland star Rupert Friend has been added to the lineup.
Just as Iannucci prepares to disappear behind the camera for a three-month shoot mostly around London, The Hollywood Reporter spoke exclusively to the writer and director about finding the funny — and tension — in dictatorships, his joy in being able to watch Veep without knowing what's going to happen for the first time, working on another comedy series for HBO and, inevitably, Donald Trump and his "methane of publicity."
THR: Principal photography on The Death of Stalin starts Monday. It’s your first time directing a feature since 2009’s In the Loop. Any nerves? Excitement?
Iannucci: There are trepidations, but I’m really quite excited. I’ve been going over this script for the last eight months so it’s nice to see it come together really.
Any new casting announcements since the original lineup was revealed?
Yes, we can now announce that Andrea Riseborough will be playing Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter, and also Rupert Friend, who’s playing Vasily, his son.
And what about Stalin?
He makes a brief appearance at the start. He's played by Adrian McLoughlin.
And then presumably spends the rest of the film lying on the floor of his dacha while his generals stand around wondering what to do?
Exactly. While they decide what to do, who to inform, what doctor to get and the nationality of the medical equipment that they’re allowed to use. A lot of it is based on true stuff, but what we’re trying to do is not just concentrate on these people. Within the story you see how their deliberations impact on people all over the empire of the Soviet Union. So it's quite an expansive, quite an ambitious scale. It’s both intimate and very, very vast at the same time.
So it’s not going to be taking place solely around Stalin’s dead body?
We certainly follow the presidium of the central committee, that’s the core. But I’m very keen to portray how deliberations from that just fan out across the country.
The film seems like something perfect for BBC Films or Film4, which you’ve worked with before. What made you go to France with Quad and Gaumont?
Quad actually had the rights to the graphic novel, and they approached me. I think it was during season three of Veep. I said I’d love to do it, but was very busy. And they said they’d wait. So two years later, I rang them up and said let’s do it. Also, I think that having done five years of U.S. TV, I kind of felt that the next film I wanted to make should feel European. That’s not to say there won’t be a market for it in the U.S. and there are obviously U.S. actors in it.
Given that they approached you, were they looking for something similar to your previous work in its style and humor?
I can see why they thought it was appropriate for me. But I think what we all didn’t want to do was The Thick of It, but in the 1950s. It’s not that. For me, I’ve always been fascinated by the music at that time, the composers, like Shostakovich, and as a result I’ve been fascinated by that whole side of "how does a country work under that kind of terror?" It came at the right time as well, just independently what I wanted to look at next was that idea of dictatorship and how an entire country can be held under the sway of one person, how you can bend the collective will, that sort of autocracy. It just felt like an area I was interested in.
It doesn't sound instantly funny. Is it?
It’s sort of funny, but there’s an air of tension underneath it as well. We’ve gone back and dug out a lot of the jokes that were used around Stalin’s time, which if you were caught saying then would have [gotten] you shot. I had a look again at things like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which really stands up. There’s some very funny bits in it, but also some really horrible bits. What I’m very keen to do is make something that is not necessarily a comedy. I think people will laugh. But I also want to make it a tense experience as well in certain moments. It’s taking me out of my comfort zone. Because you can’t belittle what people went through at the time.
So, like Veep and The Thick of It, will much of the humor be in the interactions between the characters?
Yeah, and also in the fact that people have to think very carefully about every word that they say. People were reported for putting a coffee mug on a photo of Stalin in a newspaper. It’s things like that.
Speaking of Veep, have you been watching the new season?
I have. I’m not fully up to speed — I’m four or five in. It’s hilarious.
Is it difficult to watch something that was your baby now that you’ve moved on?
Not really. What’s really fun actually is watching it not knowing what the hell anyone is going to say next. It was weird at first. I sent a note to the team, because it makes me appreciate what a fantastic cast they are. And I so enjoy their performances because I genuinely don’t know what any of them are going to do. Normally when these things go out, you’ve watched it 150 times.
Any favorite moments so far?
I did think Jonah [Timothy Simons] chasing a child around in a children’s play area for no reason was just one of the most sinister things I’ve ever seen. I sent him a note.
To the untrained eye, it seems just as brilliant as it was before. Have you noticed any changes since David Mandel took over?
Obviously I’ve noticed things, but that’s precisely what’s needed. After four seasons, and I think this should work for most shows, you should get out. Because you’re so close to it and, for the good of the program, you need a fresh eye, a fresh set of ideas, fresh writing, fresh bursts of energy. It feels refreshed, which means it should quite happily carry on for some time now. And I said that to David, I said I’m just going to get out of your hair, because everyone needs to know that he’s in charge. If I’m hanging around as some kind of Pope Benedict, hanging around getting old in another room while he’s trying to push through with his reforms, I don’t think it works.
But if Mandel invites you to the Emmys when Veep inevitably gets nominated for another load of awards, will you go?
I think I should keep well away. I was over while they were filming and there was a message of ‘’Oh, do you want to drop by?” and I was like, “No, just assume I’m dead.”
In our recent comedy showrunner roundtable, Mandel said that everyone was now expecting Veep to have some sort of Donald Trump figure and it was getting harder to parody politics given what has been going on…
No, and neither should you! Because Trump will come and Trump will go, and you don’t want the show to be marked out by a particular set of actual events. Which is why we were always careful to not mention which party Selina was in or mention any contemporary politicians and not to actually mirror any actual events…
Although it ended doing just that on several occasions…
Ha! But that was unintentional…
Given actual political developments in the U.S. and their growing ability to outdo satire, are you perhaps happy that you’ve moved away from it all?
As an American outsider, I find the whole situation at the moment quite difficult to fathom. So I’m glad I’m out of that sort of atmosphere. To be honest I find it more disturbing than anything else, but obviously we’re going through something similar over here in the U.K. at the moment. I think Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] said “it used to be a satire, but now it’s become a somber documentary of what’s going on.” And I think that summed it up.
You recently ruled out returning to your pre-Veep U.K. satire The Thick of It. With the near-farcical Brexit campaign and the prospect of the U.K. moving out of the European Union and further to the right, don’t we need satire even more?
Possibly, but I also feel now is the time for people to actually stop it happening.
Ken Loach famously came out of retirement after the Conservatives won the last U.K. election…
I always think there’s a danger in thinking that if I do a comedy about it, this will change people’s minds. And I just think that way madness lies. All that comedy can do is crystallize, maybe make a little bit clearer the issues involved. Therefore if I have an opinion on something, it’s far more honest if I just voice that opinion than subliminally hide it behind a comedy or something. And I feel the issues are so serious, like democracy, I’m just not in the mood for writing funny little sketches about it. I feel I’d rather just go out and persuade friends and neighbors to get involved in doing something about it.
We do appear to be living in a particular grim time, what with the murder of U.K. politician Jo Cox and the shootings in Orlando…
It does make you appreciate the importance of democracy. We’re so used to voting online for things and pressing the button and watching democracy in terms of bite-size chunks and politics as entertainment, you sort of forget that actually this is real life and real lives are involved and the decisions that politicians make affect people in quite a fundamental way. So therefore your vote is a precious thing. Just getting people out to vote is something that concerns me, so it does bring it home really.
How do you see it looking in a year’s time?
I suspect Trump will still be on everyone’s screens this time next year, but it may not be in the Oval Office. If anyone needs the oxygen of publicity, it’s him. He’s generating either the oxygen or the nitrogen of publicity … he’s generating the methane of publicity.
On to happier thoughts — IMDb lists another comedy you’re attached to direct, Out of the Window?
We actually started on that before Veep, and there’s a script. It’s set in the sort of surveillance/voyeuristic area. It’s the story of a guy who becomes an international laughing stock when he’s accidentally filmed doing something that looks a bit stupid, and his attempts to find the person who filmed him and destroy them. I’m also working on a comedy about artificial intelligence. That’s with Sony at the moment and Sean Gray, who writes on Veep, has been working on that. And I’m also talking to HBO about doing something else, another comedy series. So I’ve been busy, but it’s all U.K.-based.
...which is one of the main reasons you departed from Veep, right?
Yeah, the jet lag became worse and United Airlines' bottomless well of disinterest in the passenger … in the end, it became too much.