Commentary: Being in 'Loop' means being at Tribeca premiere


Iannucci interview: If you're going to be in New York Monday and aren't attending the premiere of Armando Iannucci's "In the Loop" at the Tribeca Film Festival, you're definitely not in the loop.

That is, unless you already were in the loop at Sundance, where "Loop" was an official entry in January. If not, you might have to wait to be looped in until July 17, when this absolutely delicious British political satire opens in New York and L.A. via IFC Films. "Loop" is from the team behind the hit BBC comedy series "In the Thick of It," whose six half-hour episodes ran in 2005 and two one-hour specials aired in '07. The program won the Best New TV Comedy award at the 2005 British Comedy Awards.

If "Thick" is new to you, the good news is that like everything else it's now on YouTube, where you can easily track down its episodes and spend hours becoming addicted to them. You'll see quickly enough that the series is a wickedly funny look at political life in the U.K. and the amusing foibles of cabinet ministers and their staff. Chief among them is the Prime Minister's foul-mouthed communications chief and principal enforcer Malcolm Tucker, who's brilliantly portrayed by Peter Capaldi.

"Loop" marks the feature directorial debut for Armando Iannucci, the series' director, co-producer and co-writer. It's produced by Adam Tandy, co-producer of the series, and by Kevin Loader, whose 14 years as a producer at the BBC included numerous shows but not "Thick." The film's writers include Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche, all of whom wrote the series. "Loop's" additional dialogue is by Ian Martin, who was the series' "swearing consultant," a role that clearly kept him very busy as almost every word out of Tucker's mouth falls into this category.

Besides Capaldi, "Loop" stars Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison (as a political adviser), David Rasche, Gina McKee (as a cabinet minister's communications director), James Gandolfini (as a U.S. general), Mimi Kennedy (as a U.S. assistant secretary for diplomacy), Olivia Poulet, Steve Coogan, Tom Hollander (as the minister for international development) and Zach Woods.

Despite the many ties between "Loop" and "Thick," the movie, according to its creative team, is more a "cousin" of the TV series than a sibling. Indeed, with "Loop" Iannucci and his colleagues have given themselves a much broader canvas on which to work. Unlike the U.K.-bound series, the film's action shifts from London to Washington and New York as the British pols tangle with their opposite numbers in Congress, at the Pentagon and at the U.N. What they're focusing on now is the much bigger global issue of going or not going to war in the Middle East rather than the more insular British politics that the series revolved around.

After thoroughly enjoying my early look at "Loop," I was delighted to be able to talk recently to Iannucci about how it reached the big screen. When he called Iannucci was at home in the U.K. and about to head to New York for the film's Tribeca festivities.

"I've always wanted to make a funny film," he explained. "Ever since I was a kid and going to see things like 'Airplane' and 'Spinal Tap' and Woody Allen films, I really wanted to make a film full of jokes and one-liners and a sort of screwball comedy. I've been doing lots of television, but I've been waiting for the right story, and when I read more and more about the background leading up to the Iraq War and all the in-fighting and the office politics that went on (in Washington) and also the story of how deluded the Brits were going over to Washington and getting very star-struck, I just thought, 'There's the story.'"

But having the story wasn't enough. "I have the TV show in the U.K. called 'The Thick of It,' which is set in the backrooms of politics and Downing Street, so that gave me the kind of style and the approach," Iannucci said. "I knew I had the story and then because I wanted to let people see the American side and U.K. side I knew I needed two casts, in a way. I needed a U.K. cast and then a U.S. cast who could all work in the style I wanted.

"We spent an awful long time on the script, but then I like my casts to kind of improvise around the script slightly just to get the whole thing to be very natural (so it seems as though) the audience is eavesdropping on what they're watching. Then I came over to Washington and did lots of research and met up with people in the State Department and the Pentagon and the CIA and at the United Nations to find out what it was really like -- you know, the boring stuff like when do people get in in the morning -- because I'm not making a documentary, I'm making an entertainment really. So I wanted to find the bare elements of what life is like (in Washington)."

Iannucci realized he had a very different take on how Washington is presented in films: "I've never really seen Washington portrayed in movies as being a little bit rubbish. I've seen it portrayed as being very noble or as corrupt and sinister, but not a little bit dull and a little bit just like working in an office. And that's what a lot of them said. The guy in the CIA said he spent a lot of time (thinking) that one day someone would come up to him and point over in the corner and say, 'You see that door over there? That's where the real CIA is. If you go through there, it's full of flashing lights and computers and big screens.' And he said that day never arrived. So that was the starting point, and then the three writers and myself constructed the script."

Unlike so many movies that take years and years to come together, "Loop" happened very quickly. "From having a blank piece of paper going into meetings and saying, 'I've got this idea,' (that) was November 2007," he recalled. "And finally having all things shot was November 2008. So it was about a year."

It's a very different inside look at what goes on in Downing Street from what we're used to seeing in movies like "The Queen" or "The Deal," the wonderful 2003 British television film that director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen (playing Prime Minister Tony Blair) made prior to "The Queen." "Yes," he agreed. "With those films you're going right to the top. You're seeing the prime minister. With this film I didn't want to do that (so the PM's never seen). I really wanted to show how little people and their actions or their mistakes and errors can actually have enormous consequences."

Iannucci moved ahead quickly in casting the film. "When we were only on the second draft of the script," he said, "I started sending scenes over to a casting director in New York and in L.A. and I showed James Gandolfini the script. But I was always stressing, 'It will all change.' But I like to cast early so that the writers while they're still writing can now write in the voice of the performers. And then we come to the stage where near the shoot we workshop the script with the actors, which is where we run the script and then we put the script to one side and say, 'Well, let's do it again in your own words and try to hit the lines and the jokes and let's see what else comes out.' That was the case for a couple of weeks and then we came out and spent a week in a hotel in New York with the American cast and did the same. There's always a writer there to watch it so he can incorporate it back in the script."

Unlike some directors who want to shoot exactly what they've worked out in advance, Iannucci enjoys a bit of improv. "Even when we're on set, I always shoot the script but I then leave a bit of time at the end of the scene to improvise the scene again," he noted, "just to see what else comes out. It might be a little look or a little aside that someone makes. James (Gandolfini) and Mimi Kennedy went off and worked out what their relationship was and whether (their characters) had a relationship in the past and so on. And they sort of fed that into their performance. So in those moments between them there's a lot of improvisation in there, as well. We always had one of the writers on the set so that if an idea comes up and we thought it was actually funny but we need to just go away and really hone it down, then the writer can go away and kind of rewrite the scene with that in mind."

Looking back at the challenges of production, he told me, "Normally, I like to shoot in story order, but obviously (with) a film of this scale with all these characters and half of it being in another country, you can't shoot (in sequence). But I also wanted to try and resist the temptation because it was a (feature-length) film to play with the film box of tricks (like) stunning London sunsets and soaring music and all that because I wanted to keep it very much like the audience was feeling like they were eavesdropping on something that was real. I didn't want them to feel they were getting a concocted, artificial entertainment. So actually the biggest challenge was really to resist the temptation to dress it all up. I think particularly in comedies that can get in the way of the comedy."

Were there any big differences between shooting "Loop" as a feature versus shooting "Thick" for TV? "The TV one is handheld (cameras) and very fast-moving, and I thought on the big screen that would be just too much," he replied. "So I turned that tone down a bit and instead I thought it's just a subtle thing to get the fluidity in a connecting sense. I do lots of sudden zooms or little quiet zooms in. But I always had two cameras (shooting) at once and there are no marks (for actors to hit on the set). We just light the set generally so I can tell the actors to go anywhere they like and not feel they have to (be somewhere specific) so that we can run the whole scene without any stopping."

He likes the idea of shooting long takes, Iannucci explained, so as "to get the momentum and the energy really. It's difficult to get that pace unless you work up to it. Very often I'll shoot a scene knowing that the real heart of it is the second half of it. I'll shoot the whole scene knowing that in the end I'll cut the first half of it. It's just to get the energy going."

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