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It’s been more than eight years since Armando Iannucci last unveiled a feature film — his acclaimed directorial debut In the Loop back in 2009. But few would argue that the British funnyman and satirist has spent the time slacking, having brought his BAFTA-winning TV comedy The Thick of It to a triumphantly profane close in 2012 and immediately helping to launch and relaunch a multitude of careers with the just-as-sweary Veep, which seemingly can’t stop winning Emmys.
Iannucci left as showrunner in 2015 to focus on his next film, now premiering in Toronto. With The Death of Stalin, based on Fabien Nury’s graphic novel, he’s gone in a — slightly — different direction, back in time to 1950s Moscow and the ensuing chaos left by the passing of the former Soviet leader.
In this “comedy of terrors,” Jeffrey Tambor plays the indecisive Georgy Malenkov, who stumbles into power as Stalin’s deputy only to find himself caught up in a deadly game of backstabbing and skulduggery between Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) over the keys to the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the lives of millions of Russians are at stake outside. Iannucci talked to THR about leaving his comfort zone, keeping well away from Veep and what Stalin’s Twitter feed might look like.
Was it difficult with Death of Stalin to navigate a path a between the comedy and real-life horror without belittling the seriousness of the situation?
I knew that was what the bulk of the editing process was going to be — to get that balance. And people have said it is a tightrope walk between tragedy and comedy all the time. It’s not that one scene is dramatic and one is funny. Trying to get it so that a scene can be funny and at the same time, the sort of truth of it, is something tragic.
Like the scene in which Beria casually orders the precise manner in which a husband and wife should be shot, which is horrific, but almost comical …
That is what they did! And some of the dramatic scenes I shot slightly in the rhythm of comedy, without being funny. And some of the comic moments I shot in a slightly less comic way, to make the joke play out longer. In terms of how I wanted to make people feel, this is funny but also serious at the same time.
This is both your first time dealing with real-life characters and a period setting, right?
Yeah, I thought it was a challenge. There’s no point doing something like this unless it’s taking you out of the comfort zone. And what I wanted to avoid is, this is The Thick of It in the Soviet Union. There are whole scenes where there’s no dialogue, it’s all visual. And there are whole scenes where there are no jokes! My rule was: If it’s not funny, it had better be interesting. I felt you’ve got to be true to the graphic novel and really what people went through.
Any concerns that the film might not go down well in Russia?
We’ve sold it to Russia. And they want it as is!
Do you feel like you dodged a bullet in ditching U.S. politics when you did?
Well yes, I’m glad I’m not doing Veep anymore. But it’s weird, because people I’ve shown the trailer to say that it’s actually like that now, because it’s all about autocrats and old history and new history. There are scenes in it where they talk about false narratives, fake narratives and new narratives. You know, “We don’t think that anymore, we think this now.” So it’s strangely contemporary. Strangely, it seems to be commenting on what’s going on at the moment.
Are you still in touch in with the Veep team, and have you offered them any ideas?
We’re still in touch — I saw Matt Walsh last week. But I keep well away. That’s what I said, right from the start. I don’t want it to feel like the old pope next door, getting older but still alive as the new pope is making changes.
How would you have dealt with someone like Trump had you still been at Veep?
Well, I think they’ve been very smart in that they’ve kept well away from the White House.
Had it been around at the time, what would Stalin’s Twitter feed have looked like?
He’d be eliminating certain followers on a daily basis and replacing them with new ones. There’d be constant deletions of past tweets and retweets.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 9 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.
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