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It’s been only two years since the release of his pitch-black comedy The Death of Stalin, but now Armando Iannucci — also known as the driving creative force behind the equally vicious political satires Veep, The Thick of It and In the Loop — has served up his most un-Iannucci project to date.
The Personal History of David Copperfield, based on Charles Dickens’ semiautobiographical tale of a life from childhood to maturity in Victorian England, received an enthusiastic response in Toronto, where it had its world premiere. THR‘s John DeFore said it “pleases without pandering,” and singled out the lead performance of Dev Patel, who heads an impressively diverse cast that includes veterans Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie alongside up-and-comers Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk) and Anthony Welsh (Fleabag).
Now British Dickens aficionados will get to judge for themselves when the film opens the BFI London Film Festival. Ahead of the movie’s European premiere, Iannucci talked to THR about his change of direction, why he hates the term “color-blind” and why Tom Hanks sent him a note when Veep‘s Selina Meyer was laid to rest.
The reactions to The Personal History of David Copperfield so far have focused on how warm and tender the film is. Given that your previous work has mostly centered around people who are, by and large, kind of shitty, was this an unusual experience for you?
Would you include The Armando Iannucci Show in that?
Ha! But it’s what I was hoping for. I said in Toronto that it couldn’t be more different from The Death of Stalin. And not that it’s a direct response to what’s happening now, but I suppose it’s about a sense of community and sense of belonging — how you respond to people who you think are completely different. I didn’t want to shy away from any of the hard issues in the story, like child labor and domestic abuse and homelessness, but at the same time I wanted the audiences at the end to feel a lot more positive than at the start. I’m not expecting people to come out whistling, but maybe just wanting to engage more with others.
Was it a nice change to make something that people weren’t going to immediately assume was a metaphor for the current political climate?
I thought that when we were making The Death of Stalin! I actually wanted to make this film because I thought the issues and characters were timeless. And the humor. Dickens’ language and style and approach is so modern.
Dev Patel has admitted that he originally thought the film was about the magician. Were you surprised at how unfamiliar people were with Charles Dickens’ work?
Absolutely. And that’s why we made the film in such a way, so you’re not expected to even know who Charles Dickens is or what the novel was or anything. It’s self-contained and no working knowledge of anything is required, other than the ability to get to the cinema. But if people go and see it and are then drawn toward reading Charles Dickens, then fantastic. Because it was rereading David Copperfield about eight, nine years ago that made me think, “Yeah, I want to make this film. This is a modern film with contemporary issues.”
There’s quite a bit of drunkenness in the book.
Dev does a very good drunk — trying very, very carefully to be precise with his words and being unaware that they’re all in the wrong order. Dickens describes Copperfield being drunk for the first time and the whole of London just swirling around him, and him trying to get up the stairs like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street.
What made you choose Dev?
I always thought Dev was funny, that he could do the awkward and the gangly, but David also has to be strong and charismatic. And it’s when I saw him in Lion that I thought, that’s David. I didn’t really have a plan B. Dev was the first person I spoke to and, once he’d got the magician out of the way, he was thinking, “But this is a Victorian show, how does this work?” And what’s great is that once people watch him, they go, “Yeah, he’s David Copperfield.”
The color-blind casting in the film has been very well received. But there was a question about it in Toronto that Hugh Laurie didn’t seem to appreciate. What happened there?
All he said was, in a funny way, “Why did you ask that question?” As in, why is the issue worth raising? And it was a sort of half-serious but deliberately very serious response, because it is interesting. I hate that phrase “color-blind” because it implies some sort of limitation. It made me think, “Why shouldn’t I be able to pick from 100 percent of the acting community available?”
You’ve got the HBO sci-fi series Avenue 5 coming next. Are you taking a break from political satire?
I just thought that what’s happening at the moment is so crazy that any attempt to try and summarize that craziness is never going to be quite as bizarre. There’s never a plan. After [2009’s] In the Loop, I didn’t realize it would take nine years to make my next film. And I didn’t realize my next film would be from a graphic novel [Death of Stalin]. Suddenly, the right theme or right story pops into your head and you think, “That’s the one.”
Were you sad to see Veep laid to rest earlier this year? And to see Selina Meyer’s state funeral get knocked from the headlines by the death of Tom Hanks?
Yes! I was more sad for Tom Hanks. I think they had to ask his permission. But he sent me a very nice letter, which was badly typed on an old-fashioned typewriter, saying how much he liked the show. What was great, because I wasn’t involved in the last couple of seasons, is that I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen next, so I was able to watch it as a normal viewer.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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