Armando Iannucci Talks Veep
Armando Iannucci is a veteran of British comedy who came through the ranks with such luminaries as Steve Coogan and Chris Morris, collaborating with them both on the seminal mock news show The Day Today and with Coogan alone on a number of shows featuring Alan Partridge. Recently, though, writer/director/producer Iannucci has become one of the foremost political satirists, starting with the BBC’s astute, dry Parliamentary mockumentary The Thick of It. That show then spawned a big-screen spin-off, In the Loop, a riotously funny dissection of U.S/U.K. political relations in the buildup to the Iraq War that not only became a major commercial hit but also earned Iannucci an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
The success of In the Loop – which proved Iannucci had just as much of an ear for the idiocies of Washington, D.C. as he did for those of Westminster — led directly to creating and executive producing Veep. The HBO show centers on Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the Vice President of the United States, and her staff and sees Iannucci continuing to mine the political sphere for all its rich comic potential. Though the show’s setting and cast (which includes Arrested Development veteran Tony Hale and Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder Matt Walsh) are decidedly American, Iannucci has not only kept some of his British satirical sensibility but also many of his familiar behind-the-scenes collaborators, including Morris and fellow In the Loop Oscar nominees Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche.
Filmmaker spoke with Iannucci about the challenges of making the first season of Veep (out today on DVD and Blu-ray), his resistance to working on network shows and his plans to return to directing for films.
Filmmaker: How are things with you?
Iannucci: Good, good. We’re just doing the penultimate episode of Veep at the moment in Baltimore.
Filmmaker: What has it like been moving from making a BBC show to now working for HBO?
Iannucci: Well, it’s interesting, but the first thing that shocked me was how similar it felt to doing a show with the BBC. At the BBC I’m used to having an awful lot of creative freedom; they discuss the concept but I tend to get left alone and on with it. At HBO, it’s very different from the [U.S.] network method of [having] every executive involved in every creative decision. It goes through a very structured process. They said to me, “Look, we like what you’re doing. We’d love you to do something for HBO. But the last thing we’re doing to do is tell you to do anything differently from how you normally work because otherwise what is the point of asking you to do something?” So, I’ve been very much left alone. Once we’ve agreed what the [concept] is, what the tone is, they’ve been very trusting and supportive and just left me to get on with it. So, creatively, I find it surprisingly similar to what I’m used to. I think the big difference is I think the resources, obviously. It’s interesting coming out with some of the writers from the U.K. We realized when we write a scene, she’s the Vice President, so she has a motorcade. She has a security detail. There are hundreds of people in the streets looking at her, who are just there and seem a matter of course, really. It’s not something that we specifically write in the script. It’s just, you know, it’s gotta look right, so therefore, these are the resources we’ll use to make it look right.
Also, I find the acting styles are different. The cast we have are more well versed in freeing things up, in loosening stuff up, making it very conversational. I find that in the U.K. actors tend to have almost an undue respect for the script to the extent that they’re nervous to change a line or a word, whereas obviously my style is very much to persuade people to loosen up the script. But there aren’t too many differences. You know, once we get going, you forget where you are. I mean, we’re in a big warehouse in Baltimore. It’s not the Hollywood Hills or anything. You’re so focused on being able to just get the episode right, you lose track of precisely geographically where you are. I find the crew is very dedicated and the high standards of professionalism are just great. I mean, it’s been a joy.
Filmmaker: How long did it take you to sort of get your eye or, more specifically, your ear into the idiosyncrasies and nuances of American politics? I guess that started with In the Loop?
Iannucci: Yes, I did an awful lot of research for [In the Loop], and I was out in D.C. fairly regularly meeting people. In the end, it became not so much what it was they were telling me about life in Washington, it was more I was just watching them and how they behaved, what their body language was. And then we did more research on Veep. Everyone was very welcoming and we spent half a day at the Vice President’s office and spoke to his Chief of Staff and was shown around the State Department and the Pentagon. And again, as you make these research trips, it’s not so much what you’re being told as how you’re being told it that actually helps you work out who the characters are. And that research continues, even for the second season. I was out on election night, because the second season actually opens on the midterm elections, just to get a sense of what D.C. is like on election night. You meet the bloggers and the politicos and the journalists as well as the legislators, and you build up a picture.
Filmmaker: We were talking before about networks. Were you approached by any networks to do a show?
Iannucci: Well, we made a pilot of The Thick of It for ABC about five or six years back, and so that was my experience of going through the large committee system. It just wasn’t the right fit because I feel the show has to have a voice of its own that some people will like and others won’t. You can’t really get that through a committee. My experience of [making that] pilot in LA was what then went into In the Loop. I turned that into what it would be like if a small British cabinet minister went out to America and felt he was being wooed, and then he realized he had absolutely no say in the final product whatsoever.
Filmmaker: The networks’ creative process has been parodied in things like Episodes andThe TV Set, which apparently are very accurate in their portrayals.
Iannucci: I can believe that, but I’ve been mercifully removed from all of that. The HBO system is very different. The program maker is in charge and [HBO is] there to support you and back you up and give you what you need. They give notes, but they’re intelligent notes about how we can make it even better, they’re not notes based on, “I don’t like the color pink.” It’s good stuff, and you know that you’re dealing with people who are at the top of their game and are passionate about it. So apart from that one experience of developing a pilot, I’ve been fortunate not to have gone through that. But also, I’m approaching 50 now and I’m at a stage in my career where I’m not yearning to make it big in America or anything like that. I don’t see that as an ambition. The opportunity came up to work with HBO and I’ve admired HBO’s stuff, so that’s what I find interesting, rather than, “Let’s see if I can crack the American market.”
Filmmaker: After the success of In the Loop, do you want to do more films or do other TV shows? I really enjoyed The Armando Iannucci Show, which was more surreal and personal.
Iannucci: Oh right, thank you. Well, I’d love to do a film in that tone, having that combination of realism and high fantasy together, you know? I like that, so I want to come up with a storyline that would allow me to go there. I do want to do more films. We’ve written a [film that’s] completely different from In the Loop. It’s a slapstick visual comedy that we’ve got in the pipeline and I want to do that pretty soon. But also, I’m aware when you commit to something like Veep, it’s a bigger commitment than you would make when you’re doing a U.K. TV show. Normally, [in the U.K.] you do a series and then you hope it gets recommissioned, and then you try and work out when is the best time to do the second series, whereas here it is very much an expectation that the [show], provided it gets recommissioned, will have a certain life. I certainly want to do another film pretty soon, but at the moment, I am doing Veep [season] two, and then I’m going to wait and see if there’ll be Veep [season] three, and then go ahead with that.
Filmmaker: Another HBO show that’s doing really well is Girls. Have you watched that at all??
Iannucci: Because we’ve been shooting, I haven’t had a chance to look at the second season yet, but I really enjoyed the first season. I just thought it felt so distinctive. Going back to what I was saying about how a show should have a sense of its own voice, that’s what Girls had abundantly. It felt like I can not compare this to anything else, which is great.
Filmmaker: This season particularly, Girls has really pushed the envelope, doing some really interesting things both narratively and stylistically. Given your background, particularly the stuff that you’ve dome with Chris Morris, are you inspired to do something for HBO which is more expansive or out there?
Iannucci: Yeah, yeah. That’s interesting. I’m so used to in the U.K. doing very self-contained episodes. My prime thing is I want it to be funny. I want people to laugh and the real satisfying thing is trying to achieve that more complex story structure. As a result, we’ve been kind of plotting this show as we’ve been going along. You know, we’ll shoot two or three episodes. I’ve always had a clear idea of where it’s going to end up, but we’ve been mapping out the details as we go along because I like the details to seem to emerge naturally from what you’ve just seen. So that’s been fun. It’s funny, I’ve always felt when you direct something or when you make something, no matter how seasoned you are, it always feels like it’s a learning process. You’re always learning something new from it.
Filmmaker: And what has it been like having familiar collaborators like Simon Blackwell and Chris Morris working with you in this very different context?
Iannucci: Well, it’s kept us grounded because we all understand each other and we all work off each other. So, it doesn’t feel like we’re in a completely alien environment. It feels like we’re in a different environment, but it’s one that we feel comfortable in. What’s been great is actually us learning from the cast and their experience and the cast are learning from our experience. It’s felt like we still have the spirit of what it is that we’ve always been doing, but it’s just it’s in a new setting.
Filmmaker: Looking at the credits for season one, every episode you’ve either directed and/or written the story and/or written the script.
Iannucci: Yeah, well, I suppose that’s because you want to set the stamp. I’ve only directed one episode in this season. But, the other directors are all directors that I’ve worked very closely with before. Chris Addison, who’s Oliver in The Thick of It, he’s directed three episodes. Chris Morris has directed a couple of episodes. Becky Martin, who directed Peep Show, has directed two episodes. Chris Addison always jokes that it’s like a family. You train up people to get this style so that they can then go on and do that style. Also, because we’re shooting so close to transmission, I just needed to be a bit more available to look over the scripts and get the cuts finished and everything ready. I also find it quite exhausting. [Laughs] The first season, when I shot two [episodes] back-to-back, I was just a wreck by the end of it. So I decided in advance of season two, [that in order] to be able to conserve my energy a bit more and to be able to look right across the whole season, I just needed to step back. But, I’m around and it’s such a collaborative process that the directors know that I’m going to run in with a suggestion and a writer’s going to throw in a line at the end of the take. We all understand each other, we all complete each other’s sentences, so it doesn’t really matter who’s doing what at any particular stage, you know?
Filmmaker: Do you have a planned (or ideal) number of seasons for Veep?
Iannucci: Well, I don’t have a sense of that, but I have a sense of how it should expand and develop. And being the Vice President, they do exist in these natural four-year cycles. So the end of the first four years is a good point to take stock. I’m not looking beyond that because I just think, well, let’s see what’s the funniest way of getting through those four years. And then, when we get to that stage, then let’s see where we are and then what seems funniest next.