Armando Iannucci, In The Loop
Scottish writer-director Armando Iannucci has made a slow and steady progression toward becoming a film director. The Glasgow-born Italian Scot originally was planning to become a priest (like Martin Scorsese) but the lure of the entertainment world won out over the less glamorous prospect of a life of piety and celibacy. Iannucci attended the University of Glasgow then studied English at Oxford University, where he discovered his passion for comedy. He next got a job as a radio producer on comedy shows for the BBC, and by the early 90s he was working on the iconic sketch show Week Ending and had created both the edgy faux newscast On the Hour (with Chris Morris) and Knowing Me, Knowing You… with Alan Partridge, starring Steve Coogan. The latter two shows then graduated to television (On The Hour became The Day Today), where they were highly acclaimed by both viewers and critics. In the late 90s, Iannucci progressed from writer and producer to director also, helming a segment of the movie Tube Tales (1999) as well as his first longer form political satire, Clinton: His Struggle with Dirt (1998). In 2001, he wrote, directed and starred in the series The Armando Iannucci Shows, and the following year he teamed up with Coogan again to co-write and direct episodes of I’m Alan Partridge. In 2005, he created The Thick of It, a vérité mockumentary series that depicted the farcical goings on in the lower echelons of the British government. After getting rave reviews for its first series, the show returned two years later with three one-hour specials.
Iannucci’s first feature, In the Loop, sees him adapting The Thick of It for the big screen, though only one character – the merciless, insult-hurling spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) – makes through the transition intact. Fittingly, the scope is much greater here, as it swaps the idiocies of small government for the farce of international politics and global warfare. The film’s central figure is hapless government minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), who becomes a political pawn as the US and the UK ponder invading a certain Middle Eastern country. After making the comment that war is “unforseeable,” he goes to Washington, D.C., where everyone (including James Gandolfini’s anti-war general and Mimi Kennedy’s minister) is jostling to get on the all-important war committee. Fast-paced, smart, and very, very funny, In the Loop is easily the best political satire in recent memory, its acidic, dry take recalling Dr. Strangelove. Iannucci and his writing team brilliantly capture the power dynamics of politics in a way that is hilarious but also resonantly realistic. It’s a particular pleasure to see The Thick of It‘s boogieman Malcolm Tucker (played with virtuousic venom by Capaldi) transplanted from Whitehall to Washington, where his no-nonsense “problem-solving” techniques are somewhat culturally alien, if no less effective. On the basis of In the Loop, it’s clear that Iannucci’s comedic talents are as well-suited to features as they are to television, and we can but hope that he will have the opportunity to make more films as cutting and unrelentingly funny in the future.
Filmmaker spoke to Iannucci about making the jump from TV to film, accurately depicting the ridiculousness of politics, and his plans to make a sci-fi movie he describes as “Ken Loach in space.”
Filmmaker: How long had you been thinking of doing this as a movie? Was it in your head when you created the series that you wanted to do this?
Iannucci: No, I had absolutely no intention of doing a film [of this], but I’ve always wanted to do a funny film. Fast, sparky, like a screwball comedy. I’ve been attached to various projects, but I wanted to wait until I found the right story. Then when I read more and more about the stupid sort of “office politics” that went on in the lead up to the Iraq War, I thought, “That’s the story!” And then, “Well, I’ve got this model here of how The Thick of It works, so why don’t we take that but not have the same minister and staff, because this is international and that’s domestic?” And I knew the “special relationship” meant we were going to have a U.S. cast of characters and a U.K. cast of characters, but I wanted Malcolm [Tucker] to be there.
Filmmaker: Stylistically there’s a shift between this and The Thick of It, as the shaky camera is replaced by much glossier visuals. What was the rationale behind that?
Iannucci: I thought the shaky thing on a big screen would just be intolerable. I don’t know if I could watch that. What we do now – and it’s just subliminal and surreptitious – is more zooms to get the fluidity. I still wanted a raw feel to it rather than the glossed, package sheen of other moviemakers, I still wanted it to feel raw and energetic and a bit messy and unfinished in a way. I found myself trying to resist the temptation to play with the big box of tricks. If a shot looked quite nicely composed, I’d not go for it and try to mess it up so that there’s no sense of someone telling you the story.
Filmmaker: So did you have instructions for your D.P. about what kind of look and feel you wanted for the film?
Iannucci: For a start, I wanted to keep the fluidity. Also, the technique is just a function of how we go about the performances, because the performances are always [fluid too]. We always shoot what’s in the script, but then I ask them to put it to one side and do it again. There’s nothing worse than someone who improvises some great thing and then you say, “Can you do it one more time? This time we’ll do it in a tight shot.” What we do is have two cameras at all times because I want the actors to feel they can wander anywhere. There are no marks. So that actually then dictates the style, and because we keep moving it just allows you to cut in the edit. For some reason we don’t notice the jump cuts because there’s just that rhythm in the cut anyway that your mind gets used to.
Filmmaker: Is that how you’ve always directed? Have you always let actors improvise after they’ve got a take from the script in the can?
Iannucci: Yes, and sometimes I’ll say to both cameras, “Don’t show me anyone speaking, just show me people listening this time.” Or I’ll do a “drifting two,” which is basically four or five people in a room and you’re just catching two people in a shot. So we just build up all those components so in the edit we have the flexibility to go anywhere and not worry about continuity.
Filmmaker: There’s always a big deal made about a director who moves from TV to the big screen. Did it feel like a step up for you? Were you at all daunted?
Iannucci: The biggest challenge for me was keeping the whole story in my head, keeping the rhythm, the pace at which the story was told as new elements and new characters were introduced into it. In an episode, you really have to have all your balls in the air in the first five minutes because you’ve not got much time, whereas in the film I knew I wanted to hold people back. So trying to hold all that in your head logistically – because of the bigger spread of characters and locations – was more difficult because we didn’t get to shoot things in story order.
Filmmaker: As a writer, you’ve mostly done half-hour television, so did you find yourself having to switch gears to write a feature length comedy? How did it feel to have that change of pace?
Iannucci: Well, it was great because it means you’re not having to do everything in shorthand all the time. And also that relentless pace can get [draining]. I also had in my head a duration, and I felt it couldn’t be longer than an hour and three quarters. The worst bit was in the last stages of the edit, trying to get it down from two hours. I just felt that’s as much as you can take. There’s too many comedies where you’ve felt, “It’s two and a half hours!” – because they need half an hour to wrap up the love interest or learn their lesson. [laughs] The films I like are all quite punchy and don’t outstay their welcome. But, interestingly, with The Thick of It, for the last couple of years we’ve done these hour-long specials, which allowed me start playing with pacing and so on. It was after the second of the hour-long specials that I thought, “Maybe there’s something here. We’ve seen that this can sustain an hour, let’s try and think of a way of doing something [longer].”
Filmmaker: I remember an interview you gave a few years previously where you said that people in UK government said The Thick of It got it absolutely right – even though you were just trying to be funny, rather than accurate, about the idiocies of politics.
Iannucci: And that’s actually been happening with this film in the UK, in that Gordon Brown’s spin doctor resigned the week of the release. That was just perfect timing. Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor, watched the film and said, “It’s boring. None of that happens.” He said, “In America, the scene where the committee goes out of control and they have to shut it down, that’s just caricature.” And that was actually based on something that Cheney did: he set up a committee called something like Neutral Strategy. It was basically all about looking into whether they could invade Iran and Syria, and then 50 senators wanted on it so it got too big and he had to shut it down. Then he opened it up a few corridors down. So that happened, the spin doctor resigned, the Home Secretary’s husband listed on her expenses some adult movies that he’d watched, and then reports came out about Gordon Brown smashing up a laser printer in his office. [laughs] I don’t think there’s any mystique to it. If you meet enough of these people, you can sort of work out what they must be like to work for.
Filmmaker: With this film, how much of it was research and how much was instinct?
Iannucci: Part of the research is to get the authenticity right just in the detail. From all that research we established that a lot of Washington is run by 23-year-olds. They do spend a lot of time hanging around more senior people offices in the hope of being spotted, which means they do all their work at night. And there’s that thing about if you leave the meeting, you leave the power, so you must never leave a meeting. Madeleine Albright used to teach her staff “bladder diplomacy,” which was how to last up to 6 hours without going to the toilet. You sip. It’s interesting that maybe some wars were decided because somebody had to go the bathroom and couldn’t wait any longer. [laughs] You know, Colin Powell left the room to go to the toilet and that’s when they decided to invade Iraq.
Filmmaker: Your work always has a sense of the absurb and this does too, but that absurdity seems to be grounded in events and situations that actually happened. What was the balance between your created absurdity and reality?
Iannucci: I don’t know because sometimes I dismiss certain storylines as being too silly – only to find that they happened. And that’s a sort of strange thing, because you think in the world of politics that you can’t be too absurd.
Filmmaker: So are you always trying to raise the level of ridiculousness just a little bit?
Iannucci: Just a little bit, but not to the extent that it becomes a raised eyebrow situation. Also, there is an element of knowing there is an artificiality about it. I mentioned screwball comedy, and I knew for the last 20 minutes there was going to be [a lot of that]. The scene in the meditation room is really the Marx brothers, but you sublimate it all under realism and detail. The detail is there as a distraction: it lulls you into thinking it’s all real when it’s highly, highly artificial.
Filmmaker: You worked with Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison on the TV series, but how did the new additions to the cast take to your improvisation process? Was it a very new way of working for them?
Iannucci: Well, I think it was for Tom [Hollander]. I’m not sure about James [Gandolfini]. I always think the American style is very naturalistic anyway so I think they’re used to the notion of seeing a script and just dirtying it up slightly to make it feel more real and conversational. But James did his own research, went off to the Pentagon for two days. He got his haircut at the barbers with four-star generals, so he was able to bring back all that to us.
Filmmaker: You also filmed at No. 10 Downing Street. How did that happen?
Iannucci: Well, we wrote to them, fully expecting them to say, “No, we just don’t do that sort of thing. Go away.” But they wrote back saying, “Yeah, why not?” It coincided with a week when it was quiet because the Prime Minister was up in Blackpool for some party conference. They were really quite excited when Peter turned up. All the Malcolms [i.e. spin doctors] in No. 10 had brought their cameras and we had to do a big group shot. We had tea with the Chancellor’s wife in their flat upstairs, and we were taken on a tour. It was like the full works – it was great!
Filmmaker: So I assume that the people at No. 10 are fans of The Thick of It.
Iannucci: I don’t know if Gordon Brown is, but “the machine” is well aware of it. It’s strange, isn’t it? You think, “That’s quite interesting.” Then you think, “But don’t they see how it shows them?” But I think that it’s such a contained, inward-looking world that they’re just relieved that anyone from the outside world cares. I remember when we were doing research and I met Joe Biden’s chief of staff. He was youngish, mid-30s, good-looking, clearly a powerful job. He said “It’s always exciting to have people from the media here. Last week I was at a reception and Bradley Whitford (Josh from The West Wing) was there!” I was thinking, “But you’re him, you’re the real one!” But you don’t say that. Also, because they can’t impress other people in politics by saying, “Oh yeah, I had tea with the Foreign Secretary,” they like to be able to say that to people from the outside.
Filmmaker: You talked about the Marx brothers and screwball as being influences here. Was that your taste in movies growing up?
Iannucci: I loved Woody Allen – Bananas, Love and Death. I’m a big Woody Allen fan. Airplane. Films with lots of gags in them. I really like Buster Keaton. And then things like Brazil and Dr. Strangelove, The Great Dictator by Chaplin. I like those comedies that actually have big subjects attached to them but somehow don’t belittle the subject by being a comedy, they give you the chance to really come at it from all angles. I mean, The Great Dictator, made in the middle of the Second World War, is a satire on Hitler and the Jews. I can’t believe what that must have been like watching that.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Iannucci: I remember my mum taking me to the strange double bill of The Student Prince and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I think it was because she wanted to see them. I thought it was terrible. It was just lots of singing. But fortunately the cinema was only two blocks from our house, so I just left. Went home. I thought it was just pointless.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you cried in a film and which film was it?
Iannucci: I think it was The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. At the very end. It’s very sad.
Filmmaker: Finally, if you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Iannucci: I’d want to make a big sci-fi movie that was terrifying. I don’t really think about the cast until I’ve got the story. I kind of like the idea of a sci-fi movie that’s very naturalistic, like Ken Loach in space.