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Q&A: Armando Iannucci

By Bret McCabe | Posted 8/12/2009

SCOTTISH WRITER, PRODUCER, and director Armando Iannucci isn't a household name in America just yet, but his upcoming feature film debut In the Loop should change that right quick. An outlandishly funny look at mid-level American and British political players during the run-up to the U.S. declaration of war on some unnamed Middle East country, Loop is a poisonous political satire that plays politics as the absurd farce that it so often is.

Back home, however, Iannucci has been involved with some of the funniest parody programs to come out of the United Kingdom in the past 15 years. Starting with the brilliant 1994 television program The Day Today—a spin-off of the radio show "On the Hour" (think The Daily Show, only more bonkers) —Iannucci has helped craft some of the more poignant British comedy programs in recent history, collaborating with the likes of Patrick Marber, Chris Morris, David Schneider, and Steve Coogan. One of "Hour'/Day Today's creations, commentator/host Alan Patridge, co-created by Iannucci and played by Coogan, became a single-character comedic industry in the mid-1990s, and those bits remain hilarious a decade later. Throughout his career, Iannucci has winningly toyed with the news cycle and the presentation of the news itself, and with Loop he sets his sights squarely on political schadenfreude with playful and deadly aim. City Paper spoke to Iannucci during a mid-July U.S. press tour on the day of a stop in Washington, D.C.

City Paper: Greetings. How's your tour of States going so far?
Armando Iannucci: It's been great—it's been nonstop but it's been good. We had three days in New York and I'm in D.C. today. We've got a lot of Washington insiders coming [to tonight's screening], so I'm really interested to hear how they react.

CP: I was curious about that. What's the response to the movie been like so far from actual politicians?
AI: Well, I know from ones who have seen it that they find it frighteningly accurate, which is the scariest thing to me, isn't it? Even the bits you make up, people tell you, "No, no—that happens."

CP: Could you tell me a little bit about how this story developed? I ask not to be an unoriginal boor, but because I have to confess I didn't see The Thick of It—or, for that matter, Yes, Minister—
AI: And you don't have to. It's not dependent on anyone seeing The Thick of It.

CP: Well, from reading the press notes, I'm led to believe In the Loop is in some ways a variation on a theme of The Thick of It. So did Loop start off as a film project rather than a series with exploring this idea about the run-up to war?
AI: Well, I've always wanted to make a fast, funny film. You know, a sort of fast-talking, farcical film. And In the Loop, underneath all the language and the politics, is basically a screwball comedy. That's, fundamentally . . . I've very consciously modeled the plot along those lines. So I always wanted to make a funny film, but I wanted the right story to come along. And then as I read about the sort of dysfunction in Washington, the State Department, and the Pentagon, and so on and the lead-up to Iraq, and also how the Brits were lured into thinking they were making a difference—they were just reinforcing what the neo-cons wanted to do—I thought either you just tear your hair out and you scream at how horrible this is. Or you look at it and think, You know what—that is the makings of a farce. And I thought, that's the story that I want to tell, really. Of course, I had been making The Thick of It, and we've got this character Malcolm Tucker, and I thought, I want to see him in the center of this.

CP: But not really specify the time or administration or what. It's wonderfully vague, which gives the movie a feel of taking place right now.
AI: I didn't want to mention who the country was or who the prime minister was, because I wanted to keep it away from actual events, and I also knew that I didn't want to go that high. I didn't want to see the president. I wanted to stay with the anonymous, middle-management, office workers—the worker bees, as someone calls them in the State Department—because I kind of want to take something which you think of as being sort of a big, international event or momentous, historic consequence, and then show you that it's the product of lots and lots and lots of ordinary people like you and me and what they decide to do and not to do and not to say.

CP: Again, from the press notes I understand the story/script was written by yourself, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche but that rehearsals and the production itself very much promoted improvisation.
AI: That's right, yes.

CP: How does that work for you? Is it a matter of the central story stays the same and the actors are helping shape the characters during the rehearsals so that come production they have a very good sense of who they're playing and working lines becomes both more natural and spontaneous? Or are the characters more fully formed on the page?
AI: Yes, well it's a bit of both, really. We spent a lot of time researching the story and having spent a lot of time, really sort of scene by scene plotting of what happens, and we stick to that. But then I get the writers to write it very quickly so that it doesn't feel too artificial. And then I cast it very, very early on. So the writers then know who is playing this character, what that character looks like, sounds like, how she behaves, what her verbal tics are, and all that sort of thing. And then they rewrite once they know who the actors are. And then, we go into a rehearsals and there's always a writer at the rehearsals, so I ask the actors to slightly improvise around the script, really just to loosen it up and make it feel more naturalistic and make it feel spontaneous. So it's just method of getting to that thing where on camera it kind of looks like you're eavesdropping on something—almost like you're making a documentary rather than it being an artificial drama. So the improvisation is there really to make things feel very real.

Now, each actor will have their own method—I mean, James Gandolfini went off to the Pentagon and spent a few days speaking to Pentagon generals and just looking at them and watching them and seeing how they moved. And Zach Woods—who plays Chad, the ambitious staffer—his background is improv. He belongs to the Upright Citizens Brigade, which is a New York improv troupe. So everyone had a different method—Anna Chlumsky has actually spent some time during college working in Washington, so she had a whole string of people she knew that she could draw from. So everyone had a different take on it, actually, which was great.

CP: So how important is casting when working on a project like this? As in, in your experience, are some actors and actresses better equipped to work in this manner, especially given the intersection of politics, contemporary media, and the sort of mundane bureaucratic office life that come into play?
AI: Yes, absolutely. What I do is I cast people who—you know, I get them to do a scene, but I also ask them to stay in character and I just ask them questions. And I do that not because I'm expecting them to come up with some great stuff, because we've got writers who can do that for them, but to see how comfortable they are taking material and then just playing with it. And so that's how I cast it. So once I find the cast, I sort of feel like almost the bulk of the work is done. You know, when I found Anna and Zach and got them together and asked them to just insult each other, they could do it for half an hour. It was great to watch.

I think casting is so crucial, and that's why I didn't go into it thinking we've got to have this Hollywood star doing this or we've got to have this major famous person doing that and whatever. I suppose the most well-known one is James Gandolfini or Steve Coogan, but I kind of cast them because I thought they would be really interesting in those roles.

CP: And against type.
AI: Yeah, slightly against type and unusual, people weren't expecting them in that kind of role. And I liked that.

CP: Was being able to use profanity creatively something you look for in an actor, or more a byproduct of working with this project and its rather macho setting?
AI: That's right. It's like the trading that goes on at the stock exchange, all that shouting and that adrenaline pumping away. And I did a bit of profanity research, and it became clear that people didn't swear at the State Department but that they do in the Pentagon—a lot. And that effects how we wrote the script as well, which is why Linton Barwick, David Rasche's character, he spells his swear words with asterisks. He never swears. He's happy to send soldiers to their deaths but he'll draw the line at swearing. [laughs]

CP: In your opinion, who cusses the best? Americans, the English, or the Scottish?
AI: [laughs] Well, we give the two Scots the best swearing.

CP: Is this collaborative process a way in which you've always worked? Or did it slowly evolve during your career? Do you like it?
AI: Yeah, I like it. I've done stuff by myself and I've done stuff with one writer, but I really like the collaborative process because it throws up things that you would never expect. And it throws up stuff that, individually, each one of you would never come up with. But in order to do it you've got to work with people who are not proprietorial and they're happy to throw things into the mix and see someone else pick it up and work with it and hand it back to them and so on.

CP: I presume you and the writers picked this juncture, the days preceding a global decision by the United States to go to war, for its Iraq war similarities, but I'm also wondering if it was more a practical decision just because its provides for such a broad approach to politics—as in, the how and why decisions get made. I mean, who may or may not be invaded is one of the least discussed topics in the movie, and yet that is the very issue that is at stake to these politicians and their staffs. I presume that's a deliberate jab at the process.
AI: Yes. And I've never seen Washington portrayed as anything other than either, you know, glamorous and noble or else as corrupt and malevolent. And I kind of wanted to see it as a bit ordinary and a bit ramshackle and a bit like working in a small office.

CP: Does political comedy come easy for you? I mean, if you read the papers and pay attention to the news it feels like there's never a shortage of material. Do you find yourself reading a story or watching a news segment and seeing its absurdist potential?
AI: Yes—even now we've got something like Dick Cheney saying it'd be wrong to reveal the details of certain decisions that he made, which, by the way, never happened. And when you're still seeing that contortion of logic being quite brazenly and even publicly aired, you know there's always something funny there. And I've always been interested in politics, American as well as UK politics. I just enjoy it as a topic to investigate, so it was great to be given a whole movie set in that world.

CP: While I've never seen The Thick of It I have seen various Alan Patridge shows and a few segments of your show on YouTube, so I feel like I've been exposed to a bit of your writing. And I understand you spent some time writing for radio before moving into television. How did writing for radio influence your writing—or did it?
AI: That's right, yes. I presented a music show, but I also was asked to write comedy pieces. And radio's a great grounding as a writer because you don't have the visuals, so everything hangs on the words.

CP: I ask only because I imagine radio skits by necessity have to be more verbally and linguistically attuned. There's no pratfall or visual gag in radio.
AI: Exactly. That's right. And you can't rely on a joke to be carried by a funny look that somebody might give or a pratfall. It's done on the verbal. It teaches you discipline as well, how to cut things down. And things like pace and rhythm are also things you can learn when writing for radio.

CP: As a comedic writer, do you see much difference between contemporary American political humor and British political humor?
AI: Well, I don't know. The things I watch, things like The Daily Show, which is very sharp. What I like about it is that analyzes the idea that politicians are using, their arguments. And for too long in the past we've made fun of politicians by maybe making fun of their personality or what they sounded like and so on and, in fact, you realize that it's not the sound of them—it's what they're doing that has the consequences. So it's much more important to listen to what they're saying and how they're trying to rationalize why they're doing certain things and then seeing if there's any logic or confusion to what they're saying. So I like that.

CP: What's next for you?
AI: The next film that I want to do, I want to do a slapstick movie. I want to do lots of visual gags and chases and physical comedy. I kind of like the idea of doing that. I'm a big Buster Keaton fan.

CP: So something totally different.
AI: Exactly. I want to do something utterly different. Utterly.

In the Loop opens Aug. 14 at the Charles Theatre


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