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Armando Iannucci on the Tragedy and Comedy of ‘The Death of Stalin’ and Needing to Dial Down History

Written by on March 19, 2018 

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Armando Iannucci has spent the last decade of his career lampooning the contemporary politics of America and the United Kingdom in projects like Veep, The Thick of It, and In the Loop, but his new film directs his considerable satiric skills at a simultaneously perversely appropriate and unlikely target: Stalin-era Soviet Union. An adaptation of Fabian Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel dramatization of the same name, The Death of Stalin is filled with Iannucci’s trademark barbs at institutional efficiency and labyrinthian insults but also freighted with a newfound urgency in his filmmaking.

With an unimpeachable cast of movie stars, TV stars, and even stage legends, The Death of Stalin makes a feast of the banal and horrifying absurdities that were commonplace during the period without losing the persistent undercurrent of tragedy and anxiety. Less a historical recreation than a comedic channeling of the spirit of the time, the film even has the actors speak in their native accent, leading to a motley collection of voices all fighting to get the upper hand in the race to fill Stalin’s role. Even as the film is very clearly a comedy, it’s also a tightrope act of tonal balance with scenes like David Zucker-style sight gags of executions happening in the background as characters walk by blissfully ignoring the consequences of their minute-to-minute choices.

In time for The Death of Stalin’s theatrical expansion, we talked to Iannucci about finding that balance between historical accuracy and comedy, replicating Russia in London, and why he’s removing himself from the present to make sense of it.

Your other work –things like The Thick of It, Veep–they’ve drawn on real political and social contexts, but The Death of Stalin was arguably your first time adapting. What was your experience like drawing from a source material, specifically a graphic novel in presenting history?

 Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I never thought that my next movie would be this. I’m so used to just generating my own projects, but the moment I read the book, it was just instant. I had absolutely no hesitation. And in terms of adapting, I wanted to preserve what it was about this story that made me want to dramatize it anyway. The structure of the graphic novel is kind of more or less reflected in the film. You know we open with the concert, Stalin collapses, the Poliburto arrive. That’s all as it’s laid out in the graphic novel. I knew we were going to do our own dialogue because there’s not much dialogue in a graphic novel. It’s more kind of visual, I think. And also although the characters of [Lavrenti] Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and [Nikita] Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) were very strong in the graphic novel, the others were more sort of shadowy figures. But once you’re doing this on screen, and you’re getting a great cast together. You have to make sure that all the other characters are three dimensional and rich and well-written. And there’s that, and then a bit of structure in the graphic novel. They have the funeral, then they leap through three months, and there’s a series of meetings. I didn’t feel that would work in the film, so I telescoped everything so that the funeral is the climax of the movie. But we try to remain as faithful as possible to the spirit of the original.

With such sparse source material, was it a more difficult to create these characters, or did it allow more room to invent?

Yeah, it was a slightly different discipline. But I didn’t find it harder. I just think you just work as equally hard on an adaptation as you do on an original really. I just felt that what I wanted to do was do a bit more of my own research. So we went out to Moscow, we looked at Stalin’s statue, we went around the Kremlin. I just wanted to get the details absolutely right visually. And then try to recreate it. We shot it mostly in London, but a lot of Russian audiences have said, “Where in Moscow did you film this?” And I say, “Well, in London.” We tried very much to get it to feel as true to what things were like in 1953 as possible, partly because we’re dealing with really serious themes, and also comedy. And I wanted both of them to kind of develop out of the same thing, which is the true incidents. That was the only way I think you could make the comedy and tragedy work and sit alongside each other. It’s both arisen from the same thing.

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We’re societally at a point where a lot of creators are worried about exaggerating history, even in the case of satire. You look at, for instance, the reaction to Quentin Tarantino’s next film, which takes place around the Manson murders. Did making this film influence your own view of dramatizing specific historical events at all?

Two things: one is, I knew that I didn’t want to put at the beginning, this is a true story, because I knew I wanted the audience to feel, it is what it is. It’s a film that’s funny, and it’s our telling of something. And it’s our response to something. It’s our being creative with something. But on the other hand, I knew that as close as we could get to the fact as possible would be helpful because it would just make the comedy work. We could be accused of making things up in order to get a laugh when in fact what we would be doing is delving even deeper into what actually happened to find the absurdity. And the other thing is because it’s a comedy, I think people aren’t expecting it to be like a historical reconstruction because there are jokes in it. And therefore, from the work, you know that this isn’t meant to be literal. It’s not a documentary. I think where people have problems is where something is projected as true, but then liberties have been taken with it in the narrative for dramatic effect. So I think you have to be very clear about how you signpost these things.

You’re obviously taking occasional liberties with this story, but did you find that you had to tune the film to find that balance between cartoonishness and fealty to history?

Actually, sometimes it involved dialing it down. Like the opening concert, which is true, but in reality, they got through three conductors because they got someone in the middle of the night. So the first conductor fell over, knocked himself out. And the second conductor they brought in, but he was drunk so they had to get a third conductor. But I thought if you put three conductors in the movie, people wouldn’t believe it. [Laughs] They’ll think that I’m making it all up. [Laughs] I mean there were other instances we found that were equally bizarre that there just wasn’t time to put in. I think people understand that what it is is a comic telling of the story. You know you don’t read the Shakespeare history play thinking, well, did he really say that? It’s because you know it’s a dramatist that created with imagination responding to a story rather than here is an accurate account of the story?

I saw you recently say that people like John Oliver, Samantha Bee are perhaps the best satirists of the moment because they’re letting the story speak for itself. At this moment in your career, do you think the past is maybe a more fertile place for traditional satire right now?

Oh heavens, I don’t know. I just find that it’s more a product of my having done it for ten years with In the Loop and then Veep that I kind of feel like I’ve said what I want to say on the nature of politics, so I’m just moving on to other things. So it’s interesting though that I looked at 1953 for this film and then 1840 for my next film, David Copperfield. And then I’m doing a thing for HBO, which is set in the future. Maybe I’m just removing myself from the present for a while partly to make sense of it. I may well come back and do something about it. But it wouldn’t be for a number of years because if you’re going to make a fiction, I think it takes a while for you to assess what the real story actually is. I mean, there Trump is today or last night boasting about how he just made stuff up to Justin Trudeau because he’s not concerned with the facts. He’s not concerned with the truth. He doesn’t see it as lying, he just sees it as gamesmanship. As a bit of fun.

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Speaking as well about your future projects, I know that you’re filming David Copperfield this summer. You’re a big [Charles] Dickens fan, and there is a level of satire to his work, but was it a very different challenge to approach this project compared to other recent ones?

Yeah, the challenge is taking something that’s 900 pages long and is very rich, and not falling into the trap of just sticking to the story and jettisoning all the color, the language, the personality, and the depth and complexity. So that’s been the challenge in terms of how we script it. And we’ve arrived at something that I feel very confident that it captures the spirit of the whole book, but allows a story to be told at the right pace at the right length. And the challenge is also deciding what you can’t put in just because there isn’t going to be time, but also what you want to put in that has never been done in an adaptation before. Finding those moments. I mean, there’s a great moment in it where David Copperfield at 18 gets drunk for the very first time. And it’s a hilarious description of someone with the whole world swirling around him, and him not being able to stand up. And it’s a very kind of honest account of someone being drunk for the first time. You don’t see it in any of the adaptations because it’s not part of the story, but that’s what people want to take away from the book, those kind of moments really. So it’s about that.

What was your thought process for replicating Russia in London with your director of photography, Zac Nicholson? In the film, the camera kind of brings across a large scope, but there’s also a persistent claustrophobia.

What I wanted to do was recreate the low-level anxiety that people must have felt at the time, and I wanted to try to provoke that in the audience. So that was about getting the background to look as authentic as possible, and then it was about just scripting elements of unnerve, and not knowing quite what was going to happen next. And also there’s a gradual descent into a kind of frenzy toward the end. Very unconsciously, I’m not expecting the audience to notice, but actually the way we shot it, it was much more precise and staid and stable at the beginning, and more colorful. But gradually as we process, it gets more choppy and handheld. Colors start getting a bit darker, and by the time you’re in the concert hall at the end, all the color is gone from that concert hall. So it’s beautiful at the beginning, and then it’s cold at the end. And that was just really… I’m not expecting the audience to pick up on that, but it was just a way of marking that degeneration into behaving like an animal.

I won’t obviously get into specifics, but I want to speak a bit more about that formal and tonal shift at the end where things start to feel more urgent and chaotic. Was that change in the scripting stage?

It was very much the scripting stage. I was writing it, and kind of working as a director on it simultaneously thinking, how will we illustrate this? How can we convey this? How can I draw the audience in more and more? To that extent, I’m also dealing with the storyboards, with the design, and the director of photography, and having those conversations very early on. In fact, I was also having that with the composer early on, so we’re kind of agreed at all points what it is that we’re going to make and what we’re going to end up within the final version.

The Death of Stalin is now in theaters.


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