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Q & A with Writer-Producer-Director Armando Iannucci


 

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-producer-director Armando Iannucci about his wickedly funny British political satire “In the Loop”, which premiered Apr. 27 at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens July 17 in New York and L.A. via IFC Films.

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-producer-director Armando Iannucci about his wickedly funny British political satire “In the Loop”, which premiered Apr. 27 at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens July 17 in New York and L.A. via IFC Films.

“Loop” is a first feature by the team behind the hit BBC comedy series “In the Thick of It”, which aired as six half-hour episodes in 2005 and as two one-hour specials in ’07. “Thick” won the Best New TV Comedy award at the 2005 British Comedy Awards. “Thick” is available on YouTube if you’d like to check it out before seeing the movie, although you can definitely enjoy the film even if you’ve never seen the TV show. Both “Loop” and “Thick” revolve around political life in the U.K. and the most amusing comings and going of government cabinet ministers and their staff. In particular, it’s the Prime Minister’s foul-mouthed communications chief and principal enforcer Malcolm Tucker, brilliantly portrayed by Peter Capaldi, who’s at the center of the action.

Armando Iannucci, the series’ director and co-writer, makes his feature directorial debut with “Loop”. Its producers are Iannucci, Adam Tandy, who created the series, and Kevin Loader, who spent 14 years as a BBC producer but didn’t work on “Thick”. “Loop” was written by Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche, all of whom wrote the series. Ian Martin, who wrote the film’s additional dialogue, was “swearing consultant” to the series and clearly had plenty to do since almost every word out of Tucker’s mouth is one that would have to be bleeped on American television.

Besides Capaldi, “Loop” stars Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison (as political advisor Toby Wright), David Rasche, Gina McKee (as Communications Director Judy Malloy), James Gandolfini (as U.S. General Miller), Mimi Kennedy (as U.S. Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy Karen Clark), Olivia Poulet, Steve Coogan, Tom Hollander (as Minister for International Development Simon Foster) and Zach Woods.

Iannucci considers “Loop” something of a “cousin” to the TV series rather than a spin-off feature since its action takes place on a much broader canvas — moving from London to Washington, D.C. and to New York as the British pols tangle with their opposite American numbers at the Pentagon, in Congress and at the U.N. Unlike the series, whose focus was exclusively on British politicians, the film has a globally important storyline revolving around the prospects of starting a war in the Middle East.

Q: How did you come to make “In the Loop”?
A: I’ve always wanted to make a funny film. Ever since I was a kid and going to see things like “Airplane” and “Spinal Tap” and Woody Allen films, I really wanted to make a film full of jokes and one-liners and a sort of screwball comedy. I’ve been doing lots of television, but I’ve been waiting for the right story and when I read more and more about the background leading up to the Iraq War and all the in-fighting and the office politics that went on (in Washington) and also the story of how deluded the Brits were going over to Washington and getting very star struck and so on. I just thought, “There’s the story”
Q: Where did you go from there?
A: I have the TV show in the U.K. called “The Thick of It”, which is set in the backroom of politics and Downing Street so that gave me the kind of style and the approach. But I knew I had the story and then because I wanted to let people see the American side and U.K. side I knew I needed two casts, in a way. I needed a U.K. cast and then a U.S. cast who could all work in the style I wanted.

We spent an awful long time on the script, but then I like my casts to kind of improvise around the script slightly just to get the whole thing to be very natural (so that) the audience is eavesdropping on what they’re watching. Then I came over to Washington and did lots of research and met up with people in the State Department and the Pentagon and the CIA and at the United Nations to find out what it was really like — you know, the boring stuff like when do people get in in the morning — because I’m not making a documentary, I’m making an entertainment really so I wanted to find the bare elements of what life is like (in Washington).
Q: It’s rather a different take on Washington than we usually see in movies.
A: I’ve never really seen Washington portrayed in movies as being a little bit rubbish. I’ve seen it being portrayed as being very noble or as corrupt and sinister, but not a little bit dull and a little bit just like working in an office. And that’s what a lot of them said. The guy in the CIA said he spent a lot of time (thinking) that one day someone would come up to him and point over in the corner and say, “You see that door over there? That’s where the real CIA is. If you go through there, it’s full of flashing lights and computers and big screens.” And he said that day never arrived. So that was the starting point and then the three writers and myself constructed the script.
Q: How long did it take for the film to come together?
A: It happened very quickly. From having a blank piece of paper going into meetings and saying, “I’ve got this idea,” (that) was November 2007. And finally having all things shot was November 2008 so it was about a year.
Q: It’s a very different inside look at what goes on in Downing Street from what we’ve seen in movies like “The Queen” or “The Deal” (the 2003 British television film that director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Tony Blair made prior to “The Queen”).
A: Yes. With those films you’re going right to the top. You’re seeing the Prime Minister. With this film I didn’t want to do that. I really wanted to show how little people and their actions or their mistakes and errors can actually have enormous consequences.
Q: I was wondering if we were going to get to see the PM at the end of “Loop”.
A: I didn’t want to really. I thought once you do that these characters start becoming bigger than they are. They start meaning more than just the figures themselves. They stand for something. I wanted you to really get to know the individual — the minister and Karen in the U.S. and Simon Foster on the British side. I didn’t want them to be seen as metaphors for something else. So I didn’t want to go that big. The closest we get is Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s enforcer.

Tucker is sort of the (Republican political strategist) Karl Rove figure in the U.K. It’s interesting that the real Malcolm Tucker, as it were — the Prime Minister’s actual media adviser — resigned this weekend for obstructing the truth and so on. Our front pages (in England) are full of comparisons between him (Damien McBride, a Special Adviser to Gordon Brown, resigned after e-mails were published that he sent to enable a website to attack members of the opposition Conservative Party) and Peter Capaldi. We could have no better time for us really in terms of publicity.
Q: When did you start casting the film?
A: When we were only on the second draft of the script I started sending scenes over to a casting director in New York and in L.A. and I showed James Gandolfini the script. But I was always stressing, “It will all change.” But I like to cast early so that the writers while they’re still writing can now write in the voice of the performers. And then we come to the stage where near the shoot we workshop the script with the actors, which is where we run the script and then we put the script to one side and say, “Well, let’s do it again in your own words and try to hit the lines and the jokes and let’s see what else comes out.” That was the case for a couple of weeks and then we came out and spent a week in a hotel in New York with the American cast and did the same. There’s always a writer there to watch it so he can incorporate it back in the script.
Q: How do you feel about improvising during shooting?
A: Even when we’re on set, I always shoot the script but I then leave a bit of time at the end of the scene to improvise the scene again just to see what else comes out. It might be a little look or a little aside that someone makes. James (Gandolfini) and Mimi Kennedy went off and worked out what their (characters’) relationship was and whether they’d had a relationship in the past and so on. And they sort of fed that into their performance. So in those moments between them there’s a lot of improvisation in there, as well. We always had one of the writers on the set so that if an idea comes up and we thought it was actually funny but we need to just go away and really hone it down, then the writer can go away and kind of rewrite the scene with that in mind.
Q: Looking back at production, what were some of the biggest challenges you had to deal with?
A: Normally, I like to shoot in story order, but obviously a film of this scale with all these characters and half of it being in another country, you can’t shoot (in sequence). But I also wanted to try and resist the temptation because it was a film to play with the film box of tricks (like) stunning London sunsets and soaring music and all that because I wanted to keep it very much like the audience was feeling like they were eavesdropping on something that was real. I didn’t want them to feel they were getting a concocted artificial entertainment. So actually the biggest challenge was really to resist the temptation to dress it all up. I think particularly in comedies that can get in the way of the comedy.

And the other challenge was to try and keep it feeling very spontaneous and loose while at the same time quite tight and sharp. I knew I didn’t want it to be longer than an hour and 45 minutes. For a comedy, I feel once it gets beyond that point it runs out of steam or there’s again this pressure to bring in a love interest and a romance or something that needs to play itself out and I didn’t really want to do that.
Q: Were there any big differences between shooting “Loop”as a feature versus shooting “Thick” for TV?
A: The TV (series) is handheld and very fast-moving and I thought on the big screen that would be just too much. So I turned that tone down a bit and instead I thought it’s just a subtle thing to get the fluidity in a connecting sense I do lots of sudden zooms or little quiet zooms in. But I always had two cameras (shooting) at once and there are no marks (for actors to hit on the set).

We just light the set generally so I can tell the actors to just go anywhere they like and not feel that they have to (be somewhere specific) so that we can run the whole scene without any stopping. (I like shooting long takes) to get the momentum and the energy really. It’s difficult to get that pace unless you work up to it. Very often I’ll shoot a scene knowing that the real heart of it is the second half of it. I’ll shoot the whole scene knowing that in the end I’ll cut the first half of it. It’s just to get the energy going.
Q: How did the movie come to IFC Films for distribution?
A: We took it to Sundance. We resisted the temptation early on to take in a U.S. distributor before we made the film just so that I wasn’t half-consciously thinking, “Oh, maybe I ought to tailor it this way or maybe I ought to tone this down and so on.” It went down really well (at Sundance) and a number of distributors approached us and IFC seemed the one most in tune with the film and they were very keen to not do anything to it and sell it (for) what it was rather than trying to change anything. And they kind of knew exactly what its audience was and they could see that behind it was the element of a screwball comedy really — that underneath the language and the violence is actually a sort of 1940s fast-talking screwball comedy.