‘It Was Funny, and Yet It Was Horrific’: An Interview With Armando Iannucci

The prolific British satirist on his new film, “The Death of Stalin,” and the power — and limitations — of political comedy


Scottish writer-producer-director Armando Iannucci is best known, stateside at least, for creating HBO’s caustic political satire Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a hapless VP desperately trying to latch onto power. Iannucci’s latest project, then, is not totally out of left field: a film based on a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin centers on the frighteningly absurd power struggle among the members of Stalin’s inner circle in the days after the dictator’s death in 1953. As the Voice’s Bilge Ebiri wrote in his review, “It should not be incumbent on people of good sense to hold their laughter in the face of such absurd evil.”

Co-written by David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, Iannucci’s adaptation stars a hodgepodge of British and American actors — all speaking in their own accents — among them Simon Russell Beale (as Lavrentiy Beria), Steve Buscemi (Nikita Khrushchev), Jeffrey Tambor (Georgy Malenkov), Andrea Riseborough (Svetlana Stalina), Michael Palin (Vyacheslav Molotov), Rupert Friend (Vasily Stalin), and Jason Isaacs (Georgy Zhukov). In January, the Russian government banned the film.

Iannucci is also the creator of the BBC political satire The Thick of It, the writer/director of the 2009 comedy In the Loop, and the co-creator of the Steve Coogan character Alan Partridge, who will be returning to the BBC in 2018 with a new series, This Time With Alan Partridge. Iannucci’s next project is a feature adaptation of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. After more than a decade mining comedy from the bottomless well of bumbling, spineless, corrupt politicians, the 54-year-old is happy to be moving on, particularly now: “With the advent of Trump, I’m kind of relieved I’d made that move, because I think any attempt to fictionalize what’s happening is never going to be as absurd as what’s happening.”

When did you decide to adapt this graphic novel?

I was still in the middle of doing Veep, but I was thinking about what my next project could be, and I was looking at the idea of dictators, but contemporary, fictional — whether it was an American dictator or British, I hadn’t quite decided. I was looking at that world, because something strange was happening in the atmosphere, something in democracies — you know, strongmen getting elected and then changing the constitution so they could stay elected for longer.

And then in 2014 I got sent the French graphic novel, The Death of Stalin. The producer said, “Look, we’re making this as a film, would you consider it?” I read it and instantly I just thought, “Well, this is it, this is the story.” And it’s true — for me, that’s what immediately made me switch onto it. It was terrifying, and yet it was absurd; it was funny, and yet it was horrific. And it was all based on true events. Also, it’s a whole world that we don’t really know that well, especially in film. The Nazis have box office, and maybe spy movies, espionage, and the Cold War. But not Stalin and the circle around him.

Why do you think that is?

If you speak to Russians, they say there is no official view on Stalin. They’re taught at school, “Some people say he killed millions, other people say he industrialized the country and made it a superpower — you decide.” I think it’s also partly to do with the fact that he was on the winning side, as far as the West are concerned, in that Russia really won the Second World War along with Britain and America and the Allies. So he’s kind of been left alone. When we went to Moscow to do our research, the hotel we were staying at had a portrait of Stalin hanging up on one of the floors. You wouldn’t get a portrait of Hitler up at a hotel in Berlin. It’s still very raw and very current.

How much time did you spend in Russia?

Two trips — one for a week, we went to Stalin’s dacha and the Kremlin and the apartments, and looked at old Moscow just to get a general feel, and then spoke to people, obviously, who had grown up under that regime. And then the second time was to do a bit of filming, just exteriors and the Kremlin.

Did you have handlers or people showing you around these places?

Oh, yeah, I mean we had the production team there, but there were the odd people just keeping an eye on us. But nobody interfered and nobody stopped us. We went to see Stalin’s bunker, which people don’t normally see. So it was all fairly helpful and friendly and cooperative.

Were you surprised, then, when Russia pulled the movie?

I was, because we had been given the license. We’d done all the press screenings, all the reviewers were ready to publish their pieces. I spent a day speaking to Russian journalists. It was all ready to go, and then I think somebody within the Ministry of Culture just took fright, really, with the presidential election coming up. I suspect once that’s out of the way…. I think they know, there’s no way they can suppress it. People are going to see it. We’re not in 1953. Somebody tweeted me a photo of them watching it on a laptop outside the Kremlin, just to show that the ban wasn’t working. So I suspect it was more to make a point.

It feels like the kind of subject matter that you normally see in a drama. But I think that it’s not only more entertaining, but in a way, more accurate to depict these events as comedy rather than drama.

I just feel comedy is about truth, really. If something doesn’t ring true then you don’t laugh. And I always say this: a subject being treated comically is not a subject that is being belittled. It’s just that comedy allows you to come at it from a completely unexpected angle. And also, as I say, it’s a kind of craziness, I think that’s where the comedy comes from in this; it’s people being crazy because they’ve been under this stress and this anxiety for so long, they can’t think any other way and they can’t behave any other way.

I don’t know if you read Masha Gessen’s piece on the movie on the New Yorker’s website. She called it “perhaps the most accurate picture of life under Soviet terror that anyone has ever committed to film.”

I’m pleased that she wrote that because we did put a lot of effort into researching it and getting it to feel right, and a lot of the Russians who have seen the film have said two things. They’ve said, a.) it’s funny, and b.) it’s true. I’m not saying all the incidents in the film happened exactly like that, and obviously it’s our dialogue. But the atmosphere — I wanted to try and re-create what it must have felt like to live under that level of anxiety and uncertainty on a daily basis.

The movie seems to transpose a very British kind of humor onto this situation, and that felt appropriate because of the absurdity of the subject matter; it’s very dry and dark and a bit surreal — almost like Monty Python.

There’s an element of that, and it’s no coincidence that Michael Palin has the most absurd speech in the whole movie. But there is a very Russian tradition of absurdity, and the little person being caught up against the state machine. A lot of Russian literature is kind of dark and yet strangely funny. People think it’s very serious, but actually it’s quite absurd.

Were you a fan of Russian literature before you made the film?

Some, but I’d been reading more and more as we got into the production. And Russian history I was very versed in. I’m a classical music fan, and the music of Shostakovich has always been something that I’ve been fascinated by, and he was someone who came under Stalin’s shadow for a while, when Stalin criticized his opera. Shostakovich went through two years of thinking he was going to get taken away, and he’d have a suitcase packed by the door so he could grab it. So I’d already had some knowledge of that time. I think that’s why it appealed to me, the idea of making the film, because it was an area that I’d been intrigued by before. But also, it could take me out of my comfort zone. I knew there were going to be scenes in it that weren’t funny, that were dramatic or shocking. Professionally, I think it’s always good to keep doing something that still has an element of what you do, but takes what you do into a new area.

Right, and in terms of the direction, it feels a lot different from the sort of mockumentary style of the contemporary political satires you’ve made; this one feels a bit more stylized, more ostentatious in a way.

I knew the look of it and the texture and the music was all going to be very important. As soon as I read the book I kind of knew what I wanted to do. I think maybe partly because it came from a graphic novel, which is a more visual medium, it made me think about visually how are we going to show it. Also, if it was fully like a docudrama, I think it might just be too much. I want people to feel this is real, but also, it’s fine, we’re not actually there! Until those moments maybe, toward the end, when I do want people to feel that.

A few months after the election, the creators of South Park said they weren’t going to try to satirize Trump on the show because “satire has become reality.” What do you think of that? Is that why you’re starting to move away from political satire?

It was a decision I made before Trump, having done The Thick of It and In the Loop, that was ten years of doing that. I do want to move away from that. With the advent of Trump, I’m kind of relieved I’d made that move, because I think any attempt to fictionalize what’s happening is never going to be as absurd as what’s happening. I think the political comics who do best are the ones who really act like journalists, like John Oliver and Samantha Bee. They’ve got researchers and they just lay out what’s happening.

That’s comedy these days.

That’s the comedy — just put a succession of facts out, and that is enough.

I know with most of your projects there’s a lot of improvising involved, so I assume that’s the case with The Death of Stalin too.

There was not as much [improvisation] as in other projects. We had two weeks of rehearsals, where we did the script but we played about with it, especially the big group scenes, the ensemble pieces — the moving of the body, lining up around the coffin and that sort of thing. The benefit of that was to give everyone a chance to work out their own journey in the film, in story order, but also to get to know the other characters. Because these people had all lived through horrible things together, so it had to feel like this team of actors all knew each other and all fed off each other.

One thing I liked about the ensemble was that everyone spoke in his or her own accent, British and American, which I thought sort of brought this story home — it made it a little more immediate.

It’s basically saying, look, this isn’t set in a foreign country far, far away in another time — this could be happening now somewhere. When we showed it at Sundance, someone came up after to me, and she was in tears, and she said, “But this is my country.” She was from Zimbabwe and she said, this has just happened now — Mugabe had just been deposed, and of course it was the army who moved in, and Mugabe’s security forces had to back down. It was exactly what had been happening in the film.

Who do you find funny at the moment?

John Oliver is great. Bill Maher, I love Bill Maher’s show.

Really? He’s got a lot of haters.

I like the fact that he doesn’t really want to toe the line. I’m kind of with him in that you should be able to say stuff and not feel that you can’t offend people, because what’s wrong with being offended? If your views and beliefs are strong, they should withstand a joke.

Do you think that can ever cross a line, though?

Oh, sure, but I’d rather people risked crossing the line than people felt they couldn’t say anything. I worry that we don’t engage now with people whom we disagree with, we just shut them down — we unfollow them, we block them, we non-platform them. I think your own views get stronger if you engage with people who disagree with you, because that forces you to think through your arguments.