Renowned director, writer and producer Armando Iannucci discusses ‘The Death of Stalin’, politics an
Armando Iannucci is an accomplished director, writer and producer, whose works include highly acclaimed and politically-charged sitcoms such as ‘Veep’ (2012) and ‘The Thick of It’ (2005), and more recent acerbic Soviet-era satire ‘The Death of Stalin’ (2017). His latest film, ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’, is a fresh reworking of the Charles Dickens’ novel, starring Dev Patel as the eponymous hero. The London School of Economics’ Sheikh Zayed Theatre recently hosted a screening of Iannucci’s ‘The Death of Stalin’ which entertainingly depicts Stalin’s final days and the desperate leadership chase among the Central Committee members to try and fill the power vacuum left by him, followed by a Q&A session chaired by Dr Jonathan Hopkin. The audience welcomed Iannucci with rapturous applause as he smiled and took his seat.
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Asked what he had based his film on and how he pieced together this reconstruction of the past, he explains that the film was based on real life events and that he “had been thinking about doing a film [on] a current contemporary fictional dictator…”. Approached by a French production company who sent him a French graphic novel called The Death of Stalin, he decided that he would base the film on that. He remarks “the more I read about it, the more I thought ‘well, this is true! This happened!’”.
Iannucci also sheds light on a reportedly true story about Vasily (Stalin’s son): contrary to popular belief, the seemingly unreal events in the film contain more truth than fiction. “Vasily genuinely did lose the ice hockey team in an ice storm and just assembled his friends and family and friends of friends, because he was too afraid to tell his father that they were shit!” Iannucci reveals with his characteristic candour. Other bizarre real life events involved members of the Central Committee: “Beira did think it was hilarious to put a tomato in someone’s pocket and Stalin did keep [members of his Central Committee] up late at night watching westerns. The things that you think ‘I imagine that happened’ - probably we made it up, but the stuff that you think ‘there’s no way that could have happened’ will be true, I guarantee it”.
Iannucci also mentions how he tried to ensure that his satire did not deride the atrocities that many endured under Stalin’s totalitarian regime and how he managed to achieve a balance between comedy and tragedy: “once I decided this was the next film I was going to make, I thought we must find out more truths, so I went out to Moscow. One thing I did think is, I think one has to be respectful in what happened to the people. They were rammed up, they were sent to gulags, they were shot. I didn’t want that to be the butt of the joke. So, it was about trying to make it in such a way that there was a fine line. When we saw the people, it was played for real. When we were inside the Kremlin, that’s where the comedy was, but the undercurrent was that the comedy inside the Kremlin had consequences outside. So going to Moscow, going round Stalin’s Dacha (which was his personal residence), going round the Kremlin to try to recreate it as much as possible but also speaking to people who grew up under Stalin. They would then tell us that everyone really did have a suitcase packed at the door [in case] you were grabbed in the middle of the night to be taken off to Siberia…or you went to bed with lots of layers of clothes on so that if you were hauled out from your bed at least you had lots of warm clothes with you when you were taken away. Things like that, and the more we found out, the more we tried to find a way of putting it in the script. The editing took about a year because I just wanted to make sure that [the film] was evenly poised, that there was just the right amount of horror and the right amount of comedy, and the comedy didn’t undermine the horror and the horror didn’t swamp the comedy, that actually they served each other”.
An audience member asks Iannucci that if he could write a film about the power politics of a current specific issue, what country or contemporary issue would he choose. Iannucci responds that there is a variety of things to choose from, highlighting “the interconnectedness of things”. For him, it is something of a global phenomenon, rendering it difficult to focus on just one country. Instead, if he was “going to do something contemporary it would be looking at those structures [within government], social media, the control of information and the people who sit at the top of that hierarchy”.
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Iannucci is questioned about why he was glad that he left Veep: What moment or event was so absurd that it became impossible to satirise? He effortlessly responds: “for me, Trump changes everything because [when working on Veep], we sort of operated on everyone knew what the protocol was and then if people departed from the protocol you could call them out. But there is no protocol now with Trump. He literally said ‘I could shoot a guy on fifth avenue and they’d still vote for me’. So once you’ve reached that stage, there are no rules, so therefore people aren’t breaking the rules... it’s just a free-for-all. It’s political anarchy at the highest level and that’s what everyone is struggling to come to terms with. How to critique, how to analyse that…it’s no coincidence that I have done something set in 1953 and then David Copperfield’s set in 1840. The present is slightly too chaotic…any attempt to try and do any dramatization of the present is already going to be out of date by the time it goes on air because it’s changing every day.”
Another insightful question asked by an audience member is whether PC culture can act as some sort of a block on comedy. Iannucci ponders then replies: “yes, I do worry that there is a sort of self-imposed censorship…and I think that we have forgotten the art of being able to disagree with someone without personally seeing them as toxic. I think it only helps reinforce your beliefs if you’re able to argue them with someone and able to defend them with someone, rather than leave the room because you’re with someone that disagrees with you. What’s happened with social media is that it is so easy to block and unfollow on platforms that we are losing the art of engaging, and part of the problem we’re having in politics now is we turn ourselves into little islands of thought that will not compromise with anyone else…it is possible to have opposing points of view without having to fight over it.” However, he expresses his concern that “we end up tripping over into this area of self-censorship which means that we cannot say things…It’s a complicated issue but I always feel worried when I hear of someone feeling that they ought not to say something in case someone’s offended”.
Iannucci throughout the evening is funny and quick-witted, declaring “I don’t really regard myself as left wing. I just regard myself as appalled”. He is an incredibly gifted individual, displaying an air of affability and openness, and has an unaffected charm despite his illustrious career. Nonetheless, what remains most striking is his candour, his frank way of speaking reflected in the films and TV shows that do not hesitate to speak their mind.
Edited by Juliette Howard, Deputy Film Editor