Armando Iannucci is no longer interested in satirizing the present.
The Scottish-born writer and director — who spent years examining modern British bureaucracy with his TV comedy The Thick of It before turning his attention to American presidential politics on Veep — just doesn’t see how he can make our current reality any more absurd than it already is. That’s why he’s turned his attention to The Death of Stalin.
Iannucci’s new film, which arrives in theaters this Friday, transports the verbally dexterous comedy he perfected on those shows and the Oscar-nominated In the Loop to 1953 Russia and the end of Joseph Stalin’s terrifying reign.
In a recent piece for New York magazine, columnist Frank Rich, who worked with Iannucci as a producer on Veep, wrote that even though the film was shot during the summer of 2016, before Trump had even accepted the Republican presidential nomination, “in an almost insanely prescient way it plays like Fire and Fury” — Michael Wolff’s bombshell book about chaos in the Trump White House — “though it is both much funnier and far more chilling.”
And it’s true. The characters who surround Stalin in the film — Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev, Michael Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov and Simon Russell Beale’s Lavrenti Beria among them — behave much in the same way as those in Trump-world act in Wolff’s possibly embellished telling. They fawn over their dear leader in his presence but speak fearfully about his lack of morals and intelligence in private. And they do not hesitate to stab each other in the back (literally) for a seat at the table.
“I wasn’t thinking about it when we made it. But obviously when you sit in the edit you think, ‘Oh my god,’” Iannucci tells The Daily Beast as he munches on a bowl of french fries in his suite at the Viceroy L’Ermitage in Beverly Hills this week. On the same days he saw someone like Kellyanne Conway rattle on about “alternative facts” and “fake news” on television, he would return to the edit room and watch his version of Stalin’s chief of security discuss “false narratives” on screen.
“And then that scene where Trump gets his cabinet, one at a time, to say how great he is!” Iannucci exclaims, referring to another moment he has inadvertently replicated in the film.
“The reason I wanted to make the film was because I was already looking at how democracies are becoming frayed at the edges in various places,” Iannucci says of the project’s original intentions. “Berlusconi and Putin and Erdoğan in Turkey, and the nationalist movements across Europe. I didn’t for a second think that it would actually be all about America.”
Iannucci had examined some of the more mundane threats to American democracy on Veep. “But I didn’t think we’d get to the state where someone’s coming and saying we might just shut down the TV networks that criticize me,” he says. “And tweeting that CNN is the ‘enemy of the people.’ That’s a Stalin phrase!” He explains that Khrushchev actually banned that phrase in the Soviet Union because it was so closely associated with Stalin.
It’s a connection that Trump critic and Republican senator Jeff Flake highlighted earlier this year. “When you reflexively refer to the press as the ‘enemy of the people’ or fake news, that has real damage. It has real damage to our standing in the world,” Flake told ABC’s This Week in January. “And I noted how bad it is for a president to take what was popularized by Joseph Stalin—the enemy of the people, to refer to the press.”
The filmmaker says that part of the “statement” he wanted to make with the movie is that we should not take our democracy for granted. “It has to be continually participated in and supported and joined and passed on, because otherwise it just falls apart,” he says.
“At some point, Trump is going to work out, ‘When I’m no longer president, I stop being immune.’ And that’s what happens with any of these figures. If they’ve gotten to power by taking power away from other people, then they make enemies. So they know, the moment they stop being in charge, they’re done for.”
The Death of Stalin uses as its source material a graphic novel of the same title by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. After the book was sent to him by the French production company that had purchased the rights, he figured it made more sense to use the portrait of reality they had created than try to invent his own fictional dictator.
“A lot of the instances are horrific,” he says. “And the first thing I said to the crew when we started was, we have to be very respectful of what actually happened. We can’t pretend otherwise. We can’t hide it.”
Given that he was trying to make a coherent film, Iannucci had to make some “allowances,” including condensing six months of action into about a 12 day period. He also had to invent all of the dialogue, the cadence of which will sound very familiar to viewers of his previous work.
“But I felt the only way we could really do it properly was to, as much as possible, be inspired by things that actually happened,” he says. “The only way we could get the comedy and the horror to work together was to make it as true as possible.”
With that in mind, many of the scenes from the film — including a hysterical opening sequence involving Stalin’s last-minute request for the recording of a live Mozart performance on Radio Moscow — are taken directly from the historical record. Right off the bat, he says, he wanted to “make the audience feel nervous, feel what it must have been like on a daily basis having that low level of anxiety, going through the day thinking, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’”
“Strangely, comedy helps. Because comedy is all about anticipation, it’s all about the set-up,” Iannucci says. “There’s a punchline coming, but you don’t know what it’s going to be.” He compares it to the way Jordan Peele was able to use comedy to amp up the horror elements of Get Out.
It helped that, compared to his previous projects, the stakes have never been higher than they are in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Death of Stalin is really the first time Iannucci has tackled this type of heavier material and there are scenes in the film that are deeply disturbing and even moving.
“If Selina Meyer does something that doesn’t work, it’s embarrassing, that’s it. She has a hard day,” Iannucci says of the Veep protagonist, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. “This is, you could get killed. And then it becomes a whole different story, really, and the comedy changes. It’s not comedy of, ‘Oh, how are we going to cover this up?’ It’s, ‘Do whatever it takes to survive.’ All the bets are off.”
Iannucci deliberately cast actors from different backgrounds and traditions to play the various members of Stalin’s cabinet, because the Soviet Union was an empire made up of people from different nations. “The dialects are all different as well so you get a sense of it being a melting pot of different personalities,” he says.
Among those actors is Jeffrey Tambor, who plays Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s immediate successor. In recent months, Tambor has come under fire for allegedly harassing multiple colleagues on the set of Amazon’s Transparent. He has denied those claims, but was let go from that series, which now faces an uncertain future.
“We’ve been in touch,” Iannucci says of Tambor, who has declined to do interviews for his film. “And it’s sad from every way you look at it. I don’t want to pass a judgement on something I don’t know the full facts about. You want people in the industry to feel free to come forward and say, this happened to me. You don’t in any way want to dissuade anyone.”
At the same time, Iannucci does not hesitate to praise Tambor as both an actor and as a person. “Jeffrey does a great performance and it was such a delight to work with him,” he says. “And I wouldn’t want to take anything away from that.”
One of the nicest compliments Iannucci says he’s gotten about the film has come in the form of a question from Russian viewers: “Where in Moscow did you shoot this?” they ask him. He actually shot it in London, but during prep for the movie the crew visited those real locations in Russia in order to recreate them with excruciating detail on screen. The last thing he wanted to do was “the Hollywood version” of the Soviet Union.
And yet now the Kremlin has decided to ban the film from screening in Russia. When I suggest that this will make it harder for Russian people to see it, Iannucci scoffs. “Of course they will see it, this is the 21st century, where everything can be found somewhere,” he says, “which is why it’s absurd to try to ban it.”
“It just seems like such an old-fashioned thing to do,” he continues, speculating that the move probably has more to do with the upcoming presidential elections than anything else. “And obviously we know Putin is a stickler for no one interfering in the elections of another country,” he jokes. Why does he think Putin is so afraid of this film? “Because it makes fun of authority.”
In a few months, Iannucci will make yet another creative leap when he starts shooting a film version Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield starring Dev Patel.
“I’ve always been a huge Dickens fan,” he says. “I like his ambition, I like his comedy, I like his humanity. He’s a really modern, psychological novelist,” he says. “It’s very human, vulnerable characters in the middle of a big, almost state-of-the-nation story, so that really appeals to me.”
“I’m going even further back in time,” he notes. “But the next thing I’m doing for HBO is set in the future. It’s set in the world of space tourism in about 30 or 40 years’ time.” The pilot — working title Avenue 5 — is set to start shooting in London later this year.
“Maybe it’s just that it’s difficult to do a fictional version of the present,” he says, laughing. It’s a problem that Veep has been grappling with in the age of Trump, especially since Iannucci left that show after season four.
“I can see why they’ve decided to bring it to an end,” he says of the upcoming seventh and final season. “Because how can you replicate what’s going on in the White House?”