Interview: Armando Iannucci of “The Death of Stalin”
Posted on March 15, 2018 at 2:29 pm
“The Death of Stalin,” based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury, is a scorching satire about the flurry for succession following the unexpected totalitarian leader of the Soviet Union. For rogerebert.com I spoke to co-writer/director Armando Iannuci about the parallels between this film and his HBO series, “Veep,” about the accents of this actors and the only one to change his accent to suit the character, and about what the movie has to say about today’s politics.
Do you see the story as something like “Veep” with guns? I get the feeling that if the characters in “Veep” had the chance to kill people, they would.
You might think that at the start, but once there’s a threat of being killed, it just turns into something else. The comedy is more based in paranoia, craziness. In “Veep,” the characters’ biggest worry is being found out. The worst that can happen to you is maybe they will be embarrassed or you may lose your job and go into lobbying. It’s temporary. But for these characters it is “if you are found out, you will be dead,” and it turns them into gibbering, frozen with fear, paranoiacs, every one of them. It turns them into stories that are timeless like ancient Rome or Shakespeare’s history plays or “Game of Thrones” or “The Godfather.” It’s the war for succession, kill or be killed. You have characters who tell themselves, “I’m good, but I may have to kill people so that my goodness can survive.”
“What’s wrong with bossy? It’s O.K. for a man.” Barbra Streisand, Director (“The Prince of Tides”)
It’s a conundrum: We can’t change it ourselves, but no one can change it but us.” Jennie Livingston, Director (“Paris Is Burning”)
“It was Gina Bythewood who told me, ‘If someone is just a pig to you on set, don’t deal with it behind closed doors, because you have to show the whole crew that you will deal with it and you will not have it.’ ” Ava DuVernay, Director (“Selma”)
We met and she told me that she wanted to make a sort of paean to the awkward ones, the “uncool” kids that are actually cooler than the “cool” kids. She said she wanted to shoot all these styles of dance and then be the individualist dork in the midst of these established genres. And that she somehow wanted her fans involved. I loved that idea, so over the following week or so, we narrowed down our choices for styles of dance. I think she imagined it in more natural settings and I suggested giving it a starker, more minimalist look. And I suggested the idea of incorporating her fans as a climax, for the ending as a kind of surprise.
Did you know that Fincher directed Madonna’s “Vogue?” It is a lot of fun to see directors freed from the structure of narrative arcs, having fun with the visuals and the music.
Director Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “American Beauty”) has some advice for directors. In accepting an award, he listed 25 recommendations that are well worth reading. Some are particular to his profession (“If you have the chance, please work with Dame Judi Dench.” “Theater is the writer’s medium and the actor’s medium; the director comes a distant third. If you want a proper ego trip, direct movies.”) But most of them are good reminders for whatever path your life takes. Here are some of my favorites:
Always choose good collaborators. It seems so obvious, but the best collaborators are the ones who disagree with you. It means they’re passionate, they have opinions, and they’ll only ever say yes if they mean it.
Try to learn how to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. Direct Shakespeare like it’s a new play, and treat every new play as if it’s Shakespeare.
Confidence is essential, but ego is not.
You are never too old to learn something new, as I reminded myself, I learned to ski with my 10-year-old son, of course, who did it in about 10 minutes, and I spent four days slaloming up and down, looking like a complete tit. But, don’t be scared of feeling like a complete tit. It’s an essential part of the learning process.