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In The Loop – Armando Iannucci interview

In The Loop

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ARMANDO Iannucci, writer and director of hilarious political satire The Thick of It and new film In The Loop, talks to us about casting the film, why editing felt like undergoing colonic irrigation, and getting the balance between spot-on satire and not going far enough…

Q. There’s a line in the movie about “spanking one out over shark documentaries” that always gets a round of applause in light of recent political events surrounding porn. Does this mean you have your satire spot-on or did you not go far enough?
Armando Iannucci: I don’t really know. You write all these things in advance, and sometimes you think: “This is too silly, will people believe this?” And other times you think: “This isn’t silly enough!” And then these events happen. I forgot to tell Tom [Hollander] that he was plastered all over the front page of The Sun with the word “porn” last week. It was in connection with the Jacqui Smith story and there’s a line in the movie… [laughs].

Steve Coogan had that line about there’s a guy outside who wants to ban people talking foreign languages in shops, and considering that was filmed last summer, there was a court case last month when that happened. But then you start worrying about whether those things that we really made up, about the war, are actually going to happen, and whether it’s a good or bad thing. A lot of it is based on research and finding out what actually goes on in these enclosed government buildings, and you worry whether it’s too silly or unbelievable, and then someone from government comes up to you after a screening and goes: “Ooh, it’s far, far worse.”

Q. Do you get angry when stories like that emerge in real-life and thereby remove the focus from the serious stuff?
Armando Iannucci: I kind of feel I’m genuinely not interested. It tells me nothing about what goes on in their private life. There was a story about four weeks ago about a senior civil servant up before a select committee in the House of Commons saying that when they drew up that dossier, they knew that some of the sources were very unreliable, and the MPs kept asking: “Why didn’t you say anything?” And he said: “Because if it was made pretty clear that if we objected our careers would be over.” And that was a tiny, tiny story in one broadsheet, but that for me is much more interesting and profound a story than what Jacqui Smith’s husband watches when she’s away in London all year.

Q. How did you go about securing access to Downing Street for some scenes?
Armando Iannucci: Normally, the Downing Street scene would actually be a set. But we wrote to Downing Street thinking they’d say “no”, and they said: “Yes alright, we don’t normally do this, but go on. The Prime Minister is away…” He was at the Labour conference in Blackpool that week – so Downing Street was sort of empty. You’d think there’d be someone there running the country, but it was fundamentally quite quiet. So, the opening scene of Malcolm coming out of No. 10 is exactly that. It was great because all the Malcolms who work at No. 10 had brought their cameras in to take pictures, because they were more excited than we were! I didn’t understand the dynamic of being more excited because a fictional character was around.

Q. How different was filming in Washington to filming in London. Is it film friendly?
Armando Iannucci: Filming in Washington felt fairly free, in terms of having Malcolm standing outside the White House. They said where you could and couldn’t stand, and provided you kept to that they left you alone. I’m sure there were snipers hidden everywhere if we wandered onto the wrong part of the sidewalk. For the United Nations, we had to shoot quite surreptitiously in New York because on that day they were having a big convention, so they shut down that section of New York, so we weren’t allowed to stand outside the UN.

Q. Did you find that people in America were very much aware of The Thick of It?
Armando Iannucci: The sort of politicos in America are very into British comedy. I was going through customs in New York and the guy asked me: “What are you doing here?” So, I said: “I’m from BBC comedy.” And he went: “Oh [starts] singing, French and Saunders!” And I remember one driver going: “Ah-hah [like Steve Coogan]!” But some of them knew of The Thick of It.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit more about the improvisation process?
Armando Iannucci: We spend a lot of time working out the plot. Once we’ve nailed that down, I get the writers to write the script… but not quickly because it’s still early stages and we want to still move stuff around. We do little read throughs to see how it fares. But they all swap. So, by the end of that phase, no one can quite remember who wrote what. But then the rehearsal process is a mixture of doing little reads and then pulling out scenes where I think the comedy is going to come from the mood in the room. That’s when we start work-shopping a little bit.

But the writers are always there and I keep saying to people: “It’s not about trying to come up with 101 new funny things, it’s more just seeing what actually would happen under those circumstances.” Things emerge from that process which the writers then feedback into the script, and then on set we do the same process again. I shoot the scene as written and then we put the script to one side and loosen it up a little bit just to see what happens. It’s about getting it to look spontaneous. But the longer I’ve been doing this, the more I’m aware of the pressure it’s putting on the cast because it’s a very exposing moment.

Q. Did you cast the American actors because of their ability to improvise?
Armando Iannucci: Well, James [Gandolfini] is very funny in real life. He knew the show and was a fan of The Thick of It. Visually, he’s very funny and he can handle slapstick and stuff like that. But I’ve always found that the American tradition is more to do with naturalism and dialogue that feels real, and therefore American actors are more comfortable with naturalising the lines and roughing them up a bit and making them feel less theatrically performed. So, I never felt that would be a big barrier to choosing a cast.

But I did go out of my way to choose people who, in the casting sessions, I improvised with and who had a comedy background. Zach Woods, who plays Chad, is from a comedy improv troupe in New York. Anna Chlumsky is an actress but she was just brilliantly funny in the casting sessions and has done comedy in the past. And Mimi Kennedy is from a sitcom background really. She’s more well-known in America for sitcoms. David Rasche is a respected actor but you could see from the casting sessions that he was very funny and he was able to absorb the style.

Q. You’ve described the editing process as undergoing colonic irrigation. Can you explain?
Armando Iannucci: [Laughs] It’s a long, long and increasingly painful process the edit. The first assembly of the film was four and a half hours long because of all the improvisation. I thought that was intolerable – it was the Heaven’s Gate of comedy. I have in my head this sort of ideal that a comedy film should definitely be under two hours – somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours. So, an hour and 45 minutes was about right.

It was easy to get it down to about two hours and 10 minutes during the first month of the edit but the next month was about getting it down to two hours, and the last two months was spent trying to get that final 15 minutes was tough. There were four or five scenes that I really liked, and which I knew had to go, but I held onto them until probably the final week because they got in the way of the story. So, hence the colonic irrigation parallel. It was probably worth it but I really wouldn’t want to go through it again… and I’ve never had colonic irrigation!

Q. How accurate is the depiction of 22-year-old toddlers heading up their own departments in Washington?
Armando Iannucci: Yes, that was a big thing that struck me – they are all so young. They’re very bright. They get a degree and then they go off to Georgetown University and get degrees in things like Strategic Terrorism Studies. They go to these massive political universities and pick up degrees in very specialised fields of politics – or else they start off by campaigning for a congressman in a small district in a mid-Western state, and when that congressman wins and goes to Washington, they bring their campaign team with them, so suddenly this 22-year-old is this congressman’s chief foreign affairs advisor. And because Washington is so big, it’s very easy to find yourself in charge of something that no one else has claimed.

We met a 23-year-old who came up with a policy paper on Central America and the State department liked it so much but said: “We’re all busy – you do it!” So he was in charge of Central America. And another 22-year-old was sent out to Baghdad to help draw up the constitution. I don’t know whether he can drive a car or even swear! So that was the eye-opening thing for me, and I’d never seen that portrayed directly in a dramatic view of Washington.

Read our review of In The Loop

Read our interview with Chris Addison