There’s a lot in it about new narratives and old narratives, which seems to chime with “fake news” and all that business. Stalin called anyone who disagreed with him an enemy of the people. Trump calls them unpatriotic and false. With people like Berlusconi and indeed Putin, and Erdoğan in Turkey—these “strongmen,” as it were—it feels a little bit like the 1930s again. Things are being said now that you wouldn’t have tolerated 10 years ago.
JI: For example?
AI: Well, Trump’s instinct is to call for jailing of opponents. If Saturday Night Live does an impression of him, he starts calling for NBC’s license to be looked into. For someone who is head of a party that’s all about government backing off, he’s very much for telling people what to think, what to watch, who shouldn’t be speaking out—he’s very authoritarian. The rule of law is his law, which I find quite menacing.
JI: So what role does satire play in an environment like this?
AI: I have always said that if you’re doing political comedy, don’t expect it to change people’s opinion or how they vote. To do that, you have to become a journalist or an activist or a politician.
JI: But as a maker of satire, do you feel more responsibility now?
AI: I’ve always been drawn toward filmmakers that take ambitious state-of-the-nation approaches. Before I made The Death of Stalin, I went back and I viewed Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator—a satire of Hitler made in 1941, with hilarious scenes but also scenes about the Jewish ghetto. There is a tradition.
JI: Do you think Veep has aged? Does it feel too tame now?
AI: I’m relieved I stopped before Trump—I’d find it very difficult to do fiction set in the world of government while what’s happening in reality is far more absurd.
JI: In the past year, have there been moments in the political world that if you’d seen them in the writers’ room, you would have said, “That’s too overwritten”?
AI: The speech that Theresa May made to her conference in October, where she had a slogan behind her that said something like making britain stronger, and the letters fell off. I would have dismissed that as very much a first-draft idea: “That wouldn’t happen, go come up with something else!”
JI: What about stateside?
AI: The thing I found most chilling was Trump’s Cabinet meeting where he got the cameras in and went around making everyone say how good he was. That self-absorption was very much a Mussolini characteristic. Or the judicial nominee who hadn’t attended any kind of trial. If we had proposed that in an episode, I would have thought, No, surely they would have researched that person!
JI: For The Death of Stalin, did you rely on the French book, or did you do other research?
AI: We went out to Moscow and had a look at the places—I wanted to re-create them as much as possible. Reassuringly, when Russians see the film, they say, “Where in Moscow did you film that?” And I say, “We filmed it in London.” We went through a lot of trouble to re-create the setting so it didn’t look like a glorified Hollywood version of the time. Stalin’s dacha is big, but it’s very empty. He wasn’t into gold bathrooms and ornaments and such. He was very, very functional. Power is what he was interested in.