‘Humorless Politicians Are the Most Dangerous’

Armando Iannucci, the creator of Veep, answers questions about satire in the time of Trump and his new film, The Death of Stalin.

Armando Iannucci, photographed in London on January 5, 2018 (Nick Ballon)

The Scottish-born television and film director Armando Iannucci is best known in the U.K. for the acclaimed BBC series The Thick of It, a farce set in the upper echelons of British government. Its success inspired his HBO series, Veep, which uses a similar approach—foulmouthed, cringe-inducing, relentlessly funny—to skewer Washington. For his new film, The Death of Stalin, Iannucci turns his attention to the Kremlin, satirizing the political struggle that followed Joseph Stalin’s demise. The movie opens in the United States this month, 65 years after the dictator died.

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

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Julia Ioffe: How did you decide to make a movie about the death of Stalin?

Armando Iannucci: I was thinking of a fictional movie about a contemporary dictator, fantasizing about what might happen next in today’s world. But then this French company called Quad came with this graphic novel, The Death of Stalin, which was quite popular in France, based on true incidents. And they said, “We want to make this film, and we think it’d be right for you—are you interested?” I read the book and I instantly thought, Well, this is it! Why bother with fiction when this true story is bizarre and funny and scary at the same time? I waited until I’d finished Veep and then started making it. We shot it pre-Trump, but when I started showing it to people, they seemed to think it was some commentary on contemporary events.

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.

A lot of the events in there are true—the dinner parties that he held in the middle of the night, making people watch American Westerns till three in the morning, Lavrentiy Beria [the chief of Stalin’s secret police] thinking it hilarious to put a tomato in someone’s pocket and smash it. Stalin did lie for a whole day in a puddle of his own urine [after he had a stroke] because people were too afraid to go in.

Somebody told us that people used to go to bed wearing layers of clothes so that if they were dragged away in the night, they would go with lots of clothes on. We discovered that Vasily, his son, really did lose the entire air-force ice-hockey team in a plane crash and then tried to cover it up by putting together a new team, which was terrible.

JI: You captured the intense fear and anxiety of the time, but also the absurdity of it. How did you put those together?

AI: That’s what I wanted—I wanted it to be a comedy, but I said, “I want people to feel uneasy.” I wanted to re-create the sense of terror—terror that you lived with for 15 or 20 years, in your stomach. And that was about knowing there were comic scenes, but also other scenes that weren’t funny, and trying to balance between the two so that the comedy didn’t dilute the tragedy and the tragedy didn’t snuff out the comedy. Comedy kind of adds to unease: If you’re setting up a joke, there’s that sense of heightened anticipation for a payoff. Which is the same kind of unease as Who’s going to come knocking on the door next?

JI: The Death of Stalin is in some ways a very British comedy—I felt like all that was missing was John Cleese.

AI: Well, we got Michael Palin. There’s an element of farce, which is a British thing. But Russian humor involves the little guy getting caught up in the machinery of the province or the inspector—which slightly chimes with British comedy. It’s all about the little person in the big apparatus.

JI: You haven’t said much about Putin.

AI: He’s one of the strongmen that I was thinking of. Stalin is making a bit of a comeback in Russia. There’s a huge statue to Czar Nicholas II up in Moscow. There’s an enormous statue to Peter the Great. The idea is single, strong men—that’s what Putin’s trying to reinforce. Although, interestingly, I heard that when they showed the film to the Russian press a few days ago, the press cheered and applauded when Stalin dies.

JI: The Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, who’s under house arrest, just had a show about Rudolf Nureyev go up at the Bolshoi, with all the Russian elite in attendance. They gave a standing ovation. What do you make of that?

AI: The Russian people give a high status to the arts, don’t they? In the U.K., politicians will be photographed going to a football match or possibly a film, but they wouldn’t be photographed going to an opera or a ballet or even a play. The idea of the intellectual in Britain is a strange one; it’s seen as a pejorative. “Too clever for your own good,” “smart aleck,” that sort of thing. I admire how in Europe and eastern Europe, parents want children to aspire to the intelligentsia.

JI: But the arts are a much more dangerous profession in Russia. In Stalin’s gulags you had ballets put on and whole symphonies, because of all the artists there. Why has the Russian state—be it czarist or Stalinist or Putinist—seen artists as so threatening?

AI: One thing that was very popular in Stalin’s time was “Stalin jokes”—jokes about Stalin, jokes about Beria. You could be killed if you were found in possession of one of these. And yet people felt the need to come up with them. It’s almost like they’re saying, “You can lock me up, you can take my family away, but if I can still make fun of you, you haven’t changed my mind.”

I think that’s why politicians worry about the arts—they can’t predict what art does to people, and therefore they can’t control the effect it’s going to have. Always beware of politicians who can’t take a joke.

JI: There was a satirical puppet show on Russian TV called Kukly—“Puppets.” One of Putin’s first moves as president was to shut down the entire channel, because he hated how he was portrayed.

AI: That’s it. The humorless politicians are the most dangerous ones, I think.

JI: If you were to make a film satirizing the Trump era, what would you try to capture?

AI: His frustration. The way he tries to dictate the laws of politics and sometimes the laws of physics. I think we’ll find, as things progress, that he has fewer and fewer people around him—at some stage he will fire his daughter, and his son-in-law. He will keep firing people until there’s no one left. And then the key moment will come when he turns on the electorate. Once he starts bad-mouthing the people, he’ll be at his most dangerous.

JI: Does it end with Trump firing himself?

AI: I think he’d rather fire America first. He’d go to one of his golf courses, build a wall around it, call that America, and everywhere else doesn’t get funding.

Remember Sarah Palin—when she was campaigning, she went to the middle states, saying, “I like to be here in what I call ‘Real America.’ ” Anywhere the Democrats are is not Real America. It’s that—defining your opponent as false.

JI: That’s what the Bolsheviks did—people they didn’t like were “former people.” You captured that very well in the ending credits, where you scratched people out, the way the Soviets did.

AI: I had been toying with that for a while; it seemed right at the end.

JI: Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?

AI: God help us all!