Armando Iannucci is the Scottish writer-director behind such biting political satire as Veep and In the Loop. His latest is Death of Stalin, a pitch-black comedy set in the days before and after the dictator’s demise, less a work of history than a pointed nod toward the worldwide rise of autocratic political figures today, and our internet-fed era of fake news.
I chatted with Iannucci about politics, comedy, social media, and his movie’s own recent run-in with the #MeToo movement.
One of the stars of Death of Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor, has been accused of sexual harassment. You said at the March 9 U.S. premiere of the film that you found Tambor to be thoroughly professional, a brilliant actor, and essential to the film, but that you’d assess the situation based on new information. Has your thinking changed?
No chance of pulling a Ridley Scott and replacing him with another actor?
Our movie was released when the most recent allegations surfaced [Death of Stalin was released in the U.K. Oct. 20; Tambor was accused of sexual misconduct by a former assistant in November]. Recasting was not an option. And I think once you start pulling on that thread, the whole thing is likely to unravel.
The movie is called Death of Stalin, and it’s set in 1953, but it speaks rather obviously to today’s political environment.
I made the film because I was interested in disruptive forces shaking democracies around the world. You have the rise of these strongman figures, they get elected and in some cases change the constitution to remain in power and last longer. At the same time, you see these nationalistic attitudes on the rise, in Europe and elsewhere. Some more extreme than others.
In the movie, Stalin’s successors wrestle for power, and each faction has its version of the truth, its own narrative to impose. That also seems relevant to today’s world.
Beria [played by Simon Russell Beale] says something in the movie like, “There’s a new reality now,” which is little bit like somebody talking about alternative facts. I found it interesting that when Trump was elected, he started referring to CNN and MSNBC as ‘enemies of the people.’ I doubt he knew that was a phrase that Stalin used, or that Khrushchev banned the phrase when he took over, and I’m not saying there’s an exact parallel, but it’s interesting. We shot the movie in 2016, long before a lot of this stuff happened, but you do see similarities cropping up.
People in Death of Stalin accept these false narratives out of fear they will be killed. Today, people seem to be embracing them more enthusiastically, through social media. When Facebook recently informed people that certain banned information came from Russian hate-bots, people complained about censorship and demanded the false information be restored.
Yeah, but that could be one guy complaining. That’s the other thing that happens today. You hear about a Twitter storm, and then you look at it, and you see it’s 400 people out of a billion Twitter users. And who are they? Anyone commenting is deemed to have the same status as a highly esteemed expert. But, yeah, we have a character in the movie, Molotov (Michael Palin), who essentially brainwashes himself, who accepts whatever story is easiest to accept. It reminds me of the Aussie politician who was asked to respond to a statement by his prime minister and said, “Well, I don’t know what she said but I’m sure I agree with it.”
We had to import you to make a series like Veep. The British seem to have a special skill for institutional satire, and political satire in particular. What accounts for that?
I sometimes worry that that’s what stopped us from having a revolution. Our way of protesting something is to make comedy. Other countries storm the barricades and loot the buildings. And I think comedy itself is different in the U.S. One thing I’ve noticed [in classic U.S. comedy] is that the lead is always successful. Cheers was a successful bar. Frasier was a successful psychiatrist. Seinfeld was a successful comedian. We’re more comfortable with failure.
You’re straying out of your comfort zone a bit with your next two projects: a science-fiction story [Avenue 5] about an outer space voyage, and a remake of David Copperfield.
It seems I’m abandoning the present. I’m making something set 40 years in the future, and a story set in the 1840s. Maybe something about the present moment makes me uncomfortable.