Perhaps the biggest surprise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was In The Loop, a raucous, sly political satire set during the buildup to a U.S.-led invasion of a Middle Eastern country. But fans of sharp, vérité-style British comedy were already well-versed in the oeuvre of In The Loop writer-director Armando Iannucci, the creative prime mover behind the BBC series The Thick Of It.
Iannucci’s roots in cringe-inducing comedy go back to The Day Today, a vicious, unhinged satire of television news that introduced the world to the snarling comic persona of Chris Morris and smug, clueless sportscaster Alan Partridge. With Steve Coogan, Iannucci spun Partridge off into his own string of series, recasting him first as an out-of-his-depth talk-show host and then as a radio personality exiled to the graveyard shift in the hinterlands, growing more desperate and petty with each change of career. Iannucci also created Time Trumpet, a surreal future-past parody of Best Week Ever-type shows looking back on events that have yet to actually happen.
But The Thick Of It is his most violently hilarious creation, a caustic, incandescent satire of the petty politics of British government, starring Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister’s venom-spewing director of communications. In The Loop, a loosely connected cousin to The Thick Of It, adds an American delegation, including James Gandolfini as a dovish general, Anna Chlumsky as a eager but overmatched Congressional staffer, and David Rasche as the priggish hawk behind the steady march to war. Iannucci spoke to The A.V. Club in Park City, shortly before In The Loop’s public première, and before it was picked up and brought to theaters by IFC Films.
The A.V. Club: The movie went over very well at its Sundance screening.
Armando Iannucci: Oh, good. I made it primarily as a UK film, but I am aware that the story is set in Washington, half the cast are… there’s protection for an American audience there. But I’m intrigued to know how it comes across.
AVC: Had you been looking to do a feature for a while?
AI: For some time, I’d wanted to do a funny film. In my head, it was quite clear. I wanted it to be full of jokes, to not get hung up on, “We’ve got to inject romance here, it’s all got to get a bit serious for 10 minutes while we worry about whether they’re going to get together or not.” I kind of like the idea of just gags. On the other hand, I wanted to do something where the subject demanded that amount of tension. So along came Iraq, and I thought, “Bingo, great.” I knew I didn’t want to do a film that was set in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, but I wanted to take all those elements of people not quite being brave enough to stand up and say “This must stop,” or people getting the wrong end of the stick, and how the Brits were sort of sucked in and became slightly starstruck by coming out to Washington. I said to all the cast, “Imagine you’re going out to L.A. for the first time. It takes you a while to figure out it’s all just bullshit, and everyone’s not really that interested.” I thought that was the story, and then the style sort of suggested itself. I wanted to keep it naturalistic.
AVC: Was it always an extension of The Thick Of It?
AI: I just thought [I wanted to use] that style and that world, but Malcolm Tucker is the only character that crosses over from the TV show; all the others are completely new. I didn’t want it to be an extended version of an episode of The Thick Of It. I wanted it to be a completely new thing. If you’ve seen The Thick Of It and liked it, fine. You don’t have to have seen it. I wanted to start fresh—new minister, new setting, whole new country to deal with—and take it from there.
AVC: If you’ve ever seen people try to do Monty Python with an American accent, you know it doesn’t work. So was writing the American characters a challenge?
AI: It was a challenge, but also I cast people who could improvise and who came from a comedy background. Zach Woods, who plays Chad, is from the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Anna is just very funny. Jim Gandolfini is hilarious, and he was happy to workshop with us and improvise. He’s done lots of sitcoms. So they all had that ability. And I said to them, “Look, say it the way you want to say it.” “In the U.S., we wouldn’t say that, we’d say this”—absolutely fine. What was fun was seeing both sides start coming together.
AVC: You could draw a line all the way back to Alan Partridge. There’s that kind of passive-aggressiveness, the combination of arrogance and powerlessness, which seems to be characteristically British.
AI: Whereas the U.S. cast, we based them on either people I met, or people I heard about. I came out and did research in Washington, met up with State Department people, ex-Pentagon and CIA people, and so on. And they did tell me, “Washington is run by 23-year-olds with degrees in strategic terrorism studies from George Washington University, and suddenly they’re given a whole department to run.” We met someone who was sent out to Baghdad to help draft their constitution, and he was 23. And a 22-year-old who was given a South American budget to be in charge of. And people’s reminiscences of people like Bolton and Rumsfeld and so on. The guy at the UN described John Bolton to me as the rudest man he’d ever met. But not in a kind of foul-mouthed way, just in the utter contempt with which he dealt with anyone who didn’t agree with him. If you didn’t agree with him, his attitude was, “Clearly you’re an idiot. Why should I spend any more time even looking at you?” So David Rasche, who was playing Linton Barwick, he spent a lot of time looking at that. As writers, we spent a lot of time giving Linton phrases to say, those slightly Rumsfeldian little words and phrases he used that sound smart and intriguing, but when you analyze them, don’t really mean anything. Did you get the Rumsfeld poetry book? Somebody brought out some of Rumsfeld’s phrases in the form of poetry and haiku, in the way they’re structured on the page. They look really funny. “There are known knowns, and known unknowns, but it’s the unknown knowns that we have to worry about.”
AVC: It almost makes your job irrelevant.
AI: Yeah, it kind of writes itself. [Laughs.]
AVC: Somebody asked me if the movie was really insider-y, and it’s not. It has a feel of verisimilitude, but there aren’t any John Bolton jokes in the movie.
AI: No no, it’s not that, but it is very much, as far as we’ve been able to take it, a more accurate recreation of how it does work. Washington insiders who have seen it say it is quite accurate. That’s how Rumsfeld got stuff through. He set up a committee, gave it the dullest title imaginable so that no one would get on it, so they would agree to certain things about the invasion. And as soon as word got out that there was this committee, every senator in town wanted to get on it, so they had to just shut it down and start another committee somewhere else.
AVC: One of the underlying gags of The Thick Of It is how much of the daily business of government is concerned with utter mundanity.
AI: Just putting out the fires.
AVC: And this is obviously enormously consequential, which makes it definitely darker.
AI: But it is still the day-to-day bullshit that they have to deal with. It’s still office politics, but the decisions you make have consequences.
AVC: During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the State Department and the Defense Department literally weren’t talking to each other.
AI: “Who’s in charge here?”, yeah. There’s that thing in one of the Woodward books about the meetings they had in the buildup to the invasion. Whenever the question of, “So who’s in charge of running the place?” came up, everyone in room looked down, that thing you do at school when you don’t want to be called on by the teacher. You think if you look down, he won’t ask you. You can’t see him, so he might not see you. And the idea that people like Condoleezza Rice were just looking down…
AVC: And it was literally nobody’s job.
AI: Somebody told me they didn’t recruit Arabic speakers, because Rumsfeld thought if you could speak Arabic, you were pro-Arab. So the last thing we want while we’re running this Arab-speaking country is people who can speak Arabic.
AVC: There are several different strands in the film. One of them is very much the comedy of cringe. In the age of The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, that’s pretty well-established, but it wasn’t back when you were doing Alan Partridge. Where did that come from?
AI: It’s interesting, because people did say at the time, “I’ll watch it, but I have to watch it through my fingers.” We didn’t set out to write a cringey comedy, we just wrote this guy, and you think “What’s the funniest thing he can do?” He can stay at a hotel by a motorway, and then what? He dismantles a trouser press because he’s got nothing to do. So you just write what you think is the funniest thing for Alan to do. It so happens that you as an outsider watching it feel slightly sorry for him, but also you want to carry on watching. But there’s no conscious decision to make it embarrassing.
AVC: Part of it is in the performance, too. Steve Coogan’s performance has so much anger.
AI: And you’re kind of always on his side. Even in the film, you’re kind of on Malcolm’s side in the end, in that you do want him to get one over Linton, even though in getting one over Linton, he is sort of helping move everything along [toward war]. I kind of like that thing of you being caught up. You think you can judge someone, and before you know it, you’ve been swayed by them, and actually you want more of them. You find them kind of attractive and charismatic, even though they’re, in the case of Alan, a broken man, or in the case of Malcolm, a nasty man. I find that intriguing, why you fall for people like that.
AVC: People are sort of in love with that character and quoting these things, but also, I don’t know why calling someone “Horse Of The Year” is funny.
AI: Who do you like most in Entourage? You like Ari the most, even though he’s the foulest. The four central characters are all well-meaning and good-natured.
AVC: How central is the harsh language to your world? How important is it to have that edge?
AI: I like the rawness of it. It shows you what that world of politics is actually like, as opposed to how it’s recreated in certain films and TV shows. And there is a little bit of that language on the Washington side, but not as much, because in meeting people and working with them, I knew that they’re more foul-mouthed in the military and the Pentagon, whereas in the State Department, it’s a bit more diplomatic. That’s why we looked at Linton’s language being actually him not swearing, but expressing himself in these little phrases and sayings. But I think it helps. As an audience, it makes you feel you’ve been given the rushes, the stuff that hasn’t been edited for public viewing.
AVC: So when they sanded the edges off for the BBC America broadcast—
AI: I never saw one of those. They bleeped it?
AVC: They seemingly redubbed some of it.
AI: Oh, really? I must get a hold of a copy. I thought they bleeped it, because I saw a little section of it bleeped. I thought, “My God, what is he saying?” It sounded even more frightening.
AVC: And there was the ABC pilot, which was substantially toned down.
AI: Both fortunately and unfortunately, I wasn’t that involved in it, creatively. I sort of wish I had been. On the other hand, I’m not sure even if I’d been creatively involved, whether… the forces at work there were the big studios and the big networks. The problem may be the fact that BBC Worldwide sold it to the highest bidder, as opposed to the best bidder. And once that decision had been made, there really was nothing you could do other than watch the thing die a death.
AVC: It’s like, “We paid you enough money.”
AI: It was. I went to one meeting when I was out there, where about 30 people attended, and it was to discuss the color of the ties. It was called a “tone meeting.” I’ve never had a tone meeting before. They discussed the color of the ties and the suits that the politicians would be wearing. It was all over in 10 minutes, but the head of ABC was there, the vice president of Sony was there, everyone was there. No one introduced me. I was just this guy in the corner, crying. [Laughs.] I flew back to London not long after that meeting, actually. It thankfully didn’t become a series, because I would’ve hated a blandified version of the project to become its American legacy over here. And hopefully this film is a chance to redress that.
AVC: What is Ian Martin’s role?
AI: He’s one of the writers, and he writes scripts, but for some reason, he’s become known as the swearing consultant. He writes additional dialogue. And for the new series, he will actually be writing some scripts this time. What we do is, when we come to a draft of the script that I feel is fairly locked-off, I’ll send it to Ian just to do a little pass on it. He’d come back with all these great little one-liners and more colorful remarks. The swearing that he gave Malcolm was always particularly eye-catching. So historically, he’s become known as the swearing consultant, but that kind of demeans and diminishes his role.
AVC: It’s hard to imagine anyone actually having that role.
AI: He does a website called Martian FM, which you must look at. It’s sort of Onion-esque. It’s a fake report of what happened in Parliament that day, full of swearing. And lots of really good graphic jokes.
AVC: Some of the things you’ve done are character-driven, while The Day Today and Time Trumpet are more surreal, taking these familiar forms and doing something unfamiliar. Do you like going back and forth?
AI: I do, and as a gut thing, my next project is always the complete opposite of the thing I’ve just done. So if I’ve spent a lot of time doing film, I might then do some radio. On my next film, I want to do a slapstick kind of thing with lots of visual gags. So it would be the opposite of In The Loop, in a way. It wouldn’t be this sort of fly-on-the-wall style. It’ll be bigger, playing about with the visuals a lot more, and what you see on the screen. A chase and stuff like that.
AVC: Is that just in the forming-of-intent phase?
AI: We’re beginning to know the storyline, but it’ll take a while to just boil. We’ll get the story and then we’ll spend a lot of time working out what the gags are, the visual gags. But I’ve always loved silent movies and Buster Keaton, and I just love nonverbal comedy. “One Week,” where he assembles a house in seven days, and the train goes through it at the end. Or even, is it Steamboat Bill, Jr.? The one with the storm, he’s in a hospital and the storm blows the hospital away. You see this building disappear; it’s just great. So I like that, and I want to do something like that.
AVC: If you did that now, it wouldn’t be funny, because you wouldn’t really be doing it.
AI: It would probably end up being too polished. It would be a magnificent special effect, and it’d just lose the sly clunkiness. The funniest gag movies, like Airplane, or the early Steve Martin ones, or the early Monty Pythons, actually have the lowest production values. They’re all slightly garishly lit, and slightly plastic-y. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just about the jokes. If you threw tens of millions of dollars at it, it wouldn’t make them any funnier.
AVC: Like if the characters actually were on horses in Holy Grail.
AI: That was because they had no money. Even in the first episode of The Thick Of It, you know how he goes to the school and he’s going to make an announcement? They say “Go on, off you go,” and he leaves, and then three seconds later, he comes back saying, “That was a fucking waste of time.” Originally in the script, you see that scene where he explains things, the whole school is watching, and the press asks him questions, and he wilts. And we cut it, because we didn’t have the time or the money to do it. We thought it would be funny to do it that way: Go out the door, cut, come back, “fucking waste of time.”
AVC: Like that famous moment in Raiders Of The Lost Ark where they build up to a big swordfight, and Indy just shoots the guy.
AI: And it’s one of the most memorable bits of the film, isn’t it? I think why those things become memorable and funny is because they puncture the standard grammar of a film. Your expectation is such, because you’ve seen it time and time again, that there will now be a fight at this point, or this guy’s coming in and this music signifies that he’s important. So the minute you just kill him, it jolts you out of the formula, and it can be funny.
AVC: This is less for comic effect, but in the movie, you build up to a big vote, and then it’s suddenly over.
AI: It’s because we didn’t have the money to recreate the Security Council of the UN.
AVC: In that case, it’s almost more poignant than funny, because the abruptness just increases how pathetic it is.
AI: I wanted this to be about people who are several rungs down, and all the decisions are being made through there. The guy I met from the CIA said he spent his first year at the CIA doing desk paperwork, and dreaming that someone would tap him on the shoulder and say, “Listen, you’ve done very well, we’re going to move you through that door and show you the real CIA. Go through there, that’s where all the big screens are, all the equipment and the surveillance.” It never happened. There is no “over there.” It’s just this. Marker pens. He said they got a lot of their intelligence from the Baghdad newspapers, because they were actually more accurate than what they were getting back from their operatives.
AVC: So having done that kind of research, do you know more than you ever wanted to?
AI: You almost don’t want to go down that road of finding out more, because it’ll just frighten you. It has filled me with a bit of despair. It might be healthy. Again, I’ve never seen Washington portrayed as realistically or as disappointingly as that. I wanted the minister and Toby to be slightly let down in the end, when they went back to the UK, to kind of miss the motorcades and being where the power was, and leaping at the chance to go back out again. As happens every time our actors go out to L.A., and come saying “It’s terrible out there.” But if someone from L.A. rings them up, they’ll go back.
AVC: What was it like working with Steve Coogan again?
AI: It was great, because I hadn’t really worked with him much since the last Partridge series, which was four or five years ago. We have talked for a long time about doing a film, but he’s been busy doing his other stuff. This part came up in the story, and I just thought he’d be absolutely ideal for it. It was very self-contained, but high-impact in terms of it what it does. He was in the middle of another production, but he had a day, so we engineered it so he could come to us and shoot all his scenes on that day. He improvised away, and it was really hilarious. It made us want to actually be more serious about doing something together, rather than just saying it would be great to do something and then going off our own ways. I’d love to do a film with him playing three or four different roles. I think that would really give him his comedy voice.
AVC: That sounds like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove. Was that movie in particular an influence?
AI: It’s one of my favorite films, and it’s one of those films that reassures me that you can tackle big subjects in comedy. But I was then aware that what I didn’t want to do was Dr. Strangelove. That’s very stylized, the design and everything is very high-concept. And also, the characters are very senior. So I wanted to actually keep well away from that, and make this film feel very rough, and keep the characters very junior and very naturalistic. Strangelove was high satire, and this is more low-key naturalism. But in terms of the back of my head, things I’ve seen and love, Dr. Strangelove and also The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin, that’s a great film in his depiction of the dictator. But I’m also influenced by the Robert Altman ensembles, Short Cuts and Nashville, or The Candidate, the Robert Redford film from ’72, shot more naturalistically. I went back and looked at that again after I made the film. I didn’t want to watch anything in advance, but I went back afterward, and it was interesting seeing it again. Quite a memorable film.
AVC: In The Loop’s style is very much an extension of The Thick Of It.
AI: The Thick Of It is small-screen, and the camera is very kinetic, and I wanted to tone that down a little bit. I wanted something that would sustain an hour and 40 minutes. Anything that moves on the big screen is magnified. Also, I wanted to completely rethink the structure. It’s one thing doing a 28-minute story. To do an hour-and-40-minute story is completely different. I wanted to keep the energy and the rawness, but have a bit more control on how the story unfolded, have moments where things speed up, then allow a moment for it to just stop for a bit, take a rain check, and then move on.
AVC: There are so many different dynamics between the characters, like the one between Anna Chlumsky and Zach Woods.
AI: There were so many scenes we had to cut just for time, with she and Chad winding each other up. Just hysterical—they really were great at riffing for like half an hour. DVD extras.
AVC: You’ve mentioned that you’re working on an untitled slapstick project. And is it true you’re doing another Thick Of It series?
AI: Doing that [slapstick film] in the summer. In the meantime, working on The Thick Of It, and then the next thing, whatever that is. I’ve also got an HBO project they’ve been waiting for for a while.
AVC: What’s the nature of that?
AI: I like the idea of it being set in the world of Google and Facebook, and the people that work there. And using those performers we have, the Chads and Lizas. But I’d need to do more research.
AVC: More of those incredibly powerful young people?
AI: Powerful 25-year-olds, who don’t really realize what kind of power they’ve got.