The political errors that lead to war might not seem like a very funny premise for a comedy, but in the hands of Armando Iannucci, In the Loop is a hysterical look behind the scenes when office politics start to have an effect on national politics, both in the United States and the U.K.
Fans of British comedy will probably already know Iannucci’s work from his lengthy working relationship with Steve Coogan on the “Alan Partridge” series before appearing on his own “The Armando Iannucci Shows.” His feature film debut is done using a similar style as his recent show “The Thick of It” even including Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker character from that show stealing many scenes with his string of insults and obscenities directed at everyone he encounters.
All the problems begins when the awkward British minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) inadvertently tells press that “war is unforeseeable” starting a series of events with his furious boss, the aforementioned Malcolm Tucker, sending Simon and his brownnosing aide Toby (Chris Addison) to the U.S. to try to put out the fires he started. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department are having their own internal problems as the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) has been hearing about a secret war committee being staged by her main competitor Linton Barwick (David Rasche), so she gets her own assistant Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky) and her peace-loving military friend General Miller (James Gandolfini) to do the reconnaissance needed to get her into it. Of course, most of those involved in these diplomatic dealings aren’t exactly happy about the idea of going to war, but they choose to go along with others as to not feel left out.
Between the great dialogue written by Iannucci’s team and the improvisational skills of his terrific ensemble cast, In the Loop is one of the better comedies of the year, and going by the reaction to the movie at the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals as well as numerous other festivals since then, Iannucci is ready to be discovered by a larger American audience, as is Peter Capaldi.
Back in January, ComingSoon.net sat down with Mr. Iannucci at Sundance to talk about his feature film debut.
ComingSoon.net: I really enjoyed the film and I was sort of surprised that it was loosely based on this British comedy I’d never seen.
Armando Iannucci: Well, I don’t think you have to. I’m quite keen to state that yes, Malcolm Tucker, the Peter Capaldi character, he’s in “The Thick of It” but he’s the only character from (that) who is in this film. It’s all a completely new cast, plus there’s the U.S. cast.
CS: I didn’t even know the show at all beforehand.
Iannucci: No, and that’s actually the way I’ve approached it. I want even people who might think, “Oh, it’s all about politics” to actually know that it’s really just about office politics really. It’s sort of been modeled it more on a screwball comedy in its structure, just like verbal stuff, but also the plot just spiraling out of control very quickly.
CS: Was the show also set in the world of British politics?
Iannucci: Yes, it was set in another department in the U.K. government.
CS: When you decided to do a movie, was it a matter of wanting to use the same style but in a bigger story?
Iannucci: Two things, I had been thinking for some time about doing a film and I wanted to hold off until I got the story that I wanted to do and I just wanted to do a really funny film and not be concerned too much about trying to dilute the comedy with lovely crane shots.
CS: But you did keep a similar style from the television show, right?
Iannucci: There is a slightly similar style, it’s slightly calmer, because I’m aware that on a bigger screen… The TV show is much more movement done with the camera, stuff like that, and also the pacing I’m aware of. It’s one thing to do a 28 minute story, it’s another thing to do a hundred-minute story, so I’m aware of pacing and when you introduce new characters and take it to new places. It was that and also I wrote much at the time about Iraq and how these things happen, and the office politics you read about what went on at the White House and the State Department.
CS: I do remember reading stuff, but I don’t really feel like we know what’s going on behind the scenes sometimes.
Iannucci: I know, and I thought either you can think of this as tragic that happened and want to kill yourself or you can sort of laugh about it, but hopefully use it in such a way to kind of highlight how these things happen. I thought that actually would be the perfect story for a comic tale. The fact that no one at any time was prepared to hold their hand up and say, “Could you stop this please?” and then the fact that things take on a momentum that they then happen before anyone knows it. Because they happen, people feel they can’t then do anything about it.
CS: Why do you think it’s a good time now to do a comedy about the start of a war? It’s been going on over five years now. We all think it’s on the horizon that it may end.
Iannucci: One of the reasons we don’t mention what the country is is because we’re setting it here and now. I’m not saying this is five years ago. I’m saying, “Do you know what? This could happen again if people don’t sort out in their head what they’re really after.” But it’s not meant to have a serious message by any means. For me, it just felt like a strong story for a film comedy.
CS: None of this is based on anything real as far as Tom Hollander’s character or someone equivalent in England who had similar faux pas that were made public?
Iannucci: Not actually people but instances. David Rush’s character Linton Barwick is based on an amalgam of Rumsfeld and John Bolton and those figures, but also instances. When I did research, I spent a while out in Washington last year speaking to staffers and CIA and State Department people and Pentagon people and it did strike me that a lot of Washington politics is run by 23-year-olds. They’ve got a degree in Terrorism Studies from Harvard or George Washington University or they arrive in Washington as a Senator’s staffer and before they know it, he’s that Senator’s Foreign Policies advisor, and I found that quite scary. The petty politics that went on was interesting. They told me about the whole notion that you must never leave the room. If you leave the room, you leave power. You’ve always got to be in the room, and that’s why you find a lot of staffers spend their time just hanging around outside people’s doors, so that if Rumsfeld comes out, you’re there, so you might join him in a meeting. He’d go up to you and say, “Hey” so that dictated how we shaped the character Chad.
CS: Did you find it to be very different in the U.S. than the U.K. because we do see them handle office politics different where it’s more chaotic in the U.K. political system.
Iannucci: Yeah, I think the resources are much bigger in the U.S. but also the influence any one particular person has, I think in Washington, it’s much greater than in the U.K. A young civil servant in the U.K. would keep having to refer his or her thoughts up higher and higher and higher, whereas because there literally is so much to do in the State Department here, if you are bright and have ideas, you might be asked just to get on with it. We met a 22-year-old who went out to Baghdad to help draw up the Constitution, and I just thought that’s mad. He probably hasn’t really bought a house or anything. He doesn’t even know how to do that yet. I sort of feel I haven’t yet seen a dramatic portrayal of inside the politics in Washington in that way. I mean, “The West Wing” I love, I’m a great fan of “The West Wing” but they’re all great at their job and good-looking and they have the noblest of intentions. You either get that or they’re all evil, there’s a massive conspiracy, they’re run by aliens, there’s something menacing, but you never get the “No, they’re just slightly incompetent or fallible people with lots of stress to deal with.”
CS: I think one of the problems with some of the political comedies that have come out over the years like “American Dreamz” is that they tried to base the characters on real people. Was that something very conscience that you didn’t want any characters who could specifically be traced to real people in power?
Iannucci: Yeah, yeah, and also I don’t want the viewer to be looking at an actor and trying to work out who that person is supposed to be. I want that character to be fully alive in the film. I don’t want that character to be a symbol of someone else because I want then the audience to be caring about that character or disliking that character rather than try to work that out in their heads.
CS: Did doing the long-form film thing give you the options to get people like Tom Hollander and James Gandolfini, too? What was the process for casting people and getting them to do it, especially considering that you were going to include some improv?
Iannucci: We had an early draft of the script, which I would then give them some scenes to do and then ask them to slightly improvise. I would ask them questions and ask them in character to (answer) and I keep telling them that it’s not about trying to come up with funny stuff. It’s more about feeling comfortable being that character but in situations that you’ll have to deal with without any preparation. They all say it’s very scary, and I also know people who have a comedy background, like Zack Woods who plays Chad, he comes from a comedy improv circuit in New York, and Chris Addison who plays Toby, the young guy, he’s a stand-up comedian. He hasn’t done any other acting. He’s a stand-up. That’s how we did the U.S. casting as well, and then we brought the UK cast out to New York and spent a week with the U.S. cast in a meeting room in the hotel, workshopping all the scenes and everyone came out–James Gandolfini and everyone–and then asking him to be prepared to slightly improvise when we’re on set. It’s not a big, big thing. There is a script and we work on the script until we’re completely happy with it, but I just like to get that extra sense of reality.
CS: But the dialogue does feel very natural and if all the actors were going exactly by the script, it might not be.
Iannucci: No. So you shoot the script and we spend a lot of time shooting the script and then I say, “Okay, put it to one side. Let’s run it again but in your own…” and what happens usually is we come up with the script again but in a slightly different order, because somebody said something new that makes the other characters think, “The only thing I can think of to say back to that is the line that comes at the very end of the scene. Why can’t I say it now?” It just feels like the dialogue is coming out spontaneously.
CS: It’s such an intricate story, so I wondered how that worked out so that everything still comes together the way it’s supposed to.
Iannucci: You never know.
CS: Do you have to change things in the story afterwards to reflect on a good bit of improvisation?
Iannucci: Well, we do, and also, the first assembly was about 4 and a half hours long, and so actually, you’re making the story, you’re finding the story as you’re in the edit. Whole strands came out and I set a bit of time and money aside to do pick-ups for when I’d gotten down to about two hours to shoot scenes that would allow that story to be told slightly faster and clearer, stuff like that. That’s what I kind of like about it. You go into it not quite knowing what are going to be the standout moments and then once you find them, you then keep writing. We always have the writers on set and at rehearsals, so if something comes up, you just think, “Look, in two days’ time, we’re going to be coming back here. Let’s make sure they refer to that again.” That’s the way we always do it.
CS: How did you like using this process in a film, because obviously doing television is a completely different beast.
Iannucci: I love this. I love the scale of it. We kept it tight and kept it short and fast in terms of getting through all the scenes, but I like just having more to work with, a bigger chessboard to move people around on was good. I like the fact that we can flip back and forth between Washington and London and start bringing the two groups of characters closer and closer together.
CS: I really liked the fact that each of the characters had their moments and it was a really strong ensemble.
Iannucci: Going into that, I was always nervous of the fact that in the UK they know the UK actors. I was always nervous of the fact that I hope the U.S. side are their match. I don’t want anyone going, “Oh, we’ve left that character in the movie or these characters.” What was great was actually seeing the U.S. characters matching.
CS: You said you did some research in Washington, so did you see a lot of this kind of bumbling or really messed-up things? Do you think a lot of the decisions in either country happens because of stuff like that?
Iannucci: Yeah, everything happens by accident. It’s the “cock-up theory” of government as opposed to the conspiracy theory. A lot of things happen just because someone forgot to tell someone, but then you read terrible stories of mistakes. The fact that when they went into Iraq, they actively discouraged Arabic speakers to help out, because the issue with Arabic speakers is that they’d be pro-Arab. What you had was that the military didn’t have too many Arabic speakers. You know how for a year or so there was that whole spate of roadblocks and cars driving straight towards them even though they were told to stop and soldiers shooting at them? That’s because it took them about 18 months to discover that that (holds up one had in what we know as a stop sign) means “come forward.” And that’s why all this is happening, so that’s something where you want to cry at the cock-up. I just think if you are going to do something about politics or about the state of the world, you have to do it in a way where you’re not trying to hammer home that message. You’re just allowing people to see the acts for themselves and then they can decide.
CS: I don’t know how many people seeing this were able to recognize Steve Coogan in his small role, but one should have probably expected it, knowing how much you two have worked together in the past.
Iannucci: I think it’s sort of a cameo role. It was great having him, he only had a day, because he was in the middle of something else. He had a day off, so we thought, “Right, we know what you can do.”
CS: So this character was already in the script?
Iannucci: We knew there was this character in the script, and I just thought it would be ideal for him, and it’s great that two-thirds of the way through the film, this other character crops up and affects everything in the endwithout giving anything away.
CS: I’ve spoken to Steve a few times over the years when he came here to promote movies, and he’s often talked about doing an Alan Partridge movie. Could you see yourself expanding that character into a full movie?
Iannucci: I want to do something with Steve and we’ve talked about various things that we want to do, a couple ideas I want to do. I’d love to have him more in my next film.
CS: But it probably wouldn’t be an Alan Partridge movie.
Iannucci: I don’t know. The idea of spending a year with Alan Partridge makes me sigh… not with Steve, but with Alan Partridge, because when Steve does Alan Partridge, he helps write just by being Alan, so when you’re writing, you really feel like you’re in the room with Alan Partridge. I have to say that if I have to write three or four months with him, you do want to throw a brick at him. But no, I’d absolutely love to do something with him.
CS: Is there a chance we might see “The Thick of It” released in the States on DVD?
Iannucci: Possibly. It was shown on BBC America about a year or two ago and I ought to look into that, but certainly, you can get them on Amazon UK.
CS: So nothing planned or in the works?
Iannucci: Not at the moment, but you never know. On the back of this film or whatever, it might open up an opportunity.
CS: I hope we’ll see more of Peter Capaldi, too, because I don’t think he’s really that known on this side of the Atlantic and he was such a stand-out part in the movie, and I’d love to see the show just to see what he does on it. By the way, how did you first come up with the idea to do a show like “The Thick of It”?
Iannucci: I just thought it was time to do something like that. I hadn’t really seen a show about politics for a while. “Yes, Minister” was a big sitcom hit in the ’80s and there hadn’t been anything since, and I just thought it’s probably time for something like that really. I liked the idea of doing it in a slightly more experimental way and hand-held and slightly improvised, jump cuts and a bit more raw and less stylized in terms of feeling not polished, really feeling rough ‘n’ ready.
CS: Is there any danger of American producers eventually finding it and trying to remake it like they did with “The Office”?
Iannucci: Oh, they tried. It’s a sad and sorry tale.
CS: You just never know if it’s going to work because you could get a hit like “The Office” or you could get crappy shows like the American “Coupling” or “Kath & Kim” and I’m not sure if you heard about the whole debacle about the attempt to redo “Spaced.”
Iannucci: Oh, yes, I remember, and you see it happening before it happens and you think, “I can’t believe it’s happening again!” I don’t quite know what it is, whether our shows don’t quite fit the U.S. machine of how you do shows.
CS: You can even see in your movie how the two mentalities are so different.
Iannucci: But what I like is the fact that it’s perfectly possible to do it. You’ve got a whole U.S. cast there. You can take that State Department and make a show of that as a TV show. Hey, there’s an idea! There you go!
In the Loop opens on July 24, 2009 in select cities.