'The Death of Stalin' Might Be the Only Time You'll Laugh About Russia This Year

Ahead of the release of his latest directorial feature, we talked to Armando Iannucci about Harvey Weinstein, Brexit, and Stalin.
October 20, 2017, 9:23am
Production stills from 'The Death of Stalin', Entertainment One UK

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

"Look, without wanting to be an ass-kissing jerk, he's the maestro, isn't he? He's a stone-cold fucking genius," Ian Martin tells me about his long-term writing collaborator, Armando Iannucci. Martin is one of the writers on Iannucci's latest project, the feature-length comedy-drama Death of Stalin (out in theaters on Oct 20) along with David Schneider and Peter Fellows. Schneider and Martin go back years with Iannucci, between them working on genre-shifting comedies and giants of satire like The Thick of It, I'm Alan Partridge, Veep, The Day Today, and Time Trumpet.

For their latest collaboration, they have brought together an ensemble cast—Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, and Jason Isaacs—to take on post-Stalin Russia and the calamitous fight for power that ensued after his death. The film is one that wrestles gloriously between farce and fear or, as Schneider tells me, "lets the absurdity of the terror sing out."

Here Iannucci talks about the film, Trump, Brexit, Harvey Weinstein, Alan Partridge, and whether or not he's finally cool.

VICE: A Russian official has described Death of Stalin as a "planned provocation." How does it feel to be part of a western plot to destabilize Russia?
Armando Iannucci: Well, it's all going according to plan. We received our money in unsigned dustcarts from the CIA last September and along with some suggestions for jokes and one-liners from the head of intelligence, everyone is very happy.

Does stuff like that bother you or is it just free PR?
It's just one or two people who haven't seen the film. The Russians we have shown it to loved it, the Russian press loved it, and we have a distributor over there. I thought it would be hilarious to put the quote on the poster, but actually, I want people in Russia to see it. The people who have seen it that lived through Stalin and that era have all more or less said the same thing, which is that it's very funny but it's very true and it had to be said.

The history of that is still incredibly tangible for a lot of people, isn't it?
Absolutely, you go there now and people will be very ambiguous about Stalin. Some people will say he's a monster and others will say that he won the war. In the West, we don't do films about Russia, we do films about the Nazis and Hitler or Cambodia and Vietnam. It's a whole area that we have left to be quietly forgotten.

All the writers say it's been the most fun project to work on in years for them.
Yeah, it all went really smoothly. Production was actually boring because it went so well. Everyone got along and the cast that make up the Politburo became best friends. They meet up every two months for dinner. The first one was in a very noisy restaurant in London and Paul Whitehouse brought in video messages from Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Buscemi on his laptop. We couldn't hear the videos it in the restaurant, so we went into the bathroom, to listen to the messages when some other guy comes into the bathroom and sees all of us crowded around a laptop. We had to sort of go: "we can explain."

The film captures the calamitous nature of these men. Did you come away being able to see the human side in them?
All of them were murderers, they had all been implicated and to survive that long and get that close to the top, they had to do terrible things. So it's not about painting them as comic figures with a heart of gold or anything, they all have a stain on their soul. It was more about asking where the humanity is and I think that exists more in characters such as Svetlana [Stalin's daughter] and just simply growing up in that environment and what its done to her.

"Where I think people get into hot water is when they've made a joke about a sensitive subject, have been attacked, and then said, "I'm just making a joke, come on," when actually the joke isn't that good, and maybe if it had been better, there wouldn't have been that much of a fuss."

I know you're a big fan of the Larry Sanders Show, did you want to work with Jeffrey Tambor from your exposure to his character, Hank, from that show?
Oh yes, but also in Transparent, he's always been great in everything I've seen him in. Also, there was something about Malenkov being the number two who should never be the number one and I was so glad when Jeffrey read the script and said: "I definitely want to do this, I think there's Hank in this guy."

How do you feel about the idea that political correctness is stifling comedic creativity. Is this something you believe to be the case and did it concern you when making this film?
There are sensitivities that I said at the start of the shoot that we have to be very respectful of. The fact that millions were affected by this and we're not going to downplay it or hide it or even make fun of it, just to let it play out. I don't think you can make a blanket statement on comedy and taste, I just think it's an instinctive thing. If you are going to make a comedy about a sensitive subject, then you have to work twice as hard, you have to make sure it's really good. Where I think people get into hot water is when they've made a joke about a sensitive subject, have been attacked, and then said, "I'm just making a joke, come on," when actually the joke isn't that good, and maybe if it had been better there wouldn't have been that much of a fuss.

There's no list of things you can and can't talk about but I think sometimes people take it as a cue to say the sickest thing and it shouldn't be like that. You have to put some effort in. On the other hand, I also always ask, "what's wrong with being offended?" If you have a set of beliefs, they should be able to withstand humor and if they can't stand up against humor, then I suspect those beliefs aren't that firmly held.

What has researching and making this film taught you about the nature of evil?
People aren't pure evil. People are people and some of them, for one reason or another, do things that are terrible. However, I feel it misses the point if you try and portray that as a super-villain approach. It feels too easy. Evil should feel difficult when you confront it, you should feel uneasy but if you're confronting a villain with a villain accent it feels like you've simplified it and not addressed the issue of why. If you take something like the Harvey Weinstein case, it's so easy to just go, "oh he's a monster." I think that actually does a disservice to what has happened because a lot of women are saying that they were afraid, which tells you that there were more people involved. If you just say, "oh here's the monster, problem solved, we've got him," then you're letting other things go unsolved.

Has that felt like quite a shattering revelation for your industry?
Yeah, absolutely. I'd always heard he was just horrible to deal with. I never got involved because I heard that he interferes with edits and those types of things, but I had no idea about this behavior. It also tells you that it's not just the women that should speak up, it's the men. Men who have had it reported to them by female friends, they have a responsibility as well because the more people speak out then the more victims don't feel like it's just them.

Have you been able to draw any comparative behavior patterns from Stalin and post-Stalin era politics with today's?
Well, I'm not saying they are as bad as Stalin, but it all started from the idea of the party owning thought. So if you disagreed with Stalin you were labeled an enemy of the people and you were criminalized. You can see that happening all over the world; Turkey has had a whole change in its constitution so that its president can define who the enemy is. Donald Trump's attitude toward opponents is not to debate with them, but just to label them as crooked or as lying or as fake.

There is a train of thought that suggests fascism is creeping back in. Do you agree with that?
We think that once we arrive at democracy, it will last forever and that it will be perfect, and it's not. If you ignore it, it starts to crumble. It was really good to see in the last election [in the European Union] that more people took part than before and more first time voters and younger voters took part because that's a renewal of democracy. You have to keep renewing it and it's tough because democracy is clumsy.

"I mean, Theresa May with those letters falling off behind her, we wouldn't put that into 'The Thick of It' because it would be too silly."

It involves work, participation, debate, and discussion and that's the thing that worries me—that we've discarded the idea of debate and discussion. The Brexit situation at the moment is basically two party leaders maintaining the idea they are the only one who can deal with it and neither one of them saying, "you know what, this problem is so big that we ought to deal with it together." They say it's the biggest crisis since the second World War but what did we do during that period? We had a government of national unity. I'm not saying we should all go into coalition, but why isn't that idea reaching across so that any negotiation is actually carried out on behalf of the majority of the people?

You've mentioned before that reality has eclipsed satire at the moment. Do you think the funny has turned into fear?
Well it turns into an anger that I don't feel I can channel into jokes. I mean, Theresa May with those letters falling off behind her, we wouldn't put that into The Thick of It because it would be too silly, but it does make me think that now is not the time to be doing a fictionalized version of what's going on because what's going on is weirdly comic in itself. The comedians I think that are showing the most bite are the ones who act like journalists, ones like John Oliver and The Daily Show.

You've previously spoken about how uncool you've often felt. Yet your work now very much seems to be both a mark of quality and cool. Do you feel cool yet?
That's nice; at last I'm cool! I don't feel cool but I'm very happy in my own skin and I'm now not worried if I don't fit in. If I'm at a party and somebody says, "Let's all dance" I'm now happy to just go, "I don't dance and I'm not going to," even if they say, "Come on, come on, you'll love it" I can still say, "No, I hate it, I'm not dancing. Stop asking me to dance, I don't have to."

You've guest edited this week's Big Issue, which sees Alan Partridge and The Thick of It 's Malcolm Tucker debating Brexit.
That was done with all the Alan and Malcolm writers. What we did was set it up like a genuine email exchange. The Alan writers wrote to the Malcolm writers, who then wrote back, and each character was then responding to the previous. I was then steering the debate and suggesting little counter moves.

Who's take on Brexit do you lean closer to between Alan and Malcolm?
I think both of them fail to provide a respectable argument for or against!

I know you're not that involved with writing for Alan Partridge as much these days. Do you miss being in a room with Steve Coogan in character as Partridge for long periods of time?
The Gibbons brothers have this slightly manic look on their faces at the end of each project. It's nothing against Steve, it's just Alan. It's being stuck in a room with Alan. You feel the need to write for other characters. This has been great fun though, he makes me laugh. The Gibbons brothers have done a fantastic job and completely revitalized him and taken him into new areas that we didn't look at. It's also great to see Steve enjoy Alan after all these years.

What's next for you, Armando?
I'm a big Dickens fan and I'm doing a film called David Copperfield next, which I'm writing with Simon Blackwell.Then I'm doing a sci-fi pilot for HBO that is set in about thirty-to-forty years time.

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