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Interview with Armando Iannucci, director of "In the Loop"


Six years later after it started we can appreciate a film about the Iraq War, or least one as masterful as Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker." But how about the deceits and manipulations that made it all possible? That's where Armando Iannucci, veteran funny man for BBC, comes in with his rapid fire, hilarious and outrageous "In the Loop." It premiered at the Independent Film Festival of Boston a couple of months back which is when I got an opportunity to chat with the director.

An offshoot of his TV series "The Thick of It," "In the Loop" is about the hapless misadventures and ruthless prevarications of members of the British government as they are waltzed by an unnamed American administration into an unnamed conflict. Where was this movie six years ago? You might wonder. But first I had to bring up a sad subject I learned about from Iannucci'sTwitter site.

PK: Sorry about your dog.

IA: [Laughs.] Oh, you've been following me, have you?

PK: You shouldn't laugh about your dead dog!

IA: No, no, no! It's just always intriguing as to who has read the [postings on Twitter].He was old. And we do have another dog. We had two dogs.

PK: Not a replacement dog?

IA: No, we had two dogs, and Benji is the youngest. He's about two years old. So he's now alone,  his friend is gone.

PK: Yah, it's tough on everybody. What kind of dog was he?

IA: He was a long-haired Dachshund.

PK: Oh, yeah, they live for a while.

IA: They do. They live till about 14 or 15.

PK: Do you have kids? Did you have to tell them what it means for the dog to die?

IA: Well, interestingly, my youngest, who's 6 - actually we knew he was going to the vet, all of his functions were just giving out, so we knew what was happening - and my youngest said she wanted to come to the vet. So she came in and wanted to stay there, so it was interesting.

PK: This is the kind of thing you wouldn't satirize, probably.

IA: No, no. [Laughs.] Kids and death.

PK: You had a TV show once that you were looking years back at the current year?

IA: Oh, that's right. "Time Trumpet." [It was] set in the future.

PK: And you had a show about a terrorist attack?

IA: That's right.

PK: And then the terrorist attack actually happened?

IA: Uh, no, this was made after the terrorist attack.

PK: Did they ask you to pull the show?

IA: Nope. No, what happened is I think the week it was going up there was another foiled terrorist attack. So they just thought it might be slightly insensitive to air that. So they just moved it a week. It wasn't a major thing.

PK: That indefinable thing called taste, right?

IA: Yes. When it's okay for us to do it six days later, that's absolutely fine.

PK: Is it a tough transition for British film comedies to American audiences? Is it a fallacy that they have two different kinds of humor?

IA: Well, maybe, I don't know. Sometimes I find that some British comedies fail because they are too aware of trying to appeal to a wider audience, and therefore they water it down. I think audiences anywhere can detect when something is very authentic and staying true to its voice. When we were making ...we were offered some American funding and advance in making the film, but we said no because I didn't even want to subconsciously go through that process of thinking, ‘Oh, perhaps we ought to tame that a bit,' or we want to try and appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. I kind of wanted to make the film and hopefully if it was true to itself and then take it to wherever, take it to America. And that's what we did, so it was a UK-funded film and it came to Sundance, and it...

PK: It did well.

IA: Yeah, it did well.

PK: It was the first American audience.

IA: It was, yes. And I didn't really know what to expect. I mean, I thought some of them might like it and some of them might hate it, or some of them might not get it. But, it was really exciting to see that. And I don't know if that kind of taps in to similar audiences wanting to see it. There have been so many quite serious films, like with the war in Iraq and stuff. The more you analyze the buildup, the more you realize.. all the different factions were played off each other. So maybe comedy  kind of releases your opinion about it.

PK: Was the premiere a stressful experience? This is your first movie, right?

IA: Yeah. I mean, I've done lots of television, and I don't know whether that kind of trains you to do it fast. The film itself was shot in 30 days, and we got through a lot. The script was 200 pages long. I like to shoot fast, and I like to see the rushes and what's the best stuff, rather than feel that you've got to go into it having every joke nailed down. We do lots of improvisation. The first cut of the film was four and half hours long.

PK: What's going to happen with all the extra material? Special features on the DVD?

IA: Well, we mostly junked it, but the DVD will have at least 40 minutes of extra stuff.

PK: Do you think this film would have found a bigger audience or made more of an impact if it came out, if not in 2003, then maybe when Bush and Blair were hashing the invasion out?

IA: I don't know. I mean people have mentioned that and then gone to see the film and thought it's a bit - I don't know. I deliberately didn't want it to be about Iraq. I didn't want it to mention who the president was, the prime minister, what the country was. I'm kind of looking at the underlings, the people who are always there in government. I wanted to show how government generally works, as well as taking a specific moment in time. And how actually, it's not just the big important people and their decisions, it's the actions of everyone, whether they decided to pass on something or stand up.

PK: Mostly pass, right?

IA: Mostly pass, yes. Well that's what I was told, in Washington, if you were very much against the Iraq thing, what you would do is instead of resigning, you just ask to be moved to work on Central America. Kind of just quietly get out of the way. And it's because everyone did that, the events keep rolling.

PK: You did some research to back this stuff up.

IA: Yes, I came out to Washington and met up with people who stayed in the Pentagon, and gave their resignations ...and then the cast did their own research as well. I mean James Gandolfini [who plays a dovish American general in the film] talked to generals?

PK: And he's the kind that would get answers.

IA: He would get answers and he's great because he knows he can pick the phone up and say "Can I come to the Pentagon?" and they'll go "Oh yes!" They're quite excited.

PK: This is the first American movie star that you've worked with, James Gandolfini, right?

IA: Yes. Well, I shot a commercial with [actress] Kim Catrall (sp?) two or three years ago. And I only work with people, well, who I admire, but also who want to take part in the process. James was absolutely happy to do it, because we do lots of workshops and rehearsals and improvisations prior to shooting.

PK: He was game for all of it.

IA: Yes, absolutely.

PK: You think that the American actors aren't quite as into improvisation?

IA: Well, I've often felt it was the other way around. A lot of British actors come up through the traditional theater where everything was respected and you reverentially stick to the text. Whereas I find a lot of American actors are happy in film to rough the script up a bit to make it more conversational and play it down. When I was casting, part of the casting process was asking them to improvise as well as just do the script. And I was quite keen to find people with different backgrounds, some people from comedy backgrounds, like Zach Woods, who plays Chad. He's from a comedy improv troop in New York called "Upright Citizens Brigade.

PK: And Anna Chlumsky?

IA: She was hilarious in the casting. I put her and Zach together and you could just let it go for half an hour, with them just insulting each other.

PK: She was great in "My Girl."

IA: [Laughs.] Well, different performance, but yah.

PK: She made that movie.

IA: Yah.

PK: This was made before the election?

IA: Yes.

PK: Do you think the new administration is going to ruin political satire in America? If you look at "Saturday Night Live," they can't really get a handle on ...

IA: Oh, I think things will come. What I find is don't expect to be able to tell the same jokes. So the jokes this time won't be about how illogical the president is and how he speaks. What I find with Obama is he's almost over-articulate. He's very good at explaining things and I find it very difficult to work out what he means.

PK: I think we're going to have eight years of Joe Biden jokes.

IA: Well, Joe Biden is a sort of a droll guy isn't he? But over time, what relationship could Obama and Clinton have?

PK: Yah you don't hear too much about her as Secretary of State.

IA: No, that should be interesting once those events take over.

PK: I read an interview where you said there really are no evil politicians, that they're just people like you and I who in some cases are able to meet the challenge.

IA: Well that's just it. I wanted to not show politics as good or evil, like these are the good guys and these are the bad guys. I kind of wanted it to feel much more real. Most people are quite nice.

PK: Two words: Dick Cheney.

IA: I said most people!

IA: And then events and the circumstances force them, and at some point they make a decision as to which way they are going to go, and I think it's quite interesting for the audience to see them in the process of making that decision. In many ways, the most appealing character is the elected politician Simon Foster (sp?). I want him to be the everyman figure so the audience can put themselves in his position and ask themselves the same questions, like if I was in his position what would I do? Would I stand up or quietly wish it all away?

PK: He's kind of like the "Being There" character, except he's like an anti-"Being There" character.

IA: He has negative capability.

Next: Steve Coogan and John Milton.

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