From Russia with Laughs: Armando Iannucci finds savage satire in 'The Death of Stalin'

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An acclaimed veteran of U.K. television, Armando Iannucci has advanced his reputation in recent years with scathing satires of the political establishment—first with the BBC series “The Thick of It,” a cheeky look at Britain’s corridors of power; then its Oscar-nominated 2009 feature spinoff In the Loop, about the fraught relationship between London and Washington; and finally with HBO’s wildly successful sendup of D.C., “Veep,” about to commence its seventh and final season.

But none of these previous efforts has been quite as savage as The Death of Stalin, Iannucci’s second feature film, which IFC Films debuts stateside on March 9. Adapted by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin from the graphic novels by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, the film is an uncompromising portrait of the totalitarian fear, toadying and madness surrounding the reign of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin and the vicious jockeying for power that followed his sudden and ultimately fatal stroke in 1953. With a mixture of elements that recalls Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 comic masterpiece set against the Nazi invasion of Poland, To Be or Not to Be, it also delivers breathtaking laughter amidst the terror.

Iannucci agrees that he walked a creative tightrope in directing and co-writing this blackest of comedies. “The thing about tightropes is, if you get to the other side, people are impressed, but if you make one mistake, you need to call for an ambulance,” he laughs. “I was aware of that, but I thought: Well, we’ll just have to work very hard to make sure we get it right.”

The constant anxiety and paranoia of his onscreen characters has a connection to the nature of comedy, he argues. “It’s all about trying to create anxiety in the audience as well. Comedy does make you feel slightly anxious, because it’s building up to something. It’s all about setups and the punch line. Comedy already trades with anticipation, but it also takes in: And someone might get shot!”

Some of the wildest moments in The Death of Stalin that may seem to be inspired comic inventions are actually based on the historical record. They include the droll opening scene, in which a radio producer played by Paddy Considine must frantically reassemble the orchestra (and find a new conductor) when Stalin demands a non-existent recording of the Mozart concerto they’ve just performed live on-air. Other fun facts: Stalin really did insist that his subordinates watch American westerns with him till the wee hours of the morning. Stalin’s alcoholic son Vasily really did conceal from his father the death of the national ice hockey team in a plane crash, secretly replacing the players. And Stalin really did lie in a puddle of his own urine for an entire day following his stroke because everyone was too afraid to disturb him.

“It’s that level of absurdity,” Iannucci notes, “that people are frozen in fear, or else carrying out the things people want without even having to bother saying it. Of course, the irony is that Stalin is killed by his own terror—he so terrified the guards about interrupting him that they didn’t, he so terrified everyone about the doctors poisoning him that they didn’t call a doctor, and so on and so on. In the end he was killed by his own terror, which has a satisfying comic shape to it as well.”

One of the most striking creative decisions Iannucci made was to cast an ensemble of British, Welsh, Scottish, Irish and American actors and encouraging them to retain their native accents. (Ukrainian Olga Kuryenko as a defiant pianist is the closest to the real thing.)

“It’s a European-funded film for the English-speaking market. I didn’t want people putting on accents for the sake of an accent,” Glasgow-born Iannucci explains. “When I showed it to the Russian press, they all said: ‘Thank you for not using fake Russian accents—actually we hate that, it just drives us crazy.’ The thinking is, once you decide it’s going to be in English, the Kremlin itself was full of different accents and dialects: Stalin was from Georgia, Khrushchev was from the Ukraine. So the way to replicate that I thought was to have a variety of English accents in the film: London English, Northern English, Irish, Scottish and American. That gave it a sense of people from different backgrounds, different strata of society, different classes and cultures all coming together.”

The sensational ensemble includes Steve Buscemi as then-minister of agriculture Nikita Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as deputy general secretary Georgy Malenkov, Simon Russell Beale as minister of home affairs and head of security forces Lavrentiy Beria, Michael Palin as foreign secretary Vyacheslav Molotov, Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin, and Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana.

“The first person I wanted was Simon Russell Beale for Beria,” Iannucci recalls. “Simon is very well known in the U.K. as a stage actor but not really as a film or TV actor. He’s a great actor as well. I liked the idea that because we don’t really have a conception of who or what Beria is, the audience is seeing an actor about whom they don’t have a preconceived notion. Beria is very self-contained and still and careful with his words and speaks in short sentences—everything is bottled.”

Beria’s aloof persona is what led the director to cast Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev. “You want a contrast to that, you want someone who’s flamboyant and loud and talkative and speaks with his hands and is demonstrative. But also someone who starts off the film as a clown in pajamas and becomes the next dictator. Steve can do all that—he can turn from being funny to being frightening. It’a great that we got Steve onboard.”

Beale, a highly regarded Shakespearean actor, is riveting as Beria, a ruthless, abusive man who becomes a poignant figure of sympathy as the film reaches its climax. “Beria was actually regarded as a very good employer—everyone in the security forces said he was very generous to them, he would always remember their birthdays and their wives’ birthdays,” Iannucci observes. “And yet he was not just the chief torturer but a sadist who would pick up young girls off the street. It’s a strange mix. And then politically he goes from Stalin’s henchman to trying to make himself a great liberator and reformer. I kind of like it when not everything is black and white, and you don’t start the film going this is the good guy and this is the bad guy and that’s how it will stay for the rest of the film. I rather like: OK, here’s the bad guy, but by the end of the film you will know more about him and have slightly more complicated feelings about him. Similarly with Khrushchev, as the film progresses you see other aspects of his life and his personality. In the end they’re all human beings, they’re all flawed individuals, and they’ve all been through terrible things together.”

Iannucci is a big believer in providing enough rehearsal time to allow his actors to truly embody their characters. “We rehearsed chronologically, so everyone got to know everyone else’s story from beginning to end. So when they turned up for a scene, everyone instantly knew where everyone else was in the story. It reached the point where when it came to the rather brutal scene towards the end, I just didn’t rehearse it. I knew they’d learned the lines and I said: Just go in there and get it done in two minutes—the cameras will be there. And that’s what they did, and it became this gripping and dramatic moment. And that was because they had all grown into each other’s company. That’s not something you can shoot at the beginning of the process. It’s a wonderful feeling when you’re directing that, because you know that everyone is now absolutely in the character, and that’s when you can get them to move off the page and start trying things out as an ensemble.”

The Death of Stalin recently made headlines when Russia withdrew its exhibition license and police halted a screening at a cinema that dared to show the film. “I had half expected Russia to be dubious about the film, so I was pleased when I heard it got a distributor and was granted a license,” Iannucci recalls. “I thought: Well, there we go. The culture minister said, ‘We don’t have censorship here, of course we’re going to show it.’ And then just two days before the start of the release, they took the license away. So there’s some kind of internal politicking going on. I don’t quite know where we are, but I’m hopeful that it will get shown. What’s been interesting is the support we’ve had: The Moscow Times published a huge backing for the film. About the claim that it insults the Russian people, they reported that people who went to see it said, ‘No, it’s terribly respectful to what actually happened, it’s very honest. The jokes aren’t about what happened to the Russian people, the jokes are all on the politicians.’ So I just hope that maybe after the election next month in Russia, they will come up with a way of releasing it. The thing is, now everyone in Russia knows about the film.”

The day before our interview, Variety announced FilmNation’s financing of Iannucci’s next feature, The Personal History of David Copperfield, a new version of the classic Charles Dickens novel slated to begin filming in the U.K. in June. Iannucci and Simon Blackwell wrote the screenplay. “It will be set in the 1840s, 1850s, but the language of the book and the psychology and emotions are so relevant and contemporary that I want to go in with that attitude as a director. I want the story to feel directly relevant and contemporary, even though the setting will be of that time. It shouldn’t feel historic—we should be present at that time, it should feel new. London at that time was in the industrial revolution and the capital city of the biggest empire the world had ever seen, so it should feel exciting and modern… It should feel absolutely contemporary rather than looking through an old filter. Similarly, the way people speak should feel natural rather than heightened, not as if there are quotation marks around everything they say.”

No doubt, Iannucci’s profile has been heightened by the Emmy-winning success of “Veep,” which he left after season four. “It surprised me,” he says of its reception, “partly because I thought: Oh, here are Brits coming into America making fun of their politics—we’ll be chased home after the pilot. I didn’t realize that, despite the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his supporters, America is actually a very welcoming country. It welcomes ideas and ability. A lot of people said you needed people from outside the two-party divide to stand back and look at the whole thing and go, ‘This is chaotic!’ Also, hundreds of people make so many pilots for American television and 99 percent of them don’t get any further. And hundreds of people make hundreds of TV shows in America and 80 percent of them are taken off air halfway through. But for us: ‘Oh, we’ve been given another season!’ In my wildest dreams, I never thought we’d get to season seven. I thought we’d be happy if we got this small niche audience, but to realize it would get this big audience and get the Emmy several times, it’s been great and HBO has been fantastic to work with. And it helps the next project, because you suddenly realize actors you really want to work with have watched ‘Veep’ and are aware of it.”