Armando Iannucci
Photo by Robby Klein

Armando Iannucci: “There are no rules anymore”

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Short Profile

Name: Armando Giovanni Iannucci
DOB: 28 November 1963
Place of birth: Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom
Occupation: Film director, film producer, showrunner, screenwriter

Armando Iannucci's new film, The Personal History of David Copperfield, is available for digital download, and for purchase on DVD and Blu-ray now.

Mr. Iannucci, I couldn’t help but notice that your films tend to be set in the past, and your most recent television series was set in the future…

Yes! Am I running away from the present? (Laughs)

That’s what I was going to ask. Is the world right now too surreal for you?

Well, it’s a number of things. I’ve done about 10 years of very, very contemporary political comedy, and so inevitably after that you want to do something different. But I also thought that what is happening in the world is so surreal! There are no conventions or rules anymore, Trump has literally said, “I could shoot someone in the face in the middle of 5th Avenue and get elected.” Or now, in the middle of a pandemic, people are anti-science, and somehow someone surviving the disease is a political choice rather than a medical choice. It’s so in another world that I felt that the only way I can make any kind of statement or come up with a work that is looking at the present, is by doing it through the medium of another time or another world.

“With a film, you have one go at it. You can’t do a pilot film. You have got to get it absolutely right.

Even though these works are set in other worlds, the problems they face remain largely the same as ours.

Right, it’s interesting in Avenue 5, there is a scene where they are stuck up in space for years and then suddenly half the passengers start a conspiracy theory that actually, it’s all an illusion, that they are stuck in this gigantic simulation and if they go out of the airlock, they’ll end up in the green room of a TV studio. And so some of them go out and die and everyone sees them die, and yet more go out because they think, “No, no, no, that’s just special effects, that’s just very good special effect!” And this illusion — this delusion just carries on until people are dead. And this was happening with corona virus as well, the hoax theory began to take off. And I just thought, “Oh my God,” it’s like I can’t get away from this. (Laughs) No matter how stupid I make it, there is a stupidity in the real world that out stupids it.

Although you directed Avenue 5, you’ve also previously worked as the showrunner for the TV series you created, Veep. Are these very different roles, in your opinion?

They are. Showrunning is about the logistics and the practicality of juggling 10 scripts and lots of characters and making sure that the directors understand the voice and the style of the show. It’s much more managerial; it’s still fun and creative, but it’s a bigger battlefield you are working with. Directing is more about retaining that beginning and a middle and an end, the fact that you have a longer time frame in terms of the duration of the film and just playing about more with the internal rhythm of it, knowing when it is going to get a little bit more deliberately slow because you know there is going to be a more frantic moment coming up in the next scene.

It’s about keeping the pace manageable for everyone involved.

You know what it’s going to cost, how long it’s going to be, when it’s going to be made, who is in it, and when it is going to go out. With film, you have none of those answers! You don’t know if anything is going to get made! You don’t know who is going to be in it, when it’s going to get made, if it’s going to be shown, where it is going to be shown or when… With a TV show, you can also develop characters and stories from week by week and episode by episode. With a film, you have one go at it. You can’t do a pilot film. You have got to get it absolutely right, so the amount of forethought and preparation in a film is radically different from a TV show.

But surely there are some positives to making movies, otherwise you wouldn’t keep doing it?

The thing I like about film is you get to meet your audience because you have to go out there and sell the movie. And traditionally, it’s played in front of live audiences, so you get to meet them — and with television you don’t. The show goes out into all these homes and you don’t see your audience.

So these two mediums are not interchangeable? You couldn’t have done one of your TV series as a film, for example?

No, I think the story is something that needs to evolve over a number of years and a number of episodes. It needs the time. You go into it knowing what the starting point is, but not really knowing what the finishing point is, so you are sort of trusting yourself in the making of it to work out what the end point is going to be. In a film you have got your beginning, middle and end all mapped out, you are kind of filming that all simultaneously based on what the schedule is.

“I think I need a bit of time now away from filmmaking. I want to make sure that the next film feels like the right one to me.

But committing to a series means that you probably won’t be able to find the time to do another film for a few years…

Well, I have done films back to back — I did The Death of Stalin and then The Personal History of David Copperfield. I knew I wanted to do another TV show for HBO, it had been a while since Veep. But I already had always said that after two or three seasons of Veep, I wanted to make another film, so we would have to pause it. They are aware of that I don’t want to let the filmmaking go. And now you know, you get this sense that you have made three films now, and you find the styles and the subjects, so you think, “For the fourth film, what would complement these other three in terms of me doing something different and yet being able to draw on what I have learned from the other three films?”

Do you ask yourself those questions before every new film?

With Copperfield, it felt to me that to make it a film, it had to have a much more focused thematic core. David spends all his time trying to work out who he is, and then realizes that he is a writer. So I wanted to make it that much more central motif, really. I think people relate to it as well, I wanted to make that feel real. Charles Dickens, who wrote the story the film is based on, has always been the writer that I have admired for the last 30 years, since I really got into reading when I was a 13 or 14 year old. But now that this film is done, I think I need a bit of time now away from filmmaking. I want to make sure that the next film feels like the right one to me at the time and I am not just rushing into it because of the next script in the pile.