“The Thick of It” and “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci is famous for his profane and acidic takedowns of craven and hypocritical politicians. His latest film, “The Death of Stalin,” is filled with his trademark four-letter words, and Iannucci once again takes a scythe to the powerful, but “Death,” a look at dictator’s final hours and the jockeying for control of Russia that unfolded in its aftermath, is a departure for the filmmaker. In particular, he wasn’t interested in turning Josef Stalin into Selina Meyer with a dacha.
“I went into it pushing everyone, including myself, out of their comfort zone,” Iannucci told Variety in an interview before the film premieres at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival Friday. “I was making a funny film, but I also knew that some scenes weren’t supposed to be funny, and that other scenes would be dramatic or emotional.”
“The Death of Stalin” may be filled with the same kind of bumptious and conniving flunkies who populate the halls of the White House on “Veep,” but there’s an underlying menace. The U.K. poster for the film dubs it a “comedy of terror,” and that’s apt, because throughout the picture there’s a prevailing sense of anxiety — one fueled by the very real possibility that any character can, with an ill-considered remark, find themselves packed off to Siberia or shot in the head.
“Veep’s” Selina Meyer (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) may be a textbook example of putting ambition over principles, but Stalin was a monster on a whole different level. Estimates vary, but the number of people who died in the gulag is likely between two million and three million during Stalin’s reign, while there are at least another million who were killed in various purges. That’s to say nothing of the millions who lost their lives due to famine during the Stalinist years and other instances of bureaucratic mismanagement. Clearly, the stakes were a lot higher than losing the New Hampshire primary.
“I knew we were taking on a big subject of historical significance,” says Iannucci. “Millions were affected by this and you have to respect that and acknowledge it.”
It’s not like Iannucci has gotten ponderous by moving away from the Beltway. There are plenty of jokes in the film, of course. Jeffrey Tambor is hilarious as a Jello-spined Georgy Malenkov; Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov perfects the art of the scatological putdown; and the image of Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev kneeling in a pile of Stalin’s urine as he tends to the indisposed Soviet leader is a model of physical comedy. It’s just that these jokes have more bite than Iannucci’s previous work.
“We’re not making fun of the fact that people died, we’re using the comedy to explore what was in the mindset of the people who made these decisions,” he says. “It’s a form of nervous comedy bordering on hysteria at some points.”
“The Death of Stalin,” adapted from a graphic novel by Fabien Nury, was filmed before Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential victory. In the aftermath of his election and in light of his ongoing war on the media, Iannucci believes that the film has gained greater resonance.
“Everything was in the can before Trump was elected and yet when I started cutting it, everyone was saying, ‘Oh my God, it is all about fake news and fake history,'” says Iannucci. “It’s all about the manipulation of information and the manipulation of facts in a totalitarian way. Sadly, this hasn’t gone away and democracy, which you think of as being perfect and here forever, is actually a very fragile thing.”
He’s very clear that he thinks Trump and his team pose a very real threat to democracy’s foundations.
“The shouting of ‘fake news’ is such a sinister thing because it’s basically just trying to debunk everything and that’s a dangerous project,” says Iannucci.
Iannucci left HBO’s “Veep” in 2015 after four Emmy-winning seasons. He still checks in on the show, however, and says it’s a joy to not know what’s going to come out of the character’s mouths. He also thinks that it was wise for the showrunners to have Selina Meyer lose her White House bid, particularly in light of Trump’s victory.
“It was a smart move to take Selina away from Washington,” he says. “Everything is so crazy there that trying to attempt any imitation of what’s going on is not going to be quite as extraordinary as what is actually happening.”
Going forward, Iannucci wants to keep out of the world of fixers and world leaders. He’s working on a project for HBO that won’t be set in the political sphere, and he is adapting Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”
“I’m going to be very true to the spirit of the book and use as much of Dickens’ dialogue as possible, but I want it to feel very contemporary,” says Iannucci.