Park City (United States) (AFP) – British satirist Armando Iannucci’s return to Sundance comes exactly nine years after first his lacerating big screen political comedy “In the Loop” debuted at the US film festival.
“Things have changed since then. I remember that day was Obama’s inauguration and having done that movie I then went on and did five years of ‘Veep,’” he reminisced at the US premiere of his new movie “The Death of Stalin” on Saturday.
“After that I decided I wanted to get away from American politics. Why not do a film about a delusional narcissist who terrifies his own country? And in this one he dies.”
Sundance audiences tend to skew liberal and the crowd howled with laughter at the Donald Trump jibe on a day when women across the country were protesting against the 45th US president.
Iannucci — who created multiple Emmy-winning US political comedy “Veep” after two decades making acclaimed British comedy — is used to making people laugh.
His latest creation — which chronicles the Soviet power struggles following murderous dictator Joseph Stalin’s demise in 1953 — might not sound much like comedy fodder.
In fact, it has been hailed by critics as one of the funniest political satires in years, with particular praise going to an all-star cast including Steve Buscemi, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Michael Palin and Jeffrey Tambor.
Due for US release in March, the movie is sure to resonate with American audiences exasperated an increasingly tribal political culture, but Iannucci points out that it was filmed before “The Event,” as he labels Trump’s election.
– Rise of populism –
“At the time I was thinking about doing something about a fictional, contemporary dictator because there had been in the last three or four years lots of nationalist movements,” the 54-year-old Scot told AFP.
“There was populism, Berlusconi, Putin… and I thought there’s something slightly reminiscent of the 1930s going on here.”
Iannucci was sent the French graphic novel on which the film ended up being based and decided immediately against an original story.
“Why do the fiction? Here it is and it’s all true. It’s funny but it’s true,” he said.
Iannucci is frequently asked whether he would turn his laser sharp focus on the commander-in-chief, whose various scandals, both serious and amusing, come so frequently they never have long to gestate in the daily news cycle.
“I feel with Trump any attempt to fictionalize what he’s doing will never succeed because what he’s doing is its own fiction. He is his own satire,” the filmmaker told AFP.
Iannucci, whose government shutdown episode in the second season of “Veep” five years ago now looks uncannily topical, said he was glad to no longer be involved with the show.
“I kind of feel I’ve done it. I’ve moved on and actually the comedians who are more impactful are the journalistic comedians like John Oliver and Jon Stewart,” he said.
“The Death of Stalin” follows the real-life infighting and violence among the dictator’s Central Committee — including Deputy Secretary General Georgy Malenkov (Tambor), eventual leader Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi) and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin) — after he collapses with a brain hemorrhage.
– No Russian accents –
Georgy Zhukov, the bombastic, no-nonsense head of the Soviet Army, is played by British actor Jason Isaacs — perhaps best known internationally as Lucius Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” films.
“He had a reasonable sized ego, as befits a man who, in his mind, single-handedly won the Second World War,” Isaacs told AFP.
“You don’t need to dig very deep to find he’s the only man who, reputedly, could speak the truth to Stalin, that Stalin was wary, if not scared, of.”
Isaacs sought out old photographs, all of which showed Zhukov wearing “about 7,000 medals.”
Deciding the war hero must have been a hugely proud, headstrong man, Isaacs telephoned Iannucci and asked if he could play the character with the accent of people from the northern English county of Yorkshire, “because they’re the bluntest people I know.”
Having already decided none of his actors were going to put on hokey Russian accents — many of the leading Soviet figures including Stalin himself were Georgian, Moldovan or Ukrainian, after all — Iannucci agreed.
Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, who died in the US in 2011, is played by Andrea Riseborough (“Battle of the Sexes,” “Nocturnal Animals”), who told AFP a lot of the dialogue was improvised.
“I enjoy research so I had lots of ridiculous stupid facts that I can’t now lose from my brain that I’d chuck in, that I used while we were improvising,” she said.
“It’s so wonderful when you can improvise political satire. I can’t think of anything better than politics and comedy together, with a bit of tragedy speckled in.”