Thanks to his work on the BBC television series The Thick of It and in other media Armando Iannucci has become one of the United Kingdom’s premiere political satirists. So it’s only natural that, for his feature filmmaking debut, he’d take on the primary political narrative of the 21st century. In The Loop, a sharply tuned semi-improvised comedy with tragic overtones, chronicles the run-up to a Middle Eastern war in the governments of the U.K. and the U.S. It notably takes a caustic axe to the idea that those serving in the political world are in any sense answering a more noble cause than the rest of us, as it depicts a universe rife with childish behavior and bruised egos. Film School Rejects spoke to the director.
I was really struck by the way British government minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) seems to completely idolize the United States. Is that sentiment common in the U.K. and, if so, why?
It’s two things. One it’s when Blair and his entourage came out and they felt [the pressure] of trying to reign in George Bush they got a little bit overexcited by being in Washington and being in the White House and being on the world stage. So their sense of dignity and restraint left them a bit. So there’s that. But I think also there is a general feeling of, I don’t know, we sort of feel because America has such a cultural influence. … It happened to me a little bit when they tried to make a U.S. version of The Thick of It and I came out to L.A. thinking, “Oh well they must know what they’re doing and this is quite exciting being out in Hollywood” and stuff like that. And then, it was slightly disappointing that they made a very disappointing version of a pilot of The Thick of It. I just thought there was something kind of amusing that I kind of fell in the trap of thinking that because there’s all this wealth and you’re familiar with the outcomes and stuff [like] that you sort of assume that everyone there is therefore very good. … It’s a bit like everyone assumes that everyone who works in all the banks and all the financial houses on Wall Street must know what they’re doing. And then the last year-and-a-half has taught us that in fact they didn’t know what they were doing and that we were mad to think that they did. But we can’t avoid it. You go to Washington as you do in London [when] you go around Whitehall, [and] you see all these grand government buildings and it’s so tempting to think these buildings are so grand the people who work in them must know what they’re doing. I was interested in the big story of people assuming that and we go behind those closed doors and we find that they actually don’t know what they’re doing.
How do you get the audience to identify with characters that are so blatantly incompetent?
I do feel that Simon Foster is our way in. Although he’s not the strongest, most charismatic politician there is you sort of feel sorry for him because he’s got a real sense of pressure to try to work out what he should do in the end. And I kind of want the audience to think actually if I was in his position would I do the same? Would I be any better? Would I be more forceful or would I hold back and not say anything and just hope it’d all go away? I suppose that’s why I tried to make the style as realistic and as naturalistic as possible, so we get the sense of these people being real relevant nameless bureaucrats because the more real they are [the better]. And also, stripping away the glamor and the charisma [was important], making Washington more like a set of office workers rather than big powerful people behind huge desks, because the more three-dimensional they are then the more we can say they’re just like us aren’t they? I suppose the style of performance, the style of shooting, sort of buys into that, to try to strip away [the mythology]. I’ve always seen Washington portrayed as either very glamorous, noble and uplifting, heroic or else as being the opposite of that, very conspiratorial, deceitful and sinister, but I’ve not seen the midpoint, which is it being slightly mediocre. I wanted to play that up a lot more.
What’s the challenge in making this story funny and not depressing? How do you keep people from thinking about the magnitude of the incompetence on display and wanting to kill themselves?
Well I certainly don’t want people to kill themselves. I didn’t want to shirk the fact that it was about war and therefore in wars terrible things happen. I didn’t really want to ignore that or avoid it. So as the film progresses that little background noise of what they’re talking about, I wanted to get louder and louder and louder as we got nearer and nearer the end of the film. On a practical level I wanted to keep the budget restricted so that there weren’t big studios behind it who might be saying, “Halt, we have a song in the end, can anyone win?” That sort of thing. I wanted to keep it rooted in the reality of the situation, which is no matter how much you joke about it, these things, as a result of the decisions made by certain people, certain things happen. They may act like they work in just an ordinary office, but as a result of their office politics real lives are affected. Fundamentally, going into it I wanted to make a funny film. But the films I like as comedies are things like MASH and Catch-22, Brazil, that do have slightly larger themes behind them. But you know at all times they kind of balance it. I admire the way they manage to balance it with the joy of the story and the characters really. I’m very, very conscious as I’m making it that the tone of it should never get preachy. We should never lose sight of the comedy, but neither should we lose sight of what the comedy’s about.
Why was the film popular among politicians in the U.K.? Did they miss the point?
I think politicians live in such a closed world that anyone paying any attention to them kind of appeals to their fantasy really. They let us film at 10 Downing Street, which is the Prime Minister’s residence in the U.K., and normally they say no to that sort of thing. But when Peter Capaldi jumped up to play his scenes as (spinmeister) Malcolm Tucker all the real Malcolm Tuckers that work in the West End got their cameras so they could take photographs. …When I was doing research in Washington I met one guy who, he was a staffer for a senior senator and he was young and good looking and intelligent. And he was telling me, “Oh it’s exciting this job, because you get to meet all sorts of people. We were at a reception last week and we got to meet Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh on The West Wing.” And I was thinking, “But you are him. You’re the real him. Why are you excited about meeting an actor who’s only the part-time you?” So there’s that sort of thing going on. I think it’s always that thing of the grass is always greener. …Politicians are excited by the idea of movies, and television, and the media.
What is about the U.S. that allows for such an overlap between acting and politicians, with everyone from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger having made the leap from one to the other?
I think there’s more of a tradition in America of people standing who haven’t necessarily spent all their lives involved in party politics and also who don’t necessarily have to represent a small group of constituents, whereas in the U.K. the political party system is so ingrained people cannot stand for Parliament unless they have the backing of the political party, and they can only get that if they’d worked in politics. So the idea of an actor or something deciding, “I’m going to become a candidate for Parliament,” or something like that, is much more unusual. That can only happen if that actor has also spent the last 15-20 years working in party politics as well, so it’s therefore no surprise that actor is standing. That’s what it is, really. That’s beginning to break down in the U.K. The two big parties are less and less popular. They will still form the government but they’re getting less and less [popular]. Between them they’re taking less and less the total of the popular vote. You’re now getting the idea of television personalities that are now beginning to talk about standing as independents in the next Parliament. So that’s kind of interesting. There’s begun [to be some] disillusionment with the way Parliamentary politics works and party politics.
How did you manage the transition from television to film directing?
The one thing I wanted to avoid was, because it’s a film, suddenly attempting to use the whole director’s box of tricks. Like matching a complicated crane shot with a panoramic skyline from the beginning, soaring orchestral music and stuff like that because I kept wanting it to still feel believable and what you’re getting is a sort of version of reality I suppose. But similarly I didn’t want to feel like an extended TV episode. Malcolm Tucker’s the only character that carried over from the TV show. Everyone else is [new]. Although I used some of the actors from the TV show. And then it’s about saying, “I do want to make this quickly.” I set myself a complete, there was a strict time table [for] the whole process, [from] starting up with a blank sheet of paper and just going to people with potential money people saying, “I’ve got this idea.” From that to handing over the finished film was 12 months. The whole process from start to finish was much quicker. I liked the notion that in television you have a fixed duration, whether it’s in the 30-minute slot or the 60-minute slot and that sort of disciplines you. It’s always tempting, when doing a film, to think, “Oh let’s shoot everything and let’s bring in a film. It can be as long as we like.” I kind of went in thinking that a comedy film has to be 90-100 minutes. That’s how it has to be. Any longer than that and it just feels like it’s too long. And so I found myself in the end posing that sort of artificial deadline and restriction on it and that forces the pace. I took stuff out that I really liked but I just felt it helped the film out. I wanted people to come out thinking, “I wanted a bit more of that” rather than “Oh that went on a bit, didn’t it?”
The film’s a cross-cultural project in many ways. Has anything surprised you about the reception the film’s received in the U.S.? Were there differences between the ways the American and British actors approached their parts?
I’ve been surprised by how many American press have said, “Oh the comedy’s so much sharper and cleverer in the U.K., isn’t it?” Because I’m kind of brought up really on Woody Allen films and watching The Daily Show and I grew up on The Larry Sanders Show and Cheers and Frasier, which I think is just sharp, well-made, well-crafted, well-written comedy so I was just genuinely surprised by that notion that somehow we use a lot more syllables in the U.K. than people do in the U.S. You always get the best of our comedy [and] we get the best of yours. If we showed you our worst comedy you’d think, “Oh my God they’re idiots.” If I saw the worst of your comedy I’d think the same. … I’ve always felt the American tradition was much more of a movie tradition where I think acting styles are much more slightly improvisatory and naturalistic, where the British style is slightly more theatrically based, so it’s slightly more heightened. If anything I found American actors were happy to improvise.
What do you make of the oft-promulgated notion that political satire would die during the Obama era? That hardly seems the case.
The Daily Show shows [that’s not true]. Also, how mad Fox News has gone is a sort of satire in itself. When the film came out at Sundance there was a great reaction but a lot of people were saying, because Obama was literally sworn in that week, people were saying, “Do you think we’ve left that all behind us now?” And it’s funny over the last month or so there’s been just a general sense of, “Oh no we haven’t.
In the Loop is in limited theaters now. Check out my In the Loop review here.