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Comedy from the Truth: Armando Iannucci on the current state of satire and his latest film 'The Death of Stalin'

Director Armando Iannuci's most recent film, "The Death of Stalin," mixes history with satire.

Director and British Statist Armando Iannucci finds himself in a weird predicament. His latest film “The Death of Stalin” has been a sensational critical hit, with The New Yorker magazine heralding it as “the most accurate picture of life under Soviet terror that anyone has ever committed to film.” Inevitable connections have been drawn between his comedic portrayal of Soviet Russia and current political situations domestically and abroad.

The problem? He started work on the film two years prior to any inkling of a President Trump or Brexit. There was no attempt to echo what was going on during the production of the film, but the echoes exist nonetheless. It plays into that age-old argument: does life imitate art or does art imitate life? In this, “The Death of Stalin” proves to be an interesting case study.

For Iannucci, however, his film is not so much principally about today, but rather on what the past has to say about the present.

“It’s about showing one period in time, but trying to do it in such a way that the authenticity as it were, the detail kind of then makes it represent slightly something more universal. It’s not just in the past—it’s commenting on today,” says Iannucci on tying his film to current political entanglements. “We’re saying this happened, but also, this could be happening.” Part of this line of thinking is evident in his decision to not have the actors speak in Russian accents. “I want people to think this is happening here, now, in front of you.”

Iannucci has a long history of crafting satirical comedies, getting his start in the ‘90s on the BBC’s spoof newscast show “The Day Today.” He would later go on to create “The Thick of It” and its companion movie “In the Loop” but is perhaps best known for his work in creating HBO’s “Veep” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

While he has worked in both television and film, Iannucci knew this time was going to be different. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and I knew I was making a film where some scenes were not meant to be funny.”

In directing the film, Iannucci urged his actors not to play up their performances. “We said that as we were rehearsing: don’t play for laughs, don’t perform it for the laugh—perform it for real as if your lives depended on it.” The laughter, Iannucci told his actors, “will come out of the absurdity of the situation…Allowing the comedy to arise from the truth of it.”

In crafting the characters for his film, Iannucci realized that the stakes for them were much different. “If you get it wrong, you’re dead and it instantly changes what the comedy is… it’s people getting more and more desperate when they realize the odds are so heavy.” During the production, Iannucci says, “We had to continually remind ourselves that this is true, all the events are more or less true.”

Iannucci cautions that his film is an outline of history, not a documentary. The film serves, in his eyes, to capture the consciousness and mood of the time and place, rather than methodically recreate for the audience the entire history of the Soviet Union. “It’s true to the atmosphere…I am trying to recreate a low-level anxiety that matches, I think, how it must have felt at the time.”

In “The Death of Stalin” however, certain real-life elements had to be changed because it was feared that the truth may have proved to be too absurd for people to believe. For example, the film’s opening has an orchestra having to repreform their concert so that a recording may be sent to Stalin. The first conductor wouldn’t redo the concert, so a second one had to be brought in. In reality, the second conductor was too drunk so a third conductor had to be found. “I’d rather people watch it for what it is and then go away thinking ‘was that true?’ I’ve got to check.”

On the current state of satire, Iannucci says that perhaps reality has gotten too absurd to lampoon. “If fact is stranger than fiction, we’ll do fact” he says. “Satire, comedy, or political comedy or whatever you want to call it I think is having to be more, not predicative, but more journalistic.”

While we live in times of a tenuous trust in the institutions of government and news, Iannucci cautions that comedy isn’t a simple substitute—or that there’s even role for it in democracies. Instead, he reminds us why dictators hate comedy.  “I am always very weary of saying that there’s a role for comedy—what I like about it is that its unpredictable…dictators don’t like artists and musicians and poets and novelists and comedians because the response to their work is unpredictable. And dictators don’t like things they can’t control.”

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