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Armando Iannucci interview, part 2

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PK: What are your origins, I mean did you just start as a funny kid? It seems like there's a tradition of British humor you draw on.

AI: I was always interested and there's a great radio comedy tradition in the U.K. and I loved radio comedy, I grew up listening to radio comedy. And when I was at college I would get involved in performing comedy. And then I got a job as a radio producer, a comedy producer, so I ended up producing some of the shows that I used to listen to as a kid which was great. And then as a result of that I made my own shows and they transferred to television. And then more recently I made "The Thick of It" for television so this political comedy setting, Westminster and Downing Street and so on.

PK: You did all the Steve Coogan shows...

AI Yeah Alan Partridge, yes. 'Cause he started one of the radio shows as a sports announcer, who wants to be taken seriously as a broadcaster.

PK: I can't understand why he hasn't really made the big crossover to American audiences.

AI: Well I don't know, I mean I was pleased that he was able to do a cameo in this film. In the next film I want to do, we're talking about doing a film where Steve plays about three or four different characters. 'Cause I think that's his strength actually, he's more, in the U.K. he's more well known for doing characters that aren't him.  Alan Partridge is his big one in the U.K. and that's, you know, it's a complete transformation. And it's extraordinary when you watch him work how he just becomes... in fact he writes by being the character. He doesn't sit down and, you know when you're writing with him he paces around as the character and you fire questions at him and great monologues come out.

PK:: There's medication for that.

AI Well, I know. And we want him to take it. 

PK:: I thought "Hamlet 2" was a really funny movie...

AI: I hadn't seen that.

PK: It was supposed to be his big breakthrough

AI: Yeah. .

PK: You're making another movie now?

AI: I'm doing another series of "The Thick of It" and I want to do a slapstick movie.

PK: Does it depend on how well this does?

AI: Uh, I don't know really. I mean, it's done well in the UK and it opened last week in the UK and it's doing well, so...fingers crossed, hope it does well here.

PK: So it opened a week ago today.

AI: Yea.

PK: And the first weekend...?

AI: It was good. It was only on selected release and it still got in the top ten, and, you know, I'm really pleased with it. It's opening wider now this weekend. So we'll see how it does.

PK: I heard that you're also going to be doing a similar TV series to "The Thick of It" based in the United States?

AI: Uh, no, what that was...a pilot was made for ABC about three years ago, but it was so unlike "The Thick of It because on ABC, you can't swear, so it was very diluted. But I would really like to do, if not "The Thick of It," then something set in Washington, in that kind of style.

PK: Derived from the current administration?

AI: Well much more up to date, yeah. I think The Treasury is the comedy  department at the moment.

PK: Try to get laughs out of it.

AI: But that, and their relationship with congress is interesting. They must hate each other.

PK: So you wanted to be priest when you grew up?

AI: Oh, briefly. You know, when you're a teenager you get all sorts of weird ideas.

PK: And that lasted until you realized that you'd have to take  a vow of chastity,

AI: That's right, chastity and poverty. Poverty was alright, but it's their belief in chastity.

PK: I heard you are teaching a comedy class at Oxford. Is that true?

AI: Oh, no, what it was was I had to just deliver four lectures. It's an annual thing. Someone from broadcasting is always asked. You have to do four lectures, and I did one on the sitcom. We find, and I think this happened over here as well, the idea of the traditional audience sitcom, in front of a studio audience, has gone through a bit of a, in the last three or four years, has gone through a bit of a crisis as to whether that feels old-fashioned or whether that should be single camera, no audience, like "The Office" and "30 Rock" and so on. And I was just showing some of the classic ones from the 70s and 80s, really, to students who haven't really seen them before.

PK: Like which ones?

AI: Well I think like "Steptoe and Son" and "Likely Lads" and so on. It was interesting seeing the students seeing these for the first time, because they were in stitches. They were laughing, laughing, laughing. And I think there's something about hearing an audience laugh that is really, you know, there's something uplifting about it. I mean, that's partly why I wanted to make a comedy film. Just hearing the audience in the program laughing, I think...for example, "Seinfield." I can't imagine that not with the laughter.

PK: And, like most people who direct a hit comedy, the next thing you're going to do is a BBC documentary on Milton?

AI: Oh no, that's done now, that's done. I spent three years as a student trying to do a PhD on Milton.

PK: "Paradise Lost."

AI: "Paradise Lost." I never finished it. I So this was my chance for closure.

PK: Dr. Johnson said that nobody wished "Paradise Lost" any longer. But you think it's relevant to today.

AI: Milton makes it all about freedom of choice. That is all about the necessity of having individual freedom, but also the responsibilities that go with freedom -- that freedom is not just a privilege. It's something that has consequences, potentially catastrophic depending on what decisions you take. And it's really about that. It's really about human nature as opposed to, you know, abstract religious, mythic kind of stories.

PK: Lucifer is a good character.

AI: Lucifer is the most charismatic character. I think that's deliberate. It's what we talked about earlier, and that's to say, you know, you can't judge people by how they come across, like completely good or completely evil. It's much more complicated than that.

PK: So Dick Cheney might be a nice guy.

AI: So Dick Cheney is either a nice guy, or Satan come to earth, so it's up to us to try to work out which.

PK: Actually, the Malcolm Tucker, the Peter Capaldi character, is very Luciferian.

AI: He is, yes. He's a sort of Lucifer and Machiavelli. And yet there's a point in the film near the end when he's under quite a lot of pressure and the audience, suddenly, finds itself on his side and willing him on, and then realize that they're willing him on to do something, that they actually don't want to happen.

PK: Yea. That confrontation between him and the Gandolfini character -- it's hard to know where your allegiance goes. At least the Tucker character remains true to his immorality, whereas the Gandolfini character...

AI: Yes, yes. Well Malcolm is one of the few people who has a certain view, or some goal, at the start of the film that he kind of sticks to, tries to achieve throughout. Whereas the others say one thing but then maybe end up doing another. But I kind of like, you know, when we're writing I'm not saying, you know, make him nasty, by the end I want people to really hate him or really like her. We set up the characters, and as writers we're kind of generally interested as we're writing as to what we might do and what we might lead up to. And that's also why we do all the workshoping and improvising(?)...I like to cast it really early on so that the writers start writing for those voices, and those shapes and looks, as well as having an abstract motion on the page as to what these characters are.

PK: But there's really no role models in the characters?

AI: Linton Barwick, David Rasche's character, is an amalgam of John Bolton.. But just all those people who have a theoretical view of what the political, what the right thing to do is, and who would not contemplate any deflection from that course are prepared to listen. Things like evidence and fact -- they're all seen as annoyances.

PK: Do you think that's now part of the past now?

AI: Well part of the reason I set it in present day rather than...I kind of like the audience to just ask themselves if they think it could all happen again.

PK: You just mentioning those names makes me feel so relieved that we won't be hearing about, you know, John Bolton, or Dick Cheney, or...well we still hear from them.

AI: Well there might be the odd trial, you never know.

 

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PK: What are your origins, I mean did you just start as a funny kid? It seems like there's a tradition of British humor you draw on.

AI: I was always interested and there's a great radio comedy tradition in the U.K. and I loved radio comedy, I grew up listening to radio comedy. And when I was at college I would get involved in performing comedy. And then I got a job as a radio producer, a comedy producer, so I ended up producing some of the shows that I used to listen to as a kid which was great. And then as a result of that I made my own shows and they transferred to television. And then more recently I made "The Thick of It" for television so this political comedy setting, Westminster and Downing Street and so on.

PK: You did all the Steve Coogan shows...

AI Yeah Alan Partridge, yes. 'Cause he started one of the radio shows as a sports announcer, who wants to be taken seriously as a broadcaster.

PK: I can't understand why he hasn't really made the big crossover to American audiences.

AI: Well I don't know, I mean I was pleased that he was able to do a cameo in this film. In the next film I want to do, we're talking about doing a film where Steve plays about three or four different characters. 'Cause I think that's his strength actually, he's more, in the U.K. he's more well known for doing characters that aren't him.  Alan Partridge is his big one in the U.K. and that's, you know, it's a complete transformation. And it's extraordinary when you watch him work how he just becomes... in fact he writes by being the character. He doesn't sit down and, you know when you're writing with him he paces around as the character and you fire questions at him and great monologues come out.

PK:: There's medication for that.

AI Well, I know. And we want him to take it. 

PK:: I thought "Hamlet 2" was a really funny movie...

AI: I hadn't seen that.

PK: It was supposed to be his big breakthrough

AI: Yeah. .

PK: You're making another movie now?

AI: I'm doing another series of "The Thick of It" and I want to do a slapstick movie.

PK: Does it depend on how well this does?

AI: Uh, I don't know really. I mean, it's done well in the UK and it opened last week in the UK and it's doing well, so...fingers crossed, hope it does well here.

PK: So it opened a week ago today.

AI: Yea.

PK: And the first weekend...?

AI: It was good. It was only on selected release and it still got in the top ten, and, you know, I'm really pleased with it. It's opening wider now this weekend. So we'll see how it does.

PK: I heard that you're also going to be doing a similar TV series to "The Thick of It" based in the United States?

AI: Uh, no, what that was...a pilot was made for ABC about three years ago, but it was so unlike "The Thick of It because on ABC, you can't swear, so it was very diluted. But I would really like to do, if not "The Thick of It," then something set in Washington, in that kind of style.

PK: Derived from the current administration?

AI: Well much more up to date, yeah. I think The Treasury is the comedy  department at the moment.

PK: Try to get laughs out of it.

AI: But that, and their relationship with congress is interesting. They must hate each other.

PK: So you wanted to be priest when you grew up?

AI: Oh, briefly. You know, when you're a teenager you get all sorts of weird ideas.

PK: And that lasted until you realized that you'd have to take  a vow of chastity,

AI: That's right, chastity and poverty. Poverty was alright, but it's their belief in chastity.

PK: I heard you are teaching a comedy class at Oxford. Is that true?

AI: Oh, no, what it was was I had to just deliver four lectures. It's an annual thing. Someone from broadcasting is always asked. You have to do four lectures, and I did one on the sitcom. We find, and I think this happened over here as well, the idea of the traditional audience sitcom, in front of a studio audience, has gone through a bit of a, in the last three or four years, has gone through a bit of a crisis as to whether that feels old-fashioned or whether that should be single camera, no audience, like "The Office" and "30 Rock" and so on. And I was just showing some of the classic ones from the 70s and 80s, really, to students who haven't really seen them before.

PK: Like which ones?

AI: Well I think like "Steptoe and Son" and "Likely Lads" and so on. It was interesting seeing the students seeing these for the first time, because they were in stitches. They were laughing, laughing, laughing. And I think there's something about hearing an audience laugh that is really, you know, there's something uplifting about it. I mean, that's partly why I wanted to make a comedy film. Just hearing the audience in the program laughing, I think...for example, "Seinfield." I can't imagine that not with the laughter.

PK: And, like most people who direct a hit comedy, the next thing you're going to do is a BBC documentary on Milton?

AI: Oh no, that's done now, that's done. I spent three years as a student trying to do a PhD on Milton.

PK: "Paradise Lost."

AI: "Paradise Lost." I never finished it. I So this was my chance for closure.

PK: Dr. Johnson said that nobody wished "Paradise Lost" any longer. But you think it's relevant to today.

AI: Milton makes it all about freedom of choice. That is all about the necessity of having individual freedom, but also the responsibilities that go with freedom -- that freedom is not just a privilege. It's something that has consequences, potentially catastrophic depending on what decisions you take. And it's really about that. It's really about human nature as opposed to, you know, abstract religious, mythic kind of stories.

PK: Lucifer is a good character.

AI: Lucifer is the most charismatic character. I think that's deliberate. It's what we talked about earlier, and that's to say, you know, you can't judge people by how they come across, like completely good or completely evil. It's much more complicated than that.

PK: So Dick Cheney might be a nice guy.

AI: So Dick Cheney is either a nice guy, or Satan come to earth, so it's up to us to try to work out which.

PK: Actually, the Malcolm Tucker, the Peter Capaldi character, is very Luciferian.

AI: He is, yes. He's a sort of Lucifer and Machiavelli. And yet there's a point in the film near the end when he's under quite a lot of pressure and the audience, suddenly, finds itself on his side and willing him on, and then realize that they're willing him on to do something, that they actually don't want to happen.

PK: Yea. That confrontation between him and the Gandolfini character -- it's hard to know where your allegiance goes. At least the Tucker character remains true to his immorality, whereas the Gandolfini character...

AI: Yes, yes. Well Malcolm is one of the few people who has a certain view, or some goal, at the start of the film that he kind of sticks to, tries to achieve throughout. Whereas the others say one thing but then maybe end up doing another. But I kind of like, you know, when we're writing I'm not saying, you know, make him nasty, by the end I want people to really hate him or really like her. We set up the characters, and as writers we're kind of generally interested as we're writing as to what we might do and what we might lead up to. And that's also why we do all the workshoping and improvising(?)...I like to cast it really early on so that the writers start writing for those voices, and those shapes and looks, as well as having an abstract motion on the page as to what these characters are.

PK: But there's really no role models in the characters?

AI: Linton Barwick, David Rasche's character, is an amalgam of John Bolton.. But just all those people who have a theoretical view of what the political, what the right thing to do is, and who would not contemplate any deflection from that course are prepared to listen. Things like evidence and fact -- they're all seen as annoyances.

PK: Do you think that's now part of the past now?

AI: Well part of the reason I set it in present day rather than...I kind of like the audience to just ask themselves if they think it could all happen again.

PK: You just mentioning those names makes me feel so relieved that we won't be hearing about, you know, John Bolton, or Dick Cheney, or...well we still hear from them.

AI: Well there might be the odd trial, you never know.

 

 
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