Thursday, 16 April 2009

In the Loop/Armando Iannucci Q&A, Curzon Soho

Armando Iannucci's much-anticipated film debut is drawn from his TV satire The Thick of It, but it scales up the story effectively for the big screen. The stakes are heightened by taking the action to Washington and the UN and addressing the dubious shenanigans leading up to the invasion of an unnamed Middle-Eastern country.

However, while it retains the series' hand-held visual style, Iannucci was keen not to end up with a lame Holiday on the Buses-style spin-off where the cast just pitch up abroad and hilarity ensues. Instead, it deals with a different ministry (International Development), a different hapless minister (Simon Foster, played by Tom Hollander), and a different ill-judged outbreak of honesty that needs to be ruthlessly suppressed.

The driving force behind the film – as in the series – is Peter Capaldi as the maniacally foul-mouthed director of communications Malcolm Tucker, who storms around London, Washington and New York verbally bludgeoning into compliance anyone who requires his attention. For all the intricately plotted farce, it's his grotesque threats and energetic swearing that get the biggest laughs.

However, interestingly, we begin to get the very real sense that Tucker finds himself somewhat out of his depth when facing his US adversaries – especially the dovish General Miller, given intimidating life in the form of James Gandolfini.

While Tucker isn't prepared to take a step backwards, giving as good as he gets in the sulphurous verbal exchanges, there's a shocking moment in the UN's meditation room when an extreme close-up suggests Tucker is defeated and on the verge of tears – a great example of script and performance meshing perfectly to turn our reactions to a character.

Iannucci addressed this in the Q&A afterwards, saying that he relished the complexity of the audience's response to Tucker. He's even got the sense in some screenings that the audience end up willing him to succeed, even though he's trying to pave the way for a bloody war.

The Q&A was light-hearted and enjoyable; thankfully there was a low ratio of knob-ends eager to grasp the mike. I didn't take any notes, so here's what my addled old brain can remember...

  • Why make the film now? He grew up loving cinema – especially comedies like Dr Strangelove and the work of Woody Allen – and always wanted to make a film that would get 'the big woof' from an audience. However, he wanted to wait until he'd found the story he really wanted to tell; he gets the sense that a lot of filmmakers lack passion for their projects – it's as if someone just asks them to make a film and they do so as just another job.

  • Writing process: He and his co-writers (Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche) spend a lot of time hammering out the beats of the story before tackling the script. They then take a quarter each and write it quickly, to prevent it getting laboured, before swapping the sections and reworking them.

  • He constantly amends the script; things change quite a bit when rehearsals start and actors begin to inhabit the roles. He also said that the 'real' writing takes place in the edit. His first cut of In the Loop was four-and-a-half hours long, but he found it easy to identify the elements that people would connect with and pared it down in the style of a classic screwball comedy, so it got faster and faster and tighter and tighter before coming to a climax and getting straight out.

  • Improvisation: He uses it a lot, even as early as the casting process. He'll always shoot a scene from the script first before doing another take where the actors improvise. He estimates that one or two out of each 10 improvisations throw up something worth using.

  • He's just started work on a third series of The Thick of It, to be broadcast late in the year. He's looking forward to it having a distinct tone, as the characters will have the imminent election hanging over them – even if they appear to deny it, they'll be aware that they're about to hit the buffers. However, the BBC are unlikely to repeat the first two series for the forseeable, because of Chris Langham.

  • A pilot was made for a US version of The Thick of It, but it was 'terrible'. He was made Executive Producer, but his only involvement was to attend one meeting, at which the main topic of discussion was the colour of the ties that the characters would wear. He said the sense of disappointment at Americans being as rubbish as everyone else fed back into In the Loop.

  • His favourite films are things like Brazil and Doctor Strangelove, which are exaggerated and fantastical but still touch on raw emotions; they don't work themselves out according to an obvious formula. Citing screwball comedies again, he said he wanted Into the Loop to be unpredictable, with events happening so quickly that the audience doesn't get the chance to try and work out what's coming next.

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