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Armando Iannucci: writing office politics

Writer, producer and director Armando Iannucci, best known as the driving force behind hit political satires such as Veep and The Thick of It, reveals his writing process, being funny under pressure and how the industry has changed.

Armando Iannucci

Comedy is like dancing, in a way, says Emmy Award-winning Veep creator Armando Iannucci.

“It’s got to look effortless,” he says. “But to actually get to that point takes a lot of really intense work.”

So he says it’s a compliment when people think the flurry of sharp, biting quips on satirical series like Veep or The Thick of It are improvised.

“It’s nice because the idea is to make it feel spontaneous in terms of the naturalness of the conversation, but in actual fact it’s a long, long, long, long process of writing it and re-writing it,” he says.

“But it’s enjoyable. The writers all love it. They’re all exhausted by the end, but they always want to come back for more.”

Born in Scotland, but based outside of London, Iannucci is speaking from his home a week before his trip to Australia in early May, where he appeared at sell-out events at Sydney Writers’ Festival and Melbourne’s The Wheeler Centre, and on ABC TV’s Q&A program.

It’s not surprising these sessions revolved around comedy and political satire.

It’s a genre Australians have long seen on television screens, thanks to the likes of the late John Clarke and Working Dog‘s The Hollowmen and Utopia, and more recently, Sammy J’s Playground Politics. In fact, Iannucci cites Working Dog’s The Hollowmen as a favourite Aussie series, as well as ABC/Playmaker Media thriller The Code.

Iannucci has crafted his career writing office politics. He’s the mind behind the venom-tongued spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker of both The Thick of It and In the Loop; the arrogant, hapless TV personality Alan Partridge (played by Steve Coogan) of The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge, and more; and Veep’s Selina Meyer – the role which garnered Julia Louis-Dreyfus a record five-consecutive Emmy Award wins.

Iannucci left Veep after its fourth season in 2015, just after its Emmy win for Outstanding Comedy Series, saying “after four years, I’d done everything I wanted to do with the show.” (It’s now in its sixth season).

He’s since turned his pen back to film, writing and directing the upcoming The Death of Stalin.

Here, he expounds on the organised chaos of writing, producing and directing episodic comedy, how they get a screenplay as funny as possible and the importance of treating your writers in the same way you would treat your cast.

What’s your writing process like? 

For most of these shows the writing isn’t on its own, it’s collaborative. Collaborative writing is more fun. It’s a bit tedious when you’re writing on your own. You’re always just fidgeting and looking for distractions, so I find I get a lot more done if I’m with other people.

How does it work? Do writers break off into smaller groups to write episodes?

The fun thing is when everyone is in a room and we’re just bashing out bigger ideas about where the series might go or what might happen to a character. But then normally I find one writer for each episode and the two of us will spend a long time breaking the plot down into quite some detail until we’ve got a good, funny story. I ask that person to just go off and write it very quickly, because it’s going to be a long, long collaborative process between that point and the actual shooting of it, and everything is going to change. So I tell them ‘don’t worry about every word, don’t sweat blood over every line. Just write it really quickly, so that we have a kind of working document’. That’s when I go into much more detail, line by line.

And then we swap over, and we take a look at everyone else’s, and then we swap over again, and then we all go back to the original. Then we get the cast in and we rehearse with them to free it up, loosen it up, and then rewrite it all again on the basis of what we wrote in the rehearsals. And normally we rewrite it all again the night before the shoot. It goes through about 20 different versions.

How many of those initial jokes from the first draft actually end up on the screen?

It’s pretty close to zero, which is why I say ‘don’t spend too long on it. Just blurt it out and get it down so it’s like a template’. It also helps if you’ve got an amazing cast who are happy to take whatever comes and change at the last minute and improvise if asked to.

Are the rewrites also a way to keep the jokes fresh and funny?

There’s an element of that. There’s always a danger you just throw out really good stuff, because you’re just bored with it, but I’ve got my script assistant who I ask to keep a copy of every draft. Sometimes something will come up or a bit is not quite right and I’ll remember there was a whole passage about this thing seven drafts ago and they dig it out. The writer’s always around for the shoot so we can add lines as we go along.

How do you stay funny under pressure and working to a deadline?

It’s hard but I suppose for all of us, comedy is our natural (genre). We can’t imagine writing drama – we’d all end up putting jokes in it. It’s difficult when you’re tired or when I was doing Veep I was jet-lagged as well (he commuted between the US and home in the UK). But Julia (Louis-Dreyfus) has this great philosophy that you can’t be funny if it doesn’t feel like a funny set. She’s great at just keeping the mood light. If it’s very, very late at night, she will start a song or something, because she knows from her experience if everyone is in a good mood the jokes will start flowing, but if everyone’s a bit tetchy and cross and quiet and just wants to go to sleep, no jokes will come.

How do you figure out what the world of politics looks like from the inside?

A lot of research. But I’m not saying to people, ‘can you tell us some ridiculous stories?’ It’s ‘what does your office look like? What time do you get in in the morning? What time do you get home? What kind of staff are there? What happens when a newspaper is trying to get a hold of you?’ and then you gradually get an idea of the types of people who work in these environments. And then you build your stories around that. Occasionally we’ve been told stories that we’ve incorporated into Veep. Just little tiny details, like in the pilot of Veep, Gary (played by Tony Hale) has a little mini-platform that he puts Selina on, a little step… and that was based on someone telling us about a very short senator who got their assistant to carry a little box with them wherever she went.

What are the main challenges of juggling not only writing and producing, but then directing as well?

With Veep, I did direct more or less all of the first season. But as soon as we ended season one I knew I couldn’t do that again because it was too much. Directing one episode while trying to think of the next episode, and looking at the sets and locations for the third episode, and the scripts for the fourth – it was too much.

I had to do what most showrunners do, which is to direct one or two episodes of a season.

I instinctively know (if) an episode should be one where I get someone in to direct and give it their all. And I tell the writers I don’t want them to write like me. I want them to write for the characters. Because I always like being surprised – I always like seeing something I wouldn’t have thought of, or a scene that I would never have come up with. As long as it makes me laugh, I’d rather that.

It’s that thing of wanting to keep control of what the overall idea is and what the tone is going to be, but at the same time enjoying the process of what other people come up with and contribute to it.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Selina Meyer in <em>Veep</em> / Foxtel Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Selina Meyer in Veep / Foxtel

What are your thoughts about the showrunner model?

It’s beginning to happen a little bit in the UK as well, but mostly it’s in the US. For me it just seems a natural one, because when I was doing The Thick of It I was directing most of it, I was across most of the scripts, I was creating it. I think also in the US there is an appreciation of the writer. The writer becomes the director, the producer, the person in charge. In the UK there is still this tradition of the writer being separate – the person who hands the scripts in and just disappears. And I’ve always felt that’s a bit odd because when the writer is writing it they’re playing it in their minds. They know how it should look. I’ve always felt it very odd that the writer isn’t top dog really.

And with any show or films I’ve done, I’ve always said when we’re budgeting, treat the writers like members of the cast. Make sure someone comes and picks them up and brings them in. Make sure they have a nice room where they can carry on with their work, because often the writer’s the one who (is told) ‘if you want to come and watch the filming that’s great, but you don’t have to’. And then if they turn up they’re just standing at the back, given a cup of cold coffee and sort of ignored, so it’s about trying to change that mentality really.

How has television changed since you started working in the industry?

It’s changed in that it has become international. Because everything is available, is downloadable, or you can stream stuff, your audience stops just being the audience of your own country. You have a potential global audience. And what has been interesting is the rise in quality. Working for HBO was interesting, because their business model is it has to be really good. That’s the way they make money, because people will then want to subscribe. And that’s a great business model, because it’s not someone saying, ‘can you make it dumber please, can you make it more mass marketable’.

TV has become ambitious. It’s now got the ambition of cinema in terms of the look and it may be because we now have bigger and bigger screens at home.

It’s also then made film have a think about what it does. Cinema is going through an interesting think about what it should now be doing to make films not feel like they’re mass-produced, down to a formula.

Do you have a preference between writing for TV or film?

It’s that thing of the grass is always greener.

After doing four years – although it’s 10 years with The Thick of It – of episodic comedy I loved going straight into film, which is what I’ve just done with The Death of Stalin. Because with a film, it’s one story, not 40 stories. The  thing about a comedy series is, you’ve got to get everyone back to roughly the same place so you can do next week’s episode, which has its rewards because every week you’re finding out more and more about the characters.

What I liked about doing the film was just that one-off. You can invent a whole world and follow it through to the end. You can kill characters, you can have them disappear, you can have new characters turn up halfway through. You’ve got total control, but then as you’re doing the film you think ‘oh wouldn’t it be nice to see all these characters again’.

But the next thing is usually the opposite of the thing I’ve just done. I’ve got another film planned for next year, but in-between I’m going to make another pilot for HBO (in London this time) and see how that goes.

Why do you think the arts, and comedy, are important?

Because they always are. I just finished doing this film about Stalin – a lot of it based on true events – and we discovered, right at the height of terror, when people were being rounded up by Stalin’s security forces and taken off and put in the Gulag or shot, people were also circulating books full of jokes about Stalin. You would be shot if you were found with one of these joke books and yet they did it. It’s like you have to make jokes. It’s what makes us human, the fact that we can laugh. We’re not animals and we’re not machines. I just found that fascinating that in the grimmest of nightly political totalitarianism, people still wanted to make each other laugh. I’m sure it was a very dark laugh but that’s why we have things like comedy because we need it.

So yes, with people like Trump, go out and protest, campaign, write your journalism and go into politics and try and oppose it. But comedy about it is also a very healthy outlet for articulating emotions that you might not be able to articulate anywhere else or in any other way. (Read Iannucci’s open letter to President Trump here).

Veep seasons 1-6 are available through Foxtel. In the Loop, The Thick of It and numerous Alan Partridge shows and movies are streaming on Stan.

This interview has been edited and condensed.