I don’t believe I’m risking hyperbole when I say that In the Loop is one of the funniest films of the past few years, if not the past decade. Rapid fire insult comedy and dark and edgy political satire come together in this profane and all-too believable account of the US and the UK gearing themselves up for a pointless war (and, as you’ll read below, it’s all-too believable because it could be quite close to the truth). Armando Iannucci, who has been dominating British television comedy for years, made his feature directorial debut with the film, which premiered at Sundance last year and is now nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar (the movie is a spin-off of Iannucci’s TV series The Thick of It). Filled with great performances, superb banter and the most inventive swearing I’ve ever heard, In the Loop is simply a must own movie. You can order a copy through CHUD by clicking here.
In the Loop begins with a bumbling British minister, played by Pirates of the Caribbean‘s Tom Hollander, stepping into the international scene with an ill-timed comment. That brings Malcolm Tucker, the supernaturally foul-mouthed Director of Communications, into his life. What follows is a trip to America where a war slowly gets built out of nothing but bluster and bungling.
Last weekend I had the chance to talk with Iannucci on the phone right after he left the Oscar nominee lunch. Being Iannucci’s first film it’s also his first Oscar nomination, and before we got into the meat of the interview we chatted a bit about the surreal nature of an event like that.
When you look at the nominations you’ll actually find the bulk of them are for sound design and editing, and so the room is mostly people like me going ‘I don’t know anybody here.’ And once in a while you go ‘Oh, there’s Sandra Bullock. There’s George Clooney!’ It was very nice, actually, because it makes you think this is real. Up until that point people are very nice and congratulatory, but you don’t quite believe it. Or you think you’ve been nominated for other Oscars, private ones that won’t be televised. It was all very informal, and then we took the group photo and then we were called up in order to get our certificates.
So you get a certificate that says you are an Oscar nominee so you can always prove it from here on in.
Exactly. The certificate says ‘Let it be known. Let it be known that these people have been nominated.’
The biggest question everybody has after they see the film is what’s the ratio of improv to scripted stuff? Is there room for people to play around? Everything feels so fresh.
There’s a little room. We spent an awful lot of time on the plot, to nail that. I ask the writers for the very first draft to write it very quickly because it’s still very much an exercise in blocking. You know that thing where you block a scene by standing people around and looking at it and then having a few thoughts and moving people or having fresh ideas. The first draft is blocking the film, so that I can have something in my hands. You don’t spend too much time on every line, although that will come. Once we have the first draft script I go through it with a slightly finer pen, saying ‘These characters don’t seem to be going anywhere, why don’t we chuck them; this scene seems to work, so let’s do a bit more of this; there’s potential here.’ We go longer on the second draft and everybody [works on] everybody else’s scenes, so everyone takes a pass. I then want to cast it really early so that script is sent to casting, and I cast it based on that script. Then when we know who is going to play what part, that’s when we really write. That’s when we can write for that voice or that physical persona or that mannerism, and that’s when we go line by line.
However, having gone through all that trouble on the script I want to go to a lot of trouble to make it feel like it’s not been written with inverted commas. I want it to feel like you’re eavesdropping on reality, so a lot of time is spent unthinking all that by encouraging the actors – with the writers always present on set – to slightly… I’ll always shoot the scene as scripted, and I won’t move on until I’m happy with that, but when I am happy with it I’ll ask the actors to free it up ever so slightly, just so that it feels spontaneous. Usually what happens is that they say the script again, but just in a slightly different order. If the scene plays out in such a way that someone is furious they’ll reach for the next line that feels most appropriate for the mood, and that can be a line from the end of the scene. So they’ll blurt that line out and it’s up to the other actor to bat something back, and they might choose a line from a bit later on that’s appropriate at that point. So you get the script again, but in a slightly different order, and actually in the final edit 95% of it is what was on the page and the order it was in, but the other 5% is interruptions or just reordering of the material a bit.
Occasionally also, just to keep things fresh on the day, we might give one actor new things to say that had been written that morning or the night before and not tell the cast. For example Malcolm might have a few extra insults to hurl at people, just to keep people sparking a bit.
Malcolm has the most astonishing insults and swear words to throw around. Can you talk about the process of creating his unbelievably filthy and profane dialogue?
Well first of all that is word for word what’s on the page, because Peter [Capaldi] needs to know it back to front in order to throw forth all of that. But the other thing is that the foul language is there because I want it to feel real, and that’s how people talk behind closed doors in politics. However I’m not particularly a fan of constant swearing; I find it a bit boring if the same word is used again and again. What we try to do is make swearing as inventive and entertaining as possible by usually using threats of physical violence behind the swearing. We have fun coming up with increasing elaborate threats to make the swearing if not more palatable then more entertaining.
American fans of the film may not realize this spins out of a TV series.
That’s right, it’s a show called The Thick of It in the UK, which Malcolm is featured in. But it’s a different minister and a different cast. It’s all about domestic policy. But it’s the same writers and we have the same method in which we go about writing, actually working very organically with the cast and workshopping it and rehearsing it.
With In the Loop getting an Oscar nomination is it possible we’ll see The Thick of It coming to America?
I hope so. I’ve been told there’s talk of trying to get the DVDs released here. The first series was shown on BBC America. There was an American pilot made three years ago which was… terrible. It was for ABC. No offense to ABC but you’re never going to quite get that kind of language and frenzy on a mainstream channel. But I’m now talking to HBO about a comedy set in Washington, so that’s exciting.
Would you carry over some of the characters from In the Loop or would it be all new characters?
I don’t know. I quite like the idea of the State Department, actually, because it gives you the small – the office politics – but also the international politics. The State Department is important when the President wants it to be important but it’s ignored when the President wants to ignore it, so they’re slightly insecure about what their status is in everyday politics. That’s interesting and gives you something to work with.
You have some other classic shows that have run in the UK but haven’t come here yet, like Time Trumpet. Do you have any idea when some of these might make their way to the States?
People have expressed interest in Time Trumpet, so we’re exploring that as well. I’d love to do an American Time Trumpet. There’s Alan Partridge with Steve Coogan and we’re looking at possibly doing a movie of that. It’s funny – I’ve been doing TV comedy in the UK for the last 15 years but it’s been the last year or so that the potential for bringing it over here has risen. Helped by the film, I suppose.
It would be great, because America needs more witty, verbal comedy these days.
It’s interesting. If In the Loop is a screwball comedy the next film I want to do is a slapstick comedy, something with lots of visual comedy in it and physical comedy. I’m a big fan of Buster Keaton or the chase at the end of What’s Up Doc?. It’s that classic physical comedy that I’ve always loved, and I don’t see that often. That’s the next thing I want to do, actually.
Is that something you’re moving forward with or something you’re just playing with?
We’re at the script stage. I’d like to get that moving quite soon.
One of the weirdest things I’ve heard about In the Loop is that you held a screening in Washington and many Washington folk thought the movie was right on the nose.
Yeah, they laughed all the way through it – and at things no one else laughed at, like expressions we used that were based on things that actually happened. But at the end someone put their hand up at the Q&A and said, ‘Look, on behalf of the room can I just apologize, because that’s just how it happened.’ Part of me thinks ‘Yes! We got it right.’ And the other part of me thinks, ‘Oh, we got it right?! You’re telling me that’s what it’s like?’ Part of it is that I just want people to watch it and have joy and have a laugh, but I also want them to leave with the funny feeling of, ‘You know, I think it might really be like that.’
How much research did you do into the culture of the State Department?
A fair amount. A lot is available to read. An awful lot. I came out to Washington a few times and I have meetings with people in the State Department and Pentagon and CIA and United Nations, think tanks and lobby groups, the whole lot. I said to them, ‘I’m not making a documentary, I’m not looking to name names, I’m not looking to destroy careers. I’m doing a comedy but it has to feel accurate. I want to know the dull stuff – what time do you go in in the morning, what time do you go home, who are the people you work with?’ Gradually it all starts building up and you get the feel for what did go on. You know the bit with the committee with the dull name? That’s true – Dick Cheney set that up and called it The Office of Future Planning and it was about looking into invading Iran and Syria. He shut it down when it became too popular. The fact that there are 22, 23 year olds literally with degrees in strategic terrorism who end up running enormous parts of the department. We have 22 year olds we sent to Baghdad to draw up their constitution; he doesn’t know how to buy and sell his own house and yet he’s telling another country how to run itself. That I find absolutely jaw-dropping and thought, ‘I have to put that in.’ I came back home to the UK with stories like that and that’s when we began deciding how to make this film.
On the Blu-Ray there are some great deleted scenes, like the There Will Be Blood bit. What led you to cut something as terrific as that?
It’s very painful. I think a comedy has to be about one hour forty, one hour forty five. I think any longer and it runs out of steam. I could get it down to two hours but getting that last ten or fifteen minutes out, in the end I took my three favorite scenes out. They had great performances in them, they were funny moments, but I found that when in the film they always disrupted it. They always stopped everything from happening and kind of got in the way. I tried moving them around and everywhere I moved them they never quite worked, and eventually I thought ‘Let’s take them out and see what happens.’ And I took them out and that was the movie. Everything was better. And that’s the point where you think, ‘Thank heavens for deleted scenes on DVDs,’ because I want people to see these scenes. But I’ll never put them back in the film because they disrupt the rhythm of the film. When you’re making a film you realize the whole is more important than the parts – you can’t try to get your favorite moments in, it’s about getting the film as a whole to work. You have to be absolutely ruthless in how you do that. The initial cut was probably four hours long.