The oft-described ‘King of Satire’, Oscar nominated and BAFTA winning writer-director, Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It; Veep; In The Loop), delivered an insightful masterclass to NFTS students along with NFTS alumnus and tutor, BIFA nominated, Pete Lambert (The Twilight Saga: New Moon; X&Y) who edited The Death of Stalin, Armando’s latest film.
The Q&A was hosted by NFTS Director, Jon Wardle following a screening of the critically acclaimed film, which is described in Peter Bradshaw’s 5-star review in The Guardian as a “brilliant horror-satire”. The Death of Stalin has also been nominated for 13 British Independent Film Awards, including ‘Best Film’, ‘Best Director’, ‘Best Screenplay’ and ‘Best Editing’ and took home awards for 'Best Supporting Actor' for Simon Russell Beale, ‘Best Production Design’, ‘Best Makeup’ and ‘Best Casting’ .
Armando opened the masterclass by saying he had been thinking of doing something on dictators for some time and had considered all the ‘greats’ from Mao to Mussolini! The Death of Stalin was adapted by Armando, David Schneider and Ian Martin from the French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin.
Pete explained he got the editing job after receiving an email from the film’s Post Production Supervisor and as soon as he saw the words, ‘Iannucci, Simon Russell Beale and Stalin’, he jumped at the chance. On working with new people, Armando said: “It’s nice to work with people you’ve already worked with but there’s a danger you don’t move on if you don’t have new faces. I find people by asking around if I have seen something I like or I ask for recommendations.”
Many of the scenes in the film involve complex, often slap stick sequences and Armando prepared for those by arranging a robust rehearsal period a few weeks before the shoot with the full cast. He explained: “We worked out the blocking and comedy timing for the big scenes; if you have all those conversations on set, it’s very expensive!”
The decision to let the cast use their own accents or choose accents, such as Jason Isaacs plumping for a Yorkshire brogue for Soviet Army Officer, Zhukov, was made right from the start. Many movies about Stalin feature actors using Russian accents and Armando describes this as “unrealistic. The characters from this period all had different dialects.”
There are many dialogue heavy scenes in The Death of Stalin and Pete explained how he finds these more complex to edit than action scenes. Armando praised Pete’s work: “The first time I saw the assembly put together by Pete, I was bowled over. The pacing of the scene where the committee members vote ‘unanimously’ on a series of decisions and move through Michael Palin’s monologue is brilliantly done.” On how Pete and Armando worked together on the editing, Armando said: “I don’t want to see anything until it’s done. Occasionally Pete sent me a query about shooting an extra continuity scene but I’m not into watching stuff straight back. During the shoot, we are constantly rewriting so by the end of it, I’m tired and want to clear my head so I’m ready for the next day and sharp on set.”
Pete continued: “I spent most of my time on getting the tone right and focussing on balancing the horrific against the funny.”
One of the students asked Armando’s view on author and scriptwriter, John O’Farrell’s assertion that satire ‘serves the powerful and helps normalise politicians with extreme views.’ Armando replied: “You’re on a hiding to nothing if you think anything you write will change anything” and referred to a quote from comedian, Peter Cook who founded The Establishment Club in 1961 and said it was to be a satirical venue modelled on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.”
Another question came in about improvisation. Armando said there wasn’t much improvisation in The Death of Stalin but “if something is funny, we’ll go with it. With anything collaborative, you have to dump your ego at the cloakroom. Story Is key – you have to ask, is this funny and interesting and does it keep developing? Once you’ve locked that all in, I’m all in favour of trying things so long as it doesn’t change the story.”
And on where to draw the line with offensiveness in comedy, Armando said: “There’s no hard and fast rule. You can get away with more if the joke is really good. I do also think, what’s wrong with being offended? People should be able to defend their beliefs. We’ve lost the sense of engaging people who disagree with us – it isn’t healthy. Not to say we should be as offensive as possible for the sake of it, that’s lazy.”
Armando’s next project, David Copperfield, is casting now and due to shoot next summer. The Death of Stalin is showing in UK cinemas now and due for release in the US in March 2018.