Thrillist: In the New Yorker, Russia expert Masha Gessen describes the film as the "most accurate picture of life under Soviet terror that anyone has ever committed to film." Did you think about accuracy when you're working on this?
Armando Iannucci: A lot of the events in the film happened. We've obviously done a comic version of them, but also I think because the film deals with these themes of torture and death and massacres, I think the first thing I said the production team when we started is we have to be very respectful of what happened, and not try and hide it.
It made me think that the only way we could go about doing it was to get it as accurate as possible. Go to Moscow, go to the locations like Stalin's dacha, the Kremlin, the apartments and try and recreate them as much as possible. And then explore that world -- read the histories, read the biographies, talk to people who grew up under Stalin at the time. The most satisfying kind of compliments that I've had are from Russians themselves -- the Russian press and just Russian viewers in the audience -- who said, well, one of them said, "Where in Moscow did you film this?" I had to say, "It was in London, but thank you because we did our very best to try and get it right." A Russian journalist told me that within five minutes of watching the film, he suddenly felt back in the Soviet Union, and it all came flooding back to the memories of what it was like.
I think that's important. You have to put extra energy and extra concentration and focus in getting it right so that you've earned the freedom to then add the comic exaggeration. Also, I felt the best comedy in it is always from the truth; It's the comedy of people going mad, really, under pressure and under fear and paranoia. They end up saying crazy things.
I would assume that's familiar to you because In The Loop and Veep are fictional, but are also accurate depictions of government. Did you see a parallel there?
Iannucci: There's a little. Yes, with In The Loop and Veep and so on again we researched. I went out to the West Wing and the White House and the Vice President's office and Washington and observed just what the types are. In the Vice President's office -- who are the four or five people that they would have around? And you build that picture and then you fictionalize, you invent.
With The Death of Stalin, there was that, but it was a different period as well. So it was really talking to people about things that happened 50 or 60 years ago. But also I think the comedy in Veep is really about getting through the day, and if they make a mistake it's embarrassing, but they still are alive. In this film, if they don't get through the day it's because they're dead. Suddenly, that shift transforms everything. It's a different type of comedy. It's a comedy about trying to survive and trying to use your wits to just avoid the worst. So we found that the writing of it felt different. The research felt similar, but the actual writing of it and the performing of it was a different thing entirely.
How did the writing feel different?
Iannucci: Really the aim I think was to try as much as possible to recreate in the audience that sense of low-level anxiety that everyone in the Soviet Union must have felt at the time. That's all about setting things up, suggesting things but never quite seeing them or seeing them in the distance. Or surprising people. Comedy helps because comedy's all about anticipation and build up and expectation and then subverting expectation. The rhythm of comedy is not that different from the rhythm of horror in a way. If you look at Get Out, fantastic film, it's interesting that the writer and director of that has come from a comedy background. He has an instinct for how you can lead people down a path and then surprise them or you can set expectations up one way and then completely subvert them.
The tone of [Death of Stalin] is all about the edit afterwards. We spent five months in the edit, because I knew we had to get this absolutely right, this balance between the comedy and the tragedy, the farcical stuff going on indoors and then the reality outdoors of what's happening to the people. Balancing the two so you never felt that a joke slightly falls because of something dreadful that's just happened. That, actually, the joke sets up the dreadful thing and the dreadful thing then makes the joke funnier. It's all about that. That was a slow, slow process in the edit, just making sure every moment had a reason to be there really. That sometimes involves taking things out, taking a funny line out because it draws attention to its own joke, and it takes you away from the moment. Or taking a very graphic, visual moment out because it's too much too soon.