If you haven’t seen Armando Iannucci’s The Death Of Stalin, seek it out. Never in my wildest dreams did I think Stalin would elicit such laughs, but we can leave it to Iannucci (Veep) to find some humor and the best ensemble cast to leave us in hysterics over Stalin’s death.
Watching the film, it’s hard not to draw some similarities to Trump. Ianuucci says, “I’m not saying he’s a brutal, fascist dictator, but he clearly loves autocrats and strongmen around the world. That’s who he’s impressed by. What he’s not impressed by is any kind of criticism.”
The director also talks about Russia’s reaction, laughing, “The Minister of Culture had a letter written and signed by over 100 Russian cultural figures saying the film was of no artistic merit whatsoever.
Read our chat on The Death Of Stalin below:
How did The Death Of Stalin come your way?
I was finishing off doing Veep and I knew that once I had done that, I wanted to do another film. I was actually looking at dictators with a view to doing a modern autocrat having seen the Berlusconi phenomenon, and also with Putin, and Turkey, Hungary, and Eastern Europe with Nationalist, Anti-immigration and Populist movements happening. In the UK, we had UKIP and all of this was before the rise of the Donald.
Then, I got, out of the blue the graphic novel, The Death of Stalin. Quad Productions asked if I’d be interested in it. I read it and there it was all laid out for me. The concert, the stroke, the debate on whether to call a doctor and which doctor to call. You investigate and find out this is true. It’s true. It’s absurd. It’s comic. It’s terrifying. It has all sorts of resonances with all that’s going on with autocrats and the control of the media. I could see instantly how I knew how I wanted to make it. I knew the Kremlin scenes would be funny, but the crowd scenes would be shot for real. We wouldn’t try to make light of what actually happened.
We did our own research and so much of that was bizarre such as Stalin’s son losing the entire Russian hockey team in a plane crash and covering it up and getting friends and friends of friends to cover it up, but they were crap players. It all boils down to how do people behave under terror? They behave in a strange and absurd way. All dignity goes out of the window when they’re fighting for survival.
We wrote the script quickly. We got the cast together quite quickly. We shot it in seven weeks. It was a dream project from start to finish and it happened fairly immediately. It just happened fairly immediately.
You have such a superb ensemble, but also these great actors who make these hated characters actually likable to that absurd extent.
Where possible, what I try to do is cast really early so we know exactly who we are writing for and what their rhythms of speech are and so on. I tried to get together a cast that had a very disparate set of experiences and traditions behind them so you have someone like Michael Palin behind them so you have someone like Micahel Palin who comes from the Monthy Python background. You have someone like Simon Russell Beale playing Lavrenti Beria who isn’t that well known outside of the UK. Even then, he’s known as a great Shakespearean actor. Then there’s Steve Buscemi who can do comedy and terror or menace at the same time. Rupert Friend who comes from TV, known for Homeland. These people in the story had all come from different backgrounds, not just from Russia, but Khazistan, Georgia and all around this massive empire. Some were intellectuals, some were workers, some were from the military. I wanted a team that felt like it had a variety of tones to them. We made them fit the script by rehearsing. I had them for two weeks and we mucked around in a church hall and rehearsed over tea, coffee, and biscuits. THat’s where the great set scenes such as the funeral were choreographed.
By the time we went into the shoots, everyone knew each other and their characters. It felt like they’d been working together for years. It meant we could shoot really fast because we weren’t working it out on the set. We worked it out before.
What was the basis of writing Stalin’s death scene the way you did?
That happens in the graphic novel. It’s true though. Svetlana wrote letters and accounts of what happened when her father died. Kruschev also did the same and the two accounts do tally up. He was put to bed, they thought he was gone, but then he sat up and pointed at a picture of a shepherd girl giving a girl milk from a horn. They tried to interpret what it meant but then he keeled over and died. We found the more authentic we were the funnier it became. We spent a lot of time not just getting things that had happened, but the detail. I went to Stalin’s statue and tried to replicate it as much as possible. I love it when people come up to me and ask where I filmed it. We shot it in London. We constructed a lot of it, but it was based on what we saw. We weren’t trying to do the Hollywood idea of what Moscow was, we were trying to recreate what Moscow was in the 1950’s and tried to get the color and dimensions right.
Very early on in the rehearsal rooms, I remember watching them pick up Stalin’s body and try to get it onto the bed and wrestle with it. I felt very lucky to be in that room, watching all these different actors from these different traditions work as an ensemble.
You’re dealing with history taking on this dictator. What was that like to delve into him?
It’s interesting. I wanted to get behind all of these people. I remember sitting down with Steve Buscemi and looking at Kruschev doing his speeches because he wanted to get his physical gestures right. You felt it was such a long time ago that it’s become part of history. It was interesting when the film was released in Russia and then banned, you heard comments from Zhukov’s granddaughter and Kruschev’s nephew when you realize it wasn’t that long ago.
I remember taking it to America and doing Q&A’s and in Washington, a group of older Ukranian women told me they were there when it happened. I met someone who had gone to the funeral and got caught up in the crowd disturbances. They all said two things. They all said it was funny. They all said it was true. They said getting that sense of menace and having lived with that fear of any night, you could get that knock on the door and get taken away. After three or four years of it, it becomes a low lying menace rather than a hyper menace. People said they went to bed wearing several layers of clothing. If they were taken off in the middle of the night, they’d at least have warm clothes and they had bags packed so if all else failed, they could grab bags on the way out. It’s stories like that which make it real.
The comedy resonates because it’s based on truth.
Did you write this before Trump was elected?
We actually shot it before Trump was elected. He hadn’t even been nominated. I was editing it and he was president. That scene in the middle where they are all looking to vote and who’s not going to vote. At the same time, Trump was doing that first cabinet meeting, getting the cameras to go around and have everyone say what an honor it was to serve under him. There he was talking about fake news, and Beria is talking about false narrative. Even the initials are the same. He also calls the media “Enemies of the people” which is a phrase Stalin used. When Kruschev took over, he banned the use of that saying. That’s when the story becomes less of a warning than an alarm bell. We can not let it happen again and this is how something like this does happen if everyone just complies.
Look at that reporter who asks a question in the White House, Jim Acosta and then is accused of sexual harassment. It’s a tactic Mussolini used to come up with a charge that might stick against a media opponent and to get the media outlet shut down or get that person ejected. That’s sinister.
That’s the thing, watching the film at the beginning of the year and watching it again just recently, it’s eerie of how America seems to be heading that way.
It’s depressing in a way. Have we really not learned? Is it not possible to say, this can’t happen again? I’m not saying he’s a brutal, fascist dictator, but he clearly loves autocrats and strongmen around the world. That’s who he’s impressed by. What he’s not impressed by is any kind of criticism.
How did Russia react?
It was all very well to do our research and film the buildings, but as soon as the film came out, it was banned. It was done in that strangely nostalgic Soviet way. The Minister of Culture had a letter written and signed by over 100 Russian cultural figures saying the film was of no artistic merit whatsoever.
A brave cinema said they were going to screen it, but it was visited by the police and they had to pay a fine. The Moscow Times actually sent reporters over and people were leaving the cinema saying the film was true, but it’s not insulting.
You have to think though, when everything is accessible, Russia of all countries, how do you an something when Russia is so good at getting into encrypted websites. The number of downloads after the film was a million and a half. The ban meant it got a bigger audience in Russia than if it got an arthouse cinema release.
Controversy is never a bad thing.
No. I did feel sad because surely in this day and age it doesn’t happen in a country that calls itself a democracy. In a country that purports to be a democracy, how are you capable of doing this? Also, how do you benefit from that?
Your next project is Dickens. What can you tell us?
It’s a fantastic cast with Dev Patel and Tilda Swinton. I try to stay faithful to the tone of the book. I’ve had to streamline things because it’s 900 pages long, but I’ve tried keeping more to the spirit of the book. The thing is the spirit of the book hasn’t always been replicated in adaptations. Adaptations are often about the plot.
The spirit of the book is more about David getting drunk and Dickens describes him as seeing the whole world wobbling around him. When he falls in love with Dora, he gets obsessed with her and everywhere he looks, he sees the word, Dora. He sees coachmen with her curls. It’s the idea of a man falling in love for the first time. It’s a very honest book and it deals with very contemporary themes like debt, coming into money and losing it and worrying about your status and what people will think of you.
We tried to make it as accurate as possible. We want the contemporary spirit though. London should feel like Manhattan. It’s the modern world and everything is happening here. It was a happy shoot. I’m enjoying turning this beast of a book into a funny and hopefully moving story.