Writers & Company

Veep creator Armando Iannucci finds the comic in the absurd, from The Death of Stalin to David Copperfield 

The Scottish satirist, writer and director spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his love of Charles Dickens and why he finds truth in satire.
Armando Giovanni Iannucci is a Scottish satirist, writer, director and radio producer. (Matt Crockett/Submitted by TIFF)

Armando Iannucci is best known as creator of the hugely popular, award-winning series Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the American vice-president. The Glasgow-born writer and director cut his teeth on political satire for radio and television, including the hit British series The Thick of It

His 2017 feature The Death of Stalin is a brilliant black comedy chronicling the last 24 hours in the life of the Soviet dictator — all the more outrageous because so many of the events it depicts are true. With an all-star cast, it won multiple awards — and was banned in Russia.

Iannucci's latest film has taken him in a new direction. The Personal History of David Copperfield is a vivid reimagining of Charles Dickens's classic tale, starring Dev Patel in the title role. It's already picked up five wins at the British Independent Film Awards, including best screenplay, and scored a best actor nomination for Dev Patel at the upcoming Golden Globes.

Iannucci spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home near London.

Dev Patel stars as the titular character in Armando Iannucci's film The Personal History of David Copperfield. (Submitted by TIFF)

For the love of Dickens

"Like many people, I first discovered Charles Dickens at school. We were given Great Expectations to read, which I thoroughly enjoyed. We all have an image of Dickens as being this slightly long-winded Victorian novelist who wrote very long novels about fog and mud and darkness and poor working conditions for children. 

"And yes, he did do all that. But he's also very, very funny. His characterization is original, memorable and eccentric. There's a dynamic to him. There's a pulsing energy to him that doesn't feel old-fashioned. That's what struck me as I was reading it."

There's a dynamic to him. There's a pulsing energy to him that doesn't feel old-fashioned. That's what struck me as I was reading it.

"He wasn't afraid to be popular, to be an entertainer and to reach a mass audience. Yet at the same time, he uses that stage to talk about difficult issues, such as factory conditions or bad schooling or child poverty.

"He was ambitious, but in the right way. He wanted to find as large a platform as possible to talk about what he wanted to discuss."

The appeal of David Copperfield

"David Copperfield is the first of his novels in which he uses the first person throughout. It's the first time he's being a bit more personal. The opening chapters are very much based on Dickens's own childhood. 

"He describes David being taken away from his mother and having to work in a boot-blacking factory at the age of 12, instead of going to school. Something similar had happened to Dickens, but he kept it very quiet. He was always embarrassed and ashamed of his background. It only emerged after his death, in 1870, that what had happened to David was in fact autobiographical.

"It's a very modern book, in that the whole thing is about an identity crisis. It's David trying to work out who he is. At the end of the book, he actually works out that he's a writer.

It's a very modern book, in that the whole thing is really about an identity crisis. It's David trying to work out who he is.

"He defines himself by writing about his past. He acknowledges that sometimes memory may have played tricks on him, and what he's describing to readers might not be strictly accurate, but it's how he emotionally remembers it. This is what appealed to me, as someone who enjoyed Dickens.

"The personal story of not quite fitting in, of trying to work out where you belong, also appealed to me — particularly as an Italian growing up in Scotland, and then as a Scot working in England, and then as a Brit working for quite some time in America.

"It's about being partly inside and partly outside, wondering whether you are on the margins, or if you actually belong. All of those elements appealed to me."

Dev Patel working with Armando Iannucci on the set of The Personal History of David Copperfield. (Submitted by Searchlight Pictures)

Casting Dev Patel as David

"It arrived to me, quite organically, that I could only think of Dev Patel to play David. That's the only person I had in my head as someone who could pull it off. 

"We wrote David in practically every scene in the film, so whoever's playing David is on screen for two hours. He has to play slapstick comedy, drama, melodrama and romance. I needed someone with an enormous range. I needed someone who could grow from being awkward and unsure and nervous and marginalized, to someone who's acquiring confidence and bearing and skill and control — all in the space of two hours. 

It arrived to me, quite organically, that I could only think of Dev Patel to play David.

"Then I thought, that's how I must cast everyone; I must cast the best person for the part, the person who best inhabits the spirit of the character. There was no manifesto behind it. This felt like the natural and inevitable thing to do. 

"I hope it encourages other directors and producers, especially casting directors. It's been happening in theatre for the last 20 years. It's not new. It's about utilizing the talent that's out there. 

"Why would you not?"

In this image released by HBO, Tony Hale, left, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus appear in a scene from the comedy series Veep. (Lacey Terrell/HBO/The Associated Press)

The comedy in being vice-president  

"The position of vice-president is interesting in that essentially there is already a comic set-up — you are so near to power, and yet so far. 

I remember speaking to Ron Klain when we were researching for Veep. Klain, at the time, was U.S. vice-president Biden's chief of staff and is now U.S. president Biden's chief of staff. 

The position of vice-president is interesting in that essentially there is already a comic set-up — you are so near to power, and yet so far.

"At the time, he told me that the role of vice-president is a strange job, because America is all about being number one. But when you're vice-president, you're more or less going around with a badge on your lapel saying, 'Number Two.'

"He said every vice-president thinks that they could do a better job than the president they're working for. That, for me, was an inherently comic tension."

A scene from the 2017 film The Death of Stalin. (Submitted by TIFF)

Finding the funny

"We slightly telescoped the timeline, because the opening scene of The Death of Stalin happened about three or four years before Stalin died. 

"But it's true, in that there was a performance of a Mozart piano concerto. It was being broadcast live on Moscow radio from Moscow City Hall. Stalin was listening to it live, and at the end of it he called the recording studio at the concert venue and said, 'I've just been listening to it. I'd love a recording of it. I'll send someone round to pick up a recording.' 

"The chief engineer put the phone down, turned to the other engineer and said, 'Did we actually record this?' And the other engineer said, 'No, we just went out live, we didn't take a recording.'

We slightly telescoped the timeline, because the opening scene of The Death of Stalin happened about three or four years before Stalin died.

"There was an immediate panic because they thought they were going to get shot. He ran out and grabbed all the concert goers, telling them to come back in. He had to say, 'Look, Stalin wants a recording. We don't have one, so we're going to do it all again.' 

"Everyone was petrified. So much so that the conductor fainted. So now they don't have a conductor. In the film, they go out in the middle of the night and pull someone out of their bedroom — who turns up and conducts in his pyjamas and dressing gown."

Armando Iannucci's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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