“The Death of Stalin,” the latest film from “Veep” and “In the Loop” helmer Armando Iannucci, wasn’t deliberately created to uncannily evoke the current political atmosphere under President Donald Trump—it’s far more timeless than that. “That story never goes away: the struggle for succession,” says the acclaimed writer-director. “You get it in Shakespeare’s history plays and in ‘Game of Thrones’ and in ‘The Godfather.’ ”
The pitch-black comedy, adapted from a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, dives into the chaos following Stalin’s sudden death in 1953 after 30 years of iron-fisted rule. It’s a take both expansive—the film’s squabbling bureaucrats are making decisions that affect the lives of millions—and intimate, examining the interpersonal relationships of the members of the Soviet Central Committee and their struggle to succeed one of the most brutal dictators in modern history.
Iannucci, who’s best known in the United States as the Emmy-winning creator and writer of “Veep,” has gained the most acclaim for his politically tinged work. But that doesn’t mean he requires his actors to come in with hot takes on current topics. “I’m not looking for any kind of political knowledge. I’m looking for realism. So in the audition process, at the end of a scene, I say, ‘Let’s put the papers down and just stay in character, and let’s talk. Don’t worry about trying to be funny or trying to come up with some new fantastic, amazing, funny speech. We’ve got writers who will do that for you.’ I just want to see that they are comfortable in the skin of the character despite what’s thrown at them.”
Another thing that sets an actor up for success in his audition room? Adaptability. “I encourage everyone to change the lines slightly just so that it doesn’t look rehearsed, and it doesn’t look like everyone’s [just] following each other’s cues beautifully. I’d rather people mix it up slightly.” In fact, says Iannucci, “The people I end up working with tend to have a history of doing improv, where they acquire that ability to think beyond the line of the page.” That holds true for much of “Stalin” ’s stellar ensemble, which includes Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, Andrea Riseborough, Simon Russell Beale, and Michael Palin.
Irreverent, cringe-inducing, and truly hilarious, the film is also terrifying. The high-stakes absurdity of fear is transmitted by a fixation on the tiniest details—Stalin’s magnificent, bare dacha with a cot in the corner of his office, the serried ranks of medals on Zhukov’s (Isaacs) uniform—underscored by the sort of comedy that makes you laugh until you cry.
It’s a delicate balancing act, and in other hands would risk tipping into pure farce. But Iannucci’s trust in his cast means that he allows them into the process as early as possible, so that the film is informed by collective feedback.
“I like to cast early, so while we’re doing rewrites we’re writing knowing who’s actually going to be performing the part. Then we rehearse for a couple of weeks ahead of the shoot, and that’s a way of figuring out how they all work together. I remember Steve Buscemi saying that he found that process really beautiful, not just for him to work out his arc but also everyone else’s at the same time. We do a lot of blocking, especially for big ensembles, and I encourage a little bit of improvisation, just to see what else might come out.”
Iannucci is also a fan of the physical comedy of silent film stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, whose great visual gags contained nuggets of information about the story itself. “It’s important that in every scene, you’ve thought of every moment: Is it leading to something funny, is it developing something funny, or is it funny in itself? Very often, the line that contains information can feel very bald and raw and just there to reveal an element of the story. I always try to bury that moment in something funny going on at the same time, so that you’re subliminally taking in the new information but it doesn’t feel like you’re obviously told by the storyteller what the next crucial thing is you need to know.”
Sometimes, though, the most powerful moments come from throwing your tried-and-trusted process out the window—like in the shocking finale in “The Death of Stalin.” “That ending is one where we didn’t rehearse it at all. I said, ‘Just get it done in two minutes, doesn’t matter if you trip up over your lines or talk over each other, just get it done.’ I wanted it to be completely anarchic and undignified, with that raw, unprepared, no-one-quite-knows-what’s-going-to-happen-next kind of energy. That first take, a lot of that is what you see in the film. It genuinely was a brutal moment in the shoot.”
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