Balding and unprepossessing, wearing a dress shirt and slacks over a pair of sandals, Armando Iannucci looks like he could be a teacher on sabbatical – an art professor, perhaps, or someone who teaches literature, in New York from London on holiday.
In fact, he’s one of England’s brightest TV-comedy lights. Iannucci was one of the talents behind a string of popular TV comedy series, including Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge efforts and “The Thick of It,” a dazzlingly sharp-edged show about political appointees who spent every day trying to salvage their own jobs.
Now he’s directed and co-written “In the Loop,” a film that positively vibrated with Sundance buzz last January – and which reaches New York theaters Friday (after a successful London run in April). A spin-off from the world of “The Thick of It,” “In the Loop” overlaps a couple of characters but focuses on a new protagonist: a nondescript cabinet minister who accidentally triggers war talk as England and the U.S. are gearing up for a Middle East incursion.
The most visible link to “The Thick of It” is Malcolm Tucker, a scabrously insulting fix-it man for England’s prime minister, played with obscenity-spewing vigor by Peter Capaldi. Tucker may just be the character of the summer, with his vicious sense of spin: “You may have heard him say that but he did not say that – and that’s a fact,” he barks to a reporter on the phone, before threatening to expose his affair to his wife.
“I didn’t want to make an extended TV show, although I thought that character had potential,” Iannucci says, sitting in a conference room in the offices of IFC, the film’s distributor. “I wanted it to have a life of its own. I didn’t want the audience to think they had to see the TV show first. So we had a new set of characters and were forced to start from scratch.”
While trying to find a topic for his first film, Iannucci was also reading the various books about the planning – or lack thereof – in the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and England’s signing-on for regime change in Iraq.
“Either you throw your hands up in despair or you laugh because it’s so farcical,” he says. “I realized that was the story I wanted to tell. Comedy was the most incisive way to do it. I don’t think it denigrates the topic; it allows you to explore it from unexpected angles. I wanted to take that style and apply it to an international story.”
Working with a coterie of cowriters, Iannucci shaped the script, then brought in the actors to rehearse, allowing them to improvise and rewriting to include the best lines. Still more improv was encouraged during filming – and, again, the best material made it into the finished film.
“The final film was about 85 percent script,” he says. “I like when you can’t tell. People will quote their favorite lines to me and, while sometimes they’re lines from the script, other times they were a spur-of-the-moment thing.”
Working on a minimal budget, Iannucci used his TV experience to get a run-and-gun feel to the material as he shot: “TV works fast and I worked fast on this,” he says. “We shot it in 5 weeks. It was 12 months from start to finish, beginning with the writing. I like that. A film like this needs to feed off an energy. We don’t spend much time on a scene, maybe three or tour takes.”
Iannucci rounded up British financing, staying away from offers of American funds so that he could make the movie he wanted to. Even then, he wasn’t quite sure what he had until he took it to Sundance in January.
“I genuinely came to Sundance not knowing whether it would just quietly go away,” he says. “The very first public screening I went to was at Sundance. That was a lot of pressure. I was so relieved when they laughed. I didn’t know what to expect. There was no plan. At that stage, I felt happy that it was the film I wanted to make. Obviously, we wanted as many people as possible to see it. But I had no thoughts beyond finishing the film.”
Iannucci, 45, had his comic sensibility shaped as a youngster by radio comedy and satirists: “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “Beyond the Fringe,” “That Was The Week That Was,” Woody Allen films, gag films like “Airplane.” He believes that Brits have a greater comedic taste for losers than Americans do.
“Maybe the British sensibility is more cynical,” he says. “We enjoy the depiction of failure. Great figures like Basil Fawlty are slightly broken individuals. Or Alan Partridge: He’s fundamentally a failed man. In American sit-coms, characters tend to be quite successful. Seinfeld is successful comedian, Fraser is successful as a therapist, Cheers is a successful bar. ‘The West Wing’ is full of good-looking, intellectual people. I don’t know what that says. Maybe it’s that we in the United Kingdom don’t expect things to go well. If we depicted a progressive politician who is successful, people would laugh at us.”