BEHIND THE CURTAIN: Iannucci has been able to apply what he learned in Great Britain to getting laughs out of the American political system.
When director Armando Iannucci learned that the biting half-hour political sitcom he’d created, Veep, had been picked up for series by HBO, he decided the first order of business was to re-shoot the beginning of the pilot. That’s because Iannucci, who has spent much of his career directing and writing satires about the inner workings of British government, believes authenticity is the surest generator of laughs. Therefore, if the audience were to buy Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, the first female vice president of the United States, he had to make sure that his star and the rest of Veep’s cast who play Meyer’s hilariously frazzled staff had to look realistically wrung out by the rigors of their jobs.
“On day one everyone is very fresh and enthusiastic and full of energy,” says Iannucci of the usual production process on a series. “By the end of the shoot everyone is a bit tired and crotchety; they look a bit weary. But they’ve also grown into their characters. At the start of episode one I want to feel that these people lived with each other and have been through days like that many, many times before. So you’re not joining them on day one of their professional lives. You’re joining them on day 501 of their professional lives.”
On the face of it, Iannucci, who was born in Glasgow, Scotland, lives in London, and is a mainstay of the BBC, seems an unlikely choice for finding laughs in the American political system. As it happens, though, Veep is Iannucci’s second project pulling back the curtain on the executive branch of the U.S. government. The first was In the Loop, a feature-length political satire set in the world of spin doctors, mid-level power brokers and their perspiring underlings in both London and Washington, D.C., which Iannucci directed and co-wrote in 2009. Back then, Iannucci, who was unknown on these shores, employed a bit of guerrilla ingenuity so he could research how the sets would look. In order to gain entrance to the State Department he flashed his BBC press pass, mumbled something to the security staff about a 12:30 appointment and then spent more than an hour wandering the federal executive building documenting the interiors with his camera. “I thought at one point perhaps we’d be arrested,” says Iannucci, who then shared his photographs with the In the Loop set design team and, when the film came out, his story with the press, leading to a full review of White House security. “I think Hillary Clinton is a lot safer today as a result,” he says only half-joking.
Because of the imprimatur of HBO, pre-production on Veep took a very different course. “We got a lot of access and cooperation,” says Iannucci, who was not only given a full tour of the State Department, Pentagon, the West Wing, and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office, he and his team were taken into Vice President Joe Biden’s light-filled, pastel-hued office suite and were given permission to record exact measurement so it could be replicated for the fictional vice president of Veep.
Iannucci’s meticulous approach toward creating true-to-life sets makes sense when you consider some of the hallmarks of his direction. Back in 2005, when he began creating The Thick of It, his award-winning BBC comedy series about political crisis management, Iannucci had a brainstorm regarding a budget-conscious way to capture the chaotic, dread-filled existence of a sad-faced mid-level government functionary. To save money on locations, he rented a set of offices in West London once owned by Guinness and turned it into a mini-studio of sorts. Whenever he yelled, “Action!” he directed a pair of handheld camera operators to follow a sprawling ensemble of actors outfitted with wireless mics who’d been instructed to improvise both dialogue and movement through a warren of rooms, all of them dressed and lit.
SECOND IN COMMAND: Iannucci, directing Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the first female vice president in Veep, believes even in comedy you have to go for authenticity.
Iannucci, who loves jump cuts, overlapping dialogue, and cites the groundbreaking ’90s sitcom The Larry Sanders Show as one of his chief influences, remembers the moment when his loose, messy and eerily realistic directing style began to coalesce. “When we were cutting the first episode [of The Thick of It] the editor first did an audio cut without looking at the pictures. If the dialogue sounded continuous, somehow your —even though it sees jump cuts—doesn’t notice them,” he explains.
The Thick of It was so successful that the following year the BBC sold the series as a format to ABC, but Iannucci found himself frozen out of the process. “I was such a tiny, tiny cog off to one side, not really referred to and had no say in anything,” he says. The pilot never saw the light of day, and Iannucci used his demoralizing Hollywood experience as inspiration for In the Loop, a film that is as much about ineffectual politicians as it is the story of a group of overly confident Brits being blindsided by their American counterparts. “[In the Loop] is a sort of happy ending to that saga, really,” says Iannucci. His bittersweet directorial advice to the British cast when shooting scenes set in Washington, D.C.: “Remember the first meetings you had in L.A. and how excited you were—and then how nothing came of them.”
His misadventures with American network television also taught him that his brand of comedy would be a better fit with a cable channel like HBO. “What we all agreed is that we didn’t want to make [Veep] feel like a glossy drama—we wanted it to feel like we’re kind of eavesdropping on something we’re not meant to be seeing,” says Iannucci, who films much of the series in a warehouse just outside of Baltimore in his signature fashion: two handheld cameras, lots of improvised dialogue and minimal blocking.
“I may say, ‘You go over there, and you go over there,’ but not in any great detail,” says Iannucci. “We kind of walk it through just so the cameras have a vague idea where [the action] is going and give the actors a chance to run their lines.” Iannucci gauged an auditioner’s ease with ad-libs during the casting process by asking that he or she toss aside the script, but stay in character. “I’d say, ‘I’m going to fire some questions at you. I’m not expecting you to be funny and come up with fantastic one-liners. I just want you to be comfortable stepping off the page.”
If Veep producer and resident D.C. expert, and former New York Times theater critic, Frank Rich, was in the audition room, a different kind of mettle was additionally tested. “An actor would walk in and say, [cheerfully] ‘Hiiiiii!’ Then someone would say, ‘And this is Frank Rich,’ and you could see that look on their faces of [in a terrified voice] ‘Oh my.’ But, in fact, he’s a very genial guy,” says Iannucci.
Back in August, HBO announced a second season 10-episode pickup for Veep, which meant as Iannucci wrapped his fourth and final season of The Thick of It (available in its original and gloriously expletive-filled version on Hulu), he was simultaneously prepping for new episodes of Veep. The experience gave him a chance to contemplate how politics is treated on different shores. “I think politicians get a gentler ride in the U.S.; I don’t feel they’re too harangued,” says Iannucci with a laugh. “[In the U.K.] we go for the jugular.”