Armando Iannucci, creator of the hit UK series 'The Thick of It' and the Academy AwardŽ Nominated 'In the Loop' talks to HBO.com about his new series.
You've had a lot of success with comedies about British politics. Why did you decide to cross the pond?
I've always been fascinated by American politics. I'm a bit of a political junkie. In the UK I would always stay up late to watch American election returns. And my inclination is to go for: What's the funny side of it? So the idea of doing a comedy set behind the scenes of the political process leapt out at me.
It's a comedy about a Vice President, but Selina Meyer is no fool.
She's had a career in the Senate. She's won elections. She's been in DC politics for twenty years. When she ran for president herself, she did reasonably well in the primaries - came in third or fourth. She wasn't one of the obscure ones to drop out after New Hampshire.
Simon Blackwell and I wanted a female Vice President because we felt it would take us away from being a critique of Cheney or Biden or Gore. Of course then people say: Well is it Hillary Clinton or is it Sarah Palin? We say, "No, it's Selina Meyer."
We needed someone to play her who was not only a terrific comedic actor but had a force and charisma of her own. HBO suggested meeting Julia. I'd been a big fan of hers from 'Seinfeld.' And her experience prior to that was from Second City in Chicago, doing improv. A half hour meeting turned into three hours discussing every aspect of American politics and coming up with fresh ideas of what Selina was like.
What was the rest of the casting process like?
It was a long process. I would workshop with actors and ask them to stay in character and I would chat with them and ask them questions. And then when we narrowed it down, Julia as Selina would improvise with them. It was a whole theatrical installation and performance piece by the end. We needed to see that they would be comfortable in the ensemble method we have and wouldn't feel nervous or restricted. It was a constant sifting down. And along the way we met actors we really liked and we've gone and written guest parts for since we so enjoyed them.
So how much of the show is improvised?
It's not overwhelming. For the nine of ten takes we shoot, there are one or two that I'd say are loosened up. I encourage them to say the lines again but slightly over each other so it sounds more conversational, or they throw in extra lines, or when we get to the end of the scene I don't say "cut." We keep going to see what else emerges. But it doesn't take up a vast proportion of the time.
You shoot in a documentary style. How important is that?
We wanted to feel subliminally like we're eavesdropping on something real. And for the cast to not feel inhibited, we are handheld and radio mic'ed so they can wander in and out and not have to hit any marks. It also allows for speed of shooting. We get through up to 20 pages a day which is quite high. We have scripts that tend to be a lot longer than the traditional thirty-minute script. It's not until I get into the edit that I know what the moments are that really work so I always shoot more than we need.
There are certain industries that are hard to satirize since they are already so absurd - is politics one of them?
Well, we'll see! What I didn't want to do was satirize political views. I wanted to look at the political process and see why there's so much dissatisfaction and frustration with it. There's so much power there and so many people and so much talent, yet so little seems to be done. And that strikes me as both appalling and hilarious at the same time; if you don't cry in sheer frustration, you have to laugh out of hysteria. That's what interests me. Also, any big corporate structure - people looking like they know what they're doing, who have all this power and influence, and then you realize that they don't know what to do with it. I think that's the shocking thing, really.
I've found that in American politics, a lot of people do have real power but they pretend they don't because they don't want to be found out.
And something we all recognize...
Absolutely. Whatever you do, you're always a little bit scared of being found out. But at least we're blessed with the fact that what we do isn't so publically noticeable. I have some sympathy for politicians in that we do put them under enormous pressure. The fact that there's now a 24-hour media, and that anything we say and do can be recorded on someone's phone does mean that we put them in a practically impossible position.
Did you find anything different between American and British politics?
In Britain a lot of politicians - unless they're right at the very top - don't have much power, so they spend a lot of time trying to sound as if they do. I've found that in American politics, a lot of people do have real power but they pretend they don't because they don't want to be found out.
Did you spend a lot of time observing here?
Yes, over a number of years. I did my film ['In the Loop'] three years ago and did a lot of observing for that, but that was mostly the State Department and the Pentagon and a bit the CIA. This time I came with Simon Blackwell and we went round the Senate, the House and the Vice President's Office and West Wing. We met up with Washington journalists, bloggers, analysts, commentators, staffers, juniors - the whole range really.
Sounds like you had a lot of access.
People were more than willing to show us around. There's a lot of gossip in DC. People are very eager to talk to outsiders and to offload their stories and frustrations. It was interesting how easy it was to get stuff out of people. I hope they stay helpful, that we haven't put them off!