SWF2009 Part 3: Iannucci and Loader

22/11/2009

This is part 3 of the Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival series.

Writer-director Armando Iannucci and producer/Festival Chairman Kevin Loader talk about the script development and filming process of In the Loop.

In the Loop is written by:
Armando Iannucci
Jesse Armstrong
Simon Blackwell
Tony Roche
Ian Martin (the swearing consultant)

“Well, his briefing notes were written in alphabetti spaghetti. When I left, I nearly tripped up over his fucking umbilical cord.”  (Malcolm Tucker)

The story was born out of the real-life dysfunction that haunts politicians and government offices on both sides of the pond. The middle-management type of life behind the scenes where everything is done in silence and without questions, the serious flaws in internal communication, or the incident with Jack Straw who said in an interview that the invasion of Iran is “inconceivable”, or how politicians return from a big international meeting to deal with something trivial (like a wall). Iannucci spent time in Washington and in the White House, where he sneaked in with a random ID card pretending to attend a meeting. He met politicians and journalists, asking “boring” questions like what hours they worked, what they think about their colleagues, etc. He wanted to create a realistic image of Washington, not a glamorous one. Those nice-looking buildings all hold hundreds of people sitting at desks and not communicating with each other. He saw young people in their 20s with degrees in terrorism studies, and there was a 22-year-old who had written the constitution of Iran.There are people hanging behind doors in case some big shot might invite them to a meeting. Secret meetings have boring names and everyone who wants to be important shows up. And whatever happens – you don’t leave a meeting – when you leave a meeting you’re leaving power. It’s also braver to do the wrong thing (braver not to resign after a blunder) because everyone expects you to do the right thing (and resign). There are parallels with British film-makers visiting Hollywood – where everyone smiles and praises you, but nothing ever happens, and you leave feeling used and soiled.

“The script gives safety, improvisation is liberating.”
(Iannucci)

The feature film was develop in a similar method as the TV comedy series The Thick of It. Although the film was to be improvised, a storyline had to be written down on paper for development purposes – for locations, casting, etc.  Also, the American actors wanted to see what they were committing themselves to. There had to be a physical document that people could work with, not just an abstract conversation. Iannucci and three other writers came up with a storyline between 20-30 pages, followed by a process of adding and cutting back, adding and cutting back, followed by defining the character by going over each character’s story. After casting had been completed they started adding details to the script and characters. There were constant rewrites – constant building and cutting back, and trying to nail the lines. There were workshops with the British actors in order to make the dialogue more realistic, the discussion feel more chaotic and not carefully thought through, to create three-dimensional characters, and perform the whole story without the script. This would help see the relationships between the characters, not just the words on the paper, and come up with new ideas. Scenes would get rewritten based on the improvisations.

They shot around 25 pages a day. There was a lot of dialogue and little time to learn it by heart, but when the camera was rolling the actors had to say something. They would film a take using the script and another one improvised. Some actors felt uncomfortable but they always had a script to fall back on. Through improvisation some trivial element in the story would become bigger – like using the toy calculator in the scene where Lt. Gen. Miller (James Gandolfini) and Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) discussed war in some kid’s bedroom. The story would be clarified during editing and they would go back to film what looked interesting and engaging.

There were a lot of scenes that were left out, come of them because they were too self-contained – they stop the story and the rhythm and make the story less funny. They had set out to make a fast, dialogue-driven screwball comedy with lots of characters and an immediate, messy urgency that won’t let go till the end. They didn’t want to tell the audience what to think but let them judge it by themselves.

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Follow Armando Iannucci on Twitter.

Jeff Goldsmith interviews co-writer/director Armando Iannucci and co-stars Peter Capaldi and Mimi Kennedy about In The Loop in the Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcast

Have a look at other notes from the Screenwriters Festival:
Part 1: Chris Jones and Doug Chamberlain
Part 2: Making a Living as a Writer
Part 4: Screenwriter as Diplomat with Simon Beaufoy

Cheltenham Screenwriters Festival website

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