TORONTO — How different was Stalin-era 1950s Russia to the Washington D.C. of “Veep”? For “Veep”-creator Armando Iannucci, there were more similarities than you might think.
In his second feature film, “The Death of Stalin,” some quite funny people (Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale) play some of the more fear-inducing names in 20th century history. When Stalin dies, it’s a mad rush for power (Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev comes running in his pajamas) and a race for the mantle of ‘reformer’ after years of purges, murders and imprisonments.
Yet the satirical ballet of hapless government strivers will be familiar to those who know Ianuncci’s other farces (“In the Loop,” ”The Thick of It”). It’s just that the consequences for losing step with the party line are a tad direr.
“If you say the wrong thing or back the wrong person, you might be out of power,” said Iannucci in an interview. “But being outside of power can mean being dead, so there’s that added tension. You don’t just retire and open up a library. You’re shot.”
“The Death of Stalin,” which opened in theaters Friday, is Iannucci’s first post-“Veep” project. He departed after the first four seasons. When it was announced in early September that the acclaimed HBO season will end with its seventh season, he applauded David Mandel for “bringing her safely home.”
But while “Death of Stalin” might be a kind of comrade to “Veep,” it also charts a different path for Iannucci. The movie, he feels, resonates particularly in the Donald Trump era, and, more than any of Iannucci’s previous work, connects insular political maneuvering with its often tragic results for the populace.
AP: This is a fairly brutal time period for a comedy.
Iannucci: I was keen to make sure of that, yes, we see these people and the decisions they make within the Kremlin, but I also wanted to show how these decisions impacted people on the outside. There’s no shying away from that. So you do see people rounded up. People are killed. People are taken away. And you never see those people again. So it was always about going inside, behind closed doors, and then going outside and seeing the effect of what’s just happened. I wanted the audience to feel a little bit of what every Russian must have felt on a daily basis: Will I get through the day?
AP: Do you think history remembers its figures too seriously and soberly? The Kremlin leaders of your film are uncouth, petty and often thoughtless.
Iannucci: They’re human. They’re not superhuman. And I think a lot of them are either deluded themselves or are persuaded by others to think that they are superhuman. When they find out that they’re human, that’s when things unravel. In ‘The Death of Stalin,’ these are people who think they’re powerful and therefore they’re in complete control. It’s fear of not having power that drives them.
AP: Where do you get your interest in the comedy of politics?
Iannucci: It affects everything you do. It’s so important. And therefore I’m fascinated with how it happens. That’s it, really. But I also want people to get that vague sense of finding out how important it is. When it goes wrong, it goes very badly wrong. We have this golden view of democracy. We think now that we’ve arrived at democracy, it’s going to stay here forever. Well, no. Get it ever so slightly wrong, just tip it a slightly different way and you end up with authoritarianism and autocracy.
AP: How do you think the Trump administration compares to your political comedies?
Iannucci: I don’t think I could ever reach the giddy heights of the inspired comedy and tragedy that’s happening now in Washington. I mean, it’s mesmerizing to watch but it’s also scary. For me, the scariest thing about it is all those people who were so absolutely opposed to him before he got elected, and then have just drifted away and kept quiet. It goes back to: We’ve always got to be vigilant about democracy because it can go wrong.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP