From his early days working with cult comedy icon Chris Morris to make cutting edge radio shows like On The Hour to creating top US comedies like Veep, Armando Iannucci has always put writing – and writers – at the centre of of his work. But how does something like The Thick of It and most recently his new film, The Death of Stalin (in cinemas October 20th) get written? And what tips does he have for aspiring comedy scriptwriters?
Q: Both The Thick of It and Veep were written using writing teams. What qualities do you look for in a team writer?
ARMANDO: To be a good team writer, you have to be a team player. So no ego. You have to be non-proprietorial about your writing. The way we work is, each writer will have an episode to take charge of, I’ll bat back and forward with that writer on the storyline, and ask them to go away and produce a script very quickly.
Quick is important because, by the time we come to shoot the episode, almost EVERYTHING in that script will have changed or been rewritten. So there’s no point being emotionally attached to your dialogue.
That’s why I say to the writers, don’t sweat at the first stage about every word and every line. Once that first draft is written, we all rotate, and everyone is doing a second draft on someone else’s script. Then we rotate again. And again.
Q: What advice would you give someone who’s just landed a job as a writer in a writing team?
“To be a good team writer, you have to be a team player. So no ego. You have to be non-proprietorial about your writing.” – Armando Iannucci
ARMANDO: The best writers seem to be the ones who can write to the house style while retaining a distinctive voice of their own. It’s funny, all the Thick of It and Veep writers can write the show, yet I can tell who’s written which bit.
I think that’s to do with the writers having confidence to be themselves and not feel they have to change their style or mask their strengths.
Particularly on a team show, there must be a lot of pressure on a writer to write not what he or she feels is funny, but what they think the Producer will find funny. I think that way madness lies.
A comedy writer can only be a good comedy writer if they write what makes them laugh, not what makes other people laugh. That’s how they grow and strengthen their distinctive voice. I want to be surprised when I read someone’s script, not sit ticking off all the things I expected from it.
Q: You’ve said before that you look for collaborators to have ‘comedy brains’ – what does this mean to you?
ARMANDO: I mean a natural flair for knowing what’s going to be funny in each situation. It’s tempting to think in any scene that if you fill it with gags and one-liners it’ll be funny. Very often that’s not the case; that the scene becomes funnier the less is said.
It’s a very confident writer who knows when to prune back their material and not force the comedy with over-written dialogue. And a good writer will come up with a situation that’s so good for the characters we don’t need too much dialogue.
One of the scenes people remember most from In The Loop is when James Gandolfini as a Pentagon General is working out troop numbers sitting in a kid’s bedroom using a plastic noisy toy.
Jesse Armstrong wrote that scene in the very first draft and it stayed in all through the thirty or so rewrites, untouched. Because it was simple, focused, visually strong. Instantly funny.
Q: In what situations do you encourage actors to improvise and why? What tips would you pass on to ensure improv works for all involved?
ARMANDO: The right time to improvise is when the actors say ‘Why should we improvise: the script is good’?’ Improvising isn’t there to improve the script: it’s there to bring it out. It’s really a form of dirtying up the dialogue, making it feel more natural and real.
Often, what comes out are all the words on the page, but in a completely different order. And if that’s funnier, that’s what we’ll go with. Again, the writer needs to feel non-proprietorial about the dialogue, and not feel hurt if it changes as we rehearse.
Once we rehearse, I feel everything, costume, decor, script, is now at the mercy of the finished scene and what will make that scene as good as can be. So everything is up for grabs. But really, we couldn’t venture any improv if we didn’t have the safety net of a good script we’re all happy with to catch us.
“A good writer will come up with a situation that’s so good for the characters we don’t need too much dialogue.” – Armando Iannucci
Q: You’ve said that new ideas strike when you’re doing something else creative – like reading someone else’s book or watching a movie. What’s the last idea you had and what were you doing at the time?
ARMANDO: Well, just before Christmas, my wife showed myself and my children a furry dog toy with a Santa hat, which, if you pressed its paw, sang White Christmas while its lips moved.
It rather instantly gave me a movie idea about machines and people…but I can’t tell you any more about it just now. It’s still in the early secret stages.
Q David Quantick describes writing on Veep as “like working in a grenade factory where there’s no conveyor belt and you have to catch the grenades as they come at you.” What’s it like to work for you? Are you the one lobbing the grenades?
ARMANDO: We tend to rewrite all the time, on set, and as we shoot. So I always have at least two writers on set and, since we film Veep in Baltimore, maybe two more in the UK on US East Coast time standing by.
I’m not sure about grenades, but very often I’ll send out notes asking for three or four alternatives to a line we’re going to shoot in an hour. So it can be nerve-wracking.
On the plus side, ever since starting The Thick Of It, I’ve really appreciated having writers around to drive the show along, and have always asked my productions to treat the writers like they were cast.
So they get trailers and everything, even a car to bring them in. I hate hearing stories of writers being badly treated or ignored: they’re the key to the whole thing.
Armando Iannucci’s new film The Death of Stalin staring Rupert Friend, Steve Buscemi and Jason Isaacs opens on October 19, 2017.