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The War of the Words: In the Loop

Learn how to eviscerate people like an angry Scotsman in Armando Iannucci's scathing In the Loop. A hilarious satire of politics and spin doctors on both sides of the pond (including James Gandolfini), we talk with the director about how to sneak into the State Department. (First step? A BBC fake ID.)

America: you may not want to let (genius) Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci into your country so easily. While doing research in Washington, DC, for his brilliant new comedy In the Loop, using a BBC badge that looks like a ten-year-old cooked it up on Photoshop—his picture on one side, a green and purple BBC logo on the other—Iannucci was easily able to enter the State Department and say, "I'm here for the 12:30."

In fact, he got quite a bit of access, and it served him well: In the Loop is one of the most refreshing pieces of pure, cutting satire seen in quite some time. It's a potential cult classic (if that can still happen these days), a potential comedy touchstone, and certainly one of the best pictures of the year. It's that good.

A sort-of continuation of Iannucci's BBC show The Thick of It, In the Loop keeps a central character, angry Scotsman Malcolm Tucker (the magnificent Peter Capaldi), the Prime Minister's Director of Communications (generally regarded as a riff on Alistair Campell, who held the same position for Tony Blair). Tucker's day starts off with a blow when British Minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) says, in an interview, that "war is unforseeable," and the events avalanche from there—Tucker, Foster, Foster's new aide Toby Wright (Chris Addison) end up in America as potential "meat puppets" to State Department doves, Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) and General Miller (James Gandolfini) and their multiple obsequious, super-youthful aides, gamely led by Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky).

Iannucci, who is probably best known for working with Steve Coogan on his "Alan Partridge" character, has been crisscrossing America for the past couple of months, traveling from town to town as In the Loop has hit up film festivals from San Francisco to Tribeca, receiving raves everywhere it goes. We sat down with him in the offices of IFC:

Is it true that you have a mysterious "Swear Doctor" for your scripts?

Armando Iannucci: This guy, Ian Martin, who's listed in the credits as additional dialogue, and he's been known as the "Swearing Consultant." That sort of does him a disservice because he does a little polish of the script when we're done, and he's very good at coming up with unusual phrases, unexpected little phrases. He seems to specialize in giving Malcolm increasingly elaborate—it's swearing couched in threats of physical violence, I think that's what it is. Because swearing by itself is a little dull, so you have to make it interesting by the language that goes around it. So that's Ian Martin, our Swearing Consultant.

We also did some swearing research when I was out in Washington researching the film, I established that there's very little swearing at the State Department but lots of swearing at the Pentagon. So that's how we set the characters.

When I talked with Anna Chlumsky, she said that you were sneaking into the State Department in DC!

AI: This is when I was doing my research. I have my BBC pass [reaches into his Independent Film Festival of Boston messenger bag to get it]. I said, I'd love to get in the State Department just to see what it's like, and the journalist said, just go up, show them your BBC pass and say, BBC, I'm here for the 12:30. 

[His pass is, like stated above, hilariously shoddy and simple, just his photo on one side and a pasted-on BBC logo. We laugh.]

It's just—a child could've done it on the computer. There's no serial number, no nothing. It was just myself and my assistant, we both went up and said BBC, 12:30, and we got in, and I thought someone would escort us to the 12:30 but no. So we're in the building thinking, let's just go take a wander, really, and then I thought, let's take some photos because I want to go back to the art department and say it's a bit like this. And I'm thinking, surely this is illegal, this international espionage, and then this guy came up to us and said, Excuse me? And I said, I'm here for the 12:30 and he went, It's over there. So we went to the 12:30. It was very dull. It was a press conference.

And I couldn't believe it! I thought, don't you have a homeland security department that's supposed to stop this from happening?

I know someone who had to kayak around a harbor for the sake of a Homeland Security contract. Par for the course! So, when it comes to In the Loop, this is a quasi-adaption of your show The Thick of It. How did that come about?

AI: I wanted that character of Malcolm Tucker [for a film] and I thought we should let it start fresh on its own. I knew I wanted an international flavor and I'd need a new department and a new Minister. It was two things: I always wanted to do a funny film and a fast-moving, fast-talking film, and I wanted to wait for the right story. The more I read about the whole events leading up to the [Iraq] invasion, I thought, well either you're just going to scream at how dysfunctional this is or else you think—that is a farce.

That is the story, that's the story I want to tell, and not just about the power politics going on in Washington but about the use of the Brits and their involvement in it. And they're going out, thinking they're going to stop things from happening, but in fact they're being used and making things happen quicker. I thought, there's your story! And then The Thick of It, there's the style (fast-paced, documentary-esque, the anti-West Wing), and I instantly knew what it was going to be like. 

The process happened quickly—from just a description to some finance people, from that meeting to handing the finished product over, it was twelve months. To the extent that we never did test screenings. The first public screening I attended of the film was at Sundance, and I was just thinking, will they laugh? I hope they laugh.


Are you always collaborative with your comedy?

AI: I like working with different writers, different writers and different performers who can improvise or who can also write. I just find that process throws up stuff that will always surprise you. If you were sitting down on your own, you wouldn't come up with some of the stuff. It also means you can work quite quickly, and there's a sort of energy in the room that I think translates to the shoot.

What kind of energy did you have shooting on set?

AI: People love the process, but it's quite exhausting, because we don't have these great big long pauses where we're relighting. It means that the day is pretty full and pretty non-stop. For something like this, in the world of politics, people are tired, they haven't had the chance to think, they don't know what they're saying and they are making up things as they go along because they're under pressure. There's a deadness behind the eyes. There's a panic. I think in reality, we all had that going on set since we were all that tired. I think it lends itself to the story we wanted to tell.

How did James Gandolfini get involved?

AI: He loved The Thick of It, and I had been talking to HBO about doing something and we had conversations about a completely different project. As we were writing In the Loop and the character of General Miller came up I thought, What's the worst that can happen? We sent him the script. He's very genial and shy and very funny. He's a funny guy and has a funny visual sense of comedy timing and his delivery is great, very deadpan. He went off to the Pentagon for a couple of days and did research there. He was telling me, he's a big W.C. Fields fan, and then you realize that for an actor to be associated with one role—it's great, but you forget he's an actor and can do all sorts of things! He and Mimi Kennedy went off together and figured out what their relationship was for the past 30 years.

How do you approach writing and putting comedy together? What's your technique? This film, in particular, it's all words

AI: The script is very consciously, although we bury it under the reality and stuff, a screwball comedy. That's the structure I was looking for, it's a farce. I knew the last twenty minutes was going to be in the United Nations and people were running into this room and out of that room—

Right, all those Malcolm scenes, he's running everywhere.

AI: And it's for no reason! He's running down the corridor.

How does Peter Capaldi get amped up to play him?

AI: When it comes close to his scenes, he quietly detaches himself from the rest of the cast, because he doesn't want to be friends with them anymore, and he wants to just have comtempt for them. He goes away and eats by himself and learns his lines. I think he's got his iPod on and I don't know what he's playing but it's something just to pump him up a bit.

Like when Daniel Day-Lewis was playing Eminem (on the set of Gangs of New York) in order to play Bill the Butcher--

AI: Right! They should get these sort of method actors' music selections out as CDs.

I presume whatever Peter was listening to would be similar to whatever Jeremy Piven would use to play Ari Gold on Entourage. He's so good, but the rest of the show

AI: I'm not that interested in the rest of them. If you analyze the lines, they're all so dull. The comedy comes from Ari.

When did you find out that you were funny?

AI: I was always interested in comedy, and when I was a kid I used to listen to a lot of comedy albums and radio comedy and stuff. A bit of Peter Cook, Rowan Atkinson, Monty Python, A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I've always been really interested in that ability—and comedy worlds, not just lines, to imagine that sort of surreal, that ability to take you somewhere else, I've just always loved. And comedy films like Airplane, Spinal Tap, and Woody Allen. Just sitting in a theatre laughing. It's nice to see it with other people.

What are you up to next?

AI: I've just shot another series of The Thick of It (for the BBC). Eight episodes. And I've starting thinking about another film, I want to do a slapstick comedy. I want to do a funny, lots of visual gags. I'm a big fan of Buster Keaton. And that thing of doing jokes that have stunts in them and are funny and don't use special effects, I really like that.


In the Loop
is released this Friday. Click here for ticket information. Cast members Zach Woods and Anna Chlumsky are due to appear at selected New York screenings this weekend.

It's also available via Video On Demand.

Enter to win tickets to a NYC screening!


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