Following The Soviet Dictator's Last Days
Cast: Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko
Director: Armando Iannucci
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 106 minutes
Synopsis: The internal political landscape of 1950's Soviet Russia takes on darkly comic form in a new film by Emmy award-winning and Oscar-nominated writer/director Armando Iannucci. On the night of March the 2nd 1953, a man is dying. A terrible stroke is wracking his entire body. He is drooling. He is pissing himself. He is about to kick the bucket and if you play your cards right, his job is yours for the taking. The man is Joseph Stalin - dictator, tyrant, butcher, as well as Secretary General of the USSR. The Death of Stalin is a satire about the days before the funerals of the Nation's Father. Days that shine a sardonic light on all the madness, depravity and inhumanity of totalitarianism. Days that will see the men surrounding him fight to inherit his supreme power. And it's all based on true events.
A film that combines comedy, drama, pathos and political manoeuvring, The Death of Stalin is a Quad, Main Journey and Gaumont production, directed by Armando Iannucci, and produced by Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun, Nicolas Duval Assakovsky and Kevin Loader.
The Death of Stalin
About The Production
When Joseph Stalin, the man who had ruled over the Soviet Union for 33 years, had a stroke on 2nd March, 1953, there began a fierce fight for succession amongst his subordinates. They were desperate to manoeuvre themselves into prime position and ensure their rivals were disposed of before the great leader died and his successor was named. It was a two-day scramble for power that would see grown men overcome by madness, craven self-interest and base inhumanity.
These incredible but true events provided the inspiration for the graphic novels 'The Death Of Stalin" and its follow-up 'Volume 2 - The Funeral' by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. It was French producers Yann Zenou and Laurent Zeitoun who, having bought the rights to the two graphic novels, had the smart idea of approaching Armando Iannucci, the writer-director behind the biting television series 'The Thick of It" and its Academy Award-nominated film In the Loop, which dissect the workings of British politics, and award-winning US political satire 'Veep" about a fictional US vice-president and her staff.
'When we discovered Fabien Nury's comics in 2013, we were struck by the originality of the story, and its potential to make a unique film. A question immediately arose: who would be able to direct such a film? Succeeding in making a comedy based on one of the darkest periods and characters in our history? Just one name came to mind: Armando Iannucci. We have been fans of his work since 'The Thick of it", and it was obvious to us that he alone could manage this particular tone. And so we approached him, very classically, via his manager, with a first screenplay and a letter. We were lucky enough to receive a favorable response. Armando wanted to make a movie about dictatorship. He was in the middle of shooting 'Veep" and asked is if we could wait a year. Obviously we said yes. To tell the truth, we wouldn't have made the film without him" says Yann Zenou.
' In one way Stalin is a perfect subject for his concerns. The idea that this man who, in collaboration with the Politburo, had unleashed terror on the Soviet Union for at least a generation, had a stroke and was incapacitated for a time while everyone started jostling for position feels like the stuff of fiction, but is absolutely true. And the brutalities that followed were very typical of the Soviet system at the time and, again, were absolutely true. It always felt like a political universe that Armando and his writing colleagues, David Schneider and Ian Martin, would respond to." says Kevin Loader of Free Range Films, who produced In the Loop.
Co-writer David Schneider concurs: 'It was fascinating for us; it's a European story so it's not an alien culture," he says. 'It's a culture that we recognise, but that's been totally warped. It's comic but bleak. We haven't tried to force any comedy into it, we've just tried to let the comedy rise out of the situation. What's interesting to me is that it's about a group of people who have grown up together but have the ultimate power of life and death over other people.
'If we've done this right,' he continues, 'you should feel that these are interesting guys who might be fun to hang around with. Then you remember they are mass murderers and that's the challenge – they are obviously nasty pieces of work, but at the same time there's something engaging about even the worst of them."
Iannucci, Schneider and Martin were keenly aware of the fine balancing act in making a film that combined the absurd humour that is part of the world of a dictator with the unspeakable brutality on which Stalinist totalitarianism depended: as Iannucci explains, 'I set out to make a tragi-comedy, in that there is comedy throughout and there is tragedy throughout and often the two are in a scene simultaneously, because that's what it was like. We researched Moscow in the 40s and 50s and it was a horrendous time: everyone knew someone who had been sent off to the gulag or been shot. To cope with that there were joke books in circulation about Stalin and Beria. They were very popular but you would be shot if you were found with one. It's that strange mixture of being so tense and frightening that it actually becomes strangely funny, in a slightly hysterical way. The intention was to make the film funny but to make you feel unnerved."
'A lot of comedy is tense," Armando says. 'Farce, for example, is tense and slightly anxiety inducing. 'Fawlty Towers" is tense and horrifically embarrassing. Quite a lot of the comedy in the first half of The Death of Stalin is driven by panic; it's about people not knowing what to do or say and having to come up with quick responses and hoping they're the right ones otherwise they might not live to see the morning."
For Iannucci, the challenge was making sure the film could still be funny in the context of where it is set and to show what is happening beyond the enclosed world the story inhabits. 'All the characters are brutal and thuggish, but you warm to some even while loathing others," says Iannucci. 'So I wanted the audience to be reminded that these characters' actions and decisions had devastating consequences for the people. I knew we had to be enormously respectful of the fact that millions were killed or disappeared and that's not something you can shirk or explain in a joke; you have to deliberately recognise that at all stages in the film."
It was Stalin's security forces, the NKVD, The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, who acted on his orders, rounding up people every night, starting with common criminals, and then bringing in a quota system which set out the number of victims in any given region. With pressure mounting to keep up the quotas and running out of victims, a simple tip off from an anonymous informer could bring arrest and imprisonment, or worse - evidence was not considered essential.
Eventually the repression became more industrial and gulags and labour camps were set up where slave labour was used to develop the industrialization of the Soviet Union.
'When they announced Stalin had died, a lot of people - even in the gulags - cried: they still couldn't believe Stalin had put them on the lists and thought someone else was responsible," says Iannucci.
Writing collaborator David Schneider sees a deep sense of right and wrong at the heart of Iannucci's work. 'Apart from his comic genius, at the core, Armando is a moralist. He's not an angry man - you would be hard pushed to get into a row with him - but he has a moral anger at his centre and that's what motivates all this work – an anger that people aren't better."
As Iannucci began to adapt the graphic novel, he became ever more astonished by the facts, which appeared too outlandish to be true. 'What amazed me from the graphic novel was that it was based on real events," he says. 'The concert at the beginning of the film had to be reperformed because they didn't have a recording and Stalin wanted one - that was true. Khrushchev was seen as a junior figure but was responsible for getting Beria out of power - that was true. Stalin was left lying in a puddle of urine because his own guards were too terrified to go into the room - true. They dithered about which doctor to get as they were worried about him being poisoned - true. Stalin wouldn't go to bed until 4am and he would call his Politburo out to his dacha at 10pm for a massive meal and watch them get more and more drunk while he drank watered down drinks - true. It's almost as if he wanted to see how they would perform for him. Nobody wanted to be the first to break rank and go to bed and they had to wait until Stalin fell asleep. The more you find out about these true events, the more farcical it was. I think in comedy the more authentic events and details you can include the funnier it is, and the more the audience think -I wonder if that happened, it feels like it might have happened'.
It's a way in for the audience."
Casting The Film
The ensemble cast includes some of the finest actors from around the world including Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, Simon Russell Beale as Beria, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Michael Palin as Molotov, Paul Whitehouse as Mikoyan, Jason Isaacs as Zhukov, Andrea Riseborough as Stalin's daughter Svetlana, and Rupert Friend as Stalin's son Vasily, Paddy Considine as Andreyev, and Olga Kurylenko as the concert pianist Maria Yudina.
'In general, casting so many important roles for a film often proves to be complicated, but in this case, things went very smoothly. Everyone wanted to work with Armando" says Yann Zenou. That said, those actors soon realise that they have to be fully committed to the film. 'Actors have to give themselves to the process," says Loader. 'There is an extended rehearsal period for a few weeks, and those rehearsals show on the screen. It was very important that the actors all turned up for a couple of weeks of rehearsal of scenes, and also to discuss the material and the political reality of what they were doing."
Iannucci sees the rehearsal period as crucial for ensuring a smooth relationship between the various members of his ensemble. 'In the rehearsal process the actors play about with their characters in relation to each other," he explains. 'They do a lot of the blocking then and in that process they get to know each other so they're not just a cast of characters but feel that they have all worked together for years, just as the Politburo had all worked together for years. For a trial scene I wanted it to be bestial, as though they were like a pack of animals. I had in mind the shots of Saddam Hussein when he was hanged and there was something horribly mundane about it all. So they are all shouting at the accused and he's shouting back and then it's all over before you even realise it's happening."
'We cast each actor to the part," continues Iannucci. 'We had this idea of Molotov being a purist and rigidly adhering to the party line and I could see Michael Palin playing that with nobility but at the same time an air of madness - and it's thrilling to see Michael do that in the film." For his part, Michael Palin needed little persuading to join the project. 'Armando has done some great work and I said yes instantly," he says. 'He said it would be a very black comedy but that there was a serious issue about how you run an enormous apparatus like Stalin's government so it was serious and comic and that mixture is a difficult thing to get right."
He describes his character Molotov as 'a schemer and a thoroughly dangerous man who survived longer than any of the rest of the Politburo, all of whom are gliding around each other almost like a choreographed dance, occasionally stabbing someone in the back. Molotov was there from the start of the revolution with Stalin and he keeps the flame of the revolution alive. He's ruthless, but as an actor you've got to play the reality of these people, to humanise these people if you possibly can. You've got to be serious about them and their situation, so we believe they are fearful of being watched, that somebody hates somebody for something they did five years ago. The jokes come from us taking it absolutely seriously because they are wonderful lines, but they come out of the mouths of the very ruthless and calculating people."
Working alongside the rest of the cast was a singular pleasure for Palin. 'What a great group of people, and all people I admire," he says. 'Steve Buscemi has done some great films, Jeffrey Tambor did very fine subtle work on -The Larry Sanders Show' and Paul Whitehouse is probably the funniest man in the country bar one or two. It's a terrific group. Armando must have felt we would work off each other in some way as everyone is doing something different but we all compliment one other."
Steve Buscemi, who plays minister for agriculture Nikita Khrushchev, also enjoyed the collaborative nature of the cast. 'The cast was fantastic and the ensemble nature of it is what drew me to the film," he says. 'It reminded me a little bit of a Robert Altman film – all the characters have a story. And then to know you're going to be working with Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale and Michael Palin…you just want to get in there and do your best."
Buscemi describes Khrushchev as 'a survivor who manages to stay on the good side of Stalin and is a pretty amiable guy for the most part although he does have a bit of a temper. Khrushchev doesn't want Beria to take over and so he tries to gain influence with Stalin's number two, Malenkov, as whoever can gain influence with Malenkov can influence how things are going to turn out. But he surprises everyone, including himself, by taking over after Stalin is dead, without even knowing that that's what he's doing."
Playing Beria, the brutal head of the secret police, is Simon Russell Beale. 'The film is about a power vacuum because, like any ruling body of people when the leader goes, it's the grapple for power that brings out the worst in people," says Beale. 'It's quite a responsibility to make a film like this, because there was a lot of pain and suffering, and however funny it is there is a responsibility to show these were not nice people."
For Beale, an actor best known for his acclaimed Shakespearian performances on the stage, working on a film which demanded some improvisation was a step outside his comfort zone. 'I'm not an improviser - that's not how I've worked all my life and I don't feel very confident about it, but I was surrounded by people who work like that and were confident. The cast was made up of actors who come from completely different filmic backgrounds: great American film stars, great British film stars, plus people like me with a background in Shakespeare.
Weabsolutely loved working and being with each other, and I hope that shows. We still exchange emails in Politburo style."
Iannucci knew that Beale would bring something to the role that would elevate the character from the level of pantomime villain. 'People don't associate him with the kind of nasty, sordid, earthy character that Beria is, even though he's played a menacing Iago in 'Othello", and he completely relished it. Beria gets away with his brutality because he's not a Bond villain, he's human – he was apparently a great boss and knew when all his torturers' birthdays were - he was very good to his team."
The interplay between Beria and Khrushchev is one of the story's most interesting aspects, says Iannucci. 'We start with Beria being the bad guy and Khrushchev being the funny guy," he says. 'But they eventually swap roles as Khrushchev becomes the bad guy and Beria shows a much more human side to his character by the end. Stalin's daughter Svetlana tells Khrushchev, -I never thought it would be you'. No one ever thought it would be Khrushchev, the guy who turned up at the dacha in his pyjamas. But he was able to speak to the people in a way that the slightly over scholarly members of the Politburo weren't."
The other American lead actor, Jeffrey Tambor, takes the role of Malenkov. 'Malenkov was a pen-pusher and a bureaucrat and was very happy being Stalin's number two," says Iannucci.
'When he succeeded Stalin, he realised he was completely out of his depth. I had first seen Jeffrey Tambor as Hank in -The Larry Sanders Show', which is one of my all time favourite comedies. He plays the sidekick to Larry Sanders, the chat show host, and he will never be the chat show host.
After he read the script, Jeffrey Tambor said there was an element of Hank about Malenkov - he attempts to be Stalin-like and project himself as a strong man, but it usually involves him worrying about his demeanour. After Khrushchev ousted him, he ended up running a hydro electric plant quite successfully and that's probably where he was his happiest!"
Jason Isaacs, who plays Field Marshall Zhukov, was thrilled to join the cast. 'Armando is the guru and it all comes down to the script which I think is the best thing he's ever done," says Isaacs, who has been a fan of Iannucci since his radio days, 'I wondered if we were doing a Stalinesque version of -The Thick of it' or -The Day Today' but Armando's much smarter than that and he's evolving. He's making a movie, so it's very visual and he's developed a way over the years of making spontaneity truthful and dramatic and funny - it seems like he's making minute tweaks to things, but they make the biggest difference in a scene.
'Zhukov is such a juicy role," continues Isaacs. 'He's the man we all wish we were, the man who says the most unsayable things in every situation. It was, however, hard to keep a straight face a lot of the time working opposite some of my comedy heroes. It was a fabulous cast."
Given the story's geographical setting, the filmmakers had to make a decision on how the actors would speak their lines. 'We made the decision early on that we were not going to do inflected Russian accents," says producer Kevin Loader. 'Once we'd decided not to do a homogenous Russian accent, it freed us up in terms of casting. The Soviet Union is a very big empire with many different nationalities and accents so we could have a cockney Stalin and American actors Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor as Khrushchev and Malenkov. It allowed us to make the characters very distinguishable and larger than life."
Paul Whitehouse, who plays Mikoyan, the minister of foreign trade, who went on a goodwill trip to the US in the 1930s and came back with sharp suits and a taste for ice-cream, was relieved he didn't have to master an accent: 'It was fun being able to speak in my own accent," he says.
'Most of the time I do funny accents so it's a relief to be able to do my own. My character gets some pithy quips and one liners. There are a lot of elements of farce about the film, particularly in the physicality, but you can sense the panic and that the whole place will combust in the political vacuum."
Iannucci was thrilled that Whitehouse agreed to join the cast: 'I had to persuade him as he only performs stuff he's written. I'm so glad we've got him. He's a brilliant comedian obviously but a really good actor too."
It is a testament to Iannucci's talent as a director that he was able to handle such a formidable cast while remaining firmly in charge of every aspect of the filmmaking process. Says Kevin Loader: 'It's hard to overstate how in the centre of everything Armando is; he is the ring master. There is a lot of collaboration on the script and he likes to continually pass it around."
Iannucci's directorial skills and personal charm certainly found champions amongst his cast. Says Andrea Riseborough, who plays Stalin's daughter Svetlana: 'Armando is a perfectionist. He is tireless and is very open to new ideas. Everything about the approach is completely modern even though we are in Stalin's Russia; the dialogue is completely modern which is why it's so brilliant and so there is a strangeness to what the writers have created. It's a departure to what Armando's done previously, as it's epic in scale and it has a real message. This is a tragedy; a comedy within a tragedy."
Olga Kurylenko, who plays the concert pianist Maria, concurs: 'I love Armando's work and the script was so funny I of course wanted to be a part of it. He's very positive and obviously loves what he's doing. He's very clever and gives great directions without you realising he's giving you direction."
Iannucci-s skill at balancing the humour and the tragedy impressed the cast. 'Every so often a gem comes along and this is one of those," says Dermot Crowley who plays Kaganovich.
'What's so brilliant about the film is that's it's very funny but then suddenly, like a bucket of ice cold water down your neck, something totally mundane will happen like -Put him on the list, and his wife, and shoot him first so she sees it'; it's so utterly chilling. That phrase -The banality of evil' is so true in terms of what happened, so to put that within a comic context makes it that much more frightening."
The Look And The Locations
With the cast on board, Iannucci assembled his behind the scenes collaborators including cinematographer Zac Nicholson, production designer Cristina Casali, costume designer Suzie Harman, editor Peter Lambert and composer Christopher Willis. The film shot on locations in Moscow, Kiev, London and Oxfordshire.
'For obvious reasons, we couldn't shoot the entire film in Russia, so we decided to recreate a Russia of the 50s in London. It was a real challenge, but one that all our teams won hands down. We were surprised to find 'Russian" backgrounds at times even in central London." says Laurent Zeitoun.
In charge of the production design was Cristina Casali whose talents include making a virtue of necessity.
All the interiors were shot in the UK. Several London locations were used, including Shoreditch Town Hall for the concert Hall, the Freemason's Hall in Covent Garden, Goldsmith's Hall, and Hammersmith Town Hall in West London for scenes in the Kremlin, and Mansion House in the City of London for the Hall of Columns. For Stalin's residence, Casali built a dacha in the woods near Pinewood creating a home that reflected the dictator's taste. 'Stalin wasn't into acquiring wealth; he had a single bed in his office, but he was into power, so when we kitted out his dacha we went for big but spartan and overpoweringly brown," says Iannucci.
'I was very keen that we got the look to match, so that if someone was watching from that era they'd say -that's about right'," says Iannucci.
'It was not an easy shoot, with multiple scene changes that require colossal work. Some scenes were real headaches, such as for example Stalins's funeral, with what is worse a crowd of extras to direct. In spite of all that, we were flabbergasted by Armando's calm and professionalism. When he comes on set, he knows what he wants and the charm works. With him there are never any problems, just solutions." says Laurent Zeitoun.
A Lesson From The Past For The Present
'The Death of Stalin may be set over 60 years ago", says Armando Iannucci, 'but it offers some sobering lessons about today's political landscape: I had the first conversations about the film two or three years ago when no one knew about Brexit or Trump," he says. 'At the time I was consciously looking to do something about dictatorship, about authoritarianism, about how a country can be terrorised by a personality even though that character might not be charismatic, exploring concepts such as groupthink. There was no attempt to echo what ended up happening outside the film with Trump's election and Brexit, but there are weird echoes in the film.
'They talk about false narratives and how one minute someone could be an enemy of the people and the next minute be rehabilitated and how you can have different sets of narrative depending on what words you use," continues Iannucci. 'We are in an era of false narratives and post truth and if there is anything to take away from the film which applies now, it's to look at what happens when the government controls the flow of information, tells you what's true and what's not. You have to have independent outlets for news gathering because if one person says -I'm only going to speak to you if you agree with me', you end up where nothing feels real and you might as well believe them or you'll be locked up. I wasn't expecting this film to be a comment on contemporary politics, but if sadly it turns out to be, I'll let people draw their own conclusions from what they see on the screen."
The Death of Stalin