'In The Loop' With Armando Iannucci Writer and director Armando Iannucci's new film In the Loop involves an unnamed country in the Middle East, whisperings of military involvement, epically foul tirades and razor sharp political satire.

'In The Loop' With Armando Iannucci

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

A verbal gaffe that unintentionally leads the British to join the U.S. in planning a war against a country in the Middle East, gaffe and spin and ideological political agendas that lead to war are the subject of the political satire, "In the Loop."

The war in the film is against an unnamed country in the Middle East but the film makes intentional parallels to the lead-up to the war in Iraq.

My guest is the writer and director of the film, Armando Iannucci. The main characters in the film are adapted from his BBC series, "The Thick of It." Early in the film, the British minister for International Development is asked by a journalist about the possibility of war. He responds that war is unforeseeable, which is incorrectly interpreted as inevitable which is not what the official government position is.

This leads to a series of disastrous misunderstandings in England and in the U.S. where the minister is sent to meet with other midlevel officials. Here's a scene right after that "unforeseeable" gaffe. The minister, played by Tom Hollander, is in hot water because of the gaffe. Things get even worse when he runs into a pack of reporters.

Mr. TOM HOLLANDER (Actor) (Cabinet Minister): Hello there. Hi.

Unidentified Actress: So is war (unintelligible), Minister?

Mr. TOM HOLLANDER (Actor) (Cabinet Minister): Look, there are all sorts of things that are actually very likely are also unforeseeable for the plane in the fog the mountain is unforeseeable but then it is suddenly very real and inevitable, right.

Unidentified Actress: Is this your opinion or is this the government position?

Mr. TOM HOLLANDER (Actor) (Cabinet Minister): The plane, the mountain in the matter for it's a completely hypothetical mountain that could represent anything.

Unidentified Actor: But I'm sorry but, I'm unclear what it...

Unidentified Actress: Who is the plane and who is the mountain?

Unidentified Actor: Yeah. But then the government is lost in the fog.

Mr. TOM HOLLANDER (Actor) (Cabinet Minister): And what I'm saying is that to walk the road of peace sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict. Thank you so much.

Unidentified Actor: Would you be climbing the mountain alone, Minister?

(Soundbite of reporters talking)

Mr. TOM HOLLANDER (Actor) (Cabinet Minister): Thank you very very, this interview is over. Thank you.

GROSS: Armando Iannucci, welcome to FRESH AIR. There's a spin that's so important in your movie and political language and invasive political language. Were you listening very closely during the lead up to the Iraq War, both because you wanted to know what was going to happen but also just to hear the words that the politicians were using to say or hide what their intentions were?

Mr. ARMANDO IANNUCCI (Writer, director): Oh absolutely. I mean I was listening very intently principally because I was frustrated by the fact that you could clearly see there was a headlong unstoppable rush towards war coupled with all these public statements that every avenue was being explored, every possible attempt to defuse the situation was being explored. And so there was this conflict between what was clearly happening and what we were being told was happening. And the whole rush towards war was full of these illogicalities -these arguments that said for example you know, Saddam would attack us if we invaded him therefore, we have to invade him to stop him using the weapons that he's going to use on us once we invade him. It's a sort of an abuse of argument and an abuse of language. And Rumsfeld was very very famous for it. You know remember his "there are known knowns and known unknowns" and you know, his very enigmatic press conferences.

GROSS: What's one or two of the favorite lines you and your writers came up with for your movie?

Mr. IANNUCCI: Well, Malcolm...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IANNUCCI: ...once the minister says war is unforeseeable, Malcolm Tucker, the government's chief spin doctor then rings around all the press and tries to rollback from that. And he does, there is a shot of him walking out of Number 10 Downing Street on the phone to a journalist saying, you may have heard him say that but he did not say it, which I quite like. It's that truth is really a very relative thing. Truth is what you make it that I think sort of underpins the comedy and the thinking behind the film really.

GROSS: I think I have a scene that will illustrate that that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...I'd like to play. And this is a scene from early in the film where the head of a secret war committee is meeting with his aide and the head of the secret war committee's name is Linton Barwick. Tell us a little bit about this character before we go to the scene.

Mr. IANNUCCI: Linton Barwick is, he's the, officially he's the undersecretary of state in charge of policy at the State Department and he is fundamentally an amalgam of all the intellectually driven neocons like Paul Wolfovich and John Bolton and Rumsfeld, who - there is a sort of an arrogance about their belief in their intellectual rightness that overrides everything else. And talking to people who worked with them, I arrived at this impression that they were sort of bullies but they were intellectual bullies, and they're bullying to the form of just deciding that not to connect with anyone who disagreed with them.

GROSS: So here is neocon, Linton Barwick meeting with his aide who has just gotten back from London.

Mr. DAVID RASCHE (Actor): (as Linton Barwick) Now, what else happened in London?

Unidentifiable Actor: (As character) Generally positive. Two glitches.

Mr. RASCHE: (as Linton Barwick) Really? What?

Unidentifiable Actor: (As character) Karen Flag, a report by one of her staffers.

Mr. RASCHE: (as Linton Barwick) Really?

Unidentifiable Actor: (As character) She's obviously trying to use it as some kind of roadblock. It's called a quip pip.

Mr. RASCHE: (as Linton Barwick) Quick what?

Unidentifiable Actor: (As character) Quick pip.

Mr. RASCHE: (as Linton Barwick) What is it a report on bird calls? What does it even stand for?

Unidentifiable Actor: (As character) I can't recall but it's fact, she's Intel for and against intervention.

Mr. RASCHE: (as Linton Barwick) We have all the facts on this we need. We don't need any more facts. In the land of truth my friend, the man with one fact is the king. All right you said there was something else. What is that?

Unidentifiable Actor: (As character) In the meeting with the foreign office the committee was accidentally and briefly alluded to.

Mr. RASCHE: (as Linton Barwick) Which committee?

Unidentifiable Actor: (As character) The war committee, sir.

Mr. RASCHE: (as Linton Barwick) All right. Karen is not to know about this, huh. She is an excitable, yapping she-dog. All right, we've got to get a hold of those minutes. I have to correct the record.

Unidentifiable Actor: (As character) We can do that?

Mr. RASCHE: (as Linton Barwick) Yes we can. Those minutes are an aide memoir for us. They should not be a reductive record of what happen to have been said. But they should be a more full record of what was intended to have been said. I think that's the more accurate version don't you?

Unidentifiable Actor: (As character) Sir.

Mr. RASCHE: (as Linton Barwick) Right.

GROSS: And I really like that that the minutes should be a memoir for us...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IANNUCCI: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: ...of what we intended to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IANNUCCI: And so it's not that thing of like you know the truth is what you make it. And a lot that - I came out to research the film and spoke to people in the CIA and the Pentagon and so on they were all saying that the evidence that was being presented to the neocons was evidence that they want to hear. You know there was already a sort of selective filtering going on because nobody wanted to lose their job.

And when they were actually given evidence that said there are no weapons of mass destruction, rather than the neocons saying oh well, let's call the whole thing off, their attitude was well, that must mean they're hiding them. So it's that notion that they've made their conclusion in advance and then you go out and you find knowledge that would back up that conclusion rather than the other way around.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Armando Iannucci and he's the writer and director of a new British film that's a political satire called "In the Loop." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Armando Iannucci and he's the writer and director of a new British satirical film called "In the Loop" and it's basically about the run up to a war in an unnamed Middle East country.

One of the dynamics in the film is that when the British political aides come to the United States to meet with American leaders there, they're seen as relatively inconsequential.

Mr. IANNUCCI: Oh absolutely and they go out to Washington feeling that they are quite important and are going to be feted and are going to have a major say. And then they turn out to be, the phrase they use is room meat. Meat in the room. Just numbers, bulk for the different factions that they want them out there. And that's based on two things. I'd say that's based on what actually happened when Blair and his entourage came out to Washington.

Blair thought he was coming out to try and stop George Bush going to war, but in fact, it was Blair's presence in America and his presence standing beside George Bush that actually encouraged the pro war faction to go to war. And so Blair was really there as a number. And also, they, from all accounts, they got a little bit giddy. They kind of lost their cool and got slightly kind of excited being in the White House and being in the Oval Room and being on the international stage and being considered public figures.

And I reminded the UK cast when were shooting these scenes, I said try and remember what it was like the first time you went out to Hollywood and you went out to LA, and you had all sorts of meetings and all sorts of agents came and talked to you and said how great you were and how you thought it was all going to change. And then after your stay in Hollywood for what, three or four days you went home empty-handed with nothing and how you felt used and soiled. And yet, when you got home, how you had returned to a very drab, gray, rainy London and were already pining for those hot, sunny days in LA when people were telling you how great you were. And so the...

GROSS: Well, it sounds like this happened to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IANNUCCI: Well, it did actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IANNUCCI: There was a, the film is a sort of an offshoot of a TV show I do with the BBC called "The Thick of It" which is set in a government ministry in London. And there was an attempt to make - they made an American pilot of it for ABC, set in Congress. And I came out to LA, and it was my first trip out, and you know I was wined and dined and everyone told me how great it was going to be, and everyone I met was called vice president. They were all about 23 years old.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IANNUCCI: But they were all vice president commissioning, vice president comedy artifacts, vice president valet services - so all these vice presidents said how good it was going to be. And then I realized I was a tiny cog in a huge machine. I went to one meeting. My whole involvement in the project was go to one meeting, which was a meeting to talk about the costumes and the color of the ties that the cast were going to wear and there were 30 people in the room.

And after that meeting I just thought this is ridiculous. And the pilot itself was, it wasn't terrible. It was just dull, so despite the fact that all these vice presidents were working on it, in fact, the quality of it wasn't that high. And I thought that was kind of an interesting eye opener, really, that the fact that you know you, when you're on the outside and you look in you think these things are going to be glamorous. And similarly - and you know you go through Washington, you see these buildings you know the Pentagon, the State Department, they look very imposing. You think the - behind them who work in them know what they're doing. And yet, you know, walk in, you find out that you know in fact, they didn't know what they were doing.

I remember reading an account of, I think it was in one of Bob Woodward's book on the behind the scenes in the lead-up to Iraq. They were talking about when there were meetings at the White House, when somebody said so once we've invaded then what do we do? And, of course, no one had really thought that through. And what happened, whenever anyone asked that question was everyone else in the room would just bow their heads and stare at the carpet, like that thing you do at school if you don't know the answer. You look down trying to tell yourself that if you can't see the teacher the teacher can't see you. And I just thought that's interesting. They're behaving like kids.

GROSS: So did you go to Washington yourself and get into the big impressive buildings and try to see what goes on inside?

Mr. IANNUCCI: Yes, I did a couple of above the board meetings with staffers and people who'd worked in the CIA, and the Pentagon, and the State Department. But I'd also, I just...

GROSS: How did you set them up? Did you call and say I'm a filmmaker. I'm doing a political satire...

Mr. IANNUCCI: Yes. I...

GROSS: ...in which you will be mocked, so please let me come meet with you?

Mr. IANNUCCI: Yeah. More or less. Yes. That is the interesting thing. Politicians love it when they are being portrayed in drama and in comedy and it doesn't really matter how terrible they're being portrayed. The film opens with Malcolm Tucker walking out the front door of Number 10 Downing Street and mostly, most often when you're doing that in a film you have to go to a set.

We wrote to Number 10 and they said yes because they were big fans of the television show. So here was this character who was the embodiment of how crass and evil and corrupt politics is, being welcomed into the heart of government. And when we arrived to shoot the scene all the real Malcolm Tuckers who worked in Number 10 had brought their cameras with them because they were all excited. They all wanted to see, meet Peter Capaldi who plays Malcolm Tucker and they all wanted a big team photo with Malcolm and then all of them.

And similarly, when I was out in Washington, you know, I was speaking to Biden's chief of staff who was this sort of young, good looking, really intelligent, quite charismatic guy who was saying what an exciting job it is that he has because he meets all these exciting people and he said do you know who we had? We had a reception last week. We met - I met Bradley Whitford who plays Josh in the "West Wing."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IANNUCCI: I'm speaking. But you're Josh, you're the real Josh. Why you're excited to meet an actor who is only a part-time Josh. And there is that thing I think may be because the political world is such an enclosed bubble that they're delighted to meet someone from, you know - a real person from outside, onto whom they can offload all their observations about how the system works. So I met - I hooked up with people in Washington and I was fairly clear. I said look, I'm not making a documentary. I'm not out to name names, I'm not out to bring anyone down. In many ways I want to know the dull stuff rather than the juicy stuff. I want to�

GROSS: So, what else stuff the people tell you that you're�

Mr. IANNUCCI: Well, I want to know what time people get in, what time they go home, who is they work with, what people are like. And also the little things like, you know, the golden rule in Washington politics is never leave the room, never leave a meeting. If you leave a meeting you leave power. And that's because the big things are decided very, very quickly at meetings. You know? And you could be out of a meeting for 20 minutes, maybe taking a call and something pretty major was decided when you're gone.

And there's no way you can get back in and try to claim credit for that decision. So Madeleine Albright, when she was secretary of state, she taught her staff bladder diplomacy, which was basically how to last in a meeting for up to six hours without having to go to the bathroom. So, it's things like that -that makes you realize that, you know, international politics are being conducted on this petty office scale.

GROSS: So, when you were in Washington�


GROSS: �you arranged meetings with some people. Did you also arrange to be in places that you weren't supposed to be?

Mr. IANNUCCI: Well, I'm - I intrigued as to what the State Department looked like in the inside, because the film is set, a lot in the State Department. And a journalist in Washington said do you have any kind of BBC pass or anything. And I've got this pass, the BBC pass, and it looks very, very primitive. It's basically just my photo and my name and the words BBC. There's no watermark or serial bar and anything like that. It's just a basic. A child could have put it together. And they said go up to reception and say BBC, I'm here for the 12:30.

So, I did and I got in. I got in to the State Department and I thought I would be escorted with, you know, 50 State Department officials, you know, high security. No, I was just in there on my own, myself and my researcher. And we wandered around the State Department for about half an hour.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IANNUCCI: �and I thought, well, let's take some photos because I need to bring them back to London and to tell the art designer what it looks like. So, we're just photographing the inside of the State Department unchallenged.

And then this big burly guy came down and just came up to us and went - excuse me? And I said I'm here for the 12:30. And he said yes, over there, and just pointed us - we ended up at the 12:30, which was a very, very dull press conference given by Condoleezza Rice's press spokesperson. But I was amazed by how easy it was to wander around. Part of me was thinking it was exciting. Another part of me thought this is technically international espionage we're doing here. I hope I'm not extradited�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IANNUCCI: �or rendered.

GROSS: Armando Iannucci, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. IANNUCCI: Been a pleasure.

GROSS: Armando Iannucci wrote and directed the new political satire "In the Loop."

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