Written By April | May 2014 : Page 36
WRITTEN BY LISA ROSEN PORTRAITS BY TOM KELLER In the Soup Armando Iannucci and his Veep writers boil a spicy comedy stock. t’s a simple enough question, posed via phone to the London-based writers of HBO’s political comedy Veep : How many drafts of each episode do you write? Their answers, like their scripts, build each on each as they speak. Sean Gray offers the first response: “It’ll get to maybe 10 drafts before we rehearse.” Pause. “Maybe 20.” Will Smith ups the ante: “20 plus .” Tony Roche elaborates: “We rewrite lots and lots and lots…and we’ll look at how we can rough it up a bit to make it sound less written.” Simon Blackwell expands further: “We want to keep working on it until we’re not allowed to work on it anymore. There’s never a point where you hand a script over and it’s locked, and, ‘Thank you very much, writer, please go away.’ It’s always changing; it’s always this organic thing that’s growing and going amongst the writers.” Georgia Pritchett echoes Blackwell: “We do so many drafts, and it goes round the writers so many times, and sort of evolves, that you just end up with something that you could never do on your own.” Ian Martin offers a specific example via email: “Episode 304 has been the longest, most complex, hardest episode I’ve ever worked on.” He and Gray focused on it “full-on” from June to November, when it was filmed. “As I speak, Sean and I are looking at a rough cut and making notes for Arm on possible new scenes to be shot.” This Arm —otherwise known as Armando Iannucci—is the creator of both Veep and the writing method they’re all taking pains to explain. Will Smith again: “Armando likes it to not feel written, so he doesn’t want to be too gaggy or anything expositional. He likes to work out the story, then compress it, make it go off in different directions at once. That layering is why you need to do lots and lots of drafts.” Iannucci tops it off: “It’s like stop-frame animation; so much work goes into two seconds. Quite a lot of people seem to think the show is entirely improvised, which is kind of annoying.” Meet the Veep writers, who subscribe to Gene Kelly’s tenet: If it looks like you’re working, you’re not working hard enough. Boiling it Down I Iannucci has an unusually large writers’ room, “the closest to American team writing that anyone’s ever done in England,” Smith believes. Everything else is unusual as well, adds Blackwell: “I write on other sitcoms, and this is a completely different beast to 36 • WG A W WRITTEN BY APRIL | MA Y 20 14
In The Soup
Armando Iannucci and his Veep writers boil a spicy comedy stock.
It’s a simple enough question, posed via phone to the London-based writers of HBO’s political comedy Veep: How many drafts of each episode do you write?
Their answers, like their scripts, build each on each as they speak.
Sean Gray offers the first response: “It’ll get to maybe 10 drafts before we rehearse.” Pause. “Maybe 20.” Will Smith ups the ante: “20 plus.”
Tony Roche elaborates: “We rewrite lots and lots and lots…and we’ll look at how we can rough it up a bit to make it sound less written.”
Simon Blackwell expands further: “We want to keep working on it until we’re not allowed to work on it anymore. There’s never a point where you hand a script over and it’s locked, and, ‘Thank you very much, writer, please go away.’ It’s always changing; it’s always this organic thing that’s growing and going amongst the writers.”
Georgia Pritchett echoes Blackwell: “We do so many drafts, and it goes round the writers so many times, and sort of evolves, that you just end up with something that you could never do on your own.”
Ian Martin offers a specific example via email: “Episode 304 has been the longest, most complex, hardest episode I’ve ever worked on.” He and Gray focused on it “fullon” from June to November, when it was filmed. “As I speak, Sean and I are looking at a rough cut and making notes for Arm on possible new scenes to be shot.”
This Arm—otherwise known as Armando Iannucci—is the creator of both Veep and the writing method they’re all taking pains to explain.
Will Smith again: “Armando likes it to not feel written, so he doesn’t want to be too gaggy or anything expositional. He likes to work out the story, then compress it, make it go off in different directions at once. That layering is why you need to do lots and lots of drafts.”
Iannucci tops it off: “It’s like stop-frame animation; so much work goes into two seconds. Quite a lot of people seem to think the show is entirely improvised, which is kind of annoying.”
Meet the Veep writers, who subscribe to Gene Kelly’s tenet: If it looks like you’re working, you’re not working hard enough.
Boiling it Down
Iannucci has an unusually large writers’ room, “the closest to American team writing that anyone’s ever done in England,” Smith believes. Everything else is unusual as well, adds Blackwell: “I write on other sitcoms, and this is a completely different beast to Anything I’ve done or am doing, in terms of structure and process.” He and Roche are co-executive producers; the rest, along with David Quantick and Roger Drew, are consulting producers.
The writers start off a season with a big chat. Iannucci sketches out his ideas for Vice President Selina Meyer’s rough passage on board the ship of state, and then everyone dives in. Meyer is a piece of work. Still smarting from her debased position after tanking in the presidential election, she is so nakedly hungry for power, it’s a wonder she doesn’t drool. She’s surrounded by a group of equally ambitious aides who only rarely really aid her. Together, they navigate the D.C. political minefields with all the delicacy of a cattle stampede.
Once Iannucci assigns the episodes, the writers will work on their outlines for about a month. “It’s a quite rigorous process,” says Gray. “We’ll forensically look at each beat, and then, once the outline’s signed off by Armando, we’ll go away and write a very quick draft in three or four days. Then there’s the back and forth from that point on, with Armando feeding notes.”
Early on, after only a dozen or so drafts, the actors and writers will gather together for rehearsals. Iannucci considers rehearsals an integral part Of the writing process, especially for large group scenes. “It’s like pieces on a chess board,” observes Iannucci, arranging the actors in different groups to observe whatever sparks. “It helps us see the scene while we’re writing it.
The actors are all good at that sort of thing, and they love to get involved in the early stage.” He recalls actress Kate Burton, who played Senator Hallowes, telling him that ordinarily everyone wouldn’t meet until the first day of shooting. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “You spend so much money on the costumes, makeup, location, and the cast, it seems mad not to spend at least a little bit of time with them in advance and Make sure the script is working and the characters are all singing. It’s not that much more money; it’s a day without a big film crew, half a dozen of you in a small hotel conference room reading the script out loud and running around a bit, trying a few things out.”
Says Martin, “It’s incredibly useful when you do later drafts to have the rehearsal scenes in your head, remembering them moving through space and those pressure points that were awkward and funny.” Armed with notes from the rehearsals, the writers return to their scripts. The drafts make the rounds to the rest of the writers, and each adds suggestions. Then everyone adds suggestions to those suggestions.
And so on, ad infinitum.
“Armando says writing a comedy script is like making a chicken stock,” says Gray. “You add in lots of ingredients to begin with, and then you boil it down, and then you add more, and you boil it down again, and you keep repeating the process until it’s a very rich and hopefully very funny, chicken-y comedy.”
It might be arduous, but creating Veep’s caustic world of narcissists and nincompoops is merry work. And merrily received: The show has racked up acclaim and hardware, including Writers Guild Award nominations two years running. (The third season premiered April 6. ) “I wouldn’t say Arm’s a perfectionist,” Martin writes. “It’s not so much a perfection he’s striving for as a reality— but he is relentless in his pursuit of a narrative truth. He’s a stone-cold fucking genius.”
The Television Will Be Revolutionized
Two decades ago, Iannucci began to develop this creative strategy. Although not wellenough known in the States for the brutally satirical political film In the Loop, he is a legend back home. “For all of us, we were huge fans of his comedy before we started working for him,” recalls Gray, listing some of the Iannucci hits: “Alan Partridge [multiple shows With the titular character], The Day Today, On The Hour on the radio. I don’t know how wellknown they are in America, but in terms of British comedy, they’re as good as it gets.”
Quantick first worked with Iannucci on the radio show On the Hour, which, he notes via email, transformed the comedy world overnight: “Before On the Hour, British comedy had become very stylized and unchanging—it was like Japanese theater or ancient Egyptian art—great but it wasn’t realistic. With OTH, Armando and Chris Morris and everyone involved actually listened to current news reporting, the way news radio sounded, the language, and even the speech rhythms of broadcasters, and made it completely modern. At the same time, OTH brought in an aggressive surrealism and current affairs–related weirdness that nobody had ever done. In comedy, you’re usually either a Realist or a Surrealist. You’re satirizing Events or you’re being Odd. OTH did both at the same time.”
On the Hour then morphed into a TV show renamed The Day Today, which spoofed television news programs. “We arrived at this notion that the more real it felt, the funnier it would be, the more absurd the stories could be,” Iannucci explains.
The combination of satire and surrealism speaks to Iannucci’s early comedic influences. Born and raised in Scotland, he was a teenage fan of Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe, Dr. Strangelove, Brazil, and Chaplin movies such as The Great Dictator. “I love it when comedy isn’t afraid to take on big subjects.”
Around the same time, Iannucci became something of a political geek. “I loved all the graphs, and the ‘Who’s in who’s out, what the percentages are,’ in the same way that in the UK you get people who are fanatical about cricket statistics, and in America people who know baseball statistics, to make up for not being very good at sport.”
He also had grown up with a firsthand look at political fallout. His father left Italy at the end of World War II, after fighting as a partisan. “So there’s someone for whom his political views were actually a matter of life or death,” Iannucci points out. His father never took British citizenship, so he never voted. When Iannucci asked him why, he replied that the last time he had voted in an election, Mussolini got in. “It was an interesting comment on how important these decisions are that we make in elections.”
That political awareness came into full flower with his series The Thick of It, which followed the life of a low-level government minister and the terrifically nasty political handler who worked him over. For Veep, the writers have advisers in D.C., including executive producer Frank Rich, but Iannucci’s deep grasp of the issues still makes him the first line of offense.
Hitting Foggy Bottom
Despite the setting of The Thick of It and Veep and their often-prescient plotlines, Iannucci has always taken pains not to take sides. After all, preaching isn’t witty. “I’m more interested in showing people the process, in the hope that, while being funny, that somehow makes them think about how politics work, whether it is working, and if it isn’t working then what should be done about it.”
But every rule has an exception, and Iannucci’s was In the Loop, his script adapted from his BBC series The Thick of It. “It needs to take something profoundly, amazingly stupid to provoke me into public activism—like Bush and Blair and the invasion of Iraq. That’s when I started getting very public.” The film brought the profane star of The Thick of It to Washington, D. C., in a storyline that sees the events precipitating the Iraq war as a toxic cocktail of egos and idiocy. It also features some of the most remarkable curses ever imagined, of which “Let them eat cock” is but one shining example.
“The film was cathartic for us because we were all quite cross about the war, so it was more personal in a way,” says Roche, who cowrote the script with Iannucci, Blackwell, and Jesse Armstrong, with additional dialogue by Martin. The script was nominated for a Writers Guild Award and an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
“I enjoy doing comedy; I can’t think of anything else that I can do,” Iannucci says. “But I feel certain things, and I have certain passions and angers and so on. So I find it satisfying that at least I can channel them into something creative, and if other people can get something out of it, then that’s great.”
While shooting the film in D.C., Iannucci thought of setting a show there. “That was such a good experience that, if anything, Veep was because I wanted to work with American actors rather than because I wanted to look at politics.”
The concept of the show differed from The Thick of It in scope and focus. (And budget; Smith estimates that an episode of Veep costs the same as a season of The Thick of It.) While The Thick of It had a minor minister being bullied and manipulated, Iannucci knew that wouldn’t resonate in the U.S. But power, or at least its illusion, would.
“When you go to D.C., it looks grand and powerful on the outside,” he observes. “Those buildings look like they house people who know exactly what they’re doing. Yet once you go in, physically they’re a warren of corridors, and desks with too many chairs round them, and bad furniture, and nothing up on the walls, and everyone’s tired. That fascinates me, the idea of going to the heart of the Roman Empire and discovering that inside the buildings in Rome, people were running around not quite knowing what was going on.”
What better player than the vice president to depict that juxtaposition? Iannucci decided on a female veep so viewers wouldn’t mistake her for the current one, and also to acknowledge the likelihood of a woman taking that office (or higher) in the near future. Played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Selina is, refreshingly, as messed up as any man, a point of pride for the writers. Iannucci says that he always writes gender- and colorblind; he just wants them to feel real.
“It’s brilliant to write for such funny and strong female Characters,” says Pritchett, who joined the staff this season. “And I sort of include Gary [Selina’s aide]—he knows a bit more about lipstick than me.” The only female in the writers’ room, she jokes that “nobody is remotely interested in my expertise as a woman.” Pritchett calls London a small comedy world and has worked with just about everyone there previously. But: “I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a show in 20 years where I haven’t been the only woman,” she points out. “We’re behind you over here. It’s lovely working in the States where it’s more of a normal thing for a woman to be part of the process. You’re definitely good at that—and on-set catering is another thing that the Americans should be proud of.”
The Master of Her Domain
If you have yet to see Veep, think of The West Wing and then replace every honorable intention and uplifting speech with amorality and a whole shitload of curses. If you don’t like to hear the C-word, the D-word, the F-word, the other C-word, or any number of poetic combinations therein, Veep might not be for you.
In their research for In the Loop, the writers learned that there’s less swearing in D.C. than in Westminster, so they toned things down a wee bit from the film and their Thick of It days. “There’s less of that kind of baroque cussing in Veep, partly because the office is more respected in Veep, regardless of people’s politics, whereas the office of a minister in the British government has no respect,” says Blackwell. “Nobody gives a damn about them.”
They still manage to reach the heights of depravity with shocking regularity. Here are a few of their personal favorites:
Pritchett: “In the first season when something awful happened, Selina said, ‘I can feel my soul sliding out of my ass.’”
Martin: “I like Selina’s version of D.C.—‘Washington, District of Cunts.’ And her brutal summary of the patriarchal political system—‘Axis of Dick.’ And her asking Jonah if he likes sex and travel, then telling him to fuck off.”
The aforementioned Jonah is White House liaison, and a particularly beloved target. Examples, courtesy of Roche: When Selina hears that someone tried to use Jonah for intelligence, she replies furiously, “That’s like trying to use a croissant for a fucking dildo…It doesn’t do the job, and it makes a fucking mess.” Another character tells Jonah, “You’re Frankenstein’s monster if his monster was made entirely of dead dicks.” And Roche and Iannucci share a fondness for: “What are you laughing about, Jolly Green Jizzface?”
“That might have been Julia who came up with that,” Roche says. That’s the closest any of the writers can come to attributing lines to anyone; even the curses are collaborative.
“It’s usually the nicest, quietest of them are the ones who come up with the absolutely foulest, most horrible insults,” says Iannucci.
The group seems to be quite nice in general. So how do they come up with such nastiness? “Maybe that’s the real us,” Blackwell suggests. “Maybe all this British niceness and politeness is a terrible front and we are these dreadful creatures.” He undercuts his theory by adding that he’s managed to shock himself with some of the language he’s written.
“For writers, it is pretty cathartic to have a horrible character to vent through,” Martin writes. “I can’t vouch for myself, but the other writers are lovely and generous and supportive. It’s great when you get a character like [Congressman] Roger Furlong to write for. Casual homophobia, sadism, ruthless bullying. It’s not that you’d secretly like to be like that, just that it’s quite liberating to take your mind for a walk on the wild side sometimes.”
Iannucci takes issue with the idea that the characters are quite so terrible; their problems stem more from low self-esteem than venality. “They turn their volume up a little bit louder to compensate for their own insecurities about where they stand and what other people make of them.” He insists that he thinks well of political figures—or rather, he believes they’re human, and thus as capable of mistakes as the rest of us. Unfortunately, those mistakes are then trumpeted in the eternally churning media cycle.
“In the UK I tend to get people saying, ‘Aren’t you demeaning politics, aren’t you putting people off politics?,’ and my answer was always, in both Thick of It and in Veep, I think it’s actually the elected politician who’s the most sympathetic character, the one that you feel for.”
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
Iannucci’s bag of dicks—er, tricks—includes slightly reinventing the group’s working method every so often. In Season 2, he started adding more writers to the set to throw out lines during filming. That often includes the writers for the upcoming episode, since their work is going to be informed by any changes that take place on set. They write in England and shoot in Baltimore and its environs, otherwise he’d probably have the whole lot of them on set the entire time.
Blackwell first started working for Iannucci in earnest on The Thick of It and still sounds amazed by the level of involvement the writers were given on that show. “We were all in different parts of the country, and he would say to the production office, ‘Treat the writers like actors, get them a car in to set in the morning,’” recalls Blackwell. “He wants the writers there, on set by the monitors, always having some further input into making the show. In terms of England, that’s an extraordinary thing. Writers don’t get cars and taken places, writers get told to go away ordinarily, or get the bus.”
Iannucci cannot fathom why writers wouldn’t be included. “Again, compared to the cost of the filming, it’s not a huge cost to have the writers there as well. And they’re such an amazing resource to have on set, why not have them?”
As with the written drafts, there is almost no end to the writing on set. “You give three alternatives to a line— a straightforward comic one, and then you give one maybe a bit more left field, and then you give a really surprising one,” Pritchett says, “often your third one leads to someone else to think of a third thing that they would have never thought of.” They keep spurring each other on until the last frame is shot. “It’s fantastic working with a lot of writers where there’s no ego involved; there’s no one being precious about a Line or a scene.”
It’s a highly democratic process, in which the best line wins—but not always the biggest joke. “Sometimes you come up with a line,” says Pritchett, “and Armando will say, ‘No, that’s too funny; nobody would think of that in the heat of the moment.’ So it doesn’t go in.”
Iannucci offers that he doesn’t make such a cut too often. “Sometimes you’ll laugh at the line on the page, but you think, Actually for that character to say that line just at that moment pulls the whole reality apart, because it feels like they’re pausing just to say that line. Sometimes I find in the edit [that] I’m taking out some of my favorite lines, just for that reason. They’re kind of undermining the comedy by being funny, if you see what I mean. Because what’s funny is the look on that person’s face, the fact that they’re frozen in fear, rather than that they’ve got time to think of a beautiful metaphor to describe the situation.”
For Season 3’s switch-up, Iannucci decided to pair off his writers, who previously wrote solo. He’s blowing up the show a bit, moving the characters out of their comfort zones, so he thought he’d do the same with the writers.
He also sat down with each of the actors and asked them how they saw their characters—their greatest ambitions and worst fears. Then he shared that information with the writers, to use against the characters.
With all the painstaking work that goes into making it look spontaneous, Iannucci still leaves plenty of room for chance. He has no idea how the series is going to end and doesn’t even figure out how a season will wrap up until about halfway through the year. That way, if some new idea for a plot twist pops up, they can run with it. “Since you haven’t written in stone what you want the arc to be, then you have the freedom to play around,” says Blackwell. “He wants to keep it as playful and creative as possible for as long as possible.”
Draft after draft after draft.
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