I‘ve always wanted to make a comedy. Ever since I sat in crowded cinemas and laughed at Annie Hall, Airplane!, This is Spinal Tap and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I’ve wanted to make grown-ups laugh with large groups of strangers in a darkened room. I knew I wanted to make a screwball comedy; a fast-talking, unstoppable burst of one-liners and sharp-mouthed characters. It was a tall order, of course; you need a good story for one of those.
I had to wait a long time for a good enough story to come along. It had to be utterly impossible to take seriously, so I was as surprised as anyone when that story was inspired by the U.S. and U.K. invasion of Iraq.
I’ve never thought comedy diminishes a serious topic by making it funny. If anything, it probes the subject with unpredictable scrutiny. The more I scrutinized life in Washington, the more humor I found.
In the Loop is set in the mid-level departments of power in Washington and London, just as the U.S. and U.K. are preparing for an invasion of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. It’s clearly based on what happened six years ago in Iraq, but has enough of a nod to the future to keep the audience unsettled.
At all times, I want the audience to be debating whether what they’re witnessing is fact or fiction, so I went in search of facts to dress up in my fiction. I went to D.C. and discovered that most offices are staffed by twentysomething graduates with degrees in Strategic Vision from Universities of Governance who don’t know how to wire a plug.
I met a junior staffer who, at age 22, was sent to Baghdad to help draw up the Iraqi Constitution. I heard about high-level meetings at the Pentagon where, when someone would ask, “What do we do in Iraq after we’ve invaded?” everyone else would just look at the floor, like kids in a classroom praying that the teacher won’t call on them.
I met with a CIA guy who told me they got all their intelligence from the Baghdad newspapers, since those turned out to be far more accurate than anything their undercover people were sending. It was a disarming revelation of human fallibility until he pointed out that, “as a result, people got killed. And I don’t like that.” He said it with the look of a man who knows how to empty someone else’s bowels simply by touching a vein.
I learned the golden rule in D.C.: Never leave a meeting. If you leave a meeting, you leave power. I heard how former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used to teach her staffers “Bladder Diplomacy,” which was how to last in a meeting for up to six hours without going to the bathroom (only sip, never swallow).
There’s a scene in In the Loop where the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State is distraught at having to leave a departmental meeting because her gums are bleeding. She’d rather stay and cram her mouth with paper.
I took my research and collaborated with a team of seasoned U.K. comedy writers—Simon Blackwell, Jesse Armstrong, Tony Roche and Ian Martin—and between us we fashioned a story.
We spent time feeding the details of reality into the comic twists. I wanted the audience to see what they were watching and think, “This feels real,” and then think, “But it’s ridiculous,” and then think, “But does that mean reality is ridiculous?” And then think, “Yes, it does. Oh sh**!”
All my efforts were spent burying the artifice of moviemaking, storytelling and joke-cracking under the sheen of something real. I cast actors who could improvise. Mimi Kennedy, who plays the Assistant Secretary of State, is a seasoned sitcom actress; Zach Woods, who plays the ambitious State Department underling Chad, is a graduate and frequent performer at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York.
James Gandolfini, who plays a dove-ish general, really got into the swing of things by ringing up the Pentagon and asking if he could come and stay for a few days. They happily agreed. James took various four-star generals out to lunch and even had his hair cut at the Pentagon barber. He asked all the big guys if they’d ever killed anybody and some of them had to think a while before coming up with an answer.
I shot the film like a documentary. The sets were given a general lighting state and the actors had no marks to hit. Two cameras, both HD, were on the go at once; everybody was wired to radio mics and the actors walked into their offices and shot their scenes. I sometimes never said ‘Cut.’
I told the amazing DP, Jamie Cairney, who has a sixth sense for knowing where to find comedy, to go where he wanted to go. I told him to cross the line and dirty the shots.
To make it feel real, I asked the actors to improvise around the script. Not to make things up, but to rough the lines up a little so that everything sounded spontaneous. The writers filled the script with so many one-liners and moments of eloquent exasperation that it would have been a barbaric waste to ignore it, but I wanted it to sound as if these lines were genuinely the first and only things the characters would say. So often politics functions with loads of people just making things up as they go along that it’s nice to get that feeling captured on film.
Our writers were there all through the shoot so we could keep improvising and rewriting as we went along. I wanted to bury the fact that this was a comedy or even that this was a film. I took jokes out if they felt too well-written, I dirtied up shots if they looked too neatly composed on the monitor and I gave new stuff to actors if they looked like they knew what they were doing too much. I kept ladders in shots when they should have been cleared away. The point was to make In the Loop look messy, replicating the chaos in which our real-life politicians are required to operate.
I didn’t want it to feel “directed.” I didn’t want beautiful panoramas and swooping crane shots and swelling string orchestras. I didn’t want the movie to feel like a movie, but instead like the only slightly edited rushes of real-life politics. I concluded that the more real it felt, the funnier it would seem. In the end, I took myself out of the film. I wanted it to feel director-less (despite the five-month edit).
I suppose I didn’t get to “direct” my comedy movie after all. But I still get to go to film festivals and be called a “moviemaker.”
In the Loop will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 12, 2010.