How do you make the brutal life and miserable death of Stalin into one of the funniest films of the year? Ask Veep creator Armando Iannucci, who has done just that with The Death of Stalin, which premiered at TIFF before taking a Sundance bow this weekend. The secret? Play to the lunacy of the real history. “I just found the more we researched, the more stuff we uncovered and the funnier it got in a strange way,” said Iannucci.
The story, for example, about how Stalin’s son offed the entire national hockey team in a plane crash when he insisted they fly through a storm, and then scoured around for any old amateur to cobble together a new team. “He couldn’t admit it to his father,” Iannucci said. “This is all true and it’s depressingly realistic.”
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The film follows the upper brass of Stalin’s cabinet as they jockey for power and struggle with the best way to deal with the death of their great leader. Joining Iannucci in the studio were Andrea Riseborough, who plays Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, and Jason Isaacs, who plays over-decorated war hero-in-his-own-mind Georgy Zhukov.
Riseborough expounded on her research process – picking up a hefty volume dedicated to the life of Svetlana and grappling with the psychology of a woman who doted over her father, despite him happening to be one of the most feared and fearsome men on the planet. “To sort of imagine what it must have been like to take that surname and legacy through your life, and revere someone who was so close to you and really live in fear that that person is taking away aunts and uncles weekly… she was a very distressed figure,” Riseborough said.
Isaacs, meanwhile, “looked at Wikipedia and the photograph, and that was my research.” Never mind, his performance is just as uprorious. “It’s no joke to say I got the character from the script and one photograph there was of this insanely proud, eager, maniacal man puffing his chest out wearing a thousand medals.”
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