David Rasche, Zach Woods & Armando Ianucci – Taking Cheney/Rumsfeld to Task, Two Actors an
Armando Ianucci, Zach Woods and David Rasche at the New York Press day for “In the Loop.”
David Rasche, Zach Woods & Armando Ianucci
Taking Cheney/Rumsfeld to Task, Two Actors and a Director Step In the Loop
by Brad Balfour
When actor David Rasche came into the room, I knew this was going to be a different kind of interview session just as In The Loop is a different kind of political comedy. The 65-year-old Rasche was supposed to be joined by director Armando Ianucci and fellow thesp Zach Woods to conduct an intimate roundtable with four of us – but because Rasche was early – or on time – for us, our conversation was transformed, much like the shambolic supposedly “secret” committee meeting organized by Rasche’s character, the gung-ho American warmonger Linton Barwick (a cross between Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld) got transformed and provided a sort of pivotal moment to the film. In a similarly chaotic fashion, Rasche alone spoke with a couple of us before settling down with his fellow Loop-ers and provided some pivotal moments of his own.
Now distributed in the States, the British-produced film debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and, in New York City, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Based on – or rather, taking its cue from Ianucci’s smart and snarky look at the inner workings of British politics The Thick of It (kind of like The Office for politicos) – In The Loop follows Cabinet minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) through a series slip-ups that gets him involved in the ever-twisting gyre of intrigue that’s leads to getting a war started in the Middle East. Sounds familiar…
The film starred some of the series’ regulars such as Peter Capaldi (reprising his foul-mouthed communication chief Malcolm Tucker) and American additions such as former Soprano James Gandolfini as a war-reticent General Miller. Within this context, bumbling assistants and loose-tongued associates screw up and screw each other to a dry, droll, parodic effect. The film certainly doesn’t view previous British and American administrations as the pinnacle of political achievement.
In light of this summer’s health care debate with the right stirring the pot, the film serves as a reminder that the politics of diversion, derision and destruction as expressed by the opposition party goes on. So when a film like In The Loop offers this refreshing and engaging alternative take on the inner workings of the political universe, it becomes a must-see to add perspective.
In light of the health care debate with the Right stirring the pot, the film serves as a reminder that the politics of diversion, derision, and destruction as expressed by the opposition party goes on. So when a film like In The Loop offers this refreshing and engaging alternative take on the inner workings of the political universe, it becomes a must-see to add perspective. Certainly, it hit some resonant note; the film garnered an Adapted Screenplay nom for writers Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche.
Though Ianucci (also the primary writer and producer) with Woods (who plays Chad, a very funny American adjunct) finally arrived, what was supposed to be more of a roundtable, turned into a unusual back-and-forth of banter.
Was that just the roll of the dice that you ended up playing the bad guy, Linton Barwick?
David Rasche: Well you know, they made it a little bit harder in this movie [from the television show]. But that’s for Armando [to explain].
How did you see it?
David Rasche: I had a few rejoinders that were excised.
You did it so well. You have this way of doing it so that you don’t come off as just mean.
David Rasche: That sinister thing is there [though].
Is that you or in the script? I can’t believe all the things that Armando threw in there.
David Rasche: It’s terrific eh? Funny as hell. The timing was great; it’s global politics. As a matter of fact, I had a friend, Mike Reiss, who was one of the producers of The Simpsons, who said that he thought there are arguably more funny lines in this movie than in any movie he can remember.
But is it too complicated for Americans to get?
David Rasche: I’ve been in tons of audiences like in Seattle [at the film festival]; there were 3,000 people, all Americans, and they just were howling with laughter.
I saw it with critics and they didn’t laugh as much as I imagine an audience would. I was angry at them in a way but I thought it was astounding.
David Rasche: Really? I’m surprised because I have not seen that audience. The only audiences I’ve seen, big or small, have [been with the public].
You don’t even realize some of the lines are really funny until it hits you later; it’s so deadpan, and you’re so perfectly deadpan. David Rasche: It’s really funny, I have to tell you, I’ve been involved in two international projects in the last little bit and it’s absolutely remarkable what we bring to it. Like I did this Brazilian film and people are all saying “Oh, we don’t like you because you did so and so and so and so,” and I said, “What are you talking about?” And the same thing with this; with the British press, the Americans were almost completely ignored and all they could see is the Brits, and now here you’re asking me [about my character]; we see the Americans. It’s funny, what we bring.
David Rasche at the New York Press day for “In the Loop.”
Who were you a blend of? David Rasche: I was going for was a combination of John Bolton and Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice. All those imperious, belittling, condescending, right? Remember all those press conferences? It was like, “Do you really have to act like that? Do you really have to be so belittling and condescending?”
You added the imperiousness brilliantly.
David Rasche: I mean all of them, like David Addington [Cheney’s legal counsel and chief of staff]–do you remember him?–they were all so unpleasant.
Evil, evil people.
David Rasche: No, but as unpleasant as a person [can be]. In the hearings, talking over you, not listening, belittling your point of view, remember Condoleezza Rice? “Uh Senator.” Relax, Condi. Anyway.
I was at a Times Square New Year’s Eve with a press pass and John Bolton came to there. No one else had a problem talking to me, Regis, Chris Rock… But Bolton had a phalanx of security; you couldn’t even get 20 feet near him, and it was like, “What the fuck?” And he did not crack a smile the whole time.
David Rasche: They’re so self-important. Same thing with Cheney; he’s doing something that no American politician in the history of the union has ever done, that is breaking the silence [after a new administration has taken over] and starts screaming about you know… And the reason is, “Oh well what’s happening is so important, and I’m so important, I just have to.” Well you know, Dick, I don’t know if you’re that important.
It’s interesting seeing us filtered through a British cultural lens so that you see Americans in a whole different light. David Rasche: Oh yes you do. It’s a British film, from a British point of view. Don’t tell Armando I said that. But I think clearly it swung that way… I don’t think he knows it, maybe he does or not.
The most disappointing thing for you about it was that you didn’t get to be in every scene with everybody else, because there are so many good people there.
David Rasche: They had to cut a lot. I used to be but… You’ll have to ask Armando, and I don’t mean to misquote him, but I think he said that he got to the end of editing and knew stuff had to go so he cut his four favorite scenes and then all of a sudden the movie worked. I’m afraid I was in a couple of those scenes. His first cut was four hours.
Did this film feel like it had almost theatrical quality?
David Rasche: I never thought of that.
Without all the locations, it would have been interesting to see it with everything else taken away, and on a stage. Because there’s such smart, snappy dialogue, it reminds me of a lot of those British playwrights, you know [like Alan Ayckbourn] or somebody like that. It does kind of have this beautifully fluid language…
David Rasche: Well the story goes, as Armando will tell you, there was a special guy. No not Tony [Roche, one of the screenwriters]. I’m pretty sure is the guy was Ian Martin who provided, oh, additional dialogue. He specialized in swearing; you know all the crazy [British] swearing? I’m serious, they call this guy up; that was his specialty. When he would say “I’m going to rake your bone and I’m going to stab you in the heart” and all that stuff. “I will hound you to an assisted suicide,” I mean I don’t know which ones. “What are you in a Jane Austen novel?” and all that, a lot of that stuff–specifically that was what he was good at.
Do you see a difference between British and American humor? Is there something that doesn’t translate well?
David Rasche: Except for people like [play/film writer-director-producer] David Mamet, who I think is the exception that covers both bases – Armando is funny as hell but a lot of his humor is really verbal. It’s in the words, really it’s not that it’s a joke but it’s the combination of words. They’re a little more verbal than us, don’t you think? We’re more situations, sight gags, stuff like that. Well the nice thing about this too is there really aren’t any jokes. There are no like, jokes. It’s behavior and situation. Although I don’t want to misquote Armando, but I think he said that when he went through the film while was editing and any line, no matter how good it was, if it sounded written, he cut it, because he wanted it to sound like you really were overhearing [them talking].
You can’t lay it on the director, it’s all your fault. There are so many places where you are silent, so it’s all in your look, gesture, the walk forward, or walk over here, or look at this.
David Rasche: Tell him about how wonderful that is.
You got it down with just enough of the restraint – as everybody did in this film.
David Rasche: I’ve been watching those [Bush administration] guys on television for eight years. I mean, just it’s appalling, appalling, appalling behavior. And it’s obvious that now that we’ve had six months where we’ve learned you don’t have to do that. We have Joe Biden, we have Barack Obama, and I don’t see it. We have all the cabinet officers, you know, like Leon Panetta [current CIA Director], they’re not insulting.
The Republicans seem like whiny children now…
David Rasche: Absolutely. I think it was the fact that we ended up with the opposite of what they claimed. It seems to me that what we’re learning is that rather than strong men, they were very weak, and when 9/11 happened they all went [weird noise] and they started doing all this kind of extreme stuff because, unlike Roosevelt and those guys who said… “Hi.” They were really weak little boys and they did all kinds of bad things. It didn’t help anything, right? We’re finding out about all this eavesdropping, the effect of this was like, not much.
To what degree do you think we’re living in a democracy?
David Rasche: It’s pretty hard to say that we are anymore. It’s not that, it’s when we find out the influence of the banks and corporate America; we see now that when the banks can throw $25 billion in propaganda you can’t fight it. I was reading there’s a new organization that’s trying to counteract it, but it’s really hard. When they have everybody on TV, the only news stations, it’s like how can you fight it? It’s the same thing with the government; how can government regulators, when Goldman Sachs and all these people hire hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of the finest MBAs from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to find out how to get around the laws, we don’t have the money to hire people who are smarter than them to keep them from screwing us.
Did you need to read a lot of stuff?
David Rasche: I told you already; I’ve been watching these bastards for eight years on television, shaking my head, thinking, “Oh my god. Despicable.”
Whenever you see politicians they always seem so dry and boring.
David Rasche: Well they all aren’t. Rumsfeld wasn’t; he was a performer, the ultimate performer, who really enjoyed getting up there in front of people. Which was part of his problem – that he got carried away and was under the mistaken impression that everything that came out of his mouth was a gold nugget and in fact, I think that was not the case.
I’ve heard of the analogy of politics to wrestling. When you watch wrestling on TV there’s so much tension and conflict but outside of that…
David Rasche: That’s why President Obama, when he frames the argument of abortion as to let us respect each other’s opinions and then go from there, then the whole thing starts from a new spot. It doesn’t start from I hate you and you hate me.
You grew up in Chicago right?
David Rasche: Well I never really grew up; I “enlarged” in Chicago.
Where are you from originally?
David Rasche: It was a joke; you didn’t get it. I said I never really grew up but I enlarged. I was in Belleville, Illinois which is down-state but I spent a lot of time in Chicago.
You’ve got roots on the Obama side, but there’s also classic Chicago politics.
David Rasche: Not only that but Rumsfeld is from Chicago. Oh yeah. I know this personality type. My father was a little like that. Seriously. There’s this kind of stubborn, like that last line where he says “Well there were some pretty scary moments at some point right?” and I said “No there weren’t.” remember that? That could be my father, “No. No. No.”
How would you describe or define patriotism at its core?
David Rasche: The last refuge of scoundrels. Who said that? Jefferson or… I can’t remember. Benjamin Franklin? [ed. note: Samuel Johnson said “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”]
Speaking of scoundrels. There’s the man who played the good scoundrel. [Woods and writer/director Ianucci enter the room.]
David Rasche: I’m afraid I’ve used your best material.
Armando Ianucci at the New York Press day for “In the Loop.”
Don’t worry, He blamed you for enough things that you’ll now have to defend yourself sufficiently in order to survive.
Armando Ianucci: I’ll dig deep.
Question for you Armando: using a global stage here, did you find it different in your British comedy, as opposed to American comedy in regards to delivery, timing, and so forth?
Armando Ianucci: When we made the film there was no American money in it; it was all UK funded, so we’re not making it for a specific market. I just thought we’ll just do what we do and go for it really. Part of the process is very collaborative and it’s not like the Washington cast are just slotted in to the script. I think when we were casting you saw very early drafts of the script, I filmed the casting process so I when I went back to London I was able to show the writers and say “This is Linton. This is Chad.” Then they were able to see who it was and how they behaved. We sat an analyzed you so then they were able to write, because I always like to cast really early so when we’re writing we know exactly who this person is; what he looks like and how he sounds and whatever. So they’re able to write around the actors. We then came out to New York for a week and did a whole rehearsal process and a workshop and improvisation process with a writer coming out as well but with a British cast coming out. So the whole writing process starts evolving, it’s fairly organic really, and I also said to you “Look, this is how we’ve written it but if you think that’s not how he would say it…”
David Rasche: I don’t really remember that.
See he’s throwing it at you; it’s like it’s all your fault.
Armando Ianucci: But I remember you never turned up; it would always be some excuse.
David Rasche: What he did, we all speculate the reasons why but, the way it was shot was that I mean I think we were basically expected to say the words that were written which were usually pretty damn good so it wasn’t like you didn’t want to, and often times the rhythms and the words that were written were the best rhythms for the presentation. But then afterwards, if we had some time, he would say “Well let’s loosen it up a little bit,” and that meant say or do anything you want to, so we would improvise. And whether it was usable or not, sometimes it was, I think he used some of it, but it wasn’t depending on that, if we got a little extra that was good. But the other thing, and I don’t know maybe if it was you Zach who said that, was that the purpose that it served was it allowed us to sort of be ourselves without the constraints, to see where we would go.
You had some stuff Zach…
David Rasche: He had some stuff that was funny? Like what? I don’t remember that.
Armando Ianucci: But also it was to do with the fact, the loosening up process, you used some of the script again, but it just came out slightly differently. It just felt more naturally.
Was the dialogue purposefully fast paced?
Armando Ianucci: The pace is more from us having quite a tight schedule and just wanting to get through it as fast as possible. [laughs] And also I don’t suppose you had too much time to learn it, so there was a slight panic, because you know in politics they are making it up as they go along and there’s a slight dankness behind the eyes as they figure what to say next. But also the script was very thick actually, and the first assembly was about four hours fifteen minutes long, so the pace is really in the edit coming from trying to boil that down and get the essence of it.
Or trying to sell it as a miniseries.
Armando Ianucci: Oh yeah the DVD is that thick.
What I was saying was you had some specifically American kind of lines that you couldn’t have come up with if you had been writing it from a British… Did you contribute those? Were those some of yours?
Zach Woods: Because the process was so inclusive of your stuff over every phase; like we would rehearse and then some of that stuff that you improvised in rehearsal might make it into the script. It’s hard for me to keep track of what was and what wasn’t improvised. But I remember you would let us, when it was me and Anna Chlumsky, let us go for these long…
Armando Ianucci: Half an hour.
Zach Woods: Yeah of just like hostility. And at the end of which you’d just be totally tied up in knots. It’s hard for me to remember what was and what wasn’t.
Armando Ianucci: That’s a whole DVD extra in itself; the Chad and Liza hostility.
Did you learn any unique American phrases that you hadn’t?
Armando Ianucci: Well no but I remember in the casting process when I came across Zach and then had also met Anna and we got you back together didn’t we?
Zach Woods: Yeah.
Armando Ianucci: And I just said have a go at each other. And it was so funny because they just for half an hour you were at each other’s throats.
Zach Woods: Immediately antagonistic.
But how do you see the real difference between American humor and British humor?
Armando Ianucci: I don’t know because we get so much, I love things like The Daily Show and that smart, quick, one liner thing, and I’m a big fan of Woody Allen. I don’t know, I’ve never really seen it as there being a distinction, I’ve just always felt there’s a certain style of comedy that I like and I like a comedy of ideas and a comedy of sharpness or not, and talking down to the audience.
David Rasche: Well one thing, we had Minola Dargus I think said early on when she saw it at Sundance, they asked me and I said that maybe British comedy was a little more verbal, however what she said was that she thought it was the most fast paced dialogue since My Girl Friday. And if you look at those old ‘30s movies like The Front Page, it’s all words, it’s all rhythm, it’s all the same thing.
Armando Ianucci: And this is sort of underneath the language and the reality of it, the structure of it is very consciously a screwball comedy, farce. Watch Preston Sturges, you want to stop and go back and hear it again.
In your show The Thick of It, did you take from any of your style of doing that to this film? Because I’m looking at this and I’m saying Dr. Strangelove, modern day contemporary, you know?
Armando Ianucci: There’s an element; the shooting style from The Thick of It, we adapted it slightly but adopted that, and obviously Malcolm Tucker, the central character of The Thick of It makes the transition into the film, but I really wanted it to be of the same family of The Thick of It but not The Thick of It. I wanted new characters because it was a new topic and it had an international flavor and had a bigness about it in terms of the theme, although we never actually see the consequences…
David Rasche: They’re dealt with in a very trivial way.
Armando Ianucci: In a very trial way. [laughs]
Speaking of The Thick of It you also cast Peter Capaldi in that show so you obviously have a humor that he has.
Armando Ianucci: Yes. And because we knew his character I just felt we could take that character and it would be wholly formed already, so we knew we had something to work from.
But one of the things I was going to say specific to the humor question was that, when you see Steve Coogan’s character, I can’t imagine the American equivalent to that character. Maybe it’s just intrinsic to the culture. You have such eccentrics that seem to live within your culture like normal.
Armando Ianucci: Also I think it’s a shock to the American audience.
David Rasche: I don’t know though, I mean in a way like if you look at his characteristics, he’s very defensive you can see in an American character who is equally defensive about whether he has a cell phone or not.
Armando Ianucci: Right, yes.
David Rasche: I mean there are human elements that I think could translate, but he just happens to be within a very British… We don’t have backyards like that, we don’t have these jobs, like the Minister of whatever, it’s a whole different political system.
Armando Ianucci: That’s right. You’re older cabinet or whatever would not have to deal with members of the public.
David Rasche: No we don’t have that.
Armando Ianucci: Whereas in the UK every minister is also a member of parliament.
Well I guess what I was thinking was there’s this sort of, Brit’s sometimes seem to be aware of themselves being absurd, and maybe Americans aren’t. And then I was thinking well maybe that’s not so true, but it seems to me that it’s your sense of the absurd; I think that British culture has a profound sense of the absurd.
Armando Ianucci: But it all started really from what we wanted to do in the story was have Simon come out to Washington, get a little bit star-struck, go home feeling a little bit disappointed and yet when he got home, be faced with something that was so mundane that he actually started wanting to go, yearning to go back out to Washington. Because you saw that when Tony Blair came out and met George Bush and so there was an air of kind of “I’m on the world stage” but then he’d come back and he’d have to deal with schools and health issues and he had that kind of weary…
George Bush never dealt with that stuff.
David Rasche: He had another element, I am only gradually realizing. I didn’t tell you this, or maybe I emailed you, but I’m only gradually realizing how much of this movie is based on fact.
Armando Ianucci: Yes, yes, oh yeah.
David Rasche: I mean for instance, this Blair thing; now I didn’t know that but there you have the exact same thing happening. And I was at this [Bercher? 25:10] film festival – I wrote you about that – in this little town in Massachusetts and I didn’t really know that much about Alastair Campbell and so I googled Alastair Campbell only to realize that’s exactly what we’re doing. He’s sexed up, it really is exactly what happened. Tell them about Campbell and what he said about how he denied certain things.
Armando Ianucci: Well Campbell saw the film – Blair’s spin doctor – and he said “Oh it was boring.” [laughter] Which made me think, “Does that mean he’s seen it all before?” And he said, “The UK stuff, yeah that’s very believable, a lot of the American stuff, that wouldn’t happen. That whole thing with the committee that got bigger, that’s just farcical.” And I’m thinking “You have now picked on the one incident that actually happened, that we based an entire plot strand on,” because that genuinely happened; Cheney set up a committee called up Office of Future Plans.
David Rasche: Oh my God. I didn’t know that.
Armando Ianucci: To look into invading Iran and Syria. And they have a thing in Washington called “committee anxiety” which is are the committees you’re on the really important committees? And people on the Senate heard about the Office of Future Plans and said to staffers “Get me on that committee,” and it grew and grew and grew. Eventually the room was too small. Cheney shut it down and just started another committee three doors down.
David Rasche: Fantastic. I didn’t know this.
Armando Ianucci: You see?
David Rasche: I tell you, this movie… But another thing you said that Alastair Campbell, that people who knew him said the things that he denied were true were the things that were actually true and a lot of the stuff that he made up also happened.
Armando Ianucci: Yes, that’s right.
And in fact, wasn’t there a sex scandal that happened after the movie?
Armando Ianucci: As Simon Foster says, “I don’t want to stay at home spanking one to a shark documentary because if I watch a porno I’ll have to put it in a scandal rag’s interest. The week the film came out in the UK the home secretary, her husband, there was a big scandal about her expenses because her husband had put down a porn movie that he had watched at home on cable.
David Rasche: It’s remarkable, I mean really. If there’s something about these guys which is remarkable it’s their ability to see information that you and I may read about in the paper and to find to say, “Wait a minute, he what?”
Armando Ianucci: I was going through my notes that week because I did various trips out to Washington and met up with people, and I was thinking about Chad learning squash so that he can [what? 28:07] and that was based on people were saying that’s what they do. I was looking at my notes and I forgot some of the notes said, with Condoleezza Rice, because she was into music, various staffers took up a musical instrument started learning a musical instrument, so they could engage her in conversation about music.
Well the funniest thing about this movie is the minute you think, “Well wasn’t that a clever set of dialogue? Wasn’t that a brilliant scenario that you set up?” you realize, they do you one better in the real world. Who could have thought of the bathroom thing with that one senator? I mean slipping the thing under the door, it’s like how do you stay ahead of that?
Armando Ianucci: Well you can’t and in the end you find yourself just pushing it and pushing it and pushing it because you just think the real thing is so absurd that you cannot cross the boundary.
David Rasche: Well they also asked me if I thought that it would translate to American audiences and I just referred to Seattle where we had 3,000 screaming, screaming Americans watching this movie and just splitting their sides. And the only criticism I’ve ever heard from anybody of this movie is that the laughter was so loud they didn’t get all of the jokes. That’s the only criticism I’ve ever heard.