Jesse Armstrong Interview
Firstly congratulations on In The Loop, I thought it was an absolutely bloody marvellous film. Definitely one of the best things I’ve seen this year.
Was there any apprehension about turning the show into a spin-off film? Were there any things you thought might not work?
Jesse Armstrong: That’s a good question. I think it’s really hard to do . I personally felt scared about writing for an American audience. One of the things about the TV show it feels quite real and insider-y and I was worried that it’d be difficult to catch that with American characters. Rising Damp is a real gem and an absolutely amazing TV and brilliant sitcom but the film is just a terrible film. And you worry that there’s something wrong, that sitcoms don’t make films. It was Armando’s idea but it fits in with the war and I think that helps enormously. I mean it’d a terrible analogy but if it hadn’t been about the war, then maybe it might not have worked. The film required a bigger canvas to make it work and that by its nature.
Did you find that there was much difference in writing for a film and writing for a series? With the series you’ve got longer plot arcs that you need to think about and perhaps don’t need to be instantly funny but for a film you’ve got a hour and a half to be funny immediately?
JA: Well we’ve done hour-long specials for The Thick Of It so it’s only really an extra half hour. With the Thick Of It, the scripts for the half hour shows come in at about an hour and a half and the scripts for the hour long specials come in about three hours and the scripts for the movie were coming in at about six, so we didn’t have much trouble getting to the length! And although we helped Armando come up with the structure of the movie, he keeps the feeling of the whole thing in his head so we helped devise what was going to happen but at a certain point the script became so enormous, that in the end it was only Armando that knew what the fuck was going on. Simon and I were left thinking, “well I know what I’ve done on Act 2 but I haven’t seen Act 1 for three weeks, so what the hell happened to that?”
Was the writing process very different from your work on Peep Show? I know you collaborate with Sam (Bain) on that anyway, but was the process different?
JA: Oh yeah, on Peep Show, me and Sam were the boss of each other and we’d collaborate fully and we’d iron out the little differences between us. But for The Thick Of It, Armando deals with everything so everything goes through him. We have a lot of autonomy to write whatever we want and we can push angles for characters and stuff but he’s the intelligence which makes characters coherent. So it’s much different, it’s quite nice in a way to give up a bit of responsibility, to just go, “here’s my best shot, good luck” rather than sitting in the edit going, “oh fuck…”
Can you tell us a little us a little bit about the improvisation? That must have been a real challenge for you and the team. How did that work? To me that sounds like an absolute nightmare.
JA: Well you need someone smart like Armando running the thing because there’s a fine and delicate balance of going to the rehearsal process with the script that you’ve worked that’s overly long and writing new material. Armando picks out a few scenes that he wants to have a look at and gets people to run them. Then he gets people to improvise around it and there’s usually always one of us writers in the room making notes about the good stuff that comes up and then we put our heads together afterwards and often great lines just come up because there are some really funny people in the show.
And sometimes you think, “well something they said here made me think that maybe we should do this”, so you get that level of improvisation which gets rewritten again into the script and it goes back out to the actors for what they learn. And on the day of shooting, Armando usually shoots a tight version which is scripted and then shoots loose ones as well with other ideas. But because we shoot in story order, you can have a thing where yesterday somebody noticed the funny tie and that’s becoming a little strand, so you might want to mention that again. And that gives the show quite an organic feel and things can come in at the last minute.
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison spoke at the press conference about the swearing in the film and how it was expertly constructed and timed and really quite precise. Peter Capaldi said something like, “The writers get really angry if you put a fuck in the wrong place.” Did you have marathon swear sessions? Did it get really competitive coming up with creative swearing?
JA: <Laughs> We weren’t all in the same room but we’d see each other’s drafts a lot. I don’t think it feels like that, it’s more “fuck that was a good one, I didn’t see that coming” so there was a certain level of…the fact that we’re all writing new bits and you want your bit to be good and be in the film gives you an added incentive to at least make it new and because of all the swearing and more verbal violence, you’re constantly looking for a new metaphor and expression of words. It’s useful to have the brains of three of four writers, Armando and the actors, it’d get stale otherwise.
I heard that you used to work for a Labour MP. Did that background come in handy? Any stories that you can tell us about local government – truth may be stranger than fiction?
JA: It was a long time ago before they were in government and I was quite crap. I was more of an Olly than a Malcolm Tucker. I had no access to anything like Jack Straw or anything. Mainly what I remember feeling is feeling a little bit inadequate and of pretending. You’ve got your shirt and tie on and you’re walking five paces behind this guy who wants to help run the country and you have that feeling I think you get in all jobs of “Am I going to get found out? I can’t really do this.” It’s even stronger when you might be about to start working at the Home Office and there’s prisons and drug policy around you and realise the Channel Islands has its own parliament. <laughs>. I think me and all the writers had a very strong sense of the humanity of the characters and these people are portrayed as being back biting but you should be to empathise with them because they’re not a million miles from what you would do in the same situation, especially if you’re an Olly.
I think I’ve come to the conclusion that no one knows what they’re doing.
JA: I think Armando would be happy to have that conclusion. <laughs>
Alistair Campbell said that the film was “unrealistic and unfunny” – he’s obviously wrong about the unfunny part but what do you think about it being unrealistic?
JA: I don’t see this as how politics is. But it’s only not what it’s like in the same way that all dramas are lies because you only take the most dramatic bits. Most of politics is about sitting around thinking about policy and how to present it at six o’clock at work and two weeks of hassle and one week of doing it during the day for a press conference. We just crammed all the exciting bits into a shorter space of time. It’s not what it’s like, however, it’s not a lie, and it’s enough of flavour of what happens for it to be worthwhile.
Moving to a more personal level now, your projects always seem to have a distinctly documentary feel to them. Why do you think that is? You have a fascination with people’s private thoughts.
JA: <Laughs>. I think…you’re talking about Peep Show now right? I think that I’m attracted to that format because I just find it funnier. There are lots of techniques you can use to make it seem more real and one of those is to film it like a documentary like The Thick Of It or from the characters’ perspectives like Peep Show. I just think what people are thinking is interesting and often funnier than what they do and the more real it is, the funnier it is.
How’s the writing for the new series of The Thick Of It going?
JA: Yeah, we’ve written about five out of eight episodes now so that’s going really well and should be out before the end of the year.
And Peep Show Series 6, how’s that coming along? I heard Channel 4 commissioned Series 7 without even having seen Series 6. That must have been reassuring?
JA: Yeah it was really nice that Channel 4 had that faith in us now, it meant that we could take a little bit more time over what we were planning. We’re finishing Peep Show Series 6 now, it’s in the edit. I think it’s coming out September the 18th…
I heard you’re writing a feature film with Chris Morris? Can you talk a little bit about that?
JA: Yeah, I’ve been working on a film of his which was originally called Four Lions which is about terrorism. Me and Sam did the original draft. It’s really exciting to be working with Chris actually being such an influential figure.
Lots of things to look forward to then!
In The Loop is out on DVD now.