Scottish writer-director Armando Iannucci is most commonly acknowledged for his political satires (the films “In the Loop” and “The Death of Stalin,” the pseudo-documentary “Clinton: His Struggles with Dirt,” and the TV series “Veep,” which he also created). But no one who knows Iannucci’s reading habits is going to be surprised that he’s adapted and directed a feature film version of Charles Dickens’ “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” He’s been a big fan of Dickens since his school days.
And no one watching the film will have any doubt that Iannucci had the right instinct to go with the offbeat choice of casting Dev Patel in the title role of a young man trying to find himself, attempting to cover up his past when he should be celebrating it.
Another good reason to have Iannucci making this new version is that he’s got a great foundation in comedy and has managed to bring Dickens’ innate sense of humor to the fore. Iannucci, 56, chatted about the film in a recent Zoom call.
Q: Tell me about your own introduction to Charles Dickens.
A: When we first did Dickens at school - I think it was “Great Expectations” - I really enjoyed it, and I said I must read more Dickens. So, I read “Oliver Twist,” which is fantastic, then I read this book which no one else seems to have read: “Martin Chuzzlewit,” which is very funny. I later thought that the image we have of Dickens is of this stuffy, Victorian, melodramatic writer who writes about fog and crime, but here was this bright, sunny, hilarious jokesmith. What I also liked about him is he enjoyed being popular. He was the most famous writer in the world at the age of 25. Yet he wasn’t scared to use that platform to talk about difficult themes - like poverty, like child labor, like violence in schools and the injustice of the law - yet still keep it intimate, still keep it grounded in real life.
Q: It’s a huge book, yet you got the film down to about two hours. Did you make any rules about how you were going to adapt it, about the fact that you were going to leave things out?
A: The first rule is don’t be scared of it, don’t treat it as some ancient artifact that you must touch carefully with gloves on. I think a lot of adaptations get bound up in just telling the story. As if somehow, that is getting across the work. But for me it was about the language, the humor, the characters, the warmth, the playfulness about memory - and the unreliable narrator who might be remembering correctly or not. And you have to be aware that you’re making a film. You don’t want people to feel they have to pass a test before they get what’s here. I don’t care if you’ve never heard of “David Copperfield” or of Charles Dickens or of the 19th century. It’s a film; it’s got its own purpose and its own story and its own structure. It’s its own world.
Q: Why was Dev Patel your only choice to play the part?
A: I was a fan. I knew he could be funny and charming because I’d seen him in (the TV series) “Skins” and in “Slumdog Millionaire.” Then I saw him in “Lion.” And it’s such a different performance! It was like the opposite of what we think of Dev. At that point I elbowed my wife, Rachel, and said, “There’s David Copperfield.” I needed someone to do that range from wild energy to being still.
Q: You had a two-week rehearsal period with the cast. What went on in those sessions?
A: We all met for two weeks in a church hall. We had cups of tea, some biscuits, a few oranges, and that’s it, really. First, we have conversations, then play the scenes and tease them out, and see what other little ideas come up. But it’s also to just allow everyone to get to know everyone else, to get to know everyone else’s character. Of course, when you shoot the film, you do it out of story order. So, rehearsal gave us the chance to go through the story in the right order. And then when we’re on set, we can do it all quite quickly.
Q: Your films have had a lot of similar content and ideas, but have all looked and felt very different from each other. Has that been the plan?
A: I always find that with each one, I’m still learning. I learn something new from each project. I don’t feel I get anything from doing a film that was in the same vein as the previous film. I always feel I want to keep moving.
“The Personal History of David Copperfield” opens on Aug. 28.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.