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Armando Iannucci On His New Film Retelling Classic 'David Copperfield' Story


In "The Personal History Of David Copperfield," Armando Iannucci uses Dickens' 1850 novel, which I will not curse by calling it a classic, as the base paint to portray the life of a man from birth to parenthood who makes use of his memories - sometimes bitter, sometimes biting - to tell stories. The film stars Dev Patel, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton and Peter Capaldi, who here plays a dreamer schemer who instructs a young David on London's rich opportunities for plunder.


PETER CAPALDI: (As Mr. Micawber) London is full of more wonders and wickedness than all the cities of the earth.

JAIRAJ VARSANI: (As Young David) Cities?

CAPALDI: (As Mr. Micawber) And it's ours, David, to go wherever we choose.

SIMON: Armando Iannucci directed and co-wrote the film. Of course, he also created "Veep" and "The Death Of Stalin." He joins us from an undisclosed remote location. Thanks so much for being with us.

ARMANDO IANNUCCI: Thank you very much. Nice to be here from my undisclosed location.

SIMON: I should've asked where it is, but it's none of my business, is it?

IANNUCCI: (Laughter).

SIMON: What made you want to retell this story in your own way?

IANNUCCI: I've always been a huge, huge fan of Charles Dickens. And when I reread "David Copperfield" I think about eight or nine years ago, I was struck by how modern it was as a book. It talks about very contemporary themes like identity, the search for identity. Status anxiety and imposter syndrome I think are the titles we would give to these neuroses now. He's someone who's just worried that he doesn't fit in. And it also has, you know, themes that unfortunately are still with us, like poverty, homelessness.

I've always thought that adaptations tend to be a bit (unintelligible) about just telling the plot, whereas for me, the marvel of the book is the language, the imagery, the kind of delight and humor in great characters and personalities, as well as these, you know, big, important themes.

SIMON: Your cast is very diverse - Asian, South Asian, African Anglos. In addition to the fact that this gives talented actors a chance to play plummy roles set in Victorian England, does it also help you turn the film into your kind of dreamscape?

IANNUCCI: Well, you know, as I say, this story is about a celebration of community. It's about - in the end, the conclusion that they all reach is that it doesn't really matter who you are in terms of where you come from, what your background is, what your status is. It's how you behave that defines you. It's your personality that defines you and how you connect with other people.

But also, in the U.K. in particular, we have this enormous industry of making period drama. And I think it's important, if we are going to keep making these stories, that we draw from 100% of the amazing acting talent available to us.

SIMON: David, of course, is beaten as a child by his stepfather, sent to work in a bottle factory. I think he's 12. Is that when he begins to use stories to kind of lift his sights in life?

IANNUCCI: I think that's right. I think David spends a lot of the film in a Zelig-like way, becoming other people, becoming the people he mixes with, and then realizing that he's only truly himself when he makes something of it, when he writes it down, when he turns it into a story - you know, when he doesn't try to be the person he's with, but when he tries to reimagine the person he's with in his writing.

SIMON: I love the kite-flying scenes. This is Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick.


SIMON: I was about to call him an eccentric, but maybe he's just British.

IANNUCCI: Well, he's more than that. He's - I think Mr. Dick is the first honest portrayal, I think, in English literature of mental illness. He has a mental illness. He's trying to write this petition, but he's interrupted because he keeps hearing the thoughts of Charles I before he was executed in his head. The only way he can get rid of these thoughts is writing them on a kite and flying them.

SIMON: So David begins to turn some of his worst memories, experiences into stories...


SIMON: ...To take hold of the maybe. And as we know now, that's what Dickens was doing. Has that been a path for you in life, too?

IANNUCCI: You know, I spent the last 30 years thinking, I wonder what I'll do when I get a proper job. And, in fact...


IANNUCCI: ...I now realize that my proper job is as a writer, and that's what David's conclusion is (laughter). And also now, I think we've come to realize the power and the kind of necessity for stories. You know, we've all gone through this strange period of lockdown, of being at home. And how did we get through it? We watched films. We watched television. We read more. We've realized how important storytelling is, actually.

SIMON: Most of all, David wants to be considered a gentleman. Does he discover that money, class, in the end, don't have everything to do with that?

IANNUCCI: Well, a great thing Dickens does is he makes a hero someone who has lots of flaws. And, you know, the opening words in both the book and the film are, whether I turn out to be the hero of my own story.

David is someone we root for. He's always someone we feel for and we want to succeed. But, you know, he makes wrong decisions in amongst this kind of angsting over whether he's going about things the right way. But I think that's what's appealing about Dickens is that he writes heroes who aren't goody-goody, you know, who are human, who are fallible and who make mistakes. And yet, we still will them on to survive.


SIMON: Armando Iannucci - his film, "The Personal History Of David Copperfield" - thank you so much for being with us.

IANNUCCI: A pleasure. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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