It will not take viewers very long to pick up on the fact that The Personal History of David Copperfield is unlike your typical stuffed-shirt period piece. Yes, there are elegant dresses and frocks, and men wear waistcoats and extremely tall hats, and horses and street urchins skitter along the avenues of a distinctly 19th century Londontown. “Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own story, or that station will be held by somebody else, these moments must show” says the title character, paraphrasing the famous opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel. [Spoiler: He will indeed turn out to be the hero of his own story. See title.] What sets it apart from the legion of other adaptations of this socially conscious tale regarding a pilgrim’s progress, however, is that young master David is not narrating this first-person introduction to his tragedies and triumphs. He is reading it onstage in a theater, to a crowd of cosmopolitan, high-society swells, much as Dickens himself did after the book’s publication.
And then, having set the scene for the audience, Copperfield — wonderfully played by actor Dev Patel — turns and walks into the scene itself. Striding away from a row of patrons now seated in a field, he enters the house where, as a baby, he will enter a sometimes cold, sometimes charitable world. It’s one thing to hear the book’s first line, “I am born,” recited over a film’s soundtrack, and another thing to see David actually witnessing his own birth. Later, giant hands will come through ceilings, memories will play out on makeshift movie screens behind characters, a drunken night out turns into a silent-comedy interlude, and both fourth walls and literal walls will be repeatedly demolished. It ain’t your dad’s Dickens, in other words. Yet this imaginative, irreverent, borderline manic take on the author’s highly autobiographical story somehow nails the spirit of his writing perfectly.
For writer-director Armando Iannucci, it’s also the culmination of a lifelong fanaticism about the author’s work, an opportunity to play alongside a dream cast of performers (not just Patel, but also Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Benedict Wong, Gwendoline Christie, Nikka Amuka-Bird and Peter Capaldi) and a chance to mount what he calls “a celebration of British comedy, and British community.” A major figure in U.K. comedy for decades, the 56-year-old filmmaker is best known on these shores for a certain type of scathing, poetically profane political satire — he’s the man behind In the Loop, a 2009 extension of his TV show about a government fixer (The Thick of It), and the creator of HBO’s merciless, Emmy-winning Beltway takedown Veep. After turning the graphic novel The Death of Stalin into the darkest comic take on authoritarianism imaginable in 2017, however, Iannucci began to entertain the idea of transforming the sprawling Copperfield into a concise, creatively boundless story of a life. “And to do it within a limit of two hours,” he wryly notes. “That was my goal.” (He made the mark with one minute to spare.)
Both an ensemble piece and an extraordinary showcase for its leads actor, The Personal History of David Copperfield does justice to the humor, humanity and sensibility of the source material. But you can hear Iannucci’s voice here as well, in addition to his inspiration regarding how Dickens told stories — you sense that the “personal history” tin the title takes on two meanings. (It opens in select U.S. theaters today, and hopefully very, very, very, very soon on VOD.)
On a Zoom call from his house outside of London, the writer-director talked about why he felt it was time to take this adaptation on, what it means to be putting this film out now, whether some types of political comedy have become obsolete (and what works in terms of tackling this particularly fraught moment), and more.
Your relationship with the book itself goes back quite a ways, and you’ve hosted programs on Dickens for the BBC. At what point did it occur to you that this novel was something you wanted to adapt?
I think when I reread the book about eight or nine years ago — around the time I had done the documentary [2012’s Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens] — I thought, I can see this as a film. I just didn’t know when I would do it. Or how, really. It wasn’t until I’d made The Death of of Stalin, which was the first time I’d worked on someone else’s material and the first time I’d done a historical period piece, that I thought, Oh, I know how to do something like this now. Plus we built up this amazing team around Stalin, in terms of sound and music and costume and makeup and set design. Somewhere around the last day of shooting, I went running to all the department heads of department and said, “David Copperfield — you want to join me in doing it?” Just to trap them before we all disbanded and went our separate ways. [Laughs] They all said yes. Two years later, there we were, right in the middle of it.
Do you feel differently about the book — or about Dickens’ work overall — having adapted Copperfield for the screen?
I kind of want to go back to it again. I mean, I went through Dickens’ novel very, very closely as we were starting on the script — there was a lot of jotting notes down, making lists of elements from the book. I’d find all of the great lines and descriptions that Dickens had given a character, and then put it all in a sort of individual dossier. Then once we’d done that, the actual writing process involves not looking at the book at all. You have to think of it in terms of a film that has a beginning, a middle and an end of its own at that point. You have to separate the two a bit.
So now I’m slightly intrigued to re-read the book, just to try and remember how much we kept and how much we changed. It’s nice when people come up and say a line that they liked and they compliment me or [cowriter] Simon [Blackwell]. And I say, no actually, I think that was in the book. You may want to save your thanks for that Dickens fellow. On the other hand, if somebody says, oh, that was a great line that Dickens came up with, and they happen to mention one of Simon’s lines — I’m more than happy to correct them.
I feel like you should steal all the credit you can, Armando. Tell everybody you wrote the book David Copperfield as well.
[Laughs] It is amazing how ready-made his dialogue is. The first thing Simon and I did, just as an experiment, was to try and write a script made up entirely of Dickens’ own writing. just in terms of dialogue and the descriptive passages, it was wonderful … and it wasn’t a film.
But it was a useful exercise because it then made us think, OK, now we now have to step in. You have to be quite bold in compressing stuff, losing stuff, changing stuff. If a character risks disappearing for something like 45 minutes of screen, then maybe we find them something else to do. Or maybe it makes more sense to give this person’s line to David or Micawber. As a director, the question is always: What is this film about? What do I want the audience to be seeing or thinking at this or that stage?
The book is crammed with incident — you could have made a six hour miniseries of it.
You could have! But I wanted people to feel that watched a life being lived … and I think you can only do that in one continuous viewing rather than a series of episodes. It’s a story about imagination and memory, and frankly, it’s easier to carry the memory of something you saw an hour ago rather than try to revisit something from five episodes ago. You can do it, but for me, doing it in one two-hour shot — it just really hit home.
And I wanted to make something that was more a celebration of the language, the characters, the power of writing and imagination. Everyone tries to make sense of their life and their experiences; we always keep asking ourselves, have I done the right thing? Have I arrived? Do I fit in? I thought you have to do it in one continuous, two-hour narrative. Besides, the plot is not the most important thing in the book. What’s important is the sense of a life, in all its richness and variety, being made sense of through its connection with people that he loves and who love him.
You’ve mentioned that you’d seen Dev Patel in Lion and that film had sparked the idea that he could make for a good David Copperfield, right?
I’d already been thinking of Dev before that. He’s been known in the U.K. since he was about 16, thanks to a TV show he was in called Skins, being a very gawky and awkward teenager, very bright, very funny. And obviously, he’s great in Slumdog Millionaire. I had never met him, but I knew of him as someone who had charm and comedy chops.
But David, in the end, has to be centered and focused and strong. He has to rise above it. And it was when I watched him in Lion and I was struck by the stillness and strength of his performance — that’s the point where I literally nudged my wife and just said, He’s our David Copperfield! Even the Dickens family, after they’d seen it, had told me they can’t imagine anyone else as the character. He’s now fixed in their head as as David.
The Copperfield of the book is more like a Candide figure where the world is thrust upon him. He’s a much more active person in terms of his ambitions and initiative here.
He’s a kind of neutral observer in the book, isn’t he? In the film, he sort of has to be the center of it. He has to generate the energy rather than the absorb it. Yes, he’s very chameleon-like and to try and blend in. So we gave him aspects of Dickens’ personality since it was such an autobiographical role anyway.
You know, Dickens’ children talked about how they could hear him upstairs writing — how he would become the characters. He’d look into the mirror and talk to them, have conversations with them, imagine situations for them … and then write it down. So I gave all that to David, as well as the idea that he’d someone who’s always writing stuff down and mimicking people that he meets. Interestingly, Dev has talked about how, when he was at school, he was the one who was the resident clown. He wasn’t sporty, wasn’t part of the cool set. So he would get kudos by being the funny guy.
He has really good comic timing.
Amazing comic timing. Just before we started filming, we did a kind of camera test with the actors were in their costume and makeup, just to make sure we had the look right. But there was no sound. And I was watching Dev come out from behind a screen with a top hat on, kind of strutting with his elbows up as if he were a man of the world. I just thought: It’s like watching Chaplin! Looking back at these mute rushes of Dev, you realize he could have been a silent comedian.
You’re making what is essentially a heritage film, and you’re casting a British Asian actor in that role. There’s never the sense that you’re trying to make a statement by casting Dev — yet you are making a statement by casting him nonetheless, don’t you think?
Well, I wanted to make the film as if that particular argument had already been settled. I mean, yes, this is film set in 1840, and we go to a lot of trouble to get the authenticity of the wallpaper, the dresses, the mad hairdos…all of that. But the story’s emphasis on about memory, imagination, identity, self-identity, status, anxiety, marginalization — these are all current themes. I want the people onscreen living in their present day to connect with the people watching it now, in our present day. I wanted the people to feel at any point that they could have stood up and walked into the film. They wouldn’t feel lost, you know, because it still resembled the world outside of the theater. That was important.
When people put on a top hat or a big dress, they talk like, [posh exaggerated voice] “We’re striding around London town!” I kept saying, don’t act like you’re in “the past.” You’ve got to feel you’re in the present.
Really, I cast Dev because I just thought he would be the best person for the part. Why can’t I cast from 100 percent of the acting community? There’s so many fantastic actors, especially those five, six years coming out of youth drama and drama schools. If we are going to carry on making these heritage period pieces, we can’t be saying to a sizable proportion of talented people: There’s no part for you in this. That doesn’t make sense.
I completely agree. But look at something like Hamilton, which casts the founding fathers of America with nonwhite actors — that does say something. And in a lot of ways, giving the world this particular version of the plucky young British boy who’s making his way through London society does say something as well.
No, you’re absolutely right. And also, these things are classics because they have a kind of everyman, every-time connection. Which is why we keep retelling these stories and restaging them because they still say something. I said to cast and crew, let’s pretend that no one’s ever made a period drama before, and therefore there are new rules as to how to do it “right.” Let’s just tell our story and everyone live in the present day. You know, when people put on a top hat or a big dress, they start to talk like, [posh exaggerated voice] “We are striding a-round-Lon-don towwwwn!” I kept saying, don’t do that. Don’t act like you’re in “the past.” You’ve got to feel you’re in the present.
So how do you make a film like that yet also doesn’t feel reactionary to those old period films — more “I want to make it feel modern” and not just “I don’t want it to feel like a Merchant Ivory production or Masterpiece Theater.”
Right. Look, I love those dramas. I just didn’t want to reference them here. I wanted everybody, but especially people who may not know anything about the book of the time period, to be drawn into it. I felt what I wanted was like us to be like a troupe of actors just coming on and telling a story in front of you. It’s partially why what little special effects we use, I tried to do them in camera or use old theater tricks. We’re so used to CGI that it’s no longer magical. It’s the norm. So I thought, well, if it if we have to transition for one thing to the next, why not just let the set fall away? Why not build a small wooden shack on the edge of a cliff, so the wall blow away and you’d see the storm raging out of the next scene? I wanted audiences to get reintroduced to the idea of, This is a story. It’s all storytelling—and the film is a celebration of storytelling. It starts with someone coming on stage and saying, I don’t know if I’m the hero of this story or not. We’ll have to find out.
Is this the first adaptation of David Copperfield in which you are actually supposed to feel sympathy for Uriah Heep?
I’m glad you asked that, because when you go back to the book, you realize that yes, he’s the villain of the piece — but everyone is quite cruel to him. Other than the fact that he’s leeching off people, he started off with life being dealt a bad hand. As we were talking about the character and rehearsing his scenes, we kind of felt like Uriah and David, they’re both roughly the same age. They were born in roughly the same kind of set of circumstances — it’s just that the decisions they’ve made in life have put them on slightly divergent path. Uriah is kind of cautionary tale: That could have been David’s story. When you come to that conclusion, I think there’s something kind of slightly moving about his anger over not having the comfort and convenience that everyone else he’s working for has. And he’s then decided to deal with a slightly different way.
There’s a Q&A online in which someone asks if Uriah Heap is supposed to be this Trumpian figure…
Well, Uriah has a bit of a plan, whereas Trump doesn’t have a plan at all. He is all reaction. There’s no sense that he’s masterminding what’s happening. At all.
Do you think it is possible to do political humor now?
It’s difficult because by the time you’ve made it, it’s already out of date — things are changing so fast. I think the political humor that’s really hitting home right now are the things you’re seeing by people like John Oliver, who has an almost immediate, journalistic response to things. That, and a team of researchers. If Trump is all about the noise, the chase for ratings and the obsession with status, it’s now comedians who are obsessed with facts. They’re the ones who dig around and say, Well, actually you said this. Or people like Sarah Cooper, who’s been lip-syncing Trump on Twitter — things that have this urgent, almost rapid-fire responses to everything that’s happening. They’re effective. The long term comedic response — I think we think about that in about 10 years time.
What will be hilarious is that, if Trump loses, we’re going to get 12 months of the Republican Party going, “Yeah, all that stuff we said? We didn’t mean all that was. We understand. He was bad.” That would be hilarious.
Christ Almighty, please God, don’t! https://t.co/Q7LoY49nhH
— Armando Iannucci (@Aiannucci) August 4, 2020
Somebody had tweeted the Axios interview on the HBO interview with the Veep theme and credits added on to it, and you tweeted back…
“Please god, no!” [Laughs] Yeah. No, thank you.
When this movie opened in England, someone had asked why you weren’t making “political” comedies right now. And you said that yes, you could have kept engaging in this political dialogue, especially in light of what’s been happening in the U.K. over the past four years. “Or I could illustrate why I love this country, the vibrancy, the liveliness, the eccentricity and humor. I feel lucky to have been born in Britain and be able to work in a fantastic comedy heritage and industry.”
Which was a big reason why I went back to Dickens. He’s a key part of that legacy. When we made The Death of Stalin…it’s a movie about atrocity and an authoritarian government, which is obviously still a huge concern. But when we’d finished making that film, I specifically wanted to make something that celebrated the sense of community in Britain. Because during the last three years with Brexit and all that, it’s easy to think of Britain as being a divided, insular, isolationist nation. And actually, we’re a funny, generous, outgoing majority of people in one of the most diverse, generous and kind-hearted of of countries. I do not want Britain to be labeled as part of the Trump narrative.
Do you feel that you accomplished that with this movie? Do you feel like you were able to get that celebration you wanted on the screen?
I kind of feel…. It pleases me when people say that they feel uplifted by the end of the film. Even though you see hardship and the downs as well as the ups they feel that yes, it’s a celebration. We will get through this.
It’s a beautiful celebration of creativity as well. You literally end on the sound of a pen scratching against paper.
Absolutely. Yes. I knew that was how I wanted to end the film. I mean, we shot that very last scene in an hour. I knew how I wanted it to look, and I knew exactly what I wanted people to feel when the credits started rolling. We did it quickly, because I wanted that urgency. He’s getting it all down at that moment. I wanted to capture that feeling before it was gone.