The Death Of Stalin is a period movie set in Russia. Sounds like a departure for you.
I like to do stuff that feels like it’s stretching me. The Death Of Stalin felt like it was taking me out of my comfort zone. I was going into an area where it wasn’t meant to be funny all the way through. We had to be very respectful of everything that happened and not present it in any caricature kind of way.
It has a huge dream cast. Was it hard juggling all those egos?
No, the ego check happens when you meet them. I won’t sign up anyone who I think is going to make it all about them and not about the group. Steve Buscemi in person is very quiet and generous and funny, and the same with Julia [Louis-Dreyfus, star of Veep] and Steve [Coogan], they are generous performers. If they think something is funnier said by someone else other than them, they will be the first to say so. What also delighted me is that someone like Rupert Friend, who is known as a sniper in Homeland, does this amazing comic turn.
You also coaxed Michael Palin back on to the big screen.
I have always loved him as an actor and apparently his phone hasn’t stopped ringing now, which is great. His character Molotov has a rigid adherence to the party line, which then keeps changing every half an hour. I just thought that was a very Palin-esque thing.
What’s the next movie?
I am going to do a film of David Copperfield next summer. I am a huge Dickens fan and the challenge will be to do a Dickens on film that doesn’t feel like it has to adhere to any of the conventions. I will try and ignore any cobbles and dames.
Speaking of literature, you quit your PhD at Oxford to go into comedy. What was your thesis on?
It was something like ‘Religious Language In The Poetry Of John Milton With Reference To Paradise Lost’. It was so big that I never managed to finish it. But I did a documentary on Paradise Lost with the BBC about five years ago and I got a very nice card from my original college supervisor that said: ‘Consider the thesis complete.’
Is exploring power still what interests you most?
I’m most interested in where power lies now. Because it doesn’t really lie in the political headquarters any more, it lies in Silicon Valley, it lies in Google and Apple and Facebook and people who can access our data and information.
Can you imagine turning the Harvey Weinstein scandal into a satire?
I don’t know if it would be very funny but someone out there will be thinking about a film. It is all about power. Not to equate it with Stalin but it’s that sense of a whole community that just turned a blind eye through fear. Now, whether it was fear of careers being ruined or fear of films not being made and therefore money being lost, it was still a kind of conspiracy of silence.
Do you ever get a bit power-mad yourself?
When you are directing you can go crazy because suddenly everyone is listening to everything you say and obeying your every request. My wife says that it takes me a couple of weeks when I get home from directing to stop being a director. To stop going: ‘OK, you, get me some tea!’
How do you cope with the pressure of being consistently brilliantly funny?
Once you have done one thing, no matter what reception it gets you have to do the next and not look back. But I do always go into the next thing thinking: ‘This is the most dreadful thing I’ve ever done.’ It’s a kind of paranoia. But you’ve got to keep doing stuff, otherwise you’d just freeze up.
You’ve just resurrected Alan Partridge in The Big Issue. Are you behind his BBC comeback next year as ‘the voice of Brexit’?
No, it’s the writers Rob and Neil Gibbons. It’s a delight to sit down and watch what they come up with. We bring Alan out every two or three years or so, so he can do a completely new project. He is a character we never tire of trying to write, really. He always makes me laugh.
Do you have a favourite Partridge-ism?
At home, when I come up with a brilliant idea, I still say: ‘Kiss my face.’
The Death Of Stalin is in cinemas now