In 1837, Charles Dickens moved into a narrow terraced house north of Central London. 48 Doughty Street was the novelist’s home for only 2½ years, but they were productive ones–he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby there.
Today, the building is a museum dedicated to the author and his work, and it was here in February that TIME met Armando Iannucci, the screenwriter and director whose newest film is an adaptation of Dickens’ The Personal History of David Copperfield, releasing in the U.S. on Aug. 28. The house has been restored to how it might have looked when Dickens lived; his well-worn desk takes pride of place in the study, and the dining room is laid out as if for a supper party. When we met there, the museum was still open to the public so we retreated to a meeting room decorated only with a whiteboard. “It was here that Dickens delivered his PowerPoint presentations,” Iannucci deadpans.
Iannucci may be best known to U.S. audiences as the creator of HBO’s Veep, the Emmy-winning political satire starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a vain and power-hungry Vice President. But in his native U.K., he has the status of a comedy icon, primarily for his role in helping to create the character Alan Partridge, the brash and clueless TV presenter played by Steve Coogan. In the 2000s, he made The Thick of It, a foulmouthed satire of the Tony Blair era that was a spiritual forerunner to Veep. His success at HBO has given him license to pursue more ambitious projects–movies like 2017’s The Death of Stalin, a dark comedy set in Communist era Russia, and now Copperfield.
It’s a departure in some ways; there’s very little profanity, for a start, and it’s pitched at a broad audience. Far from being cynical, it is generally optimistic about humanity. But it also has the streak of absurdity that runs through all of Iannucci’s work, and one eye on the inequality and social mores of the time. “I have never seen it as a departure because I grew up loving Dickens anyway, so it’s like a return to the writer who most inspired me,” he says. His desire to mock “social politics and social behavior” comes from Dickens. “And silliness. It’s always good to have a bit of silly.”
Performing comedy, Iannucci has honed a poker-faced delivery, enunciating carefully crafted sentences with a lilting rhythm in his gentle Scots accent. In conversation, he is more discursive. His answers run into each other, often whipping round a tangent before coming to his point.
Iannucci was born in Glasgow in 1963 to Italian parents, and studied English literature at Glasgow University and at Oxford before taking up comedy full-time. In his early shows on BBC Radio and TV, he gathered a team of collaborators interested in brainy, often surreal comedy fondly remembered by Britain’s Generation X-ers.
Over the 15 years in which he made The Thick of It, its movie adaptation In the Loop, set in the run-up to the Iraq War, and then Veep, he accumulated a reputation as Britain’s foremost satirical mind. His work appeared to expose the crude mechanics of politics, the obsession with surface over substance, and the bitter and cynical people attracted to it. Then, in 2015, something changed–he left Veep ahead of its final season, and shifted focus from the contemporary to either the past, in movies like Stalin, or the far future, in his HBO science-fiction comedy Avenue 5. In the Trump era, he says, satire struggled to keep up with reality. “The rules keep changing, if there are any rules,” he says. “We’ll have an [impeachment] trial, but we won’t call any witnesses. Trump says he could go out and shoot a man on Fifth Avenue and still win–that suggests to me there are no rules.”
Iannucci reread David Copperfield around 2010 and was inspired to make it as a movie, but it wasn’t until he had completed work on Stalin that he felt equipped to tackle the book’s mix of comedy, melodrama and tragedy. The novel follows the eponymous character as he passes through the social strata of Victorian England; from a loving childhood to the privations of a bottling factory and boarding school, on the path to becoming a famous writer. Much of the book was based on Dickens’ own life, and he writes of struggling to belong. “This is a story that may have been written almost 200 years ago, but it still has themes that are current today,” Iannucci says.
He wanted the movie to feel new–“I said to everyone [on the production team], Let’s pretend there hasn’t been a period drama or costume drama before,” he said. “Let’s not do clouds of fog and pickpockets.” He tried to reimagine what a historical drama might look like, filling the movie with bright primary colors and letting his camera dance around the actors.
But first, there was the matter of casting David. Iannucci says he only ever had one actor in mind: Dev Patel, the British Indian actor who shot to fame in Slumdog Millionaire and who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Lion. “He could be funny and gauche, but yet strong and focused and decisive,” Iannucci says. “I really couldn’t think of anyone else.” Patel asked him how they would explain the fact he isn’t white. “He said, ‘So what–it’s my father? My dead father, is he Indian?’ And I said, ‘No, I’ve chosen you because you’re the best person for the part.’ And so I thought, Let’s cast everyone else that way as well.”
So around half the faces in the movie are those of Black and Asian Brits. The diversity of the cast was much scrutinized by British reviewers when the film came out in the U.K. but, says Iannucci, “It usually isn’t mentioned after people have seen the film. They just say, That was a great cast; everyone was great.” He believes the U.K. is somewhat behind the U.S. when it comes to diversity in casting. “Dev said, ‘Normally, a thing like this, I’d be the guy standing at the door with a tray.'”
Iannucci says he was primarily motivated by a desire to “choose from 100% of the acting community available to me, rather than 85%”–but adds that, for the film he wanted to make, it made sense for the cast to reflect the people in the movie theater. “I didn’t want people to feel, We’re watching the past. I want them to feel, You’re in this story, and therefore it’s now.”
Whether there will be people in the theater to watch Copperfield seemed more like a certainty when we first spoke. On a phone call in late June, Iannucci says he hopes audiences will be able to find a way to see it on a big screen. “It’s a film that has a sense of community, and of family, and I want people to experience that together–if they can, safely.”
Like many, Iannucci experienced those early months of the pandemic with an uneasy sense of time slowing down. “I didn’t think I was going to be productive,” he says. Isolating with his family in his home north of London, he worked on the second season of Avenue 5.
What has really struck him, he says, has been the utterly transparent inability of the government to handle the pandemic–in the U.K. especially, but also in the U.S. “The fact that wearing a face mask has become a political decision … it’s bonkers.” The writer believes many more people are now seeing through the carefully packaged untruths and confidence trickery of our modern leaders. “When this is all over,” he predicts, “there will be a great reckoning. A great reckoning is going to come.”
This appears in the August 31, 2020 issue of TIME.