Monday February 18, 2013
Pop quiz. Where is the office of the President of the United States of America? Correct: the West Wing of the White House. Everyone knows that. Now here’s a harder one. Where is the office of the Vice President? Give up? It’s in a vast, disused warehouse on an industrial estate in Maryland – somewhere between Washington DC and Baltimore. Well, the one in Veep is.
Veep is The Thick of It’s American cousin, created and overseen by Armando Iannucci and written by the same phalanx of potty-mouthed reprobates. It shines a queasy light on the barely competent misdoings of Vice President Selina Meyer (as played by bona fide comedy hero Julia Louis-Dreyfus, former star of Seinfeld) and the gang of bozos that make up her staff. The show is currently filming its second season and as I type this I’m sitting in Baltimore, preparing to shoot the third of the three episodes that I’m directing.
It tends to come as a surprise to people who know me from stand-up and Mock the Week and the like that I’m directing these shows. It doesn’t come as so much of a surprise to people who’ve known me since I was at school because when I was younger all of my ambitions revolved around being a director. A theatre director, but a director none the less. But the paths lives take are often windy and circuitous and, quite frankly, not that efficiently built; many of them wouldn’t even get through a preliminary meeting with the laxest of local planning committees. So it’s been for me; I got distracted into stand-up, which led me to Radio 4’s The News Quiz, where I met Armando, which led to a part in The Thick of It, which led to directing one of last series’ episodes, which led to that draughty Maryland warehouse and a job directing hands down the very best cast on television. And it only took 17 years.
In terms of how they’re made – written, directed, shot and edited – Veep and The Thick of It are fundamentally the same beast. The key difference between them is that of scale. Rumour has it that one episode of the HBO sitcom has a budget higher than the entire series of the BBC one. I have no idea if that is true, but I wouldn’t bet against it. The cameras are more state-of-the-art, the sets are huge, permanent and intricately decorated and the crew has about six times as many departments.
For me, it’s the number of extras that’s the measure of how much bigger it is. Watch any British TV show which calls for a large crowd of people in the background and you will get the impression that the census may have got the total population of the country wrong by a factor of about seven. Every party on British television has actors at the front unnecessarily bellowing “Amazing scenes, Dan! Wooo!” above no actual noise while five supporting artists jiggle around behind them, trying to look plural. With Veep we’d be in a production meeting, discussing some forthcoming scene, and the excellent first assistant director would say: “So we’ve got a hundred extras for that scene.” I would simply look at him, agog. “Yeah, you’re right” he’d say. “Make it a hundred-and-fifty.”
But all that production money sloshing about like Christmas bonus day in the Square Mile doesn’t seem to go to people’s heads. Disappointingly, for fans of gossip and cliché, in spite of all we have been led to believe about the way things work in America, the amount of starry behaviour, hissy-fitting and do-you-know-who-I-am-ing among the cast is precisely zero. This, by the way, in spite of the “is there anything sir would like?” culture of Craft Services, a function entirely missing from British film units. Affectionately known as “Crafty”, they essentially supply you with coffee, sugary foods and anything else you desire all day long at an astonishing rate, using the technique first perfected in 1666 for passing along buckets of water to quench a fire. As an English person, I couldn’t bear the impoliteness of saying no with the consequence that the volume of caffeine and disaccharides squirting about my system at the end of a filming day often reached such levels that I would find myself sleeping them off on the hotel ceiling. It’s easy to see how people can start to feel entitled but, at least on Veep, they don’t.
There are two reasons for the lack of foot stamping and the air of professionalism and bonhomie. First is Armando’s insistence on hiring only people you’d want to spend time around and steering well clear of anyone who is, in industry parlance, a Right Nuisance. The second is that making Veep and The Thick of It involves a lot of improvisation, particularly as part of rehearsals, and that means there is no escaping embarrassment, humiliation and generally having to make yourself look like a booby. Right Nuisances tend not to thrive in that environment.
Which isn’t to say that everything is a smooth ride here. Thanks to all those bonny, bouncing budgets there’s money available to pay for overtime and the days can go long. So long, in fact, that the final scheduled day on a week-long US sitcom episode shoot has earned the name “Fraturday”. The scenes grind on towards two in the morning, everyone becomes tired. And when people get tired on a comedy they get infectiously, unstoppably giggly. The more serious the scene, the worse it becomes. Scenes can become impossible to film and people can lose their lives drowning in pools of running mascara.
You must try to stop it, which isn’t easy. There was a point during a scene we shot set on Air Force Two when I thought that I would have to go in there and taser two of my all-time favourite comic actors, just to restore order. An awkward situation, certainly, but sometimes you’ve just got to put your foot down. And turn the volts right the way up.
Still, I’m not sure the UK contingent ever get truly used to the scale of it. There’s a constant battle going on between giddiness and professionalism for the minds and souls of the Brits on set. My defining memory of directing Veep will be of standing with Armando by the monitors, racking our brains to winkle out a solution to some thorny script issue for the following week’s shoot. We’d been at this for about 10 minutes. “Oh, dear God,” I sighed. Arm looked at me with a huge smile on his face. “I know,” he said gesturing about us at the life-size replica of the Vice President’s Eisenhower Building offices, “But look where we are.” Yeah. Look where we are.