‘Avenue 5’s Armando Iannucci & Nikki Amuka-Bird on How to Make a Catastrophe in Space Funny

     January 19, 2020

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Created by Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It), the HBO comedy series Avenue 5 is set 40 years in the future, at a time when space tourism is no longer the stuff of sci-fi fantasy, and for spaceship owner Herman Judd (Josh Gad), it’s a multi-billion dollar business. But when the ship experiences an epic malfunction that affects the crew and passengers, it’s up to Captain Ryan Clark (Hugh Laurie) to keep up appearances and calm everyone onboard the ship, even though he’s got secrets of his own.

During this phone interview with Collider, Avenue 5 showrunner/writer/executive producer Iannucci and actress Nikki Amuka-Bird, who plays mission control director Rav Mulcair, talked about setting a show in space, finding the perfect blend of smart and silly humor, shooting with multiple cameras, how far ahead they’ve thought about the series, and much, much more.

COLLIDER: Armando, how did this show come about for you? Did you specifically want to set a show in space?

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Image via HBO

ARMANDO IANNUCCI: I am a fan of sci-fi. I wanted to at least think about doing a sci-fi show, but I wanted to keep it as real as possible and not have it full of robots and aliens. Having done Veep and, before that, The Thick of It, that’s 10 years of political comedy. So, I wanted to look at people in society and social behavior. I think something has been happening over the last three or four years with the madness of crowds, social media turning into noise, and people becoming a little bit more paranoid. Something strange is happening with that sense of impending calamity that we’re all aware of, but no one seems quite prepared to do anything about. I wanted to draw on all of those thoughts, really. So, I decided what would it be like if we put 5,000 people trapped with each other in a floating environment? And let’s see what happens.

Is it nice, as a creator, to be in a place where you have enough of a proven track record that you can say, “I want to do a TV series that’s set on a spaceship, and then here we are, the show exists, and it’s going to be on HBO?”

IANNUCCI: Well, it’s all very heartening. To give them their due, HBO had to get the idea first, and I showed them the script and the outline. There was always a sense of, “What is it? Talk us through it.” But then, they throw their resources behind it and we have to build this ship. You can’t really build it for a pilot because it would be the most expensive pilot, so they really committed to it. They also committed to the idea that this would be a comedy, and that the episodes get crazier and crazier and crazier. They went with that. Then, I was able to assemble such a great team and ensemble cast. On my four years at Veep, you learn a lot from doing something like that. Hopefully, I was able to bring what I’d learned from that and apply it to this, along with some new thoughts and new ideas, in terms of taking something a little bit further out of everyone’s comfort zone.

Nikki, what was this like for you? This cool show comes your way and it’s set on a spaceship, and yet you don’t get to be on the spaceship. Were you ever upset about that?

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Image via HBO

NIKKI AMUKA-BIRD: I was desperate to go in the spaceship. We all worked as a company together. We rehearsed together. Arm made sure that I had a tour of the ship. My character is very proud of that ship. I felt that we were all telling the same story and sharing the creative energy, in the same way, if that makes any sense. I’ve done a lot of sci-fi before, and it was just really fun to mess around with that genre and to mess around with the style that you normally play, with that kind of work. I learned a lot about watching the other guys while they were acting their scenes on set. I’d come to set and watch them.

Did you ever try to come up with suggestions of how to get Rav on the ship?

IANNUCCI: Well, it’s something that we’re certainly gonna be exploring.

What was it like to create the look for Rav?

AMUKA-BIRD: Since we’re in the future, we were looking at this idea that we’re not in the present, but we’re not so far away from now. I love [Rav’s] big power Afro. For a long time, that wasn’t considered a very corporate look and I love that we made it into this real power business woman look. I thought that was a really unique thing that I hadn’t seen before. But mostly, we kept it quite close to styles and fads that are going on now because we always play, even in modern times, with going back to the ‘70s or ‘80s. We always play with different decades in fashion. It was open to all interpretations.

IANNUCCI: Suzie [Harman], our costume designer, was looking at ‘50s styles, which has lots of straight lines.

Nikki, as far as really the fate of the ship goes, how does Rav feel about the passengers? Does she feel like these people on the ship are actually going to survive and make it back to Earth, or is she just trying to deal with this crisis, day by day?

AMUKA-BIRD: It’s a life and death situation and she has the fate of 5,000 people in her hands. The dramatic version of this would be almost like a tragedy. Rav is a character who always thinks she can find the answer to the problem. What’s fun about playing her is that, even when catastrophe strikes and she’s really under a lot of pressure, she knows she’s got to figure it out, so she never allows herself to believe in the worst case scenario. She is her own hero.

This show seems to really have the perfect blend of smart humor and silly humor. Is that a tricky thing to achieve a balance in?

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Image via HBO

IANNUCCI: Yes. It’s about trying to keep it real, but being mindful of the fact that, today, things have gotten so crazy that it’s tempting to get even crazier. It’s about saving the big, crazy moments and making them not all regular, so that, when they do happen, it’s funny to see how people react. I also wanted to get away from how Veep was very rat-a-tat-tat, with everyone insulting everyone else, and that felt right for that environment. But this has a different style to it. Veep was people trying to get through the day, whereas this is people trying to get through their lives, really, so you can’t do it at that pace. There’s one episode, later in the series, where everyone is very sleep deprived, so everyone is speaking at 30% of the speed they normally speak. It’s a very woozy episode, and it’s one of my favorite episodes, actually. This show is more about behavior and how people act when put in extraordinary circumstances.”

What is the coolest thing about these sets, that we would never know, just from watching the show at home?

IANNUCCI: Even the smallest thing had a “J” on it. You couldn’t get away from Judd’s branding, on everything. Even the pins used in the acupuncture in the spa have a “J” on the end of them. The black bands that people wear at the funeral in Episode 2 have “J”s on them and it does make you go mad. Even on the set, you think, “I couldn’t last on this for more than a week.” When you go to bed and look up at the ceiling, it’s just covered in “J”s.

What made you decide to shoot this with multiple cameras, and have four cameras shooting, at the same time?

IANNUCCI: It’s such a big, vast space. Also, I always liked the idea that we’re not only shooting who’s speaking, but we’re shooting reaction shots and we’re shooting people when they don’t realize that they’re being filmed. It allows us to do all that, and it also allows us to try things out. If something new is tried out and it’s great, we’ve got it on four cameras, so we can cut around it in the edit. It gives us that flexibility.

AMUKA-BIRD: It’s very naturalistic and nothing is forced. You can scenes that aren’t your close up, necessarily. You’re just always in the scene, knowing that the camera’s picking up everything and every little reaction that you do.

Nikki, your character is really interesting because we don’t really know much about Rav and who she is, and we just meet her as she’s reacting to these situations and what’s going on. Are there things that you grew to appreciate about her, the more you played her and got to know who she is, that you didn’t necessarily realize were there, in the beginning?

AMUKA-BIRD: Definitely, even about her personal life. [Iannucci] and the writers, as we were rehearsing, came up with ideas about her that I didn’t even know, like that she’s married and she has a whole relationship. I would have thought of her as a workaholic who maybe didn’t have time for those sorts of things. It was a really interesting way of working because new ideas would come about the character, as we went on, and you would develop it, which meant that you couldn’t have any preconceived notions about how you were going to play everything. It kept you very much in the moment and spontaneous. You knew that the character could go lots of different directions, which is something that I hadn’t ever really experienced before, on a TV series like this.

Armando, when it came to post-production, is this a show that’s scripted and shot very tightly? Do you not have to cut out a lot, or do you do a variety of jokes?

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Image via HBO

IANNUCCI: We always still shoot more than we need. I always like to go into the edit with room to play around. Because we have this set, that’s completely under our control and we can wander anywhere in it, it does mean that we can shoot quite a lot in a day. It’s not like we’re having to move from one location to another to another. So, it gives us that freedom to run around in it, but it also gives us that flexibility, to add new stuff and try out a few new extra shots. The running time is 28 minutes, but our first assembly is usually about 48 minutes. There’s always stuff, which means that we can really get it to the absolute best stuff for the cut.

Are you someone who plans out multi-season arcs for a show, or do you take things season by season? How do you typically work, in that regard?

IANNUCCI: I have a vague plan in mind. It’s not a specific, “Season 2 is this, Season 3 is that, Season 4 is this.” I have a vague plan. There’s a vague sense of working out where it’s gonna end. But also, what I enjoy is, in the process of making a season, you get to know the characters and their dynamics and fresh thoughts suggest themselves. You don’t want to have so written yourself into an outline for later seasons that you can’t deviate from. I like being able to bring in fresh thoughts that just evolve as the show goes on. But there is certainly a more specific plan for Season 2, in terms of opening some things up and seeing a bit more of what really has been happening on Earth and what the dynamic is, but also how that then affects the possible face of the ship, and bring some new faces in and move a few people around, in interesting ways, as well.

Nikki, what do you enjoy working with someone like Iannucci?

AMUKA-BIRD: I enjoy the camaraderie. We get a lot of rehearsal and we get a lot of time to genuinely bond, as a company, and get to know each other’s skills, get to encourage each other, and share some of those skills with each other. I enjoy how, as scary as it is sometimes, you do have to be spontaneous and you do have to expect the unexpected, on an Armando set, but you know that you’re supported, and you’ve got writers and creatives around, you who can help you push the idea of being as creative as you want to be. I love the fact that you can prepare only so much, and then there’s a part of it where you have to jump into the deep end, and just go through it.

Avenue 5 airs on HBO on Sundays.

Television