The playbook for tyrants, as depicted in the Netflix limited series.

July 20, 2021
Online Originals

Tyranny Made Easy

How to rule the world in six easy lessons - and exactly what that means.

Have you ever wondered how tyrants achieve their enormous power?

Of course you have. We all wonder how someone like a Hitler or a Saddam Hussein manages to take over a country. What drives them? Is there a playbook?

The answers you seek, or at least some answers, are contained in the new Netflix docuseries How to Become a Tyrant. Narrated by Peter Dinklage, and series takes the viewer through a fictional playbook called, appropriately enough, How to Become a Tyrant.

Produced by Jonah Bekhor and Jonas Bell Pasht, the series is actually less a primer than a warning. Pasht explains, "People fall victim to this because they don't realize there's a playbook, they don't realize that this happens over and over again. And that the keys to assuming power and control were exemplified by the people in our series."

Bekhor adds, "The people that exemplify this approach to power."

Pasht continues, "People don't realize that there is a playbook. And that's part of the reason why people keep falling for it over and over again. They just don't realize that the patterns repeat themselves over and over and over again. And it's not just tyrants, you know. You see this creep into politics and it's important to be vigilant about these things.

"It creeps into all corners of politics. It doesn't matter your political slant. It is a good thing to be aware of this playbook and the tactics they use, regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum. Because it exists, to smaller degrees, all around us."

In talking about their unique approach to the subject matter, Bekhol says, "When we were conceiving of what this was going to be like and sort of its origin point, there are a lot of series and films that focus on biographies of tyrants, and that really is not what the focus of the show is. It is about the playbook.

"And it's about using these people's stories to illuminate what they're doing to us, but also why we fall for things. This is a series about tyrants, this is a series about them, but it also is a series about us.

"How we fall victim, how are we complicit, why these things happen.  That's what made us most excited, was that this is a series about us because we are all intertwined in this dance of power."

Many documentaries and series have been produced about tyrants and historical events, but the pair wanted to do something different with it. Pasht explains, "The subject matter can feel dusty to a lot of people It feels so 'other,' it feels, oh 'well yes, but that was World War Two, Oh yes, but that's black and white footage, oh yes, but that was a different society, we've moved past that.'

"We love the history projects, we love learning about these things, but that becomes sort of a niche subject for people.

"And the truth is that this topic is as timely right now as it's ever been. There is an escalation around the world of this movement towards these authoritarian leaders. And it felt very, very urgent to us. And so we wanted something that would stand out, we wanted something that would provoke, we needed something that would be 'fun,' in quotations. But we also needed something that still hit hard when it needed to.

"So that was what we were aspiring for. But it was really important that we did have that - that there was something fun about it. And that's partly why we put in animation, that's partly why we wanted Peter to have this very unique tone to his voice. Yeah, it's got to be watchable, it's got to be fun, it's got to draw people in who don't fall into that niche history audience. That was very important for us."

Dinklage's narration lends a sardonic edge to the "instructions." He was the person that the two decided to use early on. Pasht says, "When we were developing the show, we knew there was an opportunity to make a really bold choice with whoever that narrator was. Because it's such a bold creative. It's such a specific choice for the series. And that narrator is a character. We're doing something very deliberate there.

"Peter just struck us as such an exciting person for this. And we were developing this right around the time that the final season of Game of Thrones was coming out, and who better to tell you how to become a tyrant than the pop culture icon who earned infamy for whispering the secrets of power to would-be tyrants? It just struck us as a really fun choice and he agreed.

"He's interesting to work with too. He's a real professional and he just throws himself into it. This was not a phone-in type of commitment he made to the project. He really threw himself into this and he really savored delivering these lines and telling this story. He's a captivating guy. And there's something compelling and tortured and charismatic about him."

Another reason Dinklage was the perfect choice is his own charm, just as the idea of being an all-powerful leader is seductive. Pasht says, "it needed to be a little seductive. That's part of what we're trying to do, is make it feel appealing. It's really then that you start to understand how power really works and how it can be an intoxicating thing. And that was really something we wanted to explore a little bit, play with."

Bekhor adds, "How that lure of seduction - how, in its own way, is actually really effective in laying bare the caution of it all. That you have that sort of duality of ostensibly telling you how to take over the world, but really also showing you the consequences of those actions. And that really is that razor-edged tone that we were trying to hit with this series, which is admittedly a really perilous challenge because it is very much a cautionary tale.

"But the hook of it is to sort of seduce and provoke and enrich people in a way that's totally unexpected by seemingly trying to deliver the rules of power, the tactics of taking over to people. But really showing, well, this is what it actually means."

Striking the right tone with the project was no easy task, as Pasht notes, "It's a very, very difficult show to make, very, very complex. It was a real challenge for us. It's hard to strike that right tone. You have a lot of responsibility when you do something like this to be respectful. And when you're trying to also be kind of sardonic and witty and funny at times, it was a lot of trial and error to get to something that was at least in the right ballpark.

"Look, we want it to be fun, we want people to say, 'oh, that sounds like a lot of fun,' but it's so easy to also look at the exact same title with the exact same key and say, well that's offensive."

Bekhol adds, "Or, depending on the audience, how it's interpreted. This is a cautionary tale.  We're presenting the playbook to give you, ostensibly, the path and to grabbing power, but that's not what we're doing. And so, hitting that right tone is paramount. And it is razor thin.

"On one side, you're creating content that we would find personally horrifying and disturbing to work for. On the other side, it just doesn't penetrate and provoke and really sort of reach the people in a way that we want to be able to reach people. So that was the biggest challenge of making the series, executing on the vision, tonally, of what we were intended to make."

Another unique element the two added to the mix was the use of animation to move the story and to make some of the pertinent points. Bekhor explains, "Animation was a really important element for this series. Because first of all, the structure of our series is playbook form. The arc of the series is sort of the arc of a tyrant. Each episode, from obscurity to sort of their final moments.

"And each episode is one chapter in the playbook they all follow. And that in and of itself, it's not a biographical exploration of individual tyrants. It is all in service of this playbook idea.

"So part of what we were trying to do was tell stories that no footage exists for. How do you reveal these stories from behind the curtain that we know happened from different people who were there? But never in a million years, it just doesn't exist.

"So it was a really important tool to be able to recreate these moments and tell these stories in a way that felt totally fresh and allowed us to really reveal them."

Pasht adds, "We initially thought we would do a lot of recreation in the series as other kind of history projects do. And we researched documentaries that had done recreations. Some of them are OK, but at the end of the day, you've still got an actor wearing a Hitler mustache, and it never totally lands.

"So that was a big creative unlocking moment for us, was the animation. Because we realized we could do something that was very immersive and reveal these moments and come up with a very signature look for the show that would lend itself to that tone that we were trying to strike."

Bekhor continues, "It allowed us to tell stories and show stories that don't exist in terms of footage. And there was this graphic novel style approach [which] was something that was a vital part of the creative vision for this project. There's certain touchstones like Waltz with Bashir and other films where they were able to hit an emotional tone that was really powerful.

"We certainly found inspiration in places like that as we honed in our vision for this project."

While the series is not strictly chronological, the filmmakers did have a definite structure in mind with which to tell their story. Bekhor says, "II's not totally chronological in the middle because all these things are happening simultaneously. But what we tried to do was create an arc that starts at the very beginning, with 'how do you go from obscurity to seizing power in the first place?' And then featuring a tyrant that best embodied that process. So that's why Hitler was in the first chapter.

"The Kims were in the final chapter, because you go to grabbing power in the first place to crushing any potential rivals and reigning and controlling your population through terror and rebuilding your society in your own image, and really controlling the truth in all its various forms, which isa massive part of this process. Those middle things are happening simultaneously.

"But we tried to track the arc of a tyrant all the way through. And the final chapter is such a fascinating one because it presents the ultimate question to a narcissistic power-mad dictator. Which is, 'if my life is finite, how do I create a situation where it allows me still to rule forever? 'And it's a really interesting place to land. So hopefully, people will appreciate that arc."

How to Become a Tyrant is streaming on Netflix now.

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