A director known for pushing the envelope and reinventing the angry young man dramas of his native U.K. for a new generation with films such as the ferocious soccer hooligan tale “Cass” and an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s “Filth,” Jon S. Baird couldn’t help but be slightly perplexed when Jeff Pope’s script for “Stan & Ollie” crossed his desk. While Baird’s versatility is well-known having become a director of choice for high-profile TV series such as Danny Boyle’s “Babylon” and Jim Carrey’s “I’m Dying Up Here” in between features, he couldn’t help but wonder what he might bring to Pope’s highly regarded, tender-hearted follow-up to “Philomena” about the twilight of Laurel and Hardy’s legendary career spent touring the United Kingdom, playing stages a fraction of the size they were used to in their heyday yet could still fill any room they played with laughter. Pondering where the edge might be in that, Baird decided to call up Martin Scorsese, for whom he had directed an episode of the HBO series “Vinyl,” to see what he thought about pursuing the gig.
“I’ve always gone back to him for advice and I said to him at one stage, ’Is this too simple? Is this too soft?’” recalled Baird recently. “And he said, ‘No, these are the most difficult films to pull off. The ones that are simple because you can’t hide behind anything. So that gave me a lot of confidence to go in and take this on.”
That verve can be felt from the very first frames of “Stan & Ollie,” a sweeping tracking shot that enters through the gates of Hal Roach Studios where Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C. Reilly) were under contract and summons all the magic of the Hollywood Dream Factory era, even if what you’re looking at is entirely what’s happening backstage. Throughout the film, Baird and Pope shrewdly invoke the duo’s comedy genius as simply a part of their every day life, nodding to their finest slapstick routines as they travel around England and Ireland and find Laurel toying with the check-in bell at their humble hotel or Hardy trying his best to drag their considerable luggage up the stairs at the train station. However, the references to what you know about the pair make the many revelations “Stan & Ollie” has to offer especially poignant, honing in on the nature of their partnership as co-workers who had a deep admiration for each other but weren’t necessarily personal confidantes, initially brought together by Hal Roach after signing separately as contract players for the studio and risking separation due to a quirk in their agreements that had Laurel’s deal expiring first, leading him to look towards taking the act to Fox while Hardy was still bound to Roach and apprehensive about making a move.
Just as the duo never let business get in the way of a good show, “Stan & Ollie” is enormously entertaining first and foremost, with the comedians threatened to be upstaged by their strong-willed wives, played by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda with scene-stealing gusto. Yet the film gracefully illuminates many hard truths about a career in entertainment, showing Laurel’s relentless drive to perfect comedy bits well after they’ve become second nature that played such a role in the duo’s success, the struggle to stay relevant as the tastes of the public change and most powerfully, the collaboration and sacrifices of ego big and small along the way required to make popular art. With delicate performances from Coogan and Reilly as well as a light, sensitive touch by Baird, it is truly one of the special films of the year and the director spoke about how he conjured a bit of Old Hollywood magic while offering up contemporary insight.
After I made “Filth,” I made a real conscious decision to try and find something completely different, at the opposite end of the scale. And I didn’t realize how different the next one was going to be. But I loved Laurel and Hardy and always had a great admiration for them, so when the opportunity came to do this one, I couldn’t turn it down. It’s just a very human tale from simpler times and I think the world is so troubled at the moment politically that we could really be doing with a tale like this just now and I thought well, it’s either going to be the worst thing I’ve ever done or the best and it’s turned out good because now I’m getting projects that are still very much in the “Filth” world, but still very much in this true story/love story world, so I’ve opened up my potential for future work a bit.
With something historically-based like this, how much did you want to be beholden to that history versus the story you want to tell?
You can’t get tied down too much because you end up doing documentary if you do that, so you have to find your moments and the jigsaw of what isn’t there, you have to create. But we were very respectful of the Laurel and Hardy fan clubs and of Stan’s only surviving relative, who is his great granddaughter Cassidy, and we used them to talk and say, “This is what we’re planning to do,” so upfront we had a bearing on [how] we weren’t going to piss anybody off. We obviously stole pieces from here, there and everywhere [from reality] and combined things, but that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re adapting any material, whether it’s a true story or a novel.
And Steve and John’s heroes were Laurel and Hardy, so when we went to them, [although] it didn’t take much convincing, they were apprehensive about playing them because it was a big responsibility. But that gave them what they needed not to drop the ball – gave us all what we needed not to drop the ball, the fear of getting it wrong, so they were going to take this responsibility on and deliver.
I don’t think the female roles were as strong in the script as they turned out to be. In the original script, they didn’t hardly feature much at all, so that was something that we wanted to bring them forward because the film really comes alive when they arrive, and Nina and Shirley worked a lot together. They lived in the apartment next to each other and they worked a lot in their spare time, and they’d come to me and say, “Oh, we’ve got this idea.” So a lot of the comedy that is in the film was really made in the rehearsal room, [becoming their own little double act as [Laurel and Hardy’s touring manager] Delfont says in the film, and they take a lot of credit for that.
One of the magical things you achieve is working the Laurel and Hardy act into everyday situations. Was that tricky?
We just looked at the script and we felt where could we add in little moments. For example, one of the most prominent ones was where they’re pulling the trunk upstairs in the train station and then it comes down — that’s obviously a direct reference to “The Music Box,” the film that they won their Oscar for, so we specifically wrote that in – that wasn’t a scene in the original script. We constructed that and even with the music, we started finding little ways to start making it slightly like a Laurel and Hardy movie at times. Rolfe had done a few films previously that I liked the tone of – “Sideways” being the best example. He gets this fine line between drama and comedy and he gets pathos as well. But [in general] that was quite a difficult job to do all that because tone is always one of the hardest things to pull off.
Speaking of difficult to pull off, it looked like you might’ve shot their routines in full.
Steve and John wanted to learn them all so we could actually use them in one take, so that was a challenge as well because they wanted to get it so perfect that they could do it on stage for a stage audience. A lot of that was in rehearsal time and then we just wanted to cover it as economically as possible. The guys were playing it live, really. [And in general] preparation for me is the key with everything. We went back to locations three or four times and blocked out stuff. You never know how it’s really going to do until the actors get there, but if you have a strong idea, the actors will generally go with it if it works. And because it’s a lower budget indie film and you don’t have the time or the money, you have to be prepared.
Yeah, that was a real challenge because we only had one day to shoot that and we were shooting it in the studios where “Star Wars” was, so we could only get it in on a Sunday where they all cleared out, so therefore we couldn’t rehearse on set. We built a miniature in our production office and it was like a military operation where we would sit, we would time out where [Laurel and Hardy] would be at this point and these Romans would walk across [from one set] and these Egyptians would come here [from another] and there’d be a car with dancing girls, so it was a huge undertaking, but it was great fun. We did 18 takes and used the very last one.
Could you feel a bit like Cecil B. DeMille? I understand the scene where Laurel and Hardy’s ship docks in Ireland literally had 350 extras.
Yeah, it was great. We used some visual effects in there as well — we actually shot the boat and the dock, but the boat wasn’t moving at all and the sea was all built in around afterwards. But that was an emotional moment when they arrive in Ireland, because this actually happened – they got there and they didn’t expect anybody waiting for them and the church bells in the town were chiming out the cuckoo walls for them, and when you’re shooting it, you don’t realize the effect it’s going to have on you, even in the edit when you’re putting it together, because you’re so busy. It’s only months later when you sit back and watch it do you appreciate it more as a viewer than making the thing.
We wanted to have the color palette reflect their state of mind at the time, so when we start in Hollywood, it was bright and it was airy and the camera moved a lot and then when we jumped forward 16 years, it was post-war Britain, things were a little bit more subdued and [Laurel and Hardy] were older and struggling with their health, so we destaurated the colors a bit. Then when they had the fantasy sequence when they’re dreaming about what it would be like to do this “Robin Hood” film, we boosted up the technicolor because we just felt that’s how they would’ve imagined the film to be in the ‘50s.
Was there anything that was unanticipated, but now it’s in the film and you really like it?
Yes, there’s a line where they’re coming into London on the train and Stan looks out the window and sees Tower Bridge, and says, “There it is, the Eiffel Tower.” And when he said it, I said, “Steve, I don’t think that’s funny. I don’t really like it.” And Steve says, “Okay,” because he only said it once in the first take and then the rest of it, he didn’t say anything. He just looked into the window. And when I got it back to the edit, I thought it’s genius. It’s really funny. And it just made me realize I should really trust these [actors] because there wasn’t a lot of improvisation on the film. Hardly anything. But that was something I was glad that he said afterwards because we use it in the trailer and it gets laugh when you screen the film as well.
“Stan & Ollie” opens on December 28th in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark and New York at the Angelika and the Landmark at 57 West.