In the world of comedy, few names are uttered with such reverence as Laurel & Hardy. One of the great duos of all time, their work has entertained generations of fans with effortless timing and gags that transcend borders. Laurel & Hardy were global superstars and their appeal remains as universal as it was when they released their earliest films, nearly one hundred years ago.
A new biopic, Stan & Ollie, examines the relationship between the two titans of their trade, particularly at the end of their career, as they struggle through health issues and financial problems. Despite being a dramatic picture, the film takes the time to pay earnest tribute to the timeless comedic antics of Laurel & Hardy; after all, with Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly playing two of the funniest men of all time, it only makes sense that the film should be as hilarious as it is dramatic and uplifting.
We spoke with director Jon S. Baird about putting together a film which seeks to honor the legacy of Laurel & Hardy while introducing their acts to a new generation of viewers, as well as his reasons for choosing this film as the follow-up to Filth, his critically-acclaimed 2013 movie starring James McAvoy. The two films carry decidedly different tones, which is exactly the point. Baird also shares his own fond memories of growing up with Laurel & Hardy, as well as the importance of having a substantial rehearsal period while preparing to shoot a movie.
Stan & Ollie is now in theaters.
Tell me how you got involved with Stan & Ollie.
I was a fan of Laurel & Hardy since I was eight years old, so that was the starting point. I loved the script. Jeff Pope, the writer, sent me the script, and it made me cry at the end of it. I thought, well, if I can do that, then it's a good starting point.
You got into Laurel & Hardy when you were eight years old. What was the entry point for you? Their movies were on television a lot, was that how you learned about them?
Yeah, they were on TV in the UK. They used to do the reruns after school. I'd come home from school and sit there and watch them on a small portable television in my mom's kitchen. I just fell in love with their style of comedy. They were huge in the UK. People in my generation, they have a huge love for this duo.
Specifically, what were your favorite Laurel & Hardy movies?
There's a movie called Block-Heads that they did in 1938... I mean, Way Out West (1937) is a huge favorite, and that's why we reference it so much in this film, but Block-Heads, I think, for me, is probably the funniest. If I had to take one on a desert island, it would be Block-Heads.
You mentioned that you reference the film a lot. Tell me about the process of recreating bits and gags and entire routines for this film.
We had a huge rehearsal time. We had three weeks of rehearsal, which is quite unusual for a movie this size. We had a choreographer who would come in and work with John and Steve, and seven days a week they were working twelve hours a day at these routines. In anything, if something looks effortless, it usually means that there's so much effort put into it. That was like Laurel & Hardy, as well; that's what they did. We wanted to give John and Steve those conditions, and also to make them bond as a double act, as well. They needed the time to be together. The film was really made in the rehearsal room.
Can you tell me about casting John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan in these roles?
We were lucky because they were our first choices. They took a bit of convincing, because it was such a big responsibility. They were going to be playing their heroes. It took a lot of convincing. I flew up to L.A. to meet John, went for dinner with Steve in London, and then got them together in New York, put them together. I think, when they met each other, they sort of convinced each other to play the parts.
One thing I really like about this movie is that it's rated PG. It's dramatic and definitely gets you right in the heart, but it's a family-friendly movie. Was that always the direction it was gonna be?
I think, some of the original scripts were a little tougher, a little edgier. Some of the language and some of the scenes were maybe a little bit darker. But then we kind of thought, "Do we really need that?" And then we started to slowly remove those elements, and we were a lot happier with the read-through when it ended up being as it is. Because, really, you have a responsibility, when you're making a film about this pairing; they were loved by kids. Their comedy transcends generations, and we felt it was better for every one to be able to access the film.
Would you like for this movie to get younger people into the film? I imagine you'll have parents and grandparents taking their kids and grandkids to see it.
Yes. That's, hopefully, the idea. I think, on the face of it, it will attract people who remember Laurel & Hardy, who were aware of them, but it has to work on a different level, as well. A lot of that will come through. I suppose it's no different from when the studio started making Superman and all these comic books that were big in our childhoods; adults would take their kids because they thought, "That's what I used to go and see," so there's a bit of nostalgia in there, as well. Hopefully, this will work the same way.
There's a lot of referencing of the classic gags. Is there a lot that you shot that you just had to cut, that we might see on a DVD?
Not really. Because we were so pushed for time... There's only a couple of scenes that may make it in there, and none of them were performance scenes. It was all dramatic parts of the narrative which we could have just lived without. Everything you see in there, especially the routines, is what we shot. There will probably be extended routines, there's a double-door routine, there's some parts of the dance, as well, at the beginning... We'll probably have the full, extended versions of those.
You shared your personal favorite Laurel & Hardy movies. If you wanted someone to get a crash course in this comedy duo, what would you recommend they watch?
I would say, certainly those two I mentioned, Way Out West and Block-Heads. Saps at Sea, A Chump at Oxford, The Flying Deuces, Sons of the Desert, The Bohemian Girl, these are the ones to concentrate on. Yeah, those are the ones I'd say to go for first.
Tell me about preparing to shoot, was there a lot of material available from their later years, when this movie is mainly set. How much archival footage and documentation is there from that era that you had to work with?
There's not that much. There's a few news clips of them arriving in the UK, a couple of tiny little interviews as they arrived, but there's not much. There's no moving footage of them on stage. We spoke to people who remember seeing them on stage, we spoke to the surviving family members of Stan Laurel, we spoke to the Sons of the Desert Fan Club, and there was a book that documented their tours, but there's not much about their personalities. We took artistic license, obviously, in places. There was an interview that Lucille Hardy did after Ollie died, talking about his personal life, how romantic he was. There were phone conversations that were recorded with Stan Laurel. When he lived in Santa Monica, he was in the phone book. People used to phone him up and record the conversations. We were piecing it together.
There's so much from that vaudeville era that's just lost. Do you feel like you're, in some way, a historian, piecing together what these things could have been like?
In a way. I think, when you're making a movie about a real person, it's like making a jigsaw puzzle, but there's always some pieces missing. We're not making a documentary, obviously; we're making a dramatic story based on reality. So, you build it as best you can with art, and with the missing pieces, you take artistic license and you imagine what the conversations would have been like. I suppose we are historians, in a way, in keeping their memory alive.
This is your first feature film since Filth. Is this kind of like counter-programming, or a palette cleanser?
Palette cleaner, that's very good. (laughs) It's a different film, yes. That was a conscious decision, to do something different for this one. It's been a great experience because, whether by look or design, this took five years since Filth. In the meantime, I worked a lot in television, especially in U.S. television and worked with some great people, including Martin Scorsese, with whom I became very good friends; he's helped me a lot, advised me a lot. I wouldn't have been able to do that if I had gone straight on to another film. I thought it was a bit frustrating to wait so long since the last one, but it all worked out well.
So many people try to pigeonhole a director, even more than an actor. "Oh, they make this kind of movie."
I feel like they can't do that with you. From Filth to Vinyl to this...
My next one, hopefully, will be as different from this as this was...
Would you like to share an exclusive?
(Laughs) No, I'm not sure what it's going to be. I'm looking at two or three different things at the moment. One is with Peter Dinklage, which could be very exciting. But I don't know when any of them will go, or even if any of them will go forward, but they're all very different from what I've done before. I think it's either going to be the making of me or the breaking of me, doing all these different things; people will either go, "Oh, that's interesting, he can do this and that and the other!" Or they'll go, "What's this guy all about?" and they'll forget about you because you do such different stuff. But I think it's more interesting to me. If actors can do it, why can't directors do it, choosing different types of projects?
As a director, what would you like people to see you as? Is there a theme which your movies?
What's important to me is strong characters, strong lead performances. All of the films I've done have hit that. I take a long time with my actors in rehearsal, and I really concentrate on performance when I'm cutting a film together. Hopefully, I'm a director that people will go, "He gets the best performances out of his cast." I did that with James McAvoy in Filth, and now with these guys... Obviously, they have to do the work, but you help them in the edit, and you help them on set with stuff like that, and you become their friend and their protector. Their guardian, in a way.
There's a lot of horror stories about movies getting pushed into production to meet their release date, and not having the rehearsal time that you clearly value. If you were to be hired for a big mega-blockbuster like that, would that be something you'd have to clarify beforehand, or would you see that as a unique challenge to overcome? Or would you just opt out of ever doing that kind of movie?
I think you have to have at least one week of rehearsal. It depends on how challenging what you're doing is. For this one, there was a huge amount of technical business, in terms of the actors, we needed to get them together. But you just have to work with the tools you're given. You adapt in different ways. If you don't have the rehearsal time before, you try to build it into your shooting schedule.
Talking about rehearsal, Stan & Ollie is about these two people, and you cast two actors who maybe know each other in passing. Rehearsal, in addition to learning the moves, do you see it as a bonding process for you and the actors?
It was probably as important, if not more important, for the bonding to take place within those three weeks than it was to learn the moves. I mean, they obviously had to learn the moves and get it right, but they had to learn to love each other, I suppose, and learn to know what the other one is thinking. Steve and John, they finish each other's sentences. They really are friends. But they didn't know each other before. But Laurel & Hardy didn't know each other before. Hal Roach plucked them both from obscurity, and went, "You're a fat guy and a you're thin guy, see what you can come up with!" They were just thrown together and told to be funny. They bonded on the way, and never stopped bonding. They just got closer and closer throughout their lives.
- Stan & Ollie (2018) release date: Dec 28, 2018