For a world reeling from divisive politics and barefaced cynicism, Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie, based on Jeff Pope’s screenplay about Laurel & Hardy’s unceremonious tour of Great Britain after the Second World War, when their stars had largely faded, is an existential salve. It is a paean to the spirit of artistry that drove two of the finest comic performers ever to grace the screen and a testament to their resolve when the world seemed determined to drive a wedge between them and forget about their contribution.
Now, in 2019, the legacy of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy is assured, but it wasn’t always so. As they struggled to set up another feature film, and were rocked by the high costs of divorce and the challenges they faced negotiating their contracts, they toured to half-empty playhouses in post-war Britain in order to scrape a meager living as age and poor health caught up with them. Baird and Pope’s film about this time is careful to examine the men behind the personas, and in the hands of John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan, the film is warm-hearted and uplifting, even as trouble and tragedy strikes.
While Stan & Ollie has passed quietly alongside the higher-profile entries in this season’s awards run, the film has picked up a Golden Globe nomination for Reilly, and a trio of still-pending BAFTA nods for Outstanding British Film, Best Make-Up/Hair and Best Leading Actor for Steve Coogan. Director Jon S. Baird details the long journey to the screen for the film, and how he found himself understanding his own drive to create through the irrepressible comedy legends.
This movie seemed to be a long time in the making. Where did the big challenges lie?
I had the first meeting at the start of 2014. I was working with Danny Boyle on Babylon for Channel 4 and [Stan & Ollie’s screenwriter] Jeff Pope approached me. It started out as a TV project for BBC Comedy, but it sort of outgrew that. Christine Langan, who was the head of BBC Films at the time, said, “We’ll take it.” It slowly started to build.
The reason it took so long was that we wanted to get the script absolutely perfect. The final script was a million miles from where the original script started. The person who really kickstarted the script into what it became was John C. Reilly. Not by writing on it, or anything, but by coming to the table and saying, “You know what? This needs to be more about these two guys.” John was a force in crystallizing that.
But then, another reason it took time was, as we were developing the script, these guys kept getting other jobs. Particularly John; he got a few big jobs that he just couldn’t say no to. If I were him I’d have done the exact same. Holmes & Watson was one because he hadn’t worked with Will Ferrell in a long time and he really wanted to work with him.
During that time I had to say, “Great, I’m not going to be taking another film,” because I knew if I did, it would rule me out of this. I wanted to stay attached, and so I took TV projects. That’s when I got the chance to work with Martin Scorsese on Vinyl, and that’s been massive for me. I didn’t think I’d ever meet someone like him.
He actually recently hosted a screening for Stan & Ollie in New York. Describe the experience of meeting him.
You know, the thing that really bonded him and me together was something I said when I first met him. And I’d prepared this, like, really prepared it. It’s sort of lame. I said to myself, “The first moment Scorsese and I meet, I have to have something to say. I can’t just go and stand there, open-mouthed, like a fool.” I said to him, “Mr. Scorsese, you did a film that made me want to become a film director.” You could see by his look that he was thinking, “I’ve heard this a million times. He’s going to say Raging Bull or Taxi Driver or Goodfellas.” So he just kind of said, “Oh, yeah, OK, that’s nice.” I said, “The King of Comedy.”
As soon as I said that, he just locked in. He was totally locked in. We had this huge, hourlong conversation. We went into his production office, and he took me into the edit on Silence and carried on the conversation with him and Thelma Schoonmaker. He showed me a lot of footage from Silence, and we talked a lot about The King of Comedy. How they chose the costume for Rupert Pupkin when De Niro was walking down Avenue of the Americas and walked past all these dodgy tailors. In the window it said, ‘Tailors to the stars,’ and he knew, that’s where Pupkin would buy his suits. He went in and bought the suit that was on the mannequin in the window.
Anyway, I worked with him and then he invited me back to do another episode of Vinyl. Now, every time I go to New York I go to his house for a cup of tea, or we go for dinner. He’ll take me to the edit and show me stuff. Ask my opinion. He’s made me a part of the inner circle and I’m so grateful. I know someday he’s going to wake up and think, “Who is this Scottish guy who keeps following me around?”
But that was one of the reasons the project was delayed. I did some nice TV projects, I made some decent money, which is the great thing about American TV. But I always kept my eye on Stan & Ollie and kept very close to Jeff, and to John and Steve. I just didn’t want to let it go.
In the end, it’s been five years since your last film, Irvine Welsh’s Filth with James McAvoy.
And the film before that [Cass] was five years earlier too. If it takes another five years I’m going to give up. But I’m talking to Peter Dinklage right now about something I’m doing with him. It’s a really great script by John Patrick Shanley. I’m also working with Gillian Berrie, who works closely with David Mackenzie, to adapt a very famous Scottish novel. So those are two, again, wildly different things that I’m working on.
On Stan & Ollie you’re engaging with actual legends—titans of this industry. How does that not fill you with existential dread?
There are two things really. One is, it’s almost like an adrenaline rush. You’re drawn to pieces of material that could ruin your career. It was the same with Filth, because people said, “That novel cannot be adapted. We’ve tried.” It’s like a moth to a flame for me. Self-destructive, and you’re just hoping you get through it. And I think you have to embrace the naivety of not knowing. Thankfully, for me, I don’t realize how naïve I was until the whole thing was finished.
John and Steve talk about the same thing when we do Q&As. They go, “You never seemed to be nervous.” But the other thing for me was I had so much faith in the two of them. I didn’t want to consider the alternative. You just have to make sure that you keep on rolling. Preparation was key for us on this. Rehearsal, shot-listing, storyboards. The pre-production time we had, in general, was huge.
We could still have upset a lot of people. Not only the surviving family members, who are rare but thankfully on board, but the huge fanbase for Laurel & Hardy. The biggest moment for me on all that wasn’t the film itself, it was the first-look photograph of Steve and John as Laurel & Hardy. I knew that would be the thing that would make us live or die. Thankfully the response was so positive.
How do you begin to cast these roles?
The big buzzword for us from the word go was responsibility. The test was, were these two actors going to take responsibility and realize what was at stake in terms of the legacy? John C. Reilly said something to me that showed me how invested he was. He said, “I’m frightened by the idea of playing Oliver Hardy, but what frightens me more is the idea of someone else doing it.” He considered Laurel & Hardy heroes, and he didn’t want to see anyone else f–k it up. It was the same for Steve Coogan.
John was in the make-up chair, when we first started, for four hours, not including costume. Make-up drives John crazy anyway, you know? So he hated it. But he calmed himself down every day by saying, “This is for Oliver.”
And Mark Coulier, our prosthetics guy, is one of the best in the business and a double Oscar winner, and he knows how to deal with that frustration from actors. But more importantly, on a responsibility level, he was also a huge Laurel & Hardy fan and wanted to do right by the make-up he designed.
The film makes a big deal of lifting the curtain on the serious professionals Laurel & Hardy had to be, which was at odds with their screen presence. They were actually taken advantage of a lot behind the scenes. It was important for these actors not to simply play the stage personas.
Stan was an understudy for Charlie Chaplin, and he learned a lot about the business side from Chaplin. He maybe didn’t pay enough attention to what was going on off-screen, because Chaplin became a very wealthy man and Stan didn’t. It was why they were forced to do these tours because they didn’t have any money left. And they were married and divorced a lot, so that soaked up quite a bit. But Hal Roach was very smart because he put them together and they came up with their act after that. It wasn’t like they went to Hal Roach with an idea of this double-act. He started their contracts six months apart, so their contracts were never ending at the same time. They never had joint negotiating power.
Also, I just don’t think money ever really interested Stan or Ollie. They just wanted to do their thing. Probably too late, they realized they weren’t prepared for any kind of retirement. They did 107 films together, and I think Stan wrote them all. If that were nowadays, with a fancy lawyer doing their contract and negotiating their intellectual property ownership, they would be rich.
So the film really is about these two guys who are searching to try and regain their legacy. To make some money, on a primary level, but also maybe searching for their stars again, because after the war they were yesterday’s men.
Artists never want to retire.
You know what I think it is? Any kind of artist, whether they’re a comedian or an actor or a director or a singer, all we’re doing, as a collective, is that we’re drawing pictures for mom and dad. That’s all it is. We’re going, “Like this.” All you want to hear is, “Oh, that’s really good.” That’s the lasting satisfaction. It’s not getting a royalty check in the mail. So Stan and Ollie were forced into doing it in the way they did it, but they also wanted to keep making movies. They were addicted to the feeling it gave them. Particularly Stan.
I felt the same way. I think a lot of people can relate to that. Not even just artists. The desire to put something good into the world. A lot of people who will go and see this film have been in a situation where they’ve had careers before, and now they’re at the end of their careers, and have maybe done well, they maybe haven’t quite got to where they want. Regardless of where they ended up, they would still like to give it one more shot. Let’s just give it one more shot.