Edith Bowman: Richard, let’s start with you. You informed me just before the start you have a long-time connection with this book when you first came to read it…
Richard Brown: I don’t think any more than any of us. Most of us read I think… I read it when I was a teenager. Luke and I were meeting to talk about projects we might want to develop, and Luke proposed Catch-22. David Michod and I re-read it and then Luke and David look on the task of adapting it into six episodes.
Where did you start, Luke?
Luke Davies: I started with fear, pain and anxiety! Just trying to work out how to wrestle it into shape. It’s such a massive, dense novel. I started with whiteboards.
Is it a luxury, with the idea that it’s episodic so you can delve into the story a bit more and explore things a bit more?
LD: It was a huge luxury. It was about giving things room to breathe. It was about creating a canvas big enough to allow the characters to have arcs in time and a kind of journey that might have an emotional side to it.
Was it easy to find the tone? Because the book’s almost indescribable in a way. It’s absolutely brilliant and fascinating and entertaining… was that hard to define?
LD: I hope that’s the end result, that we found a kind of tone that manages to juggle the darkness with the light, the acidic extreme black comedy with something a little deeper and darker.
Where did the journey go from there?
RB: When Luke and David finished the scripts, we sent them to George and Grant. Almost unbelievably two days later we got a phone call to say that George and Grant did in fact want to direct the series and furthermore wanted to act in it, which was a nice bonus. That was really it. We all met and business from then moved quite quickly.
George Clooney: Hey! Hi! Over here!
George, what was your first reaction reading the script?
GC: I loved the script. We were surprised. We got a call that somebody said, “Do you want to do Catch-22?” And you’re like, f*cking no? Really stupid. And then we read these screenplays and thought, you don’t get to read very many screenplays that are this good. Luke and David figured out, cracked the book in a way that we hadn’t thought of. I also want to say for the record since they are probably most of the audience, but pretty much every actor up there was a Brit. A lot of them are in here tonight. Can you guys stand up, boys?
Never enough Brits, come on!
GC: Take it easy. And Harrison, I think he worked two days on this, is the young man who dies in the back of the plane, is just spectacular and just lights up the screen. We feel very lucky and very blessed to have such actors with us. So thank you all.
Grant, hello sir.
Grant Heslov: I don’t feel the same way.
When you read it, was it like, “I’d like to direct this. And I’d like to be in this. And I’d like to be a producer on it.” Was it like you wanted to be part of this whole thing?
GH: Like Luke, this was one of the seminal books for me growing up. When George and I first heard about it we were like, “No way.” He was at his house, I was at my house. After the first episode we called each other and were like, “This is f*cking great!”
GC: We live at different houses.
GH: “Let’s read the next one!” We call each other up. “This is still f*cking great!” By the time we got to the end we said, “Let’s figure out how to do this. Let’s direct them and work with Richard to produce them.” And George said, “I’ll be in it because that’ll help us get it done quickly,” which we wanted to do. My acting part was an afterthought.
GC: It’s pretty good though.
GH: Well, thank you.
Ellen can I bring you in as well? Because the idea that this project is directed by three people, how does that work in terms of who decides who does what?
Ellen Kurras: We were drinking espressos a lot… because it was cross-ported over six episodes, which means that we were shooting all the episodes at the same time, which was a real challenge but it was actually very exciting because once we’d discussed the approach and how we wanted it to look and the tone and the character development, it was really interesting because we were able to be on each other’s sets at any given time. I might direct something in the morning and then George direct something in the afternoon and Grant direct something in the afternoon. It gave us a chance to really look in and weigh in on what each other was doing. It kept it consistent all the way through.
What were the biggest challenges as a director on this, for each of you?
GH: George as an actor was tough to work with.
GC: Grant directed himself.
GH: That was tough on me, too.
GC: You can’t do more takes on yourself than you do on other actors when you’re directing yourself.
GH: You mentioned it earlier, that was an astute question, that was the tone. We talked about from the second we started and from when Ellen joined, with all the writers and all the producers and the actors, we talked about tone. How to make sure that everything felt real but at the same time we were mining it for the humour when it was necessary and also for the parts that were more harrowing. That was the biggest challenge.
For your two parts, the casting of it, how was that process and getting those pieces together?
GC: We wanted to get the best actors we possibly could for the project. We couldn’t afford them so we got…
GH: Hugh did us a favour.
GC: Hugh did us a favour. We’re part of a fraternity: we played doctors.
CA: And I don’t cost a lot of money so…
GC: Now he’s really expensive. Chris, you should talk to him. He had to go and read.
Which part did you have to read for the auditions?
Christopher Abbott: Yossarian.
GC: He got it!
CA: Oh you mean what scene?
GC: He actually read for Doctor Daneeka.
GC: “You know, you suck at that, maybe if you read…”
CA: It was one of the first scenes with Major Major Major Major where I was trying to argue with him. He just got promoted, which wasn’t anything we saw tonight, but it was one of those scenes.
The way it finds comedy in tragedy, but your character is so complex. He’s kind of complicated but not complicated. How would you describe him?
CA: I think there’s a through-line of existentialism. He’s an existentialist at heart. The journey I think goes from someone who’s trying to pretend to be insane to get out and eventually probably become insane through the process.
I heard you say in an interview that you can’t play satire. Satire can be written and it’s about the interpretation of the audience as to whether they find things funny or where they find the emotion in it, which I thought was such an interesting reflection. But for you, when you read the script, what was your reaction to it?
CA: It was some of the best things I’d ever read. It’s just that. I think the tone is taken care of in a sense on the page and in the direction and the editing. That was one less thing I had to worry about. We were all on the same page concerning tone but ultimately you had to play true, whether it was farcical, comedic, heightened, or whether it was extremely dramatic.
Hugh? When was the last time you had a strudel?
Hugh Laurie: I do not clearly remember… I think I’ve only ever had three strudels in my life. Clearly they were not that memorable.
Tell me about your reaction to being approached to this project.
HL: Well, obviously…
He’s a Brit!
GC: It’s the first time I’ve ever heard him with a British accent.
HL: When the Emperor sends his signal across the water…
GC: The Bat Signal. A sad bat.
HL: … you drop whatever it is you’re doing and you answer the call. If what you’re doing happens to be nothing, it’s a little bit easier. I enjoyed it like everyone else. I loved the book. For me and I’m sure for many, many other people it’s sort of a holy text in many ways, particularly if you’re very young and you respond to Yossarian’s rebelliousness and his nihilism, but not nihilism actually. His sort of struggle for survival is immensely appealing and powerful and it stays with you your entire life. I thought the adaptations… I completely agree. The first page I read I thought, “Oh! This is a really interesting way in.” And the way in just kept on being the way in the whole way through. I don’t think anybody would disagree that it’s a work of astonishing skill and passion. It was beautiful to read.
Do you think that you need that history with the book like Luke had to be able to delve into in the way you’ve all responded to it?
HL: No, I don’t think so actually. It helps probably but I don’t think so. The interesting thing about the Mike Nichols film from nineteen…
HL: Seventy, was that quickly took on a resonance in relation to the Vietnam War. It was as if with a great piece of work it is born again, depending on the circumstances in which its made and a new audience, a new generation bring a new interpretation to it and they will see things in it and new things will leap out at them. I think that will probably, I hate to break it to you, this may not be the last interpretation of Catch-22. How about that?
GC: They’re doing a remake of House right now.
Tessa, Nurse Duckett. For you was it a real joy to have the opportunity to be more complex than I guess she is in the book, to almost give her wings a bit and explore that?
Tessa Ferrer: Yes, absolutely. Again, like everyone said it all starts with Luke Davies and David Michod. Nurse Duckett is really the through line of sanity for this piece. It was a real honour to get to explore.
I wanted to talk about the authenticity of it as well. Those scenes in the air are incredible. Sorry to get technical for a moment but shooting that, how did you do it? Because it’s beautiful, really. It’s like a dance almost.
GC: Well we only had two planes. So, we flow two of them, one of them from California to Sardinia, one from Ohio to Sardinia, so a lot of it was shooting scenes over and over and over and over again so we could have more planes up there. All the interiors of the planes were actually shot on a soundstage, believe it or not. It just required, and I think Ellen and Grant would all agree, it just took a lot of time. We remember World War Two… when Grant and I did Goodnight and Good Luck we shot in black and white because we only remember Edward R Murrow in black and white. When we shot this we only remember World War Two from footage that looks like The World at War, Laurence Olivier… we wanted it to feel like 16mm. We wanted it to be a lot of rack focuses and zooms and catching up to what we were actually wanting to see. It was a specific style choice that helps make it look a little more real than if we’d shot it really clean.
GH: Our DP, our director of photography, Martin Ruhe handled all that.
GC: And he’s German, you know! Just saying.
GH: We had talked about very early on about wanting to shoot the inside of the planes very claustrophobically. We talked about Das Boot, we talked about films that we really felt. Until you get inside that plane you don’t realise how small it is in there.
EK: That was one of the things we talked about. George and Grant said they wanted it to feel very real but also to feel we were vicariously experiencing what they were, to be able to see out and to be right with them. In a way to hear them breathe. Getting into that, when we started shooting, that was a challenge. Martin had to climb in all the way through the fuselage to get in.
Kyle. Cathcart seems to represent the madness of the war at times. It looks like you had fun playing a character like that. Did you? What was your reaction when you first read the script?
Kyle Chandler: Like everyone else who read the script, you didn’t have to get far into it to realise it was something you wanted to, I wanted to take a shot at it. It was sort of intimidating at the same point. However, it was so much fun. Once I stepped into the shoes and started playing, he just keeps turning the burner up and up until boom! Scheisskopf comes along and suddenly he’s down at the bottom of the hill. It’s a great little arc. It was a great, great, great experience. I’m just, I know you guys are great at what you do, but I’m shocked at how great it looks! It looks really good.
GH: I told you to trust us!
GC: But also Kyle always plays the Jimmy Stewart. He’s such a trusting, kind soul. So, we called him up and said, “Do you want to play Cathcart?” He said, “I think so.” He came out and the very first day we were shooting was the first day you see him in the scene in episode one, where he shoots his gun off and screams at everybody. None of us knew what he was going to do. Including you!
KC: I didn’t know.
GC: And within a couple of minutes Grant and I were just hi-fiving each other because we felt like we’d hit the jackpot.
Was that an important thing to have on set? A freedom for the cast to explore and surprise…
GH: Not too free!
GC: No, no, no!
GC: We’ll give them one. I’m an actor, I’ve been around when directors go, “Do one your way.” They’ll never use it.
GC: Yeah, do it your way, Chris!
CA: Action, or whatever.
GC: Yeah, yeah, action. No, the truth of the matter is the script left so much room for everyone to have some fun.
Chris if I can come back to you for a second. Talking about the arc of the character, how was the logistics of it in terms of you weren’t filming in a chronological order? You were going here, there and everywhere. Was that a real challenge for you?
CA: Yeah, it was insane. It was hard enough… the material goes all over the place itself also, so that was kind of an added thing. It was hard, yeah. Between George, Grant and Ellen they would come up to me and say something and I would nod my head and wave at them.
GC: He knew all six episodes. Really, honest to God, as an actor I would kill myself if I had to do what he did. It was brutal because we would shoot four episodes, five episodes sometimes in a day. And at the end of day it was always, “Ok, get your clothes off.”
CA: We weren’t even rolling!
George you look like you had a lot of fun with this, because this was a character were you got to explode?
GC: Well the character’s name translated in German is ‘sh*t head’ so there wasn’t a whole lot of subtlety. But you know it’s fun because all I did was yell. There was no great arc to my character. He just loves parades.
Can’t keep in time with music, I noticed at the end. He loves parades but he can’t keep in time with music.
GC: What are you talking about?
Talking of music, would you mind if I mentioned that for a second? Because the music is incredible. A combination of those existing needle drops but also the score that Harry and Rupert
GC: Brits, again. Brit composers.
How did you navigate that? Was it quite clear, marrying those two things?
GC: I think we should tell you that there’s I think three tracks in the show that my Aunt Rosemary, who is also Tessa’s grandmother, is singing. We grew up, Tessa and I, and I spent a lot of time listening… I used to drive Aunt Rosemary when she was singing with Tony Bennett and Martha Ray and Helen O’Connell and all those people. So, I grew up around pretty great old classic music. We had amongst us on the set, we were playing that music all the time. And then the boys came in and made an insanely great score. Particularly if you watch the scene with Harrison and Chris where Harrison dies, we talked to the guys and said, “Let’s make sure the score is what tells the story here and not just the dialogue.” So, we cranked the volume down and let the score takeover. Pretty spectacular scene by these two actors and these two composers.
Luke can I finish with you please? This feels like a story, it’s set many years ago but it feels incredibly relevant and an important story to be hearing today. I wonder if that was something you really thought about in terms of how you wrote it.
LD: I thought about it all the time. It was at the foundation of the whole endeavour. Joseph Heller it turns out, he’s a kind of prophet. The book feels like the origin story of the geopolitical here and now. And it’s not just at the obvious level. Yes, it’s about the insanity of war but it’s also about the insanity of bureaucracy and red tape and the systems and the structures that send young men to their deaths and the relationship between war and capitalism and all that. It felt incredibly resonant. There was one thing I regret from the novel not putting in, this sequence about the Great Loyalty Oath of Crusade. Some of the colonel’s force men to sign loyalty oaths before they go up and fight missions. It spreads like a virus and in the end you have to sign a loyalty oath before you even have breakfast. I had already done the first drafts when Donald Trump had his cabinet around that table and he held that press conference where he forced everyone to say how great he was. That was a huge moment of regret for me. It was kind of too late but I thought, “Oh my God, if Heller was alive today, he would be…I don’t think loving Donald Trump is the word, but he would be channelling some of his madness.”