Director's Chair: Jon Baird — <I>Stan & Ollie</I>
Issue: March/April 2019

Director's Chair: Jon Baird — Stan & Ollie

As the old quip goes, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” And the new Sony Pictures Classics film Stan & Ollie shows just how hard the latter is.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are widely regarded as the greatest comedy partnership in movie history. Between 1927 and 1950, they made over 107 film appearances (32 silent short films, 40 sound shorts, 23 features, 12 cameos), defining the notion of the double act with their infectious chemistry and hilarious routines that seemed effortless but which hid so much hard work. 

The pair were also members of a tiny, elite club: silent stars who not only survived but thrived in the sound era. But despite their huge careers, by the early ‘50s they’d entered the twilight of the comedy gods, and struggled to remain relevant in both Hollywood and cinemas around the world. 

So in 1953, diminished by age and with their golden era as the kings of Hollywood comedy now behind them, the pair set out on a variety hall tour of Britain. The tour becomes a hit, but Stan & Ollie can’t quite shake the specter of Laurel and Hardy’s past, and the long-buried ghosts, coupled with Oliver’s failing health, start to threaten their precious partnership.

That’s the set up for Stan & Ollie. Directed by Jon S. Baird, whose credits include the award-winning Filth, Vinyl and Babylon, and written by Jeff Pope, who won Oscar and Globe nominations for Philomena, it’s a tender and poignant portrait of a creative marriage, with both performers fully aware that they may be approaching their swan song as they try to rediscover just how much they mean to each other. 

The film stars Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy, and features a stellar team behind the camera, including DP Laurie Rose (Peaky Blinders), editors Billy Sneddon (Veep) and Una Ni Dhonghaile (The Crown), post production supervisor Louise Seymour (My Cousin Rachel), and composer Rolfe Kent (Sideways).

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Baird talks about making the film, and why he loves post.

What do you look for in a project and what was the appeal of making this?

“I was looking for something very, very different to what I’d done before — something a lot lighter in tone. The problem for all directors is, if you keep making films that are similar in theme and tone, you do get locked into that, so when Jeff Pope sent this to me while I was doing Danny Boyle’s TV series Babylon, I immediately loved the idea, and I’d been a big Laurel and Hardy fan as a kid, so it really appealed to me in all sorts of ways.”

What sort of film did you set out to make?

“A film about friendship, and all that entails. When I read the first script I ever got, I cried at the end, and I thought, ‘Right, that’s my first reaction. That’s what I think this film should be.’ It’s a very emotional story, and when I first spoke to Jeff I told him, ‘I think this is basically a love story.’ And he replied, ‘Right, you don’t have to say anything more. Let’s do it.’ I think he’d talked to other people who felt it was more about the comedy side, while I didn’t think that was that important, ironically enough, although of course there is also a lot of comedy in it. I don’t think you can make a movie about them and not have comedy in it. But I also think that a lot of the comedy comes from their wives, and Jeff’s script very cleverly has them as this other comedy team, these two women who are very strong and who’ve been through all the ups and downs with their husbands.”

Casting the right actors as Stan and Ollie is obviously crucial. What did Steve and John bring to the roles?

“They both brought a lot of experience in doing physical comedy as well as dramatic roles, and they both have this tremendous range and intelligence, but I think the main thing they brought was this sense of responsibility, as Laurel and Hardy were heroes to them, and they didn’t want to drop the ball. So they did a huge amount of research and by the time we started three weeks of rehearsal, they’d each learned how to really channel their characters, and they’d just slip into character and have all their mannerisms right there. And that in turn pushes you as a director to make sure you have all the right answers for their questions. And it was also very challenging for them as they had to play both the famous comedy team beloved by the public and then the private people behind the comedy image.”

Prep must have been challenging as well?

“Very, as with any period piece there is so much research, so all the departments — production design, costumes, prosthetics, hair and make-up — did a ton of work to get us ready, and we also had Stan’s great grand-daughter as an advisor, which was very helpful. But we got a break when the schedule got pushed three months and that gave us more time, and we had a brilliant location person, Camilla Stephenson, who found all these great old theaters where Laurel and Hardy had actually performed in Britain, and they even had the original posters in some cases. We never stopped learning about Laurel and Hardy the whole time we worked on this, and the key to the film was all the prep and rehearsals.”

What were the main challenges of the shoot?

“For a start we had to deal with two very different eras — the glamorous Hollywood of the ‘30s, and the unglamorous, rainy UK of the early ‘50s. And then it was like a road movie, as we were moving around so much to get all the different locations — and we only had 39 days to shoot it all, which was a huge challenge. On top of that, John was in make-up and costume for four hours a day, which ate into the actual shooting time, and he was in there every day. And there was all the work with the fat suits and the prosthetics made by Mark Coulier, who won the Oscar for The Iron Lady. So we had a lot of pressure. (Laughs) I like shooting, but I like casting a lot more, when you don’t have the clock ticking away and the gun’s at your head.”

Where did you post?

“All at Goldcrest in London, and our post production supervisor Louise Seymour has to be given a huge amount of credit. She was like having another producer. We lost another producer for a few weeks during post as she was getting married, and Louise stepped in and took over and did an amazing job.”

Do you like the post process?

“I do. I really enjoy it all, except for the first bit of the editing. When you see your first cut, you invariably want to shoot yourself. The only comfort is that when you speak to other directors, they all feel the same way. But then as you get your rhythm, and as you get to know your editor, you get a rapport going and enjoy coming in to work. And then when it gets down to doing all the VFX and music and sound, it becomes so much fun. That’s what I really love about post — the whole variety of areas you’re working in.”

This was edited by two editors — Billy Sneddon and Una Ni Dhonghaile. Tell us about that relationship and how they split it up?

“I like working with two editors. I’ve done it before. But we were really forced to use two on this as we ran over on post, and Billy had been booked to start on another film. So Billy did the first cut and he has incredible comedy bones, so he did a lot of the comedy stuff and that was pretty much there when he had to leave. Then Una came in, and she’s like another filmmaker, with this incredible brain. She really refined a lot of it and put back in a lot of the stuff we’d thrown away. She really stood back and looked at it from a distance, so it worked out really well. It was great to have their two different approaches and inputs. Neither was on the set. I know some directors like that, but I’ve never done that.”

What were the big editing challenges?

“Getting the tone right, because you had to balance all the comedy with the drama and emotion. They always say, if you want to make people cry, you have to make them laugh first, and I think that’s true. It was a big thing, knowing when to pull back a bit, when to push it a bit more and when to really tug on the heart strings.”

Period films always need a lot of VFX. What was involved?

“We did a lot of small necessary stuff, like touching up the prosthetics, and overall clean up. We also used them for all Steve’s eyes. He has brown eyes, so we used blue contact lenses so they’d match Stan’s blue eyes, but then he got an eye infection, so we had to fix all that in post, and Goodbye Kansas did that. Then Union did all the rest, and the big VFX were things like the six-minute opening tracking shot, where they’re walking through the back lot in Hollywood, and we had to add stuff like palm trees and water towers, and we used a lot of green screen. And then we had the big vistas of London when they arrive on the train. That was all green screen. And the whole scene at Cobb Harbour in Ireland was actually shot with a stationary boat at the Bristol docks, and we added the sea, and we also did a bunch of crowd replications.”

Talk about the importance of music and sound to you.

“It’s huge for me, and my sound design starts on-set. I’m thinking about sound as much as the visuals, and we had a great location recordist, Danny Hambrook, whose tracks are so clean. That made it very easy in post. We didn’t really start sampling all the temp music till Una came on, so by the time Rolfe came on, we had a far better guide to give him. It’s funny, as we were temping a lot of his score from Sideways, and he didn’t want to hear it with that. He wants to start fresh every time.” 

Where did you do the DI?

“At Goldcrest, with colorist Rob Pizzey and the DP, and they got a beautiful look I think.”

What’s your view of Laurel and Hardy now?

“I love them even more now. I started watching them when I was just eight, and I’ll always have them in my heart.”

Editor's Note: On Tuesday, March 26th, Stan & Ollie will premiere on iTunes, Amazon Video, DVD and Blue Ray.