'Stan And Ollie' Director Jon S. Baird On Bringing The Legendary Comedy Duo Back To Life [Interview]

To say that Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly have an uncanny resemblance of Laurel and Hardy in Stan & Ollie would not be an understatement. In full make-up and costume, their resemblance is shocking. If there's a hope for Stan & Ollie, it would be that younger viewers learn about this legendary comedy duo and seek out their work.

/Film had the opportunity to talk with director Jon S. Baird in a phone interview to discuss his new Laurel and Hardy biopic. Sony Pictures Classics opens Stan & Ollie in select theaters on December 28, 2018.

Laurel and Hardy are among the best comedy duos of all time. When did you first learn about them and do you have a favorite film or routine of theirs?

So I first started watching them as a eight year old kid on their on British television. They used to do the reruns when we came home from school so from a very early age, I was aware of them. I think my favorite Laurel and Hardy film is a film called Block-Heads. I just still find it incredibly funny today ad I think technically, it's it's one of their best. It's the one that makes me laugh most look at.

What was it that drew your interest in directing Stan & Ollie?

I think it was a fabulous script. I got the script sent to me. When I first read it, I cried. There's not many scripts that can do it and I just thought to myself, Well, if it can make you cry by reading it on the page, imagine what we can do with the film potential. So that was really my first impression. It was so strong that I thought I have to have to direct this film.

With regards to filming those scenes from Lorne Hardy's classic dance, how close were you able to radically replicate the original from Way Out West?

I think I think if you watch them next to each other, it's very difficult to display any differences because John and Steve took it so seriously. They had three weeks rehearsal time to get all the routines down. If you look at their original film, you see Stan and Ollie actually making a couple of mistakes in the original Way Out West. You see that that there are a couple of mistakes in there. Steve and John were so obsessed with getting it right that they also put their mistakes in there to their dance. So I think it's very tough to do despite any differences at all even to the extras that we used in a background. We cast the extras in the background to look exactly like the ones in the original film. So we were quite obsessed with it so hopefully we got it right.

I found it so impressive that you had the exact background playing during the dance.

We managed to find the original footage from Way Out West. I don't know who found it and where they found it but we thought at once that we would have to recreate that as well. Thank goodness we never did because we would have taken an awful long time and an awful lot of our budget. We found the original footage even to the last frame and we played it exactly where it came in the film so we took we tried to be as authentic as possible.

John C. Reilly's performance as Oliver Hardy is among my favorite performances of the year. What was the casting process for giving both him and Steve Coogan on board?

We're lucky that they were our first choices. We made up a list of everyone who we thought might be able to play them. At the top of the list were Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly. They took a bit of convincing because there's a huge responsibility to play their heroes as well—they were playing their own all heroes. So it took a few conversations but when they came aboard, they were so invested in it. They put their heart and soul into this movie and it shows, I think. John's just been nominated for a Golden Globe and for a Critics' Choice Award. Steve was nominated for a British Independent Film Award. So they're off to a good start anyway so I hope it continues. But yeah, they were our first choices so we were very fortunate with that.

What was the most fascinating thing that you learned about Laurel and Hardy while working on the film?

I think probably—it's quite a funny thing, actually. Oliver Hardy was the best golfer in Hollywood. He used to win all the celebrity tournaments and I think that the reason is so incredible is because he was such a big man. When he was older, he was 325 pounds. He was huge. For a big man to have such a talent again like golf, I thought was quite amusing. So that was that was something that I thought was quite funny that I learned about them.

Star Wars actor Mark Hamill is a big fan of Laurel and Hardy. What is the biggest challenge for you with regards to attracting a younger audience that's not familiar with them?

What you have to do anyway is first of all, you have to make a good film. And I think you have to concentrate on—you have to forget when you're making the film and when you're writing the script about Laurel and Hardy and you've got to focus on the fact the core narrative is a love story between these two friends. And I think if you concentrate on that and then you build a Laurel and Hardy aspect of it on top of that. That's the way to start. A lot of it I think will be through—a few generations trickle and trickle down in terms of parents telling their kids who Laurel and Hardy were or grandparents tell their grandkids Laurel and Hardy were—not unlike when we've got someone like Wonder Woman or Superman or something. When these movies started to come out, these are films that I remember as a kid and then you educate your own kids on who these characters are. So a lot of it is the market, I suppose, and in the intergenerational sort of discussion. So I think that's the best way that you do that is through generations.

Stan and Ollie Featurette

And when you first saw John and Steve on set in full costume and makeup, how shocked were you at the initial resemblance?

That was an incredible moment. It was in the camera test and we had all the crew in this room set up ready for them to come in and do their thing. Nobody had seen them in the makeup or the costume but never together. So it was our first camera test and the crew was all there. When they walked through the door, there's a huge gasp—it was a gasp followed by silence followed by a cheer. It was almost like ghosts walking through the door. It brought them back to life. A huge amount of excitement went around the room. And you could see Steve and John feeding off of that and it gave them a lot of confidence when they got that reaction. It really was a heart-stopping a moment. I knew we were onto something from that point.

When I watched the film and then watched the footage of the real ones later after getting back, I could not believe it. It was so uncanny.

I know it's crazy, isn't? The biggest compliment that these guys get is people say you just forget instantly that you're watching Steve Coogan or John C. Reilly. You just think you're actually watching the real guys, which is the best compliment that you can have.

Who would you say are the modern day equivalents of Laurel and Hardy?

I don't think there are any. There are some great duos—even John Reilly and Will Ferrell. What they do is interesting but I think they'll be the first ones to admit that they're no Laurel and Hardy. They're kind of incomparable really. They've influenced so many people. I'm sure they influenced John. They've definitely influenced Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers, Steve Martin Jim Kennedy—all these people have been influenced by Laurel and Hardy. But the modern day equivalents? I struggle to think of any. Do you think that there are? Is there anybody that you think?

I'm not sure.

I don't think there are any. I think they're kind of timeless. I think they're unique. I think they're incomparable, really.

One of the big challenges with biopics is either telling it in a narrow time line or stretching out over several years.  With Stan & Ollie, would it work if it had been stretched out over 20 years—not taking the cold open into account?

I don't think it would. My first movie was a biopic and that's what I did. I stretched it out. I learned from my experience to focus a little bit more on a particular part. I just don't think the film would have been as interesting. I think by choosing especially in 1953—when they faced a lot of challenges like ill health, money worries, and their career had gone (inaudible, maybe misled?). I think we picked the most interesting part of their lives. Quite a tragic part unfortunately for them but certainly the most interesting part for people who don't know their story.

Do you hope that more people unfamiliar with them will look into their story or even get a surge of popularity in those classic films?

I really hope so. That would be the dream. If we could keep the memory alive and add some new followers to their unofficial fan club, that would be lovely. They've influenced so many people. They've influenced so much comedy over the years Their DNA runs right through comedy right up till now. So it'd be great if people were more aware of where that came from.