From four-time Academy Award-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, Hail, Caesar! is about what happens when the world’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), vanishes and his captors demand an enormous ransom for his same return. Studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) must find a solution that not only gets him back, but that also keeps all of the studios films on track, all while pulling back the curtain and showcasing the unexpected humor and industry drama found behind the scenes. The film also stars Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Alden Ehrenreich.
During a conference at the film’s press day, co-stars George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill and Alden Ehrenreich talked about why they wanted to be a part of this movie, no matter how small the role, slapping Clooney, wearing a leather skirt, the inspiration from the films of the era, doing the script pretty much exactly as written, the Coens’ unusually detailed use of storyboards, and the experience of working with cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Question: What made you want to be a part of this movie?
GEORGE CLOONEY: After finishing O Brother, Where Art Thou?, they pitched me a movie called Hail, Caesar!, basically about a fixer, but one of the characters was an idiot actor – I wonder why they thought of me – who gets kidnapped by a bunch of Communists. The only line they pitched was Alden’s line, “This is bad for movie stars everywhere,” which killed me, and then they never wrote the script. Every time I did press, I would say, “I’m doing a Coen brothers movie next, called Hail, Caesar!,” and then Joel and Ethan would call me and say, “Stop saying that! We haven’t written it.” And then, they called a couple years ago and said, “Okay, we wrote it, so let’s go do it.”
JOSH BROLIN: It was fun. It’s fun to slap people around. Since No Country, I’ve injected myself into their lives. Even other movies I wasn’t involved with, I’d watch them edit ‘cause I really enjoy watching them go through their process. It’s a very economical, educational process. And I remember asking them, when they were doing Llewyn Davis, what movie they were thinking about doing next, just out of curiosity, and they mentioned this movie and that [George Clooney] would most likely be involved, even though they’d asked him about it 10 years ago. I said, “Cool!,” wanting to say, “If there’s a part in there for me, I’d really enjoy working with you again. Maybe you could pay me more next time, since you always pay me nothing.” And then, I got a call that said, “Do you want to do this thing?” [When George was gonna do] O Brother, they were actually going to go see him. They would never come see me, but they do make a phone call. They do spend that money. And they said, “Would you be interested in maybe being involved in this movie?” I thought it was for a fairly small part until I read it.
ALDEN EHRENREICH: I auditioned for it and read with the casting director. Obviously, it being the Coens, I love their films and wanted to be a part of it. And then, I came in and read for them and they laughed throughout the audition. And then, I came back and read for them again. Then, I got a phone call and the casting director said, “Keep your phone on.” I just figured they were going to call me and say, “Thank you for coming in, but you didn’t get it.” So, I kept my phone on and a whole day went by, and then I went, “Well, maybe they decided not even to do that.” And then, the next day, I got a call from the Coens. They said, “Hi,” and I said, “Hi.” They said, “It’s the Coens,” but individually. And then, they said, “Have you talked to your agent?” And I said, “No.” And they said, “So, you don’t know?” And I said, “Know what?” And they said, “You got the part.” It was really thrilling.
JONAH HILL: They had written me an email together. It was one email from both of them, and it was so beautifully and hilariously written. It was written in their dialogue, as the Coen brothers. They said, “It’s a very, very small part.” And I just said, “Yes,” right away, without even reading it. I can’t speak for other actors, but I can’t imagine an actor who wouldn’t die to work with the Coen brothers.
CHANNING TATUM: I got an email from them, and you don’t even read the script before you say, “Yes.” You can’t type, “I’m in!,” quick enough.
HILL: We were on tour promoting a movie and it was funny because we were both trying to humblebrag to each other that we were going to be in a Coen brothers movie.
TATUM: “Dude, it’s crazy, I just got a Coen brothers email.”
HILL: “Yeah, I got one too, and I think I’m going to do it.” We were both trying to brag to each other, but it was the same movie, and Channing’s part was quadruple the size of my part.
TATUM: I didn’t know that, actually. We both thought we had small parts. In the script, it only says, “Mannix walks into a big song-and-dance. And then, they dance and Burt Gurney does a knee slide to a bucket.” I thought you might see an eight-count, and then a knee slide to a bucket.
HILL: And I got an email saying, “Are you interested in playing a bucket?” So, I was like, “I don’t want to brag, but I’m probably going to play the bucket.”
TATUM: They asked me, “Do you know how to tap?” And I was like, “No.” And they were like, “Well, we’re thinking about tapping. Do you think you could learn it?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And then, they asked, “Can you sing?” “No, I can’t do that.” “Can you try?” “Yeah, I can try.” I was so scared that I was going to screw up this movie because I couldn’t do either of the things that they asked me to do. I’m sure they were like, “Oh, he can figure it out.” But, I was terrified of ruining the movie. Auto-tune is amazing!
Josh and George, why do you think the Coen brothers wanted to have the studio guy slap the lead actor?
BROLIN: I think they’re trying to manifest something they’ve been wanting to do for a very long time, but it’s illegal. They’ve been wanting to slap George Clooney.
CLOONEY: First, I want it out there that Josh has very, very soft hands. He slapped me like Oscar Wilde. He was so soft. I barely felt it, really. I have no idea why they do it, but I find they’ve done that with all of our characters. [Mannix is] a smart one, but the rest of us are not particularly the brightest group.
TATUM: The directors come off really well in their movies.
CLOONEY: The directors are always sharp. It’s true.
BROLIN: Even though it comes across as Communist, it’s actually writers going, “Wait, if it’s our idea, shouldn’t we get a residual, if they make money?” Forget the Communist part. The studio is saying, “We’ll use you for as long as we need to, as laborers, and then we’ll go off and make the profit.” So, when [Baird Whitlock] gets together with them, he starts to think individually and Eddie says, “Don’t you dare think individually because we control everything.”
CLOONEY: And then, Bette Davis comes around and screws the whole thing up. She told them all to fuck off.
George, did this satisfy your fantasy to do a sword-and-sandals epic?
CLOONEY: The fantasy was to wear the leather skirt. That was my fantasy. When you go back and look at those films, it’s hard not to crack a smile through them. They take it very seriously. Having watched all those movies for a long period of time, I really fell in love with Victor Mature’s version of all of those kinds of films. His hair was always dyed black. And he’s been wonderful in films. I’m actually a huge fan of Victor Mature. But it did feel like he’d get cinched up into his outfit and have that fake Bronx accent, like Harvey Keitel in The Last Temptation of Christ when he was like, “Jesus, how could you forsake me?!,” or like Tony Curtis in Spartacus. I just love the idea of this guy who was like, “All right, let’s go do another one of these.” I thought it would be a very fun thing to do. But the truth is, it’s not as much about this particular role. I don’t know of an actor that the Coen brothers would come to and say, “Hey, I’ve got a movie for you to be in, if you want to do it,” that would say, “No.” That’s the truth.
When you’re working on a Coen brothers movie, do you pretty much just say the script exactly as it’s written, or is there room for collaboration?
TATUM: You pretty much say it exactly like they wrote it, just because you can’t have a better idea than what they’ve already written. It’s amazing.
HILL: Greater minds have thought it through.
TATUM: You can change things, you just don’t want to. Why would you want to?
BROLIN: They have a tough enough time, socially, so we don’t want to make them more depressed than they already are.
EHRENREICH: The writing, the way it’s written, makes it so easy to do. So, for the most part, you just stick to it.
What’s it like to show up on a Coen brothers’ set?
CLOONEY: Well, there are a couple things they do that are really unique. They have a guy, named J. Todd Anderson, who does all their storyboards. He draws them like cartoons, as opposed to storyboards, which are usually a very technical thing. I’ve used him as an actor in a couple movies because he’s a wild character. So, every morning when you come to the set, you get your sides, which are the lines you’re going to read, and on the back, you also get all of the storyboards with these things drawn up. I’ve used it, as a director, since then because it’s so effective. It tells you how they want you to act, it has facial expressions, and it takes away that element for them, as directors, where they have to negotiate where they want you to go. You see it on the storyboards and you go, “Oh, I’ll go over there and I’ll make this kind of face.” Funnily enough, they have it so mapped out, by the time you get there, that you’re really just trying to fit into what they see.
BROLIN: I’ve done three and a half movies with them, and I never got to the set and had them say, “You’ll be sitting there and standing there.” Never. It’s true that, because it is mapped out, maybe it’s a subliminal, full-blown Orwellian manipulation that’s happening. But, you feel totally collaborative. Whereas I’ve worked with Woody Allen twice and he was like, “Whatever you want to change, it’s up to you. If you want to change the words, make them your own.” And then, you get to the set and you actually ad-lib something, and he says, “That’s not what it says.” And you say, “But, you said I could change it.” And he goes, “Oh, I know. That’s great, and you should. But, that’s not what it said.” With Joel and Ethan, if you have an idea that fits better than what they’ve come up with, and you collaboratively know that because it’s so specific, they’re all for it.
What’s it like to work with Roger Deakins, on set?
BROLIN: The great thing about Roger, when we were doing Sicario in Albuquerque, I saw him jogging. I was out walking, early in the morning, and I looked over and saw him. Roger was jogging, and he just [waved at me]. He didn’t look at me. I don’t know if it meant, “Don’t speak.” I don’t know if it was, “Don’t acknowledge me, I’m jogging.” That sums up all you need to know about Roger Deakins.
Hail, Caesar! opens in theaters on February 5th.