From director Jon S. Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope, the biographical dramedy Stan & Ollie follows the great comedy team of Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), as they set out on a variety hall tour of Britain in 1953. With their golden era behind them and an uncertain future, the two funnymen quickly reconnect with their adoring fans and the tour becomes a hit, but that doesn’t dissolve the tension between them or cure Oliver’s failing health, leaving the two men wondering just how much they mean to each other.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Jon S. Baird talked about how the script for Stan & Ollie came his way, being a huge Laurel & Hardy fan, the importance of exploring the relationship dynamic with their wives, the perfect combination of Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, why it was so emotional to see them in character for the first time, how appendicitis delayed the start of production, how Martin Scorsese’s advice impacted the film, why he ended up taking some TV projects in between films, and developing a project with Peter Dinklage that he hopes to get into production soon.
JON S. BAIRD: I had just done a movie, called Filth, which is the polar opposite to Stan & Ollie, in so many different ways. I’d just found a new agent, and he had sent me the script and said, “This just came through for your consideration. I don’t think it’s your kind of thing.” Obviously, he didn’t know me that well, at that point, because it really was my kind of thing. When I first read it, I cried, at the end, which doesn’t really happen, at all, with any scripts that I read. I was a huge Laurel & Hardy fan, and I was purposely looking for something that was very different from the last movie. So, all of those things aligned. The script was very different, at that point, and we worked on it a lot to get it into the final shape, but the essence of the story is still there. It’s a love story with these two guys who are facing the twilight of their career. That’s really how it came around. And then, there was the responsibility of making sure that all of the Laurel & Hardy fans like it, as well as the surviving family members, but that fear or pressure drove me on and gave me the adrenaline burst to get it done.
Having been a fan of Laurel & Hardy, had you ever thought about finding a story to tell, so that you could make a movie about them before, or was this the first time it had even occurred to you?
BAIRD: It really was the first time it occurred to me. I watched them, as a kid, but I hadn’t watched any of their films for a very long time. I couldn’t have told you anything about Laurel & Hardy, in terms of where they were from or anything about their personal life. It was a real discovery for me. And when I was reading it, I was thinking, “There could be a lot more people like me out there who loved the films, but really didn’t know anything about them.” That’s when I thought, “If I’m interested, there has to be a lot more people with a similar viewpoint.” So, I thought it was worth making a film about. To be honest, I couldn’t believe that the story hadn’t been told before. We sat there like, “Why wasn’t it done?” It’s probably because the rights were so difficult to tie up. But, what attracted me to it was the fact it was a love story.
Getting to see the relationships Stan and Oliver had with their wives, and that their wives had with each other, is such an interesting aspect of the story.
BAIRD: Yeah, I think the wives are as strong as Stan and Ollie, in the film. They add a completely different dimension to it. The majority of the humor in the film doesn’t come from Stan and Ollie, it comes from the wives’ dynamic. A lot of the drama and emotion comes from Stan and Ollie, but the levity, the humor and the strength comes from Nina [Arianda] and Shirley [Henderson], who play the wives. I grew up with a lot of very strong female role models, and I always like to write my female characters a lot more real than a lot of movies portray those supporting characters. That was something really important to me, as well. I had these two fantastic actors who elevated their parts and made what was on the page a lot funnier when it came to shooting.