Every year around this time, we are prone to seeing a handful of biopics being released. A biopic is a staple of any award season. And when it’s done well, it allows us to see one well-known figure being transformed into another well-known figure. But there also in-lies the problem of how it can go south. You, as the audience, have to be able to buy that premise and their portrayal. You have to forget that what you’re not seeing is the real thing. It’s particularly harder when you’re representing an iconic and beloved comedian. Everything has to come together just right, and oftentimes it manages to fall short in one way or another.
Luckily, this is one of those rare cases where everything IS just right.
What makes Stan and Ollie work so well is the direction that it heads in. It’s not your standard biopic that attempts to do the impossible by trying to cover their entire career scope. It is a story about two men towards the end of their run who has a drive to keep working and find themselves compelled to go back on tour to try to raise public awareness to make their movie. But at the core, it’s about the love these two men have for each other, despite their differences. A love that runs so deep that, after Oliver Hardy’s 1957 death, Stan Laurel continued writing sketches for Hardy, but never performed without him.
When you watch the film, you believe Steve Coogan and John C. Reily are Stan and Ollie. The look is perfect, certainly, but the cadence and the timing is flawless. This is one of those times when disbelief can be suspended. And it isn’t just in their performances. The world that surrounds them has this unique authentic sense about it that is genuinely missing from most modern-day biopics and period pieces.
To pull off something like this, to have all the pieces fall into place, you need to have an irreplaceable team who is all working towards the same vision and goal. And sometimes in Hollywood, that goal is actually achieved. We recently spoke to director Jon S. Baird about the film, his love of Stan and Ollie, what makes a good biopic, how one approaches a legacy, and his favorite Stan and Ollie moment.
To make a film like this, you have to have a real love and passion for the material. What draws you to Laurel and Hardy?
I just think they’re timeless, really. I showed my daughter Laurel and Hardy, she’s 9 years old and she loves them. And it just reminds me of why we like them. And I think as a kid you love them because they’re these adults that are acting like kids. And I think it just stays with you right through. They work on so many different levels. They’re geniuses. Stan Laurel is. He was doing things that were so complicated that he made look so effortless. And I think the innocence to them as well which I really love, the purity and a real humanity.
Buster Keaton famously said at Stan’s funeral that people regarded him and Chaplin as the geniuses, but it was Stan Laurel that was the real master. And I think that was an incredible thing, coming from someone like Keaton who really was a genius. I think that Stan Laurel just had something special in the way he constructed his comedy on so many different levels. And I can’t explain what it is. I really can’t. But when you have people like Peter Sellers and Steve Martin and Jim Carrey and Jerry Lewis, all of these guys referencing Laurel and Hardy as their inspiration, you know to take them seriously and that these guys knew what they were doing. So I think that whatever it was, whatever magic he had, there’s not many like him.
Exactly. It’s the sort of thing that would be hard to replicate. So approaching the film, did you find yourself drawn to the project more because it wasn’t your traditional biopic that tried to cram an entire career into the course of 2 hours?
Yeah, I think so. I think definitely. And I think going for that part of their lives is because I think they were challenged as people a lot more in the latter half of their life. When really you would’ve thought that they would’ve had it easy by then, because they would’ve made their name and made their fortune and stuff, but they didn’t have much money at that point, they were no longer famous, their star had started to wane a bit. So automatically that’s going to give you more drama and more conflict in your story, and I think that was one of the big reasons. And also, not that many people know about that part of their lives. I certainly didn’t realize that they had to go on a sea of tours to make ends meet and to try and rekindle what they had before. I was totally unaware of that. I just found it a really fascinating story. And I had done a biopic for my first movie and I learned a lot by that. How to avoid being episodic and stretching yourself as well. So I had learned from a previous experience. And all those things really went into sculpting where we ended up.
The thing that also fascinated me with the film and the script is how much love they had for each other, even towards the end. What do you think it was exactly that made them work as a comedy partnership?
I think they worked so hard at what they did. I think they put so much effort into their films. Stan used to sleep in the edit room to make sure it was perfect. And I think in particular Stan really kept the consistency level so high. When they were with Hal Roach, they had a lot of control over their movies and the content. And one of the biggest mistakes they made was to leave Hal Roach Studios, I think, because when they went to Fox, they lost control and everything suffered. And I think the same thing happened to Buster Keaton. When he left the studio he was at, he was persuaded to do that. Weirdly enough, Keaton was persuaded to leave where he was by Joe Schenck, who is a character that appears in Stan and Ollie. I only learned that later. But I think it’s about control. I think it’s about keeping control of your material and keeping it authentic. Not trying to do it by the numbers and not trying to do it for any other reason than sticking with your original formula, your chemistry your magic dust and not trying to second guess what the studio or what the audience wants. To just keep doing what you started doing. And I think that’s what makes a good duo. And it’s hard work. To put it in a nutshell, I think it’s hard work.
Do you feel like their can be a Laurel and Hardy resurgence, because of the film, and that younger people can be drawn to them now even when we are in such a progressive and technological streaming era?
Well there’s no reason why not because it’s easier now then it’s ever been. If it’s on YouTube or you Google them, you pretty much get every film they’ve ever done. And I think it’s just about getting the word out there and hopefully this film does that. Because I think their comedy still works and is incredibly funny and has influenced so many comedians. I’m hoping that it gives a resurgence to them. I really do.
In the film, once they both on their own discover the film isn’t going to get made, they keep on performing to packed houses of fans despite the lackluster opening of the tour. Do you feel like not having a goal anymore or studio to please allowed them to have more creative freedom and to just enjoy what they used to do?
Possibly. I think what they did in the tour is they concentrated on the material that had been so successful for them in the early part of their career. Because you see some of the later films and they weren’t very good when they went to Fox. And I think basically what they did on the tour was they reverted to the things people love. So whether it was the hospital bed sketch or the Way Out West dance. It’s almost like a rock band going on tour later in life and playing their greatest hits. That’s what people want to see. When you go see the Stones when they’re touring now, you want to see Jumpin’ Jack Flash. You’re kind of less interested in hearing their newer stuff. I think it’s the same with Laurel and Hardy. People just wanted to see the Laurel and Hardy they saw in their earlier part of their career.
How has the reaction been to the film from the diehard Laurel and Hardy and comedy fans?
We’ve been very lucky. The Sons of the Desert, who is the Laurel and Hardy fan club, its been pretty unanimous in terms of the thumbs up we’ve gotten from them. And also, kind of more importantly, from Cassidy Cook, who is Stan’s great-granddaughter. She’s been a great advocate of the film. So it’s great that we’ve gotten that seal of approval from these kinds of people. It’s quite nerve-wrecking showing them the film for the first time. But we’ve been very, very fortunate with the response from those guys.
And speaking of having his granddaughter as an advocate of the film, did you approach the film any differently knowing you are doing a project on someone with a such a lasting legacy but also someone with families?
Yeah, I think you have a certain responsibility to their legacy, you have a responsibility to their fans, you have a responsibility to the people themselves also. I think you have to take it. And everybody who joined the project, they knew how precious these two guys are, and none more-so than John and Steve. So we always talked about the responsibility.
I know two years ago, you directed an episode for the Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here, which was all about the stand up scene in the 70’s. What style of comedy, stand up versus vaudeville, did you find more interesting as a director to film?
That’s a very good question. I think it’s more interesting to film the vaudeville style of performing. Because basically with stand up, you’re quite limited in terms of what you can cover. At least with vaudeville and musical, there’s props and sketches played out, that’s why they call it a variety act. And often these are in theaters as well, so shooting in a theater compared to shooting in a comedy club is way different. And aesthetically these old music halls are beautiful and incredibly ornate. So that actually adds a layer to it as well. So I kind of prefer shooting, by a long way, the vaudevillian type of humor over the stand up.
And finally, on this press tour, I know a lot of people are asking you for your favorite Laurel and Hardy film, but I’m curious what is your favorite Laurel and Hardy moment? It can be anything at all that interested you.
I’m going to have to say the Music Box scene on the staircase, and that’s why we referenced it in the film with the trunk falling down the stairs. And I think that’s probably one of the most iconic moments from any Laurel and Hardy film. It would have to be that or the Way Out West dance and hence why we included both of those in the film. But I think those are the two for me.
Stan and Ollie is playing in theaters everywhere now.