Interview: George Clooney and Christopher Abbott on new series Catch-22.
Based on Joseph Heller’s seminal novel of the same name, Catch-22 is the story of the incomparable, artful dodger, Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), a US Air Force bombardier in World War II who is furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. But his real problem is not the enemy, but rather his own army which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempt to avoid his military assignments, he’ll be in violation of Catch-22, a hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule which specifies that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers which are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind; a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but a request to be removed from duty is evidence of sanity and therefore makes him ineligible to be relieved from duty.
George Clooney (GC) plays – Scheisskopf
George Clooney is also an Executive Producer and Directed two episodes from the series
Christopher Abbott (CA) plays - Yossarian
Q. Catch-22 is one of the most adored and revered books of the 20th Century. Did you have reservations about taking on something so beloved by so many?
GC: Yeah, of course we did! We’re not stupid! You don’t like taking on beloved novels. It was certainly a seminal book – if you Google ‘Greatest American novels’ it’s usually up there. So we knew it was a big challenge, and when I was asked, I said no. And then they sent me these teleplays, and as I was reading them I thought “Two years ago I read 80 scripts that were sent to me to direct, and I passed on all of them, because if you’re going to be spending a year-and-a-half of your life on something, you want it to be a decent script. And these were good scripts.
Q. When did you first encounter the book?
CA: Encounter it? I encountered it in high school.
GC: Tell the truth!
CA: I didn’t read it.
Q. So you were meant to read it?
CA: Yeah, of course.
GC: He cheated, I think he did, like, Cliff Notes [study guides].
CA: If I had a video of what my high school was like, you’d understand why. But I’m glad I read it later, when I did, I was older, I was able to take it in in a more mature way. And I had some energy behind it, because I knew I was doing it. So, there was purpose. I’m kind of glad it worked out the way it did.
Q. What about you, George, was it already an important book to you prior to this?
GC: It was. It was interesting, though, I hadn’t read it in 40 years. It was written about World War II, during Korea, and released during Vietnam. And whoever was reading it during whichever time period would absorb it. What was the truly seminal piece of it was the style of writing, the non-linear storytelling, the Marx Brothers rat-a-tat-tat. Interestingly, I started reading it again after we got the script, and some of that we’ve seen dozens and dozens of times since then, because people have copied it, so it didn’t feel quite as fresh. Not that it’s not a brilliant book – he did it first – but it meant that what the writers had to do was re-invent a little bit the narrative, meaning changing the non-linear structure.
Q. Are there themes in the book that still resonate strongly with what’s going on in the world today?
GC. I can’t imagine that they don’t. Unfortunately, they resonate more and more. The fight against the system, and that the system almost always wins. The absurdity of everything including old men making decisions and young men dying because of it.
Q. Christopher, explain a bit about Yossarian – he’s not your typical hero, is he?
CA: No! I guess in some forms he’s an antihero. The through-line for him is that he’s an existentialist, and he is constantly questioning the officers above him. The journey starts with him pretending to be insane to get out of the things that he’s doing, to eventually probably losing his mind for real.
GC: Ultimately, he gets what he needs to get out of the military, unfortunately it’s insanity.
CA: And he still doesn’t!
Q. George, you play the delightfully-named Scheisskopf. What’s his story?
GC: He loves lines, he loves parades, and loves order. He represents, as Cathcart does, the constant pecking order of s**t rolling downhill. And you get to see it with Cathcart, and then when I come in, and then with General Dreedle coming in above me. There is always somebody that you have to answer to.
Q. Initially you had the role of Colonel Cathcart – why did you change that?
GC: I just didn’t have the bandwidth to do a huge part and it’s a huge part. I was directing, plus producing it, which in television means you’re there all day every day, and then with the part it was just too much. And, honestly, it bothers me that people know that, because what they should know is that Kyle Chandler is a spectacular actor, and I would never have done what he did. He’s just fantastic in that role.
Q. You’ve mentioned the Marx Bothers style dialogue in the book – is a lot of it verbatim in the script?
CA: There’s definitely a lot of scenes that mirror almost exactly what some of the back-and-forth dialogue is in the book.
GC: But it’s also tricky. Remembering that, when you read those things, the ‘Who’s on first’ Abbott and Costello, or you watch His Girl Friday or any of the Marx Brothers things, that style of storytelling is very hard to do on a modern piece, because you’re answering before you can hear the question. So it required a tiny tweak to be able to make it so that you could hear the question before you answered it.
Q. The book was very much of its time, but there have been criticisms about a certain misogyny in it. How have you tackled that in the series?
GC: Nurse Duckett, in this script, is the most moral character, and is played by my cousin, Tessa Ferrer. I just thought they handled the female characters beautifully in this.
CA: For me, it feels like Luke and David just adapted it. Heller was writing this book, of course it’s fiction, but he was probably writing about his own experiences, and the banter that went on back then with some of the men. But it feels like Luke and David have kind of adapted it for a modern audience.
GC: There is another part to this. I remember when we did Goodnight and Good Luck, we got literally ten thousand postcards from the anti-smoking people, because everybody smoked in the film. It’s very hard to do a period piece and change everything. You can’t just sanitise it all. You can show that they all died of lung cancer, but you can’t change the way people were. I’m glad we don’t deal with it in this, but I do worry sometimes that we’ll be doomed to repeat our history.
Q. One of the things that struck me was the terror of the scenes in the air on the missions. How was that filmed? It’s incredibly realistic.
CA: Yeah. Probably for insurance purposes, we weren’t actually allowed to fly in these old planes, which I’m kind of happy about! I don’t get to Tom Cruise that one!
GC: We strapped him to a balloon…
CA: Yeah, no thanks, I’m good… There’s real aerial footage of the planes from the outside, but all the interior stuff we shot on a stage. But essentially in an actual plane. They were real planes that we shot in. It obviously wasn’t as harrowing as the real thing, but you did get a sense of what it was like, and the vulnerability they must have felt, especially being in the nose cone as Yossarian is. Everything is tight and very claustrophobic and thin. You really feel very unprotected up there, and it’s terrifying to put yourself in that situation.
GC: We also did a fun thing, in this world of CGI where everything is technical, this is a poor man’s process, we put a B25 up on a giant inflatable balloon with a bunch of guys with two-by-fours bouncing it around while they were in there. Some of it was really old-fashioned.
Q. Yossarian is key, it’s his story completely. Is there a sense of pressure that goes with being the lead role in such a massive production?
CA: Yeah, of course! And then, also, there was pressure because this book is in the zeitgeist in American literature. He’s a very beloved character who stands for a lot of things for a lot of people. There is that, you’re playing this somewhat iconic literary character. But at a certain point I had to let that go, as it would have done nothing but inhibit me. And there was enough to worry about outside of that. But as far as the size of the role – for me, you break it down day-to-day, and focus it the way I would focus on any other thing I would do. And [indicates George] I had a lot of help.
Q. How was it filming in Italy? Would it not have been easier to film it in California?
GC: No, it wouldn’t have been. It was so much easier to shoot there. We actually scouted in Cornwall, we got off a plane and it was 20°f [minus 7°C] and the wind was blowing, and I was like “Really? You want to shoot this here, and it’s meant to look like Southern Italy? So it was really helpful to have the Italian environment.
CA: The book takes place in Italy, so shooting there adds to the colours, it adds to the heat, it adds to the vibe. We didn’t shoot on Pianosa but we shot a lot on Sardinia, and everything made it feel that much more like what the story is meant to be.
Q. Did that help you get into the whole story?
CA. Yeah. Anything tactile helps me. Jenny Eagan’s costumes were incredible, everything was real vintage, so that felt really good. David Gropman’s production design was incredibly, nothing felt built to me, everything felt like it had been there for a very long time. Yeah, everything helps.
Q. The story, by definition, is very male. Is there a different vibe on such a male-dominated show, a bit more locker-roomy?
CA: I dunno, we’re actors!
GC: Yeah, less locker roomy. More likely to have a cappuccino. The basketball stuff was the closest we got to locker rooms. We had Ellen [director Ellen Kuras, who helmed two episodes] there too to take out some of the testosterone. Listen, I remember being a young actor and getting to go away and do projects with a bunch of people on location. It’s exciting for them, it’s fun. And for most of the young actors, they were working one day a week, so they’re travelling around Sardinia and Rome.
CA: Because everyone was there the whole time, no-one was going back-and-froth home or anything like that. Which was nice, there was real camaraderie. In Sardinia me and all the young lads stayed in the same hotel. I’d shoot all day, but then at the end of the day jump in the water, then all have dinner. There was camaraderie on and off set, for sure.
Q. How long was the shoot?
GC: Four-and-a-half months.
CA: Yeah, obviously longer for you, much longer. But for me it was somewhere around four, door-to-door.
Q. Looking at what happened with the Oceans franchise, if the show is a really big success, can we look forward to Catch-23?
GC: Catch-23, Catch-24. I dunno how many more people we can kill. We’ve run out of people to kill. It’s just you [indicates Christopher] walking around naked. Catch-23 is going to be one episode of just you walking around naked.
GC: Yeah, no sequels for this one, unfortunately. I think even Heller tried to write a sequel for the book.
CA: He wrote Closing Time, which picks up with Yossarian and some of the other characters 50 years later. Maybe I’ll film that in 50 years.
GC: It must have been very frustrating for him to write the classic novel as his first big book.
CA: Yeah, there’s the story of when he was told he’d never written anything as good since, he replied “Who has?”