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‘Catch-22’: George Clooney and Cast Say the Hulu Adaptation ‘Unspools’ in a New Way

TCA: The series’ cast and crew reveal the challenges of tackling Joseph Heller’s classic war satire.

George Clooney, Christopher Abbott, Pico Alexander, "Catch-22"

George Clooney, Christopher Abbott, and Pico Alexander in “Catch-22”

Philipe Antonello / Hulu

George Clooney, who executive produces, directs, and stars in Hulu’s upcoming series “Catch-22,” read Joseph Heller’s novel in high school and loved the style. But the scripts co-written by Luke Davies gave the Oscar winner a whole new appreciation for the story.

“It was really exciting to see why this [story] lasted and stood the test of time,” he said at Monday’s Television Critics Association press tour panel for the series. He added he was drawn to how the characters in this version “unspooled.”

Davies, who is also an executive producer on the series, wanted to do right by Heller’s source material, which he calls a “prophetic distillation of the anxiety condition” that America is currently feeling. His biggest challenge was adapting the novel’s chronology that shuttles back and forth between 1942 and 1944 in fragments. Part of reading Heller’s book is piecing together what has happened to its central hero, wannabe deserter Yossarian, and his fellow US Air Force personnel.

While Mike Nichols’ 1970 film adaptation tries to approximate this confusing chronology, Hulu’s version unfolds in order. Davies said he wanted to “crack the chronology” of the story so that “our characters could have actual emotional journeys from beginning to end” while still trying to “retain the kaleidoscope of madness from the novel… which flows through Yossarian’s perspective.”

Christopher Abbott portrays Yossarian, aka YoYo, a bombardier who just wants to fulfill his required combat missions and then get back to civilian life. However, it feels like everyone, including his commanding officers Scheisskopf (Clooney) and Col. Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), are contriving to either keep him on base or kill him.

Abbott researched the conditions that real World War II bombardiers had to endure, such as actually spending time in the tiny nosecone of the plane. “It’s a vulnerable place to be in. If the plane goes down, then you have to go through a very narrow tunnel. So it’s not only the danger of being shot down, but then you crawl through this claustrophobic place to even begin to live,” he said. “It was eye-opening to see how dangerous it was. I understood the pure fear that Yossarian had in this story.”

Although some CGI was used, actual planes were brought in, too. However, while 45 authentic World War II planes were available for Nichols to use in 1970s, only two remained for use on this series. And they couldn’t fly for long to get to the shooting location in Sardinia.

“One of them came from Los Angeles … seven stops to get there,” said Clooney. “When they showed up, we were all waiting and cheering.”

Abbott wasn’t able to fly the planes because of their dangerous condition, but he rode in it 1-mile per hour down the runway. “Being in the nosecone … it gets very hot,” he said. “It reminded me of driving an old Chevy. It’s not as computerized. It’s very mechanical. Everything is tangible.”

Although Davies played with Heller’s chronology, he attempted to keep the novel’s tragicomic tone that doesn’t flinch away from depicting the realities of war. Clooney said, “There’s no way you can do this half-assed. It’s a pretty gruesome business, war is.”

Clooney’s producing partner Grant Heslov, who directs two episodes, added, “The horror and hilarity becomes even more pronounced. The horror becomes even bigger and hopefully funnier, as well. We wanted to keep the tone real.”

“Catch-22” premieres on Hulu on Friday, May 17.

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