It’s the day before his 58th birthday when George Clooney phones me from a car as he heads away from “a production meeting sitting with 40 people asking you for things.” As usual, he’s juggling: It’s what this admitted workaholic loves. Free from any financial concerns (he and partner Rande Gerber sold their tequila company Casamigos for $1 billion in 2017), Clooney can do whatever he wants.
Lay $1 million in $20 bills on each of his 14 closest friends. Hang with Amal and his twins in Italy. Shoot a dozen Nespresso commercials and funnel cash to various charities. Ramp up movies for Smokehouse’s new two-year first-look deal at MGM. Finish an eight-part Netflix series on Watergate. Launch his next directing gig, the long-awaited John DeLorean biopic. He may or may not take on the title role. That’s his call. He’s in charge.
And that’s what returning to television 25 years after “ER” gives him. On May 17 on Hulu, Clooney debuts “Catch-22.” The network was willing to back a big-budget six-part limited series adapted from Joseph Heller’s satiric 1961 World War II classic, along with producers Anonymous Content and Paramount Television, which held the rights to the novel thanks to the 1970 Mike Nichols comedy.
“Catch-22” could prove to be serious Emmy bait for the popular Hollywood writer-producer-director-star. So far, reaction is good. That’s partly because, although Clooney initially evinced no interest in the project, it was dead-on casting — in more ways than one. Here’s why “Catch-22” is the perfect George Clooney vehicle:
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He likes absurdist satire.
The whole point of “Catch-22” is to reveal, in all its absurd glory, the rampant insanity of sending humans to war to kill other humans. As soon as Clooney and his Smokehouse partner Grant Heslov (who also executive produces, acts and directs two episodes) read the script by Oscar-nominated Luke Davies (“Lion”) and “Animal Kingdom” writer-director David Michôd (who left to direct another project), they were enthusiastically on board.
That’s because the movie isn’t just about World War II. It’s about corporate greed and the burgeoning military industrial complex (see Daniel David Stewart’s entrepreneurial mess officer Milo Minderbinder). It’s about the crazy lengths people will go to look good to their bosses (see Kyle Chandler’s apoplectic Colonel Cathcart), no matter how illogical their actions (see Lewis Pullman’s ludicrously promoted Major Major Major Major).
The infamous Catch-22, for example, is a bureaucratic rule explained to bombardier John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), who is trying dodge missions by reason of insanity. A concern for one’s own safety in the face of immediate danger, Doc Daneeka (Heslov) tells him, is the process of a rational mind, while a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions. A request to be removed from duty is evidence of sanity and therefore makes him ineligible to be relieved.
“It was not an easy project to get made,” said Clooney. “It took balls for Hulu to make a period classic novel like this, which is tricky. You can get into trouble with the complicated tone. There’s fun in it, but not a lot of likable people. The lead character is an unreliable jerk at times.”
It was a challenge to find an actor to carry off Yossarian, who’s in every scene, constantly running away from danger and far from heroic. Clooney wanted to find a young Sam Rockwell, the star of his 2002 directorial debut “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” “He’s the perfect actor who can do comedy and drama,” Clooney said, qualities he also saw in “Girls” star Christopher Abbott.
Rethinking “Catch-22” in six one-hour TV episodes allows Heller’s characters and stories to play out in full. “It gives you the ability to care about each of these characters you are going to kill,” said Clooney. “It was a great luxury in storytelling. To watch my friend Mike [Nichols’] movie again, that was one of the difficulties: when you are killing a bunch characters you haven’t gotten to know, you can’t relate to them enough. Here you can see Nately fall for a lady of the evening. Getting to know the different characters and then have them not make it was important to us.”
Heller holds up after 40 years. “We forget how absurd it is that old people make the decision and young people have to go kill each other,” Clooney said. “There is an absurdity to it all, as absurd as everything going on today. Heller really captured that. We loved the scripts, we worked on the endings a bit, so they glide to the next.”
Clooney was worried that Major Major, for example, might come out dated or camp, but Lewis Pullman (son of Bill Pullman) “made made it not feel like farce,” said Clooney. “It’s a testament to his acting that he made it work.”
When they screened the first episode, Clooney and Heslov had to remind Hulu that while Yoyo starts out unlikable, he has to grow into what he becomes at the end. “We treated it like a six-hour movie,” Clooney said. “It has to build somewhere. We have the confidence to say he’ll do some rotten things and earn his compassion along the way.”
The final episode delivers an heroic Yossarian with a soldier dying in his arms. “We know the story has a specific pattern,” said Clooney. “He does end up losing his mind and naked. We had to earn that somehow. Chris shows off his chops in that scene. We got in the back of the plane and started shooting, covered with sweat and fake blood, no breaks: ‘we’re in here and we’re not going to let it stop now.'”
He likes to play stupid buffoons.
At first Clooney, who loved his looney roles in the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Hail, Caesar!”, was planning to play the juiciest crazy madman in the series, the explosive Colonel Cathcart, but passed that plum leading role to Kyle Chandler, who he had worked with on “Argo,” taking instead the colorful crazy madman role — with less screentime than Cathcart — of Major Scheisskopf.
That’s the officer who memorably demands that Yossarian (who screwed his wife) drop his pants so that he can personally check his wounded scrotum. And promptly sends him back in the air. Poor Yossarian is a man whose missions, it seems, will never be accomplished.
Philipe Antonello / Hulu
As Cathcart, Chandler ran with the ball. “Kyle’s part is immensely larger by leaps and bounds,” said Clooney. “Early on I saw that I didn’t have the bandwidth to be producing, directing and acting in every single episode. So Kyle came on board. He usually plays an earnest, straightforward, trustworthy guy. This is a loud, angry buffoon! The first day of shooting was his first scene, with a gun: we all started howling. I have never seen Kyle do anything like this. He’s so oddly, naturally doing crazy lunatic. He went for it, hit the gas pedal. Our rule was to give Kyle more close-ups than I give myself.”
Clooney also got a kick out of hanging with “Seven Beauties” Oscar nominee Giancarlo Giannini. “We’re on set in Sardinia, we had 200 extras and 150 crew members, it was as if the king had walked in, everyone reacted to him like a proper Italian movie star.”
Philipe Antonello / Hulu
He likes a well-mounted period piece.
“Catch-22” boasts sumptuous production design and classic cinematography. “It looks good,” said Clooney, who hired Martin Ruhe, his D.P. on “The American.” “I wanted it to look like movies you’ve seen from World War II, with the focus pulling in and out.”
Period is expensive. In order to pull off epic spectacle on a modest budget, Clooney needed help. He and Heslov decided to direct two episodes each and give two to cinematographer-turned-director Ellen Kuras. “We should have a female director point-of-view telling some of the story,” said Clooney. “It’s a male-dominated story. We went to Paramount. She had just had just done ‘Ozark,’ we liked that a lot. She’s a great cinematographer. We met with her at the last minute. We had two weeks to prep and threw her into the fire. She showed up and knocked it out of the park, effortless. Grant and I, our job was to set a certain style with the rack focus and zoom, so we’d do less coverage and stay inside Chris’s head.”
It was intense. The three directors lined up their chairs on the set and moved through multiple episodes a day, often with hundreds of extras and VFX that went over-budget. “We had to cross-board everything,” said Clooney. “I’d finish a scene and say, ‘you’re up,’ and Chris would change clothes for Episode Five. Poor Chris, he had plenty of four different episode days. He was constantly moving and really prepared. He would be naked, covered in blood, and get cleaned up to get into military gear.”
Sometimes the directors were shooting on two different sets at the same time. “It was a collaborative experience,” said Clooney. “We became an instant family. It’s like, ‘hurry up, I still have to make my day.’ We’re responsible for each other’s day. That’s how we were able to pull it off on location, and shoot all six episodes in four months.”
The scope of the production is impressive, especially when you realize they used just two 80-year-old B-25s flown from California to Ohio. “We did a lot of work,” added Clooney. “It’s all about shooting the same sequence over and over again and tiling those planes, which is tedious work that pays off in the end.”
He likes independence.
Falling back in love with TV doesn’t meet that Clooney has abandoned movies. At a time when Hollywood movie studios are no longer producing sophisticated comedies and dramas, MGM president Jonathan Glickman offered Smokehouse a berth. “Look guys,” Clooney told him over dinner. “Studios are not making the kind of movies I make.”
Days are past when a major studio backed political dramas like “The Ides of March” and Oscar-winner “Good Night and Good Luck,” which Clooney shot for $6.5 million. “A studio doesn’t look at $6.5 million when they now spend $30 million on prints and ads,” he said. “It doesn’t compute. The business model is changing considerably.”
MGM promised to back the films he wants to make that don’t fit into an easy category, including the DeLorean movie.
He likes stories with substance.
Clooney does what he likes. And he likes what he does, even if it’s unabashedly old-fashioned retro fare like “Catch-22.” On the film side, “Suburbicon,” “Monuments Men” and “Leatherheads,” were of a similar aesthetic but did not click with audiences. “I looked at a few Marvel films, we talked about a couple,” he said. “But it’s not where my headspace is. I did one blockbuster superhero movie, I tanked that, it was not in my wheelhouse. Acting is less and less interesting to me unless it’s a really great part. I’ll be 58 in a day. I’m lucky that I get to work on things that I care about and am interested in, even if nothing feels safe. It’s important to spend time working on something that excites me. We took money out of equation — I sold a tequila company. So I’m going to spend my time with my twins and my incredible wife, on the foundations we run.”
Catch-22 airs May 17 on Hulu.