“Stan & Ollie” marks the third feature for Jon S. Baird, after the 2008 racial drama “Cass” and the 2013 “Filth,” with James McAvoy as a bipolar junkie cop. There’s nothing in those earlier films similar to “Stan & Ollie,” which opens Dec. 28 in the U.S., but he proved the perfect match for the funny, sweet film about friendship.
The Scotland-born Baird admits, “On paper, I was not the logical choice for this. But I had been a huge fan since I was a kid; I used to dress up as Stan Laurel for the school dress party. And I loved the script by Jeff Pope.
“Jeff and I thought it was important to show them at height of career, but then to concentrate on the ’50s, the time of their biggest challenges.”
The film starts with a brief prologue in 1937, when comedy team Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy were at their height, making the film “Way Out West.”
The bulk of the Sony Pictures Classics movie takes place in 1953, when Hollywood work had dried up, so they criss-crossed the U.K. with a stage act that re-created some of their classic routines.
Many contemporary viewers don’t know Laurel & Hardy. That’s OK, says Baird. “We wanted to tell a love story about two friends facing challenges in their lives, with money worries, health issues, and confronting something difficult that happened in their past. It’s a simple tale, really.”
The film premiered at the BFI London Film Festival, earned positive reviews, and was endorsed by no less than Martin Scorsese.
“I had gotten friendly with Mr. Scorsese working on ‘Vinyl’ for HBO,” Baird says. “I showed him the film, and was quite nervous of course. But he said, ‘I love it. I love simplicity because it’s the hardest thing to do in film; you can’t hide behind things.’ ”
Baird, Pope and producer Faye Ward knew the only choices for the roles were Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly.
Baird also rounded up a top behind-the-camera team, including cinematographer Laurie Rose, production designer John Paul Kelly and costume designer Guy Speranza. The group also included Mark Coulier, prosthetics makeup designer; and hair and makeup designer Jeremy Woodhead.
They had a tight budget of $10 million and a brief shooting schedule, with filming hours limited as Reilly spent four hours daily in the makeup chair.
“We knew makeup would be a huge factor. With a small, independent film, you have to use your resources wisely,” says Baird. “And we wanted Mark Coulier, because he’s one of the best in the business. The input of Mark and those others elevated the movie.”
Aside from being experts in their fields, the various heads of departments had two other job requirements.
One, they needed a high regard for Laurel & Hardy: “They had an emotional investment and felt a responsibility to pull it off. So they worked a little harder.”
Second, they had to be collaborative. “I was very blessed: they’re great artists and they’re nice people. When we were crewing up, I met with the potential head of each department and thought ‘If they join this team, how would they get along with the others? And if we had a big holiday dinner, what would that be like?’ ”
The 1937 prolog includes Coogan and Reilly re-creating the moment in “Way Out West” when Laurel & Hardy encounter a singing cowboy quartet and start a two-minute happy dance that seems to be invented on the spot. Coogan and Reilly were nervous about the dance because it needs to look spontaneous, though of course it is far more complicated than it looks.
The same could be said of the film. “Stan & Ollie” is small and simple and, in an era of over-calculated studio development, it’s daring. The film asks two actors to capture one of the greatest comedy teams of all time; it’s set when their careers were on the decline; and it’s directed by a man going against type.
But, like Laurel & Hardy themselves, the film is totally irresistible.