‘Catch-22’: Grant Heslov on Producing, Directing & Acting in the Hulu Series

Executive produced/directed by George Clooney and Grant Heslov and based on the Joseph Heller novel of the same name, the Hulu mini-series Catch-22 tells the story of Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), a US Air Force bombardier in World War II who is willing to do anything to get out of his military assignments, but who must also avoid being in violation of the bureaucratic rule which states that concern for one’s own safety in the face of danger is proof, in itself, of being of rational mind. A request to be removed from duty is evidence of sanity, and would automatically make him ineligible to be relieved from the duty that he is so desperate to get out of.

During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Grant Heslov (who also plays Doc Daneeka in the mini-series) talked about how he and producing partner George Clooney came to this project, how familiar he’d been with the book, divvying up directing duties, putting this cast together, the challenges of this production, what they’re looking to do in TV development with their production company Smokehouse Pictures, how they’ll be doing an eight-hour project about Watergate, and what he hopes audiences will take from watching Catch-22.

Collider: This series is absolutely beautiful to look at, and because none of this is current, did you have to build a lot of it for the shoot?

GRANT HESLOV: Yeah, that was a challenge. We were lucky that we got to shoot in Rome and Sardinia. For the base, which about half of the show takes place on, they had just built a new airport in Sardinia, so we took over the old airport. We had a landing strip, and we built the whole camp there.

How did you get on board with this?

HESLOV: For me and George [Clooney], we were looking for something to do. We were developing some stuff, and a couple of the things that we had weren’t quite ready yet, and then we got sent these scripts. We weren’t looking to do Catch-22, or a beloved book, but when we read the scripts, we just felt like, “Wow, we know how to tell this story, and this story has some real resonance to today.” Once we made the decision to do it, then it all happened within a couple of months.

That’s crazy!

HESLOV: Yeah, it’s crazy. But it helps when it’s George, and he’s also gonna be in it.

Had you been familiar with the book?

HESLOV: I was really familiar with the book. I read the book in my ninth grade English class, and it was a profound book for me because I really keyed into the humor of it. At the time, that was really what I was into. I was into the Marx Brothers and madcap comedy, and this book has a lot of that. When you read the book, you’re shocked. I loved it. It really held a special place. I also love the movie, as well, but the movie was very different than what we were trying to do. What’s so fun about it now is that we had six hours to tell the story. For us, it was really a chance to tell the story in a much more complete way.

How did you figure out how to divide up the directing duties, and who would take what episodes?

HESLOV: A lot of it had to do with acting schedules. George didn’t want to have to direct himself too much, so I took the first episode and the fifth episode, ‘cause he’s very heavy in those episodes.

What was it about Ellen Kuras’ work that led you to her, to direct two of the episodes?

HESLOV: She’s a fantastic DP, and we wanted somebody who really knew about the camera and would be able to understand exactly what we wanted, in terms of how we wanted the show shot and covered, and all that stuff. As it turns out, we were all there together because we cross-boarded it, so we were all shooting on the same set, on the same day, but doing different scenes. She directed some episodes of Ozark, and some other things, and we just thought she did a great job. That’s how we came to her, and it was a good fit.

Directing the first episode, were there things that you specifically wanted to do, to set up how you wanted everything would look?

HESLOV: We talked a lot about how we wanted to shoot. The director of photography, Martin Ruhe, is just a major talent. This is the third thing that we’ve done with him. He shot a film that we did, called The American, and he’s like a painter. We really talked a lot about how we wanted the show to look, how we wanted to shoot the scenes inside the plane, and how we wanted them to feel very claustrophobic and handheld. We never wanted to really be much outside of the plane. We always wanted to be inside the plane, shooting. Then, I wanted the base in California to feel much more classically shot. And then, by the time we get into the war, things change. The camera is moving a lot more, and doing these zooms. The thing about the pilot is that you’re setting the tone for the rest of the show. Mostly, it was really about making sure the audience understood that there were going to be places that, hopefully, they were going to laugh, and other places where it was going to get very dark.

How did you put this cast together?

HESLOV: Casting is always fun. We did a film, called Argo, that Kyle [Chandler] was in, so we knew him from there. He was the first guy, and we got him. We called him and talked him into doing it. We read actors for Yossarian, and Chris [Abbott] came in and read for us. I knew his work from one film that he had done, that I can’t recall the name of, but it was a little independent film. He just came in and, within the first minute, I looked at George and he looked at me, and I could tell that we knew that he was the guy. He has a quality that you need in that role. Alan Arkin has the same quality. They can do these dastardly things, and still be likable. You have to like him, along the way, otherwise it would be really hard. And then, we auditioned all of the kids, and that was fun, getting to have people come in and read the lines, and being able to go, “Yeah, that’s him.” I love casting.

Did you always want to be in it, as well?

HESLOV: No. George and I were talking, and he said, “You should play Doc Daneeka.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah, you’d be great.” So, I said, “Okay,” not really thinking it through. I did it, and I loved doing it, but directing yourself is never fun. It’s like when you write something, and then you read it, after it’s published, and you’re like, “Fuck, I wish I’d done this different.” It’s just never fun, but I’m glad I did it.

Do you also tend to be hard on your own performance?

HESLOV: I am very hard. The editing room is just brutal. I hate it. It’s just terrible.

How do you get around that?

HESLOV: I just suffer through it. That’s why I let George take a look at it and make sure that I haven’t cut myself too deeply.

Does he ever tell you that you’re doing a really bad job with the acting, just because he’s George Clooney and he likes to prank people?

HESLOV: No, he’s never done that. He would never do that to anybody, even somebody he didn’t like.

What is your work partnership like? How has it evolved and grown, over the years?

HESLOV: I don’t think it’s grown much. I think it’s basically always been the same. We have very similar taste, in the films that we like. Sometimes we disagree. This year, there’s a couple of films that he likes that I don’t, and vice versa, but I won’t tell you what they are. For the most part, we just get along, and we have fun. We live a block from each other, so he picks me up on the way to work, or I pick him up, and we go to the office or to work, and we have fun. As long as we’re having a good time, I think we’ll keep doing this, or at least as long as people will let us.

You recently hired Rebecca Arzoian to run TV development at your production company, working with Paramount Television. What kinds of things are you looking to do?

HESLOV: We had somebody running it before, who we really liked, but she left to go work at Disney. We’ve been working on TV stuff for awhile. This is the second Golden Age of television. We couldn’t do Catch-22 as a film. It works in this medium. We’re also doing an eight-hour Watergate piece. It’s really a place to go play, and be able to tell some of these stories, in an interesting way while taking some chances. So, we’re just going to plow ahead. And now that we have our deal with Paramount, we really have a bunch of fun stuff planned.

What made you want to revisit Watergate?

HESLOV: All The President’s Men is one of my favorite films, and it tells the story of Watergate, but it’s very limited. Nobody has ever done the full story of Watergate. It’s not really so much about Nixon, but it’s about all the players, along the way. And it’s a good time to tell that story. In the climate that we’re in today, I think it’s a very good time to tell that story. We’ve been doing tons of research, and when you get into it, you’re like, “Oh, my god, it feels like this, all over again.”

Were there any days on this that felt like huge challenges? Were there any production challenges that felt like they were so enormous that they might not happen, or did everything feel like it came together pretty smoothly?

HESLOV: There are always production challenges. There’s weather. When you’re flying planes in the air, and you’re doing big stunts and explosions, and all of that kind of stuff, it’s always there, but we do lot of prep and planning. Knock on wood, it was a very smooth shoot. We finished ahead of schedule, and everybody made it through.

That’s amazing! Are people just very happy, when you finish ahead of schedule?

HESLOV: It makes them very surprised. We usually tell them, “We’ll probably finish early.” We used Italian assistant directors, and the main one went through the schedule and was like, “You’re not gonna make this. You’re never going to make this!” And we were like, “Just wait.” We shoot very efficiently, and we do a lot of planning. We don’t like to work long days. At the end, that guy said, “Okay, I was wrong.”

It sounds like you must not do a ton of takes then?

HESLOV: We don’t do a ton of takes. We do it until we get it, but once you get it, and very often, you get it the first couple takes, it’s just about trusting and shooting with a point if view, as opposed to just shooting everything. We shoot knowing exactly what the scene is and what we want in the edit.

You’ve been directing stuff for quite a bit of time now. Do you feel like it’s something that you’re very comfortable with doing? Do you feel like you’ve grown, as a director, at all?

HESLOV: I do feel like I’ve grown. Every time you do it, you learn something new, you gain more confidence, and you find your voice. I love doing it. It’s a unique experience, being a director. When I’m finished, I realize how lucky I am to be able to do it.

It’s such an interesting job because you have to know at least a little it about so many different things, to be able to communicate that with so many different people.

HESLOV: Yeah, and you’ve gotta be able to see the big picture. When you’re an actor, you just see your part. If you’re the pizza delivery guy, the most important scene is when that pizza gets delivered, and that’s really all you think about. When you get that perspective, it definitely changes things.

What are you hoping audiences get from the experience of watching Catch-22?

HESLOV: I always hope that people are entertained and moved, and that they find something, in the experience of watching it, that speaks to the experience that they’re having in their own lives. I don’t know if that’s gonna be profound for everybody, but you want them to really feel like it was six hours well spent.

Catch-22 is available to stream at Hulu.

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