Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” has a troubled Hollywood history. Mike Nichols’ 1970 feature film adaptation was a widely panned flop. Three years later, Richard Dreyfus starred in a busted CBS pilot based on the book. But with their new limited series premiering Friday on Hulu, producing partners George Clooney and Grant Heslov attempt to succeed where others came up short — unpacking over six hours Heller’s story of Yossarian, a World War II bombardier who tries relentlessly to get himself taken off combat duty by having himself declared mentally unfit. Yossarian’s efforts are repeatedly stymied by the titular Catch-22, a fictional rule stating that anyone who would ask to be taking off combat duty must be sane and therefore is fit for combat.
Here, Heslov speaks with Variety about the making of the show.
“Catch-22” is a classic, but also notoriously difficult to adapt for the screen. Why do this right now?
A couple of reasons. One is that it seemed like a challenge. I don’t ever think it’s a bad time to talk about the absurdity of war and the larger themes that that sort of implies when you extrapolate it, and add it to the idea of this madness which is sort of pervasive. So it just seemed like an interesting time to take a look at this and see if we could figure out a way to tell the story in six hours, approximately. It’s a great way to be able to explore a novel like that.
You and George Clooney have both talked in the past about how your initial reaction to the prospect of doing this was “no.” So what took you from no to yes?
The scripts. Yeah, the scripts were great and that’s always the hardest thing, to find a great script. It’s literally, I feel, like panning for gold. I’m constantly reading — I’m just reading scripts and reading scripts and every time I open that first page I pray this is going to be great. And often they start great, but it’s really finding something that works all the way through, and this was that.
We got a call from our agent and said, “Paramount’s doing ‘Catch-22’ as a limited series. Are you guys interested?” And we went, “No, not really.” He’s like, “Well, I think you should read the scripts.” We both read the first script sort of simultaneously and he called me. He’s like, “Have you read the first script?” I said, “I have. It’s pretty fucking great.” And he’s like, “It’s great. Let’s read the next one.”
At what point did you guys talk about your level of involvement?
From the moment we decided to do it, the level was very high. So we knew that George would play a part in it because that just helps get it made. It’s easier to get things done that way. It attracts other talent. I liken it to when you own a mall and you try to get one big tenant that attracts the others and that’s what George is like. And we decided we wanted to direct as well. So we really wanted to just dive in.
You and George were each originally going to be directing three episodes, but you eventually brought on Ellen Kuras, with each of you directing two. Why the change?
We started working on it and it was clear that we wanted more women involved and we wanted a female director. We wanted a female editor. We wanted as many women in the crew as possible. And so that’s how we came to Ellen and we looked around and it’s an interesting time. In this sort of transition period it’s hard to find female directors who are available, who have some experience. I think it’s a good time because the opportunities have really opened up, and we wanted to be a part of that.
You have Christopher Abbott playing Yossarian. Can you talk about what he brings to it?
Well, a couple of things. One is he’s a terrific actor and he has that ability that certain actors have that make him do sort of dastardly things and you still like him, care about him. And that was apparent in this because if you don’t like this guy, then I don’t think it works. We auditioned people, we were looking for a name. We really just wanted somebody great in that role. And he came in and read and George and I looked at each other as we often do in auditions when somebody is the right person, we just sort of looked at each other and knew that he was the guy.
This was a really hard shoot for him because he’s in almost every scene. And the way we shot it, we cross-boarded everything so I might direct a scene in the morning from episode five and then George would direct a scene on the same set, the same actors, from episode four, then Ellen would direct something from episode two. The actors really had to run and play with us and that’s kind of challenging.
On camera you’re playing Doc Daneeka, the doctor of the the bomber squadron that Yosarrian’s in. And you have what is probably one of the most pivotal scenes in the entire thing, explaining to Yossarian what Catch-22 is.
Once I decided to play the role, once George and I talked about it, then I realized, “Oh s—. I’ve got to actually do this.” And I really spent a lot of time thinking about it. Where to set it, how to set it. But I knew that George would be there to have my back. Then of course, the day that we were shooting he got sunstroke. We were shooting in Sardinia. It was brutally hot. And so he couldn’t be at the set. I had to shoot without him and that was really painful. It was very, very painful.
Why is that moment so critical?
What a lot of people don’t know is that Catch-22 is just a made up thing. You’d be shocked how many people think that Catch-22 is a real thing. So the trick to me was we just had to play it for dead straight and dead serious. And Chris is so good at it. He doesn’t really say much, but his reactions are so good and I just felt like we just had to play it for straight. If you took it to the extremes, it almost is like a Marx Brothers bit. It’s a little bit like an Abbot and Costello bit, “Who’s On First?” It is that. But it poses this beautiful conundrum and I can’t tell you how often people, myself included, we use the term Catch-22 — “It’s a real Catch-22. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.” I agonized over this scene a lot. But I actually am happy with it, which for me to say is something.
“Catch-22” is streaming now on Hulu.