'Catch-22' Team on Bringing "Heightened Reality" World War II Story to Hulu

When George Clooney and Grant Heslov were first approached years ago about making a limited series about Catch-22, the longtime friends and collaborators had a quick answer.

"Fuck no," recalled Clooney of their response. Then, they read the scripts. "We thought, 'Well, this is a very different take than the book I remembered' — which I loved. It’s not all that often that you read something you can really be excited about — you read a lot of scripts — and this was one of them. So Grant and I said, 'I guess we're going to do Catch-22.'"

Clooney and Heslov were joined by the stars of their Catch-22 adaptation, Christopher Abbott and Kyle Chandler, on Wednesday when they screened the first episode of the Hulu limited series and participated in a panel discussion at New York's DGA Theater. The six-episode series releases all episodes May 17.

Clooney and Heslov co-star, executive produce and direct two episodes each, with the remaining two helmed by Ellen Kuras. On Wednesday, the pair spoke about the choices they made behind the camera in order to give the story based on Joseph Heller’s seminal novel — and that was later adapted for the big screen by director Mike Nichols — a new take for TV. 

In the World War II-set Catch-22, Abbott takes on the starring role of Yossarian, aka YoYo, the U.S. Air Force bombardier antihero at the center of the story. Chandler steps into his commanding officer's shoes as Colonel Cathcart — the lead role Clooney was initially set to play — and Clooney appears in the supporting yet key part of Lieutenant Scheisskopf, the training officer and parade enthusiast at the Air Force cadet base where Yossarian trained. Heslov plays Doc Daneeka, the army psychiatrist. 

"I’ve never approached a character like this before," said Chandler of the "terrifying" task of keeping such an odd character like Cathcart both human and real in his portrayal. "It was a real challenge and I have to say, once I started and got into it, I don’t think I’ve had more fun doing a character."

Cathcart is known for giving rousing speeches to the bombardiers as he continues to raise their mission count. Despite the war nearing an end and the Germans retreating, Cathcart continues to gamble with the bombardiers' lives by sending them back up into the air and, unlike Chandler's inspiring speeches as Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights, his pep talks have an opposite effect on Yossarian.

"He’s a mad man," said Clooney of the Cathcart character. "The very first day we were shooting, we just threw [Chandler] into the fire with this long monologue [that airs in the pilot]. Kyle, when you watch him give those great speeches in Friday Night Lights, he’s Jimmy Stewart! And now, [we're thinking] how we just totally fucked up Jimmy Stewart. Grant and I just felt like we had a tiger by his tail."

Yossarian discovers the military's "Catch-22" rule when he feels his life is being put in unnecessary danger and wants to be grounded from his missions. The rule is artfully invoked by Doc in the pilot when Yossarian tries to tell him that he is too crazy to fly. "As soon as you ask to get out of combat duty, you're no longer crazy and so you have to fly more missions," Doc tells him, rendering his situation hopeless.

While Yossarian could be perceived as a coward for wanting to get out of the job that he is there to do, Clooney and Heslov said the "beauty" of telling this story across six episodes — as opposed to a two-hour film — was that they were able to dig in and fully develop Yossarian as a character so the audience could understand and sympathize with his plight.

"There’s an element of certain actors [where] they take a part that could easily be the least likable character — because Yossarian does a lot of kind of shmucky things, especially as the series goes on, that you can’t believe a lead in a show would do — but you root for him all along in the way," said Clooney of Abbott's leading man performance, comparing him to the likes of Sam Rockwell and Jack Nicholson. "You can’t teach that, really. You either have it or you don’t. So Chris saves us a lot because of his talent to do drama and comedy. But also, because there’s an element to him that I can’t figure out — I’d steal it from him if I could."

Abbott, who is in almost every scene, said he put himself in the character's mindset. "There were links to Yossarian that I am true to, which is his view of the world. He has a very existentialist view. He’s someone who is looking at this whole mayhem that’s happening from a bird’s-eye view and is asking: Why?" said Abbott. "The war is ending. The Germans are on the run. So why are we flying these missions? Then he’s seeing Kyle’s character, Cathcart, willy-nilly wanting to bomb here and here, and he’s aware of what’s going on. And he kind of feels like he’s the only person in this whole insane universe who is saying, 'Why are we doing this?' In that sense, for me at least, you kind of justify it."

Catch-22 walks a line between drama and comedy, with action-packed mission scenes (which include two real B-25 bombers) and their emotionally affecting consequences combined with subversive humor. Unlike the book, the series tells a linear story and the four-and-a-half hourlong runtime included "extra credit" to develop the supporting characters as well. 

"It’s war and a lot of these young men get killed," said Clooney, "and if you try to do it in a two-and-a-half hour movie, you don’t really get to know six or seven characters, so it doesn’t matter when they die. You don’t have a sense of who they are. When we are able to spend time with them, it makes it feel like their lives actually matter, which is a really important part of the story we are telling."

When it came to nailing the "heightened reality" tone, Clooney credited the cast: "You just have to make sure that everybody is acting in the same movie. ... if you get too much, it falls into farce and it doesn’t work." Heslov said discussions about how to capture that back-and-forth tone happened daily. "The book does that so well. It’s almost like a scene from a Marx Brothers movie and then it goes into something absolutely horrific," he said. "So we talked about that all the time: How are we going to walk this fine line knowing that we could easily screw that up?"

During the panel, the bond between the four was apparent. Chandler joked that he understood why Clooney handed him the role of Cathcart "once I started learning all those speeches" and Clooney cracked that one of the reasons Abbott got the role is because "he looks good naked" — a high compliment coming from, as Clooney reminded the audience, a two-time Sexiest Man Alive ("Now I'm AARP's sexiest man alive — the sexiest man still alive," he then joked to big laughs.)

After filming together in the picturesque backdrop of Sardinia, Italy, Abbott described the shoot as being "a bit of a summer hazy dream." Clooney recalled his motorbike accident — "I'm off bikes. Our wives were like, 'You're never getting on a bike again,'" he told the audience — and all four mimed eating pasta when asked about their favorite part. Still, despite the setting, Abbott struggled to recall much outside his task at hand.

"Of everyone on the whole film, he had the hardest job," said Heslov of their star's "nonstop" filming schedule. "He was in almost every scene, he had to work every day. There were some days where he was working in all six episodes [because Catch-22 was cross-boarded and filmed out of sequence.] We had three directors chairs behind the monitor and we would be like, 'Ok, you’re up.' Poor Chris had to change clothes in a tent. 'Now, you’re covered in blood.'"

When Catch-22 hits Hulu, Clooney suggests viewers watch the first episode — which was directed by Heslov — and then stick around for a couple more. "I think you have to watch a couple in a row," he said. "What Grant did so beautifully with this [first] episode is hard because you have to lay all that pipe; set it all up to get to know the characters. It gets easier to know the characters and easier to tell the story as it goes on."