'Catch-22' Exec Producer Flew Solo for Onscreen Explanation of Series Title

Grant Heslov says he had to direct himself in a key scene of the Hulu series where he lays out the circular logic involved in the made-up military term.
Courtesy of Hulu; Inset: Jeff Spicer/WireImage
Christopher Abbott in 'Catch-22' (Inset: Grant Heslov)

The term "Catch-22" has become a part of our cultural lexicon, but what many don't know is that it's a term that author Joseph Heller made up out of nowhere as a title for his classic black comic novel about soldiers trying to survive the bureaucracy of war.

"I always think of 'Catch-22' as the ultimate loophole," director, executive producer and co-star Grant Heslov told The Hollywood Reporter. "I think every day somebody's feeling that they're in a Catch-22, you know? I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't."

It's an iconic phrase, but not only did Heller make it up, the original phrase wasn't even "Catch-22." According to Luke Davies (Lion), who co-wrote Hulu's limited series directed by George Clooney, Heslov and Ellen Kuras, "For all these years, in manuscript form, that novel was called Catch-18. And about six months before they were going to release Catch-18, Leon Uris published his novel Mila 18, which was about concentration camps. And so then the publishers had to scramble. Twenty-two was a completely random choice."

Added Davies, "But it rolls off the tongue. It's better than Catch-18, in fact."

It's a phrase that gets said repeatedly during a key scene toward the end of the first episode, as the terrified Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) gets talked through a key aspect of his military service by Doc Daneeka (Heslov): If he was deemed crazy by the Air Force, he wouldn't be allowed to fly, but Yossarian's fear about continuing to fly additional bombing missions means that he is, in the Air Force's eyes, quite sane.

How Heslov ended up being the voice of the bureaucracy that ensnares Yossarian was a bit off the cuff, he said: "We talked about how maybe I would play a role in it, and we'd talked about Lt. Colonel Korn [ultimately played by Kevin J. O'Connor] initially. But I didn't feel like I was right for Korn. And then George said, well, how about Doc Daneeka? And I thought, oh, that's interesting. I felt like I could probably do something with that.

"I didn't think about it, until I'd already said I was going to do it and started working on the lines, that oh, this is a very important speech. It's important that you set 'Catch-22' up. In the [1970] movie, they threw it away a little bit more, and it just felt like we really needed to set it up, because we're talking about six hours [of TV]."

Adding to the challenge of delivering one of the show's most important monologues — Heslov had to direct the scene himself. He and Clooney are longtime producing partners and collaborators, having founded Smokehouse Productions in 2005. In their years of working together, they've developed a system for handling situations where one of them (far more often than not, Clooney) has to be on camera in a scene they're also helming.

"If George is directing himself in a scene, this is how we've worked for years," Heslov said. "He'll say, 'What do you think? Do I got it?' And I'll say 'No, do another one' or whatever."

In this case, Kuras, who directed episodes two and three of the miniseries, was slated to be on set to offer an opinion. But on the day of Doc Daneeka's big monologue in episode one, both Kuras and Clooney, who was out sick, were unavailable. So without any backup on set, Heslov admitted that "I think I probably did more [takes] than I needed to, just so I had myself covered."

The scene broke down into pieces, he said. "The first part is just a oner, from the time he comes to find me and we kind of walk around that tent, and then we walk out of the shot. Probably that one, we only did four or five times. But when I'm actually doing the Catch-22 speech, I did a bunch, and I would stop in the middle and then start again. I just did it a bunch of times."

Davies remembered that Heslov "was very nervous directing himself, trying to do the takes. Getting frustrated when he stumbled on lines. He'd get through 96 percent of the take and then he'd stumble on something."

But Davies also thinks the end result came together well. "It looks good, I love that scene. [Heslov] makes it so it's so casual," he said.

Yet its significance hangs over the rest of the series, which is deeply rooted in the insanity of life during World War II — and war in general — based on the real-life experiences which inspired Heller to write the novel, first published in 1961.

As Davies explained, "When this actually happened for Joseph Heller, who was a bombardier, the Germans had retreated to the extent that there was no aerial combat anymore, because all of their planes were gone. So this was about bombing the ground troops — the German ground troops who were still fighting the fight.

"What that meant was that you didn't need the rear gunner, side gunner and tail gunner in the plane anymore. And so you only needed three-man crews to do these missions, but they were still doing six-man crews, because that's the bureaucracy. So when a plane was shot down by the ground German anti-aircraft fire, that was three people dying who did not need to have been on that plane."

And yet, despite that grimness, the factor that both Heslov and Davies found important to incorporate was the fact that the book, which they both read as teenagers, has a deep undercurrent of comedy — one which they tried to make sure fit tonally.

"My memory of [the book] was that it was funny, and that's what I keyed into because at 15, I was all about funny," Heslov said. "I was all about The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges and all that stuff. And believe it or not, that book has Marx Brothers-type comedy in it. I mean, if we did exactly what was in the book, it probably would've been too far from what we were trying to do."

But Davies, based on his early love of the book, felt they found a way to find a balance, while also "trying to be faithful to was the wild energy that clicked with me so beautifully as a 16-year-old boy. Like adolescence, it's a mad time, right? In adolescence, the condition is that all of our brains are completely scrambled with chaos and confusion. And that novel so beautifully portrays that ... yes, at a huge philosophical level it's a book about the madness of war. But at this other level it's so much about something that we're all much more familiar with, which is the insanity of bureaucracy in the way it unreasonably tries to control our lives in ways that aren't necessary. That we all feel."

Catch-22 is streaming now on Hulu.