'Stan & Ollie' Director Jon S. Baird on Landing Top Choices Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly

Credit:eOne
'Stan & Ollie'

The Laurel and Hardy biopic hits theaters in the U.S. on Friday.

A warm mug of nostalgic joy, Laurel and Hardy biopic Stan & Ollie hits theaters on Thursday, just in time to offer cinemagoers a cosy festive embrace.

Starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the legendary comic duo (both actors wearing prosthetics, Reilly's impressive fat suit covering everything but his eyes, nose and palms), the film centers on the pair's twilight years and a real-life tour of the U.K. they undertook in the early 1950s. With their stars having significantly waned and retirement looming, the two find themselves playing out old routines to sparse audiences in smaller venues. But the spark of comedy genius still remains, with Laurel dreaming up new material for a feature film he hopes will mark the triumphant return of one of Hollywood's most iconic onscreen partnerships.

Financed by eOne (which distributes across its territories) and released in the U.S. with Sony Pictures Classics, Stan & Ollie closed the BFI London Film Festival in October (to a room of people wearing Laurel and Hardy-style bowler hats), the film was written by Jeff Pope, Coogan's Oscar-nominated co-writer on Philomena, and directed by Jon S. Baird, the Scottish filmmaker best known for the dark 2013 comedy Filth.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Baird explains how Coogan and Reilly, who's already earned a Golden Globe nomination, were at the top of everyone's casting most-wanted lists and details the moment he first saw them in full costume and character ("it was like these two ghosts coming through the door"). He also offers some handy advice as to how a distributor can go the extra mile to secure a film (clue: popcorn in bowler hats helps).

Were you already a fan of Laurel and Hardy, or did this come later?

I was very early. A lot of people of my generation used to watch it after school. I'd sit down and have my tea in front of my mum's portable and watch Laurel and Hardy movies. I've still got a picture of me as an 8-year-old dressed as Stan Laurel at the school fancy dress party and a mate of mine is dressed as Oliver Hardy, so the infatuation with them goes back a long way. But I didn't know their story, the behind-the-scenes details. That was the thing that really drew me into it.

How did the film come to you? It's obviously rather different from Filth.

I was actually looking for something completely different to Filth, because I didn't want to get boxed in. It's funny because when I go around to festivals and start talking about projects, people always look at me funny because they're expecting this sort of gothic dark vampire who did Filth. I always thought Filth was a comedy!

But I was looking for something different and had a new agent at the time who sent me Stan & Ollie and said it had come in for my consideration. I'd met Jeff [Pope] at a couple of awards ceremonies, because Philomena was out the same time as Filth. So he sent it through, but the agent said, "I don't think this is going to be quite you." And I read it and I cried at the end of the third read of it and thought that was a good sign!

Coogan and Reilly are incredible, and it's almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles. How were they cast? Were they your first choices right from the beginning?

We made these lists of who could play them and who would be good together, and they were always right at the very top. They're both great physical comedians but have a range as dramatic actors as well, so it didn't take long for us to whittle down our first choices. But it took a little persuading to do it. They really wanted to do it but were a little nervous about taking it on because of the responsibility of playing their heroes. It's a big commitment for a film this size, which is why we gave them four weeks of rehearsal.

How long did it take for them to nail their respective characters?

Steve's a great mimic – he got the voice very quickly. John comes at it from a different point of view. Steve started from the inside out and John from the outside in. His big thing was that he saw an interview that Lucille Hardy had given about how much of a romantic Oliver was, and that was a big indicator of how he played that character. They had four weeks in rehearsals, mainly to get the technical stuff right – the routines and the dances. But in this time, they were also finding the personality behind each of them. It was quite an intense period.

There was a great reaction when the first look was released. Did you have a moment when you first saw Coogan and Reilly in character?

We knew that reveal was going to be a big thing – that we were going to live or die by the reaction of how much they could look like them. That's why we hired the best in the business for the prosthetics – Mark Coulier, who had won two Oscars previously. And he was also a big Laurel and Hardy fan.

We'd seen them in costume and we'd seen them in prosthetics, but we'd never seen them doing the whole thing. So for the camera test, we got all the crew together because I wanted to see their reaction. They walked in, and I was facing the crew, and there was a gasp and a round of applause. I turned around and it was really like seeing these two ghosts coming through the door.

Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda are fantastic as the two wives, Lucille Hardy and Ida Kitaeva Laurel. Given that far less is known about these two, were they giving accurate portrayals?

We saw an interview with Lucille, but she was quite subdued, talking about Oliver after he'd died. We never had any audio of Ida, but we had Pathe news clips and read up a lot about her. The girls kind of pieced them together and spoke to their great granddaughters, who had known and met them. The credit really has to go to Nina and Shirley for taking little clues and building them on top. They shared a flat together in London to sort of become sisters, close enough that it was very easy when they were rehearsing. But some of the biggest laughs, if not the biggest laugh, came from these characters. It's great, because as Bernard Delfont says in the film, it's two double acts for the price of one.

Coogan is obviously a great comedy writer as well. Was he happy to stand back and be directed, or did he get involved?

He and John both had a big influence on the dialogue in the scenes involving their characters. But I have to say, Coogan was incredible on set at taking direction – he's one of the most respectful actors I've ever worked with. I thought he'd be quite opinionated and want to do his own thing, but he's the total opposite. He was incredible to work with.

Have the great grandkids seen the film?

Yeah, Cassidy [Cook], the great granddaughter of Stan, has given interviews and given her blessing. She thinks that we've done the legacy proud, and that's really the most important thing for me – to hear that from a family member.

You found a very early partner in eOne. Was it handy that the film landed in the hands of another huge Laurel and Hardy fan in its international film head, Alex Hamilton?

Alex Hamilton is the total hero when it comes to this film. We went to see all the distributors and Alex just swept us off our feet. We turned up outside eOne and they had just gone an extra 10 miles. They'd mocked up these Laurel and Hardy posters and in the reception they had Laurel and Hardy films playing on their reception TV, and then when he took us to the boardroom for the meeting there were bowler hats filled with popcorn. That's a lesson to any distributor. If you want something, that is how you get it, regardless of the money that you're offering. So they just came on and basically fully financed the film.

Just how influential do you think Laurel and Hardy remain in comedy today?

I think it's like looking at a family tree. You can feel their DNA. They've influenced so many incredible comedians, whether it was the people who came directly after – Abbott and Costello, Lewis and Martin and through to people like Morecambe and Wise. All of these double acts have a bit of them in there. Also people like Steve Martin, Peter Sellers and Jim Carey – they all give references to Laurel and Hardy, things that might not be completely obvious. But I think you just need to ask all the top comedians who would be in their top three, and without a doubt Laurel and Hardy will be there. It's really a DNA thing.