“Hail, Caesar!,” the Coen Brother’s genre-busting new comedy crime caper set in 1950s Hollywood, features a terrific cast that includes George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Channing Tatum, Alden Ehrenreich, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, and Frances McDormand. It’s a wildly entertaining tale populated by fascinating characters about a day in the life of a Hollywood fixer whose job is to keep things under control and the studio’s stars in check. The movie is beautifully crafted, funny and engaging, and it’s shot in stunning 35mm by the super talented DP Roger Deakins.
At the film’s recent press day, Clooney, Brolin, Tatum, Ehrenreich, and Hill revealed what drew them to the project and why they were excited to be a part of a Coen Brothers movie. They discussed what it was like working with the highly original filmmaking duo, how clever storyboards were an integral part of the directing process, how the filmmakers recreated the old Hollywood style and paid homage to its Golden Age, the movie clips that inspired Tatum’s dance sequence, Brolin’s favorite memory of working with Deakins, Clooney’s sword and sandals epic fantasy, and his take on diversity and the atmosphere in Hollywood today.
Check it all out in the interview below:
QUESTION: For all of you, how did you become involved in this project? What was it about this movie that made you want to be a part of it?
GEORGE CLOONEY: After finishing “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, they pitched me a movie called “Hail, Caesar!” It’s basically about a fixer, but one of the characters was an idiot actor, and I wonder why they thought of me, who gets kidnapped by a bunch of Communists. The only line they pitched was Alden’s line, which is, “This is bad for movie stars everywhere.” It just killed me. And then, they never wrote the script. Every time I did press, I would say, “Well I’m doing a Coen Brothers movie next called “Hail, Caesar!” And then, Joel and Ethan would call me up to say, “Stop saying that. We haven’t written it.” And then, they called a couple of years ago and said, “Okay, we wrote it. So, let’s go do it.”
Q: Josh, you play a studio executive. That must have been so much fun to play?
JOSH BROLIN: It was. It’s fun to slap people around. I’ve always spent a lot of time [with the Coen Brothers] since “No Country for Old Men.” I kind of injected myself into their lives and I would watch even other movies that I wasn’t involved with. I’d watch them edit because I really enjoy watching them go through their process. It’s a very economical, educational process. I remember asking them when they were doing “Inside Llewyn Davis” what movie they were thinking about doing next, just out of curiosity. They mentioned this movie and that he (referring to Clooney) most likely would be involved, even though they’d asked him about it ten years ago, and I said, “Cool!” Obviously, what I was wanting to say was, “Is there a part in there for me? I’d really enjoy working with you again. Maybe you could pay me more next time as opposed to maybe nothing.” And then, I got a call and they said, “Do you want to do this thing?” I figured when they asked me, because they always ask in kind of a…(to Clooney)…like you talked about doing “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and they actually were going to come and see you. But they would never come and see me. But they do make their phone call. They do spend that money. They said, “Would you be interested in maybe being involved in this movie.” So, I thought it was a fairly small part until I read it.
Q: What about you, Alden?
ALDEN EHRENREICH: I just auditioned for it and read with the cast and director. And then, obviously, it being the Coens, I love their films and wanted to be a part of it. Then, I came in and read for them and they laughed throughout the audition. Then I came back and read for them again. The casting director said, “Keep your phone on.” I just figured they were going to call me and say, “Thank you for coming in. You didn’t get it.” So, I kept my phone on, and then a whole day went by, and I thought well maybe they decided not even to do that. And then, the next day, I got a call from the Coens and they said, “Have you talked to your agents?” and I said, “No.” “So, you don’t know?” And I said, “Know what?” And they said, “You got the part.” It was really a thrill.
Q: Were you excited too, Jonah?
JONAH HILL: Yeah. Of course. They had written me an email together. It was one email from both of them actually, and it was so beautifully and hilariously written in their dialogue as the Coen Brothers. They said it’s a very, very small part and I just said yes right away without reading it. I can’t speak for other actors, but I can’t imagine an actor who wouldn’t die to work with the Coen Brothers.
CHANNING TATUM: I said no a bunch for like a little while. And then, they just…
CLOONEY: You were working on “Magic Mike 2,” right?
TATUM: No, I didn’t say a thing. I got an email from them. And you don’t even read the script before you say yes. You can’t even type “I’m in” quick enough.
HILL: We were on tour promoting a movie, and it was funny because we were both trying to very humbly, like humble brag, like subtly brag to each other that we were going to be in a Coen Brothers movie.
TATUM: I was like, “Dude, it’s crazy. I just got a Coen Brothers email. It’s weird.”
HILL: I said, “It’s pretty cool, whatever. I think I’m going to do it.” We both were trying to brag to each other, but it was the same movie. And then, of course, Channing’s part was quadruple the size of mine.
TATUM: But I didn’t know that actually. We both thought we had small parts. In the script, it only says, “Mannix (Brolin’s character) walks into a big song and dance, and then they dance, and he (Tatum’s character) does a knee slide to a bucket.” So, I thought it was going to be at the end, and you might see maybe an 8-count or something and then the knee slide to a bucket.
HILL: They wrote me an email saying, “Are you interested in playing a bucket?”
TATUM: I said, “You should do this, man!”
HILL: “I don’t want to brag, but I’m probably going to play the bucket.”
TATUM: Then they slowly asked me, “Do you know how to tap?” and I was like, “No.” “Well we’re thinking about tapping. Do you think you could learn that?” I’m like, “Yeah, I can. I’ll try.” “Can you sing?” “No, I can’t do that.” “Can you try?” “Yeah, I can try.” I was so scared that I was going to screw up this movie just because I don’t know how to do either of the things they asked me to do. But I’m sure they were like, “Oh, he can figure it out.” I was terrified I would ruin it. Yeah. AutoTune is amazing.
TATUM: Yeah. AutoAct is amazing.
Q: My favorite scene was when Josh Brolin’s character slaps George Clooney’s character in the face. That was hilarious.
CLOONEY: What’s wrong with you?! C’mon!
Q: We live in a day and age when actors are now also becoming journalists in the jungle. So, what do you think the Coen Brothers were trying to convey in that scene?
BROLIN: I think they’re trying to manifest something that they’ve been wanting to do, but it’s illegal, for a very long time. They’ve wanted to slap George Clooney for a very long time, but I did it instead.
CLOONEY: I have to say that first I want it out there that Josh has very, very soft hands.
BROLIN: A poet’s hands.
CLOONEY: You slapped me like Oscar Wilde. He was really so soft. I barely felt it. I have no idea why they do that, but I find that they’ve done that with all of our characters. (to Brolin) No. You’re a smart one in there, but the rest of us are not particularly the brightest group.
TATUM: The directors come off really well.
CLOONEY: They do. Did you notice that?
TATUM: Everyone else is really dumb.
BROLIN: George is kind of sharp.
CLOONEY: That’s true.
BROLIN: It’s the fact that he started to think individually. So, even though it comes across as Communist, it’s actually writers going, “Wait, if it’s our idea, shouldn’t we get a residual if they make money?” Whereas, the studio was telling him, “Forget the Communism part.” The studio is saying, “We use you for as long as we need to as laborers, and then we go off and make the profit.” So, he gets together with them. He starts to think individually. And Eddie Mannix, speaking for Nick Skanks (the studio head), says, “Don’t you dare think individually, because we control everything.”
CLOONEY: And then, Bette Davis comes around and screws the whole thing up. She told them to all fuck off.
Q: George, did this role satisfy a fantasy of yours to do a sword and sandals epic in a way?
CLOONEY: The fantasy was to wear the leathered skirt. That was my fantasy. No, you know, I’ve never really thought of it. When you go back and look at those films, it’s hard not to crack a smile through them when you watch. They’re taken very seriously. Having watched all of them over a long period of time, I really fell in love with Victor Mature’s version of all of those kind of films. His hair was always dyed black and you’d watch him. He’s been wonderful in films. I’m actually really a huge fan of Victor Mature. But it really did feel like he sort of had cinched up into his outfit and said, “Alright then.” He’s got that thick Bronx accent. It’s like Harvey Keitel in “The Last Temptation of Christ.” (using a Bronx accent) “Jesus, Jesus. How can you forsake me?” And then, there’s Tony Curtis in “Spartacus.” (using a Bronx accent) “I’m your father.” I love the idea of this guy that just was like, “Alright, let’s go do another one of these.” I thought it would be a very fun thing to do. But the truth is I think Jonah nailed it. It’s not as much about this particular role as it is… I don’t know an actor that the Coen Brothers would come to and say, “Hey, I’ve got a movie for you to be in. Do you want to do it?” that would say, “No.” I mean, that’s the truth.
Q: How much leeway do the Coens give you when you’re doing a film with them? Do they allow you to go off script and try things or do they pretty much keep it tight? What’s it like working with them and do they let you change things up?
TATUM: You pretty much said it like they wrote it, just because you can’t have a better idea than pretty much what they’ve already written. It’s amazing.
HILL: Greater minds have thought it through.
CLOONEY: Don’t screw that up. (to Josh) You didn’t change anything, did you?
BROLIN: No, it was just thinking about it. You do change things. You can change things. You just don’t want to. Why would you want to? They have a tough enough time socially, so they’re good writers. We don’t have to make them more depressed than they already are.
EHRENREICH: It’s sort of that. It’s just the writing. The way it’s written makes it so easy to do. In the scene with Ralph (Fiennes), Ralph added a few things. I think the slap was added in. But, for the most part, you just stick to the script.
Q: After you’ve read the script and said yes, and then you show up on set, what is that like? You’re each doing these different genre movies. Was it anything like you imagined?
CLOONEY: There are a couple things there that they do that are really unique. They have a guy named J. Todd Anderson who does all their storyboards and draws them like cartoons, as opposed to storyboards which are usually a very technical thing. I’ve used them actually as an actor in a couple movies. J. Todd is a wild character. So, every morning when you come to the set, you’ll get your sides which is your lines you’re going to read, and the crew gets it. On the back, you’ll also get all of the storyboards with these things drawn up. And the funniest thing is, and I’ve used it as a director since then because it’s so effective, it sort of tells you how they want you to act. It has facial expressions and things, and it also takes away that element as a director for them where they have to sort of negotiate where they want you to go, because you’ve seen them and you think, “Oh, I’ll go over there and I’ll make this kind of face.” So, funnily enough, they have it so mapped out by the time you get there that you’re really just trying to fit into what they see, I think.
BROLIN: But I never have that same feeling. I’ve never had that feeling having done three and a half movies with them. I never got to the set and they said, “You’ll be sitting there and he’ll be standing there.” No, never. But it’s true, because it is mapped out, so maybe it’s a subliminal thing, a full blown Orwellian manipulation that’s happening. But you feel totally collaborative. Whereas like Woody Allen says, I worked with him twice, and he was like, “Whatever you want to change, it’s up to you if you want to change the words and make them your own, and this and that.” And then, you get to the set and then you actually maybe adlib something, and he says, “Yes, but that’s not what it says.” “But you said change…” and he goes, “Oh, I know, and that’s great, and you should, but that’s not what it says.” Whereas Joel and Ethan are more like, “If you have an idea that fits better than what they’ve come up with, and you collaboratively know that, because it’s so specific the foundation of what they want. So, if you can actually come up with something better, they’re all for it, except that doesn’t work. That’s why they always ask, “Do the Coens argue?” And they just don’t. It’s weird. It’s bizarre.
CLOONEY: You try to get them into fights. Joel will come over and give you some direction, and you go, “That is so much better than what Ethan just said.”
BROLIN: “That’s not what Ethan said. He told me not to tell you. You might want to talk to him.”
EHRENREICH: George, when I first met you, we got in the car and you said, “So which one do you like more?”
CLOONEY: We were miked. And they were right outside the car.
BROLIN: There was one moment in “No Country for Old Men” where Llewelyn opens up the case with all the money, and I said, “You know what, I do think… There’s no dialogue for me in the whole fricking movie. I’d like to say something. I’d like to grunt. I like to talk. So can I?” And they were like, “Well, like what would you do?” And I said, “Well, what about just a grunt? Like just an acknowledgement, whatever noise that that emotion may conjure.” “Well, what would it sound like?” “Well, how about, ‘Hmm’?” “Okay. Do you have anything else?” “How about ‘Ah hem’?” “Anything else?” And then I started to think, “Okay, these guys are fucking with me. This is not real.” They did put one of them in. And then, every time we saw the movie in a screening, which was five separate times, I always knew where Ethan was sitting because I heard him chuckling. I’m never telling the truth again.
Q: You guys have all worked with Roger Deakins. Could you share a story of working with him or what it’s like collaborating on set?
CLOONEY: Collaborate with Roger Deakins?
BROLIN: That’s where there’s no collaboration.
CLOONEY: “You know, Roger, I’m thinking…”
BROLIN: “Are you sure you want to put the camera there, Roger? It might look better here, don’t you think?” I say here’s the great thing about Roger. When we were doing “Sicario” in Albuquerque, I saw him jogging. I was out walking early in the morning. I don’t know why, but I was. And I looked over and I saw him. So, I was there and Roger was jogging, and he just went like this (held his hand up). He didn’t look at me. He didn’t acknowledge me. I don’t know if it meant, “Don’t speak. Don’t acknowledge me. I’m jogging.” That sums up all you need to know about Roger Deakins.
Q: It was fun watching the Coens have their Old Hollywood moment scenes that they did, like Channing’s dance sequence. Stanley Donen would have been going, “Wow!” They really took those very seriously in the way they recreated the old style. What was it like watching them put those scenes together and how perfectly they matched the old way?
TATUM: There is so much in the movie that you guys probably will never know about. In the boat, we weren’t actually in the ocean. That was all on a stage. And then, there’s the Esther Williams tank on the Sony lot. There were all painted backdrops. You got to see a little bit of jumping in, like in the movie in the movie, and then you got to pop out of the movie that’s inside of the movie, and watch them slide in the stage with people actually sitting on the stage with all the stage hands running around. There’s so much in the movie that I don’t even know about, because I was only there for mine. It’s just chock-full of things because they love the movies. It’s their dream walk right through a studio lot in the 1950s. They probably would have never wanted to wake up.
HILL: Jess Gonchor is the man, too. He’s the production designer and one of my all-time favorites.
CLOONEY: Yes, he is. Also, they’re so fascinated. It’s like you said. Almost every film they do has some homage to something. I remember “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was a line from “Sullivan’s Travels.” And they actually used shots of the prison break and shots like that, that were taken from that. And then, they take things from “The Wizard of Oz,” which they did with Ku Klux Klan members instead of… And so, they are always referencing films. I think that’s what’s really fun about this film in particular. This is one where they just said, “Okay, let’s put them all in. Let’s put every one of them in.” There’s Busby Berkeley numbers.
TATUM: Have you guys ever seen “Applied Mathematics”? It’s a very small movie, I think, because even Chris Gattelli, the guy who was my tap choreographer, he’s like, “I know every single tap movie that there is, but I’ve never heard of “Applied Mathematics.” It’s Donald O’Connor and he does this amazing, unbelievable tap dance, on the bar, swinging over this thing and around everything. The Coens sent me this, so they know everything about everything. I think it’s really frustrating for people who think they know everything about everything and they just somehow…
CLOONEY: Did you ever see that part of your dance routine where you’re caught between the two guys? It was Sinatra.
TATUM: Yes, it’s totally Sinatra. That’s not a made-up bit.
CLOONEY: They do cut between two guys, and you see Frank Sinatra say “Whoa, whoa!” It’s the same exact thing.
TATUM: I’m blanking on the movie now, but he’s walking through a party. I think he’s looking for someone, and these two guys back up right up against him, and he’s like, “Hey, cut it out! Cut it out! Cut it out!”
BROLIN: Did they tell you that or is that something that you found yourself?
TATUM: No, they sent that to me. They sent me the actual clip. Everyone on set was like, “Oh, that’s pushing it a little too far. Right, guys?” and they’re just like, “Nope. It’s in the movies. They’ve done it before.” And so, it kind of gives us a license to go crazy.
Q: George, are you encouraged or are you discouraged about the atmosphere in Hollywood right now?
CLOONEY: What you’re talking about is the idea of what the Academy is doing and the diversity. I think it’s a very good idea. I think it’s smart to open up the Academy and make it more diverse. I think it’s long overdue. I also think that that’s just the very end of a long process that needs to be looked at, in terms of the list of names that the studios will greenlight pictures for, starting with agents going through writers and directors and everything else. I think that that needs to be reexamined for a multitude of reasons and ethnicities. But I do believe that it is going to get a very good look at now. Maybe that’s always good. I think anytime you open up any part of an industry to diversity, I’ve never seen it not be good. So, I think it’s a good thing.
“Hail, Caesar!” opens in theaters on February 5th.