LOS ANGELES – Director Mike Nichols was riding high from the success of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff” and “The Graduate” when he made the biggest blunder of his film career.
He made “Catch-22.”
The director’s big-budget, all-star adaptation of Joseph Heller’s book was an expensive, embarrassing reminder that dense, ambitious novels don’t always translate to the big screen.
George Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov were all too aware of the 1970 flop when someone suggested it was time to try again.
“It seemed ridiculous,” the Oscar-winning actor and director said this past February. “It’s a beloved novel. I didn’t want to get in the middle of that.”
But Clooney was smitten with the script by Luke Davies and David Michôd — as well as an option that Nichols didn’t have nearly 50 years ago: unraveling the tale over a span of six hours on television.
“When you do a movie, you don’t have enough time to really get to know the characters,” said Clooney, who is also developing an eight-part TV series about Watergate. “But when you do it as a television show, you get to spend time with the characters just like the book does.”
Front and center in this six-part project, available Friday on Hulu, is Yossarian, a philosophical World War II bombardier whose love for America is eclipsed only by his desire for self-preservation.
It’s a perfectly rational attitude — which means he’s much too sane to be grounded. That’s the military’s Catch-22, just one of the comic conundrums in a satire that has as much to say about red tape as it does about war.
“It was taken up by Vietnam-era generation as an antiwar book, but that’s really not what it was designed to be,” Clooney said. “It’s really about making fun of the bureaucracy of war and the ridiculousness of it. I think that still plays.”
‘Actual emotional journeys’
In addition to directing several of the episodes, Clooney appears as Lt. Gen. Scheisskopf, a short-tempered training officer obsessed with parades. It’s the kind of hammy, over-the-top performance that Clooney usually reserves for the Coen brothers.
“Well, you’ve got to take a swing and hope that you hit the ball along the way,” he said. “There’s no way to do this half-assed. You can’t subtly yell at people and you can’t subtly kill these people. That’s part of the morbid comedy.”
Popping almost as many blood vessels is actor Kyle Chandler as Col. Cathcart, a guy who believes he’s acting as a super patriot by raising the number of required missions his pilots need before they can go home. In one of the most hilarious scenes, Cathcart impulsively promotes a woefully underqualified soldier only because his birth name is Major Major.
“I was terrified the first few days, and I think it showed,” said Chandler, who won an Emmy for playing the much more even-keeled football coach Eric Taylor in “Friday Night Lights.” “Some of the other guys were like, ‘Oh, I’m glad you’re scared, because we are, too.’ But the whole thing was enjoyable because the writing was fun to play with.”
While Nichols’ film was jam-packed with celebrities, including Orson Welles, Bob Newhart, Jon Voight and Art Garfunkel, many of their parts were nothing more than extended cameos. The miniseries format allowed the writers to focus on fleshing out the characters, even if most of the actors are not household names (though “House” star Hugh Laurie does have a juicy role as the squadron’s unflappable executive officer).
“I love the film, don’t get me wrong. But it just re-creates the chaotic kaleidoscopic nature of the novel,” said script writer Davies, who went for an approach more chronological than either the novel or movie. “We basically unfolded the story so that all our characters could have actual emotional journeys from beginning to end.”
Front and center is Christopher Abbott, who presents a much more grounded interpretation of Yossarian than Alan Arkin did in the 1970 production. In that version, Yossarian suffered so many panic attacks that his sweat could have filled the Mediterranean Sea.
“I think things are funnier when they’re done very seriously,” said Abbott, best known for playing Allison Williams’ much put-upon boyfriend in “Girls.” “It’s more a question of commitment and being truthful in those moments.”
Squeezing into the cockpit
The scenes with Yossarian and his fellow pilots soaring through the air, swooping in and out of explosions, are stunning, thanks largely to special effects. But the actors and writers also got a chance to work with two actual B-25 Mitchells (a serious downgrade from the 45 planes Nichols employed for his feature).
Transporting one of the planes from Los Angeles to the series’ sets on the Italian island of Sardinia required seven stops for refueling, but it proved well worth the logistical hassle.
Davies found himself rewriting part of the script after he saw firsthand how cramped the plane’s interiors were. Sitting in the cockpits helped the actors channel the claustrophobia the actual fliers must have felt.
“I didn’t actually fly in them because that would be extremely dangerous, but just riding down the runway about one mile per hour was scary enough,” Abbott said. “You feel like you’re driving an old Chevy in a weird way. It’s not as computerized as you would think. But it gets really hot. It’s glass. It’s sunny. It’s a very vulnerable place.”
In the end, “Catch-22” was less interested in being historically accurate and more focused on capturing the anxieties and absurdities of battle — if not life itself.
“All of us spend our days and nights thinking and worrying about these situations,” Clooney said. “We’ll always wonder about the insanity of war and this story just reflects that.”
When: All six episodes start streaming Friday.