Hail, Caesar! is both an homage to and takedown of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood as only Joel and Ethan Coen could do it. After going into more serious territory with recent films like No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man, this is the Coens back in a lighter, quirkier, more surreal mode as they follow studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) through the course of his day at Capitol Pictures as he deals with sex scandals, miscast actors, frustrated directors, a Communist conspiracy and the kidnapping of his biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) right in the middle of shooting on a giant Biblical epic.
It’s a slapdash stew of a movie and whether it hangs together for you or not may depend on how many of the Coens’ Hollywood in-jokes you are privy to. One thing that’s undeniable, however, is the caliber of the cast, which finds Clooney and Brolin joined by the likes of Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton (as not one but two predatory gossip columnists), Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill and Alden Ehrenreich, the latter in a breakout performance as a singing cowboy who finds himself starring in a drawing room drama.
Clooney, Brolin, Hill, Tatum and Ehrenreich were on hand earlier this week to discuss the movie in a Los Angeles hotel, with Clooney saying that the Coens told him about this project as far back as 16 years ago. “After finishing O Brother, Where Art Thou?, they pitched me a movie called Hail, Caesar!, basically about a fixer, but one of the characters was an idiot actor — I wonder why they thought of me — who gets kidnapped by a bunch of Communists. The only line they pitched was Alden’s line, ‘This is bad for movie stars everywhere,’ which killed me — and then they never wrote the script.
“Every time I did press, I would say, ‘I’m doing a Coen brothers movie next, called Hail, Caesar!,’” Clooney continued. “And then Joel and Ethan would call me and say, ‘Stop saying that! We haven’t written it.’ And then, they called a couple years ago and said, ‘Okay, we wrote it, so let’s go do it.’”
“Since No Country, I’ve injected myself into their lives,” said Brolin. “Even other movies 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. And I remember asking them, when they were doing Inside Llewyn Davis, what movie they were thinking about doing next, just out of curiosity, and they mentioned this movie and that (Clooney) would most likely be involved, even though they’d asked him about it 10 years ago.
“I said, ‘Cool,’ wanting to say, ‘If there’s a part in there for me, I’d really enjoy working with you again. Maybe you could pay me more next time, since you always pay me nothing,’” added Brolin. “And then, I got a call that said, ‘Do you want to do this thing?’ (When Clooney was deciding to do) O Brother, they were actually going to go see him. They would never come see me, but they do make a phone call. They do spend that money. And they said, ‘Would you be interested in maybe being involved in this movie?’ I thought it was for a fairly small part until I read it.”
The other actors – Tatum, Hill and Ehrenreich – basically echoed each other in saying that if the Coens call, you go, no matter how big or small the role. “They had written me an email together,” recalled Hill. “It was one email from both of them, and it was so beautifully and hilariously written. It was 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 even 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.”
Tatum stars as actor Burt Gurney in the scene that is the movie’s true showstopper – a Gene Kelly-style song and dance number on a soundstage involving him and a bunch of actors dressed as sailors. “They asked me, ‘Do you know how to tap?’” said Tatum, who has done rather different dancing in his Magic Mike movies. “And I was like, ‘No.’ And they were like, ‘Well, we’re thinking about tapping. Do you think you could learn it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And then, they asked, ‘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 because I couldn’t do either of the things that they asked me to do. I’m sure they were like, ‘Oh, he can figure it out.’ But I was terrified of ruining the movie. Auto-tune is amazing!”
There’s one scene in the movie where Mannix has to slap Whitlock across the face and it was suggested that having the studio exec out the smackdown on one of his biggest actors carried all kinds of subtexts for the Coens. “I think they’re trying to manifest something they’ve been wanting to do for a very long time, but it’s illegal,” speculated Brolin. “They’ve been wanting to slap George Clooney.”
“First, I want it out there that Josh has very, very soft hands,” retorted Clooney. “He slapped me like Oscar Wilde. He was so soft. I barely felt it, really. I have no idea why they do it, but I find they’ve done that with all of our characters. (Mannix) is smart, but the rest of us are not particularly the brightest group.” Tatum noted that the fictional directors “come off really well in their movies,” prompting Clooney to add, “The directors are always sharp. It’s true.”
The latter actor spends the entire movie in the costume of a Roman soldier and he was asked if starring in a movie within a movie fulfilled any secret fantasy to do a sword-and-sandal epic. “The fantasy was to wear the leather skirt,” joked Clooney. “When you go back and look at those films, it’s hard not to crack a smile through them. They take it very seriously. Having watched all those movies for a long period of time, I really fell in love with Victor Mature’s version of all of those kinds of films. His hair was always dyed black. I’m actually a huge fan of Victor Mature, but it did feel like he’d get cinched up into his outfit and have that fake Bronx accent, like Harvey Keitel in The Last Temptation of Christ when he was like (speaking in a Bronx accent) ‘Jesus, how could you forsake me?’ Or like Tony Curtis in Spartacus.”
All the actors agreed that they feel little need to change anything in a script by the Coens (“You pretty much say it exactly like they wrote it, just because you can’t have a better idea than what they’ve already written,” said Tatum) and Clooney said that the siblings’ complete control over their vision extends to the way each day’s shooting is mapped out as well. “There are a couple things they do that are really unique. They have a guy, named J. Todd Anderson, who does all their storyboards. He draws them like cartoons, as opposed to storyboards, which are usually a very technical thing,” he explained. “So, every morning when you come to the set, you get your sides, which are the lines you’re going to read, and on the back, you also get all of the storyboards with these things drawn up.
“It tells you how they want you to act, it has facial expressions, and it takes away that element for them, as directors, where they have to negotiate where they want you to go,” he continued. “You see it on the storyboards and you go, ‘Oh, I’ll go over there and I’ll make this kind of face.’ 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’ve done three and a half movies with them, and I never got to the set and had them say, ‘You’ll be sitting there and standing there.’ Never,” concurred Brolin. “Because it is mapped out, maybe it’s a subliminal, full-blown Orwellian manipulation that’s happening. But you feel totally collaborative. Whereas I’ve worked with Woody Allen twice and he was like, ‘Whatever you want to change, it’s up to you. If you want to change the words, make them your own.’ Then you get to the set and you actually ad-lib something, and he says, ‘That’s not what it says.’ And you say, ‘But, you said I could change it.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, I know. That’s great, and you should. But, that’s not what it said.’ With Joel and Ethan, 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, they’re all for it.”
Hail, Caesar! opens in theaters today (February 5th).