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Sonning-based George Clooney on the Catch-22 series coming to Channel 4

PUBLISHED: 11:53 20 May 2019 | UPDATED: 11:53 20 May 2019

George Clooney by John Bauld, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

George Clooney by John Bauld, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

JOHN BAULD

Megastar George Clooney, who lives with his British wife, Amal, on an island in Sonning-on-Thames in Berkshire, is directing and starring in the new six-part TV mini-series Catch-22, which will be coming soon to Channel 4

It's a compliment to our county that Hollywood heart-throb George Clooney and his wife, Amal, a barrister specialising in international law and human rights, chose a Berkshire village in which to settle down and raise their twins, Ella and Alexander.

The couple bought Aberlash House in 2014, a £10 million Grade-II listed mansion on an island in Sonning-on-Thames, and renovated the property, adding everything from a pool house with a bar to a 16-seat screening room. The house is set in four acres of land and surrounded by trees and large gardens, which allow the couple plenty of privacy.

Prime Minister Theresa May and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page are among their neighbours, and it is rumoured George and Amal get involved in village life, regularly visiting The French Horn and also taking in shows at The Mill in Sonning. George also popped in to see an 87-year-old resident at the Sunrise in Sonning care home, to wish her happy birthday.

Now, the Hollywood star is directing and starring in the brand-new TV mini-series Catch-22. He plays Air Force Lieutenant Scheisskopf, which marks his first regular TV role since he left E.R 20 years ago.

Based on Joseph Heller's seminal novel of the same name, Catch-22 is the story of the incomparable artful dodger, Yossarian [Christopher Abbott], a US Air Force bombardier in World War II, who is furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him.

But his real problem is not the enemy, but rather his own army, which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service.

Yet if Yossarian makes any attempt to avoid his military assignments, he'll be in violation of Catch-22, a hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule that specifies a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers which are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind; a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but a request to be removed from duty is evidence of sanity and therefore makes him ineligible to be relieved from duty.

Catch-22 is written by Luke Davies and David Michôd, and also stars Kyle Chandler and Hugh Laurie. Grant Heslov co-produces.

George was at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California, to talk about his latest TV project… 


Catch-22 is an iconic book. When did you first read it and what impact did it make on you then?

I read it first, I think, at high school. That was one of the books they gave you that you were supposed to read, you know, Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22. This is considered one of the great American novels of all time, so it was required reading. And I loved the style of writing, which was different from the kind of writing we had read. But I was pretty young, and so I just liked the character, and I thought it was fun. I re-read it when we were sent the scripts, and I hadn't read it in... you know, high school was 15 years ago. [laughs]

It was really fun and exciting to go back and read and understand why this book lasted and stands the test of time.

When do you know when you want to direct something?

When the script feels right. That's when you do it. Because it's two years out of your life.

As a director, did you pick up anything in Mike Nichols' directed feature film that was useful in directing this mini-series? And what drew you to producing and directing a period World War II drama?

We were very good friends with Mike, and believe me, he's an artist and we stole a couple of things from him along the way, which was part of the fun of it. We were sent the first three scripts, Grant [Heslov] and I, and they said: "Do you want to do Catch-22?" And we said: "No, you know, I don't want to do Catch-22. It seems ridiculous. It's a beloved novel. I don't want to get into the middle of all that." And we read these first three scripts and I said: "Well, if the next three are anything like that..." And we read the next three, and then we called up everybody at Paramount and said: "Where do we sign up?" We just loved the scripts.

I think David [Michôd] and Luke [Davies] did an amazing job with sort of unspooling the characters because, when you do a movie, as you know, you don't have enough time to get to know the characters, and that's why you do this as a television show; you get to spend time with the characters like the book does. And they just figured out a way to interpret it in a way that we didn't think was possible. That's why we got on-board, for the most part.

You seem to be getting more involved in TV these days. Do you think one day you're going to be able to direct something without the studios pushing you to act in it?

I've done that a few times. Most of the time, you'll have to act in something somewhere along the way. Grant and I have always been involved in television. We did a live version of Fail Safe and we had five or six television series over the years. I don't care about the medium. I really don't. I just care about the quality of the work, and the things that we're able to do. And television's doing some amazing things. We have a Watergate piece that we're working on right now. We just want to work, you know.

It's 25 years since you were here the last time − or the first time, for E.R. Can you reflect back on that first introduction to TCA?

I remember you − you look exactly the same, I want you to know that. [laughs] Nothing has changed. Well, it's been a while, I suppose. E.R was a nutty moment in my career, but also in the lives of a bunch of actors. There were six of us who suddenly were thrust into the stratosphere, and it was life-changing for all of us. And it was fun to be here. It was a little bit different, the room, but not much. It is a lot of the same faces.

Can you talk about the casting of Christopher Abbott as Captain John Yossarian?

From the moment we read the screenplay we thought we're going to get to explore one of the great characters in literature, which is Yossarian, and the interesting thing is it requires us, an audience, to be able to like and trust a character who does some pretty despicable things along the way, and part of that actually came down to casting.

We knew we had to cast somebody that you could root for even when he did really rotten things. We read, I don't know, hundreds and hundreds of people. We put a lot of offers out to a lot of other actors, and he was much cheaper, Chris. [laughs]

It is a tough book as it goes from extreme comedy to extreme drama. How did you decide you were not going to dull those at either end?

You have to take a swing and hope that you hit the ball along the way, and sometimes you do and sometimes you don't. We felt like this one. There's no way you can do this half-assed, right? You've got to go for it. If you read the characters, if you read the script, you can't subtly yell at people along the way, and you can't subtly kill these people. It's a pretty gruesome business, war is, and so there's a morbid comedy to it as well.

Are you concerned people may have a negative reaction to the material because so many people are used to glorifying World War II?

Well, Army people are the first people who like these stories, because you're also making fun of the higher-ups. It's more about the bureaucratisation of military and war, I think what Heller was doing originally, because he was writing in response to Korea, not to World War II, and it was taken up by the Vietnam generation as it became an anti-war book. But that wasn't what it was designed to do. It was really to make fun of all of the red tape and the bureaucracy of war and the ridiculousness of it. And so I think that that still plays.

The reason the novel has lasted and the theme of it is that we all know war is nuts on one level or another... Why don't we catch on about it?

Listen, it's just insane, it's always insane, and it's incredibly complex, and all of us spend our days and nights thinking and worrying about those situations. I think this story is just reflecting on the insanity of it, and I think we will always as a group wonder about the insanity of war. There was a clarity in World War II that has been lacking in some of the other exchanges we've had over the years. So harkening back to when it was a simpler time is easier for us to understand.

All those bombers; was it CGI? Or did you find actual planes?

They're B-25s. It was pretty wild. We shot all the footage from it because one of them came from Los Angeles. And they can go about five hours in the air and they don't have heating so they're wearing parkas and they've got oxygen masks. And they flew, as you can't fly over the whole ocean. They had to fly up past Greenland and bounce back all the way… Seven stops to get there. So it's pretty interesting. When they showed up, we were all standing out on the tarmac cheering.

What was it like to sit in them and get a sense of what it must have been like?

It's sort of like if you go to Europe and you walk into a doorway and you clank your head on the top of the doorway. We were smaller then and could fit into those planes easier, which is interesting because they're tiny − the crawl space from the nose cone up into the cockpit. I couldn't get through it.

What do you feel when you put on the costume and see yourself in the uniform?

You feel an incredible sense of responsibility to generations, particularly that generation considered to be the greatest generation. I will say that as an actor in general, with the exception of the bat suit, any time you put on a costume it does help you get into character. I've done dozens of shows and films where I've worn a military uniform. When you put it on there is a sense of pride but also a great sense of responsibility.

Are you more aware of women in the workplace after the #metoo movement?

Originally, Grant and I were directing it and we looked around and thought: "This took place in 1944, it's all men. We should do everything we can to involve women." So we called up Ellen [Kuras] and she said she'd love to come on-board and direct so I gave her two episodes and she did an amazing job. We felt like we wanted to get more of a woman's perspective on everything. Our editors are women. We wanted there to be a feeling that it isn't just from a 57-year-old guy's perspective.

What do women bring to it?

Certainly a different kind of logic. You haven't seen two and three yet but it's streamlined and a great logic. Ellen is just a good director, it has nothing to do with gender, but it also feels important to make sure we're all participating in this and we're all part of a solution, not a part of the issue.


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