Ahead of its upcoming premiere, Emmy voters were treated to an early look of the upcoming limited series Catch-22. After screening the first of six episodes Emmy voters watched a Q&A with the star-studded cast including George Clooney, Kyle Chandler, and Christopher Abbott as well as executive producer and director Grant Heslov, writer Luke Davies, director Ellen Kuras, and executive producer Richard Brown.
This isn’t the first attempt by Hollywood to adapt Joseph Heller’s satirical novel. Mike Nichols brought the story to screen in 1970 and later that decade Richard Dreyfuss starred in a failed TV pilot. For writer Luke Davies he had grown up with the Nichols film but purposefully chose not to draw any inspiration from the prior interpretation. “As a cinephile I am very aware of the film and had seen it several times as a teenager but all of my inspiration was drawn from the novel. The basic challenge was how to avoid imitating the kaleidoscopic chaos of the novel which is what I think the film did. Instead we chose to create a chronological narrative and the main reason was for that was we wanted this six hour spread where the characters were having actual emotional journeys that had a beginning middle and an end rather than untethered chaos.”
Like any adaptation of a beloved novel one of the most obvious challenges was figuring out what to cut out especially when the source material clocks in at nearly 500 pages. As Luke Davies put it “Catch-22 is 500 very dense pages with over 40 characters and 44 chapters. So of course I immediately imagined it as a three season show with 15 episodes a season.” From there Davies spent many agonizing months whittling down the structure to its current state. “After six months of agony in a dark room filled with white boards I came to the conclusion that it was a six episode story. A large amount of the book is very literary, the humor is linguistic, it’s intellectual and dense, so the stuff that was actually cinematic came to reveal itself over time.”
It came as no surprise when Heller’s writing was compared to our own current political situation. Executive producer Richard Brown even went as far as celebrating Heller as a modern prophet. “He overtly writes about the absurdity of war. It’s also about the geo-political here and now, the relationship between war and capitalism, and also the insanity of bureaucracy and red tape, and the people who are least equipped to be in power are now in power.” Winking to the audience he ended his thought by suggesting Heller wouldn’t enjoy our period in time at all.
Right off the bat the cast immediately credited the success of the project to Davies’ writing, Clooney (who also served as executive producer and director) was immediately drawn to Davies’ scripts even though he was apprehensive about adapting the classic novel. Star Christopher Abbott celebrated the tone of the series. “The story walks the line between absurdity and drama and that’s all done in the writing and it was just up to me to play it as truthfully as possible.”
The room of industry professionals burst into applause the moment Emmy winner Kyle Chandler entered the room and lit up any time the beloved actor spoke. Chandler portrays Colonel Cathcart obsessed with dropping as many bombs as possible. Clooney himself laughed at the thought of America’s favorite dad as a villain in the story. “On Friday Night Lights he’s essentially Jimmy Stewart giving inspiring speech after inspiring speech so to go from that to this terrible person is fun is so much fun as a viewer.”
Even as a six episode limited series there is an inescapable cinematic feel to the adaptation which also rings true to how all three directors collaborated on the project. Instead of shooting episodically George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Ellen Kuras cross-boarded on the massive set often meeting and collaborating behind the monitors. “It helped us develop our own language and tools. In this situation of cross-boarding it was interesting because we’d all be directing different episodes on set at different times of the day. Sometimes we’d even be on different sides of the set directing at the same time.”
As he’s done for decades Oscar winner George Clooney charmed the audience with his tongue-in-cheek banter poking fun at his costar for his nude scenes in front of hundreds of Italian extras and even mocking himself and his former days as a two-time winner of People’s Sexiest Man Alive. In true Clooney fashion he’s able to switch from the lovable movie star to the profound speaker that can immediately convince a room full of people why Heller’s work resonates now more than ever. As he put it “there is never an inopportune time to talk about the absurdity of war. Old men make decisions and young people die. This is something we should talk and argue about endlessly. For us there is great satire and humor but it is still talking about how we have to come to terms with how absurd it is that someone made the decision for these young men to die. It’s important to talk about and remind ourselves this should never be ok.”