Brits, Rupert and Harry Gregson-Williams have over two decades of experience each composing scores for television and film. The two brothers have long looked for a project they could collaborate on. Then along came Catch-22, the bleak absurdist satire that has often been referred to as unfilmable. The great Mike Nichols took a shot at in 1970, and while there are many brilliant moments in his film, it’s largely seen as an honorable failure.
In working with George Clooney and Grant Heslov to bring this definitive version of Joseph Heller’s absurdist, anti-war, tragicomedy to Hulu, the brothers had the heavy task of finding the right tone for a project that marries the horror of war with the comical madness of military bureaucracy. It was a tall order, but one they were excited to take on.
How did you guys come to the project?
Harry: Rupert called me and said there might be a possibility of doing something together. We’d been looking to work together for a number of years now. Obviously, we’d been busy doing our own things, but both of us have a history of collaboration, and we both enjoy it. He’d got wind of the fact that Catch-22 was going forward and there seemed to be some sort of symmetry here. Catch-22 was produced and (largely) directed by two people – that being George Clooney and Grant Heslov – why not have two composers? And George was into the idea. We were very lucky in that respect.
Rupert: We had been looking for quite a few years, and this project – apart from being a fantastic book – was an opportunity to get our teeth into very broad, large, emotional suites. It gave us the opportunity to do something really knee-deep.
I often think of Catch-22 as M*A*S*H before M*A*S*H. There’s an absurdist, satirical comic streak going through a war-based series that also treats life and death very seriously. How did you manage those shifting tones?
Harry: It was pretty clear where we had to start. George had asked us to start with the Yossarian character (played by Christopher Abbott). We started at the very beginning of the first episode. As you might know, we don’t necessarily write in chronological order. However, the very first cue of the first episode actually shows footage of what we’ll see in the final scene of the final episode. It’s a flash-forward. And that’s Yossarian at his most bleak – he’s seen horrible things. We don’t share a studio, but we were in and out of each other’s studio while we wrote this score. We got around the piano at my place, I think. We settled on a theme we played for George and Grant early on. They liked it, but they wanted us to show that the theme could have legs. We wrote it as an emotional, quite angular, theme for Yossarian. Immediately, George wondered if it was malleable enough to be able to take it and do the things we were going to do (throughout the series). You touched on the fact that this show has an extreme amount of emotion – from farce to real bleakness. Having gotten our thematic material in hand, we then went off experimenting how far we could take it towards those extremes.
Rupert: As Harry said, you see the bleakest as Yossarian gets at the beginning. We had to thread and feed into Yossarian as he starts to crumble leading up to that moment. You have six hours of film to get to that moment of complete despair. It’s a simple theme, but we managed to turn it on its head with the jazz (notes), which gave some irony to the humor. We see someone die horribly or get to (a place of) terrible fear, and then we start with some jazz which makes you turn up in your seat.
Harry: The first episode is quite a scene setter in that there’s a lot of training before the boys get sent off to Italy and discover these bombing runs, they have to go on are absolutely horrific. It’s almost as if in each bombing run, another one of the kids gets picked off. That first episode takes you straight into the futility of war and these very young boys – who little do they know what’s coming. The music, in that respect, kind of follows their arc. The first scene is very bleak, but then we switch in time to these very happy-go-lucky boys who don’t know what’s coming. The first episode isn’t very dark at all. By the time we get to episode 5, it’s descended into hell, really. The music had to track that. George is very experienced with music, he made it very clear he wasn’t a novice at this, He was up for listening to demos. He was up for experimentation. We weren’t quite sure if we were going to write any period jazz. There were a lot of needle drops (use of WW2 period songs) involved. Very quickly, Rupert went off and experimented with using the theme, which you would not expect to use in that kind of jazz standard at all. That’s not how we wrote it – it’s a very emotional theme. George leapt up off the couch when he heard the first iteration of the theme as a bouncy, 40’s jazz number.
In the initial bombing run, the music underplays a bit. It supplies this ominous feeling but doesn’t come too far out in front. That changes later.
Harry: As the episodes go, the score develops and that flips. The music becomes much more present and much more ostentatious. I think your right. To begin with, the music is lurking there and it’s not giving too much away. If you haven’t read the book, you have no idea where it’s going. There are long periods where you think this is going to be okay. They are having some fun, kicking around this air base in Italy.
Rupert: They are intimidated in that first bombing run, aren’t they? There’s just a growling implication of what might come. Yossarian looks over at his friend in the capsule of the bomber to his left and sticks his thumb up – the boys are just doing what they were trained to do. You don’t want to shoot it all right at the beginning in the first episode. You want to build it. That was how clever the guys were in their storytelling in getting Yossarian to his boiling point. He was really flippant in the way he was trying to get off his bombing runs. By episode 5, he’s desperate.
I think the music becoming more heightened adds to the desperation and the “war is hell” vibe. Was that what you were going after?
Harry: That’s absolutely what we were after. George has his ideas about music. When we came to the project, in most episodes, there were two or three needle drops that were pretty crucial. I’m trying to think of the artists he used.
Rupert: (Laughs). He used his aunt (Rosemary Clooney).
Harry: We had to duck and dive around (these songs). As the episodes go on, you find less and less of these needle drops driving us forward. The score comes to the foreground.
There’s a bounce to a lot of the period songs used in the series, as well as some of the jazz portions of the score. But then you also have to juxtapose other parts of the score that are tonally much different by giving off a feeling of dread. I imagine that was a challenge.
Harry: The needle drops were serving a purpose, but not the same purpose as the score. You’re right, there are two things going on there. The needle drops often were giving a sense of irony to a situation that might be ludicrous about the futility of war. Occasionally, George would have us play right against what was happening onscreen. You have men that are terrified, and the music is telling you something different. I think that’s what’s interesting about this project. We were able to lean into different aspects of what the score could do.
Rupert: We experimented with a needle drop that had the bounce, like the Andrews Sisters or something, and then we thought what if we try to preempt the emotions and turn them on their head (with the score). Or, the other way around, where we would play to the song’s strength. It can really work to change it up. Especially as things become more confusing for Yossarian. I think that happened at the end of episode 4. Yossarian is losing his mind and the music helps (show that) in a couple of places.
Harry: From the Andrews Sisters to the Gregson-Williams Brothers. Quite a combination. (Laughs).
Christopher Abbott as Yossarian is onscreen almost every minute of the series. Did you feel a responsibility to project his inner life as well as compose to the events going on around him?
Harry: There was no doubt that we weren’t going to get lost as to what point of view we were going to take. As you say, he’s in most frames of the movie and he’s right at the epicenter of what’s going on emotionally. That’s what us composers feed on. There’s plenty to play with there.
This is the first time the two of you have collaborated. Rupert, you are based in the UK and Harry, you in L.A. Talk about how you managed the responsibilities and divvied up the work.
Rupert: Once we had the scenes in place, we could split up into our studios and write, then at the end of the day, (look) at each other’s approach. We were lucky. We were able to land on something we both agreed on from the beginning. We did some of the jazz over in the UK, and since I’m in the UK, I took that job quite seriously and had some fun with some friends who have a big band over there. What do you think, Harry? We didn’t really divide it officially.
Harry: The jazz gene went to one of us and it definitely wasn’t me. (Laughs). Rupert covered quite a lot of that. We both have very different experiences scoring movies, but kind of similar in some respects. Rupert did a war movie with Hacksaw Ridge. Which was some help in doing this project. We’ve both had to work with needle drops. Although a movie like Shrek has nothing to do with what we are talking about, in terms of what you are seeing onscreen, it’s still the same emotion. It’s still the same job to be done in terms of maneuvering around songs and taking our characters through different emotions. When we came to the project, there was a piece from Hacksaw Ridge that George was liking – the tone of it. As I recall, it was quite austere, and it had a certain emotion going, but it wasn’t right in the face. He made that quite clear that he didn’t expect us or want us to be too overt emotionally to begin with.
The way these episodes were structured, towards the end, usually, one of these boys gets knocked off. One by one, Yossarian’s friends are dying. Quite often, the big emotional punch would be in the last 5-10 minutes of an episode. For instance, the score for the last six minutes of the last episode – I think as things panned out, I had written the first draft of that – which we played for George, and he liked it very much, There was a passage in the middle that he had an idea about. He reminded us of something Rupert had written in episode 4, which was similar emotionally. He suggested we dig a hole into the middle of the cue we had been preparing for reel 6 and try something like what we did in 4. We thought maybe, in the beginning, we would divide up the cues and do it that way, but we became very much embroiled and involved (together).
Rupert: That was a proper handoff and a hand back for episode 6.
After more than two decades of working on music for film, what took you so long to collaborate? I assume you like each other. (Laughs).
Rupert: It took us so long to get a break where we could do it. We did work together years ago before our careers even started. Somewhere there’s a tape mucking around of that. I’m not sure where it is.
Harry: I’m hoping it doesn’t exist anymore. (Laughs). Growing up in a very musical family where often making music together was what we would be doing. That’s how we interacted with each other. We had brothers and sisters who were also musical and musical parents. We grew up in a collaborative environment. It wasn’t at all a stretch for us to do it. It just took us a moment to do it. When I think of 18 years of doing Tony Scott movies with the odd Ridley Scott movie thrown in. A decade of doing Shrek and DreamWorks animation, I don’t know where I would have done it. I wasn’t being facetious early on about the beast having two heads. What I mean by that is Grant and George – it was quite handy to have two of us.
How familiar were you with the book or the Mike Nichols film before this?
Rupert: I hadn’t seen the Mike Nichols film until I knew we were going to get on the phone with Grant and George, so I watched it the day before. It is completely crazy and unlike the book. It’s not as funny as the book, in my opinion. It might be well-regarded, but I was glad to see the freshness that George and Grant brought to it.
Harry: For my part, I was familiar with the book, in terms of historically. I knew about it and knew it was an important – and sometimes much-reviled part of the American literary landscape – but I hadn’t read it myself. Nor had I seen the Mike Nichols film. When George asked us to do it, he sent us the six scripts. That was great for me because I was plunged right into a world I had absolutely no idea about. You saw the Mike Nichols film, did you, Rupe? What’s that like?
Rupert: It’s just a little crazy and feels of its time. It’s what, 1970? It feels a bit psychotropic. Orson Welles is in it. Alan Arkin is brilliant in it. It didn’t really play the comedy. With ours, we turn on a heel.
I was reading an interview with Clooney where he was saying it’s harder to make the movies he really wants to make for the theater. That’s how this ended up at Hulu. Do you feel that too? That there are projects that need to be made by television or streaming outlets if they are going to be made at all?
Harry: It certainly does (feel that way). The writers and directors I worked with on 5 or 6 Netflix movies and a couple of series, everybody feels like they were asked to make something brilliant and original which is brave and if you have billions of dollars in the bank, you are able to commission it.
Rupert: George and Grant would have to tell you what it’s like for them to interface with the people at Hulu, but George and Grant seemed to have complete creative freedom. They were able to hand that on to us.