When did you come up with the idea for the film?
Joel Coen: About 15 years ago, around about the time we first started working with George Clooney, we had the idea for Hail, Ceasar! and we mentioned it to him. He loved it even though at that time it was little more than a pitch about a “knuckleheaded” matinee idol who is making a biblical epic with the tantalising working title, Hail, Caesar!
He then started sort of announcing it as the next movie we were going to make together, even though at that point we didn’t really have any intention of making it. It was sort of a thought experiment and then we decided a couple of years ago, let’s sit down and try and write it.
The result is an affectionate Coenesque tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood with Clooney joining a stellar cast that includes Josh Brolin, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton and Alden Ehrenreich…
JC: Yeah, certainly Hail, Caesar! comes out of a love of movies that have come before. Part of the appeal of doing this story was being able to take little samples from bygone genres. It’s part of the fun of doing it.
What was is like filming the difference scenes?
JC: Filming the scenes for the films within the film was a huge logistical challenge. Every week it was a different movie. Usually what you can do is, with the art department or the wardrobe department or special effects, it’s all geared up to do the same thing over the course of one movie.
If it’s a western you have to have wranglers and horses, and the crew and the production facilities are geared towards taking care of the problems you need for that kind of a movie, but if you’re doing all of these different things where one week it’s the western and the next week it’s something else then we don’t need the wranglers anymore but we have to find a tank and synchronised swimmers and figure out how to light it.
Ethan Coen: These days we have more sophisticated technology; most obviously there’s computer-generated stuff to solve production problems, but then they had the studio system.
They had like an army of really skilled technicians and craftsmen, which is beyond what you can muster now in a practical way, on most movies.
JC: There’s the technical part and then the other part of it is, you think, ‘would you have thrived in a system like that?’ It’s impossible to actually think yourself into that because we’re a product of the age we grew up in and to think whether or not you could thrive in an age when you didn’t, it’s hard to know, but there are seductive things about it.
You know, the fact that there was this sort of beautiful machine to make movies, and also just the fact that these guys who were active then, directors that directed then, would make 40 or 50 movies in a career. That never happens anymore.
They’d go from one to the other to the other, so the amount of work you could do was always changing and stimulating, but on the other hand, it was very different in terms of the control of the studios then, and what we’re sort of used to. I don’t know, it’s an impossible question, but it’s an interesting one.
We didn’t live through that era so we can’t be nostalgic about it and the movie is, by design, a rather romanticised version of Hollywood in the 1950s but there’s an aspect of how movies were done there, the idea of a factory for making movies; the machine for making movies that was such a beautifully designed thing that there is an element of not nostalgia but affection and admiration for it, I think.
I’m not quite sure how we would have function in that kind of environment but it’s kind of impossible to put yourself, with a modern sensibility, back years into that kind of context. But certainly it’s a very affectionate look at that kind of filmmaking – it’s not what we do, but it’s a very affectionate look at it.
Did you write the film with specific actors in mind?
EC: George Clooney’s part was. Josh Brolin, even though we had done two movies with him, we weren’t particularly thinking of him until we finished and looked at that character and thought, ‘Okay, Josh could do this.’
JC: With Tilda Swinton we had the idea for that character and then we thought, ‘Okay, Tilda could play that,’ as opposed to thinking, ‘what do we write for Tilda?’
With Scarlett Johansson, no, but we do know Scarlett. Once we came up with the idea of doing the swimming thing, we very much wanted Scarlett to do it, because we thought she would be very funny in that. Same thing with Ralph Fiennes. Alden Ehrenreich, who is, I think, really fantastic in the movie, we just met in an audition. He came in and read that scene.