Telling the story of Laurel and Hardy’s latter years was a labour of love and having Martin Scorsese’s advice a dream come true, director Jon S Baird tells Alistair Harkness
IT’S the week before Christmas and Scottish filmmaker Jon S Baird is sitting in a hotel lobby in London, apologising in advance for any trad jazz that might be filtering down the phone line. “Just so you know, they’re piping it through the walls; it’s not my taste,” he says, his Aberdeenshire accent (he grew up in Peterhead) cutting through the background din.
As it happens, he’s been spending a lot of time in hotels over the last couple of months. His new film, the late-years Laurel & Hardy biopic Stan & Ollie, is currently part of this season’s awards circuit, with a Golden Globe nomination already in the bag for John C Reilly’s transformative turn as Oliver Hardy. That means Baird has also been on the campaign trail, zipping back-and-forth between London, Los Angeles and New York to do Q&As with Reilly and co-star Steve Coogan (who plays Stan Laurel) and getting influential industry heavyweights to introduce screenings. Just a few days earlier, for instance, Baird found himself in the surreal position of having Martin Scorsese introduce the film in New York.
“Ha! I’m glad you picked up on that; it saves me doing my usual name-dropping,” he says, with a self-deprecating laugh.
Turns out Scorsese is something of a friend and mentor. They first met three-and-half years ago after Baird made the Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth. Scorsese was looking for directors to work on his and Mick Jagger’s short-lived HBO drama Vinyl and he tapped Baird to helm one of the episodes. Baird remembers meeting him for the first time and telling him he was the reason he got into filmmaking.
“By the look on his face you could tell he sort of hears this all the time. He was probably thinking I was going to mention Taxi Driver or Raging Bull or Goodfellas, but then I said that King of Comedy was the one that really got me interested in filmmaking and he instantly became engaged on a really intense level. I don’t think many people pick that out as one of his best movies.
“From that moment, he kind of took me under his wing and ever since then, whenever I go to New York I go round to his house and we’ll have a cup of tea and chat about things, or I’ll go to the edit and he’ll show me stuff from the latest film he’s been working on. It is like a boyhood dream.”
Of course, Scorsese is also a walking encyclopaedia of film history, so the fact that Baird has made a film about arguably the greatest cinematic comedy double act of all time must have made him a useful resource and a good person to have in his corner. “He did mentor me on Stan & Ollie,” confirms Baird, who specifically sought his technical advice on how to shoot the movie’s dazzling opening scene: an extended one-take tracking shot following Laurel and Hardy at the peak of their career as they walk through a studio backlot in 1937.
“We only had one day to shoot that because we were in Pinewood and Star Wars had taken all the stages,” says Baird. “It was unbelievable. We planned it like a military operation.”
If the sequence owes something to the cinematic craft of the Copacabana nightclub scene in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, it also feels like a sly homage to the opening shot of Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player, immediately setting this up as more of a bittersweet look at what happens to movie stars when the glare of the spotlight fades.
When Stan & Ollie cuts to 16 years later, for instance, the protagonists are in a very different place. Fondly remembered by the public, but out of step with contemporary tastes, they’re unable to secure even a return phone call from producers as they embark on what feels at first like a grin-and-bear-it tour of Britain’s regional music halls, performing their old routines up and down the country, including in Glasgow, where the Lancashire-born Stan Laurel spent the latter part of his childhood and secured his first professional gig, aged 16, at the Panopticon.
“I didn’t really know about Laurel’s connection to Scotland until I started doing this film,” says Baird, who nevertheless has fond memories of his own childhood love of watching Laurel and Hardy films on TV in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “There’s a picture of me as an eight year old that my mum still has of me dressed as Stan Laurel at the school fancy dress party,” he says.
The enduring appeal of Laurel and Hardy is something the film’s melancholic plot zeroes in on and though Reilly’s performance is justly winning the lion’s share of the acclaim, Coogan’s take on Laurel as the quiet, professionally minded workhorse is perhaps the more relatable.
It certainly seems more applicable to Baird’s own career. Having grown up in a fishing village with no family connection to the arts world (his mum was a nurse, his dad worked in construction), he kept his own filmmaking ambitions secret, moving to London and working in telesales until a friend who worked for a newspaper tipped him off to an entry level job at a production company that was about to be advertised in the recruitment section.
“He told them there was no space to run the ad that week and gave me the number. So I phoned them up, had an interview, got the job and started the next week, by which point the advert had run and they got 1,000 applications. I know, because I had to sift through all the mail. I just worked my way up from there.”
Even now, it still feels like becoming a director was a bit of a pipe dream. “But I think that made me work a lot harder. I had to. It was either work hard and put everything into it or it was never going to happen. So I’m glad now, but there were a lot of dark days getting here.”
Stan & Ollie is in cinemas from 11 January