The story behind Stan & Ollie’s best moment
2019’s most astonishing shot…
Jon S. Baird’s Stan & Ollie opens with what might be the shot of 2019. A six-minute Steadicam extravaganza, it follows Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) from studio dressing room, through a bustling Los Angeles backlot and onto a sound stage where they are about to shoot their iconic ‘Way Out West’ dance sequence. The (seemingly) one-take shot — In Hollywoodese, a ‘oner’ — is a bravura, brilliantly choreographed set-piece that tested cast and crew to the limits. Here’s how they did it….
1. The ambition
Baird’s decision to open Stan & Ollie with a virtuoso one-take shot came from a desire to distinguish his film from the traditionally cinematically reserved Brit flick — the kind of films where Lily James wears a hat for 90 minutes.
“When you do a British film, there is an expectation that you can get sucked into this world that could easily become a TV movie,” says the director. “If you start something with a oner that goes onto a Hollywood backlot in the ’30s, it is trying to give yourself as good a start as possible.”
2. The planning
Although it only amounted to six minutes of screen time, the shot became a focal point for the whole production. “It was like a war room in the production office,” laughs Baird. “We made a model of the route and had the whole crew round this table. It was an incredibly prepared set-piece.”
The crew had to avoid Stormtroopers from ‘The Last Jedi’ heading off for a crafty fag.
But as well as pulling the audience into the glamorous world of Laurel and Hardy, the complicated staging enlivened some potentially dull exposition. “We couldn’t just have two people sitting in a dressing room for nine pages talking about their wives,’ says the filmmaker. “We had to bring it to life.”
3. The trickery
Apologies for ruining the magic but the shot is actually three different locations seamlessly stitched together. The interior dressing room was shot at Eltham Palace in Greenwich. While the Roach Studios backlot was captured at Pinewood Studios and the sound stage recreated at Twickenham Studios. As Pinewood is a working studio, the crew shot the walk between the section on a Sunday, avoiding Stormtroopers from The Last Jedi heading off for a crafty fag.
“We still had to change a lot of things to make Pinewood work,” says supervising location manager Camilla Stephenson about dressing the studio. “A lot of productions helped us out by hiding their equipment. We asked Jurassic World if they would move a container and they said, ‘It’s not a container, it’s a raptor cage!’”
4. The actors
As much as there is a logistical nightmare for the crew, a sustained take is also a huge challenge for the actors having to deliver reams of dialogue without stopping to change a camera position. “There is a lot of pressure in a shot like that so you almost have to not care about it,” says Steve Coogan. “You also have to be arrogant and think, ‘If I fuck up, it doesn’t matter. We’ll just do it again.’”
5. The finished shot
In total, the scene took 18 takes to get right. “The weather forecast was terrible but as soon as we started shooting the sun came out and lasted all day,” recalls Baird. “The Movie Gods were on our side that day.”
When the film was finished, Baird showed it to his mentor Martin Scorsese – the pair worked together on HBO TV series Vinyl. Given the shot’s Goodfellas’ walk-through-the-Copacabana one-take vibe, he was nervous to show it to the master.
“I said, ‘I’ve ripped you off and I know it’s not the first time,’” says Baird. “And he gave a little chuckle, as if to say how many times people have done that to him.”