Jeff Pope on chronicling the dramatic lives of comedy team Laurel & Hardy in ‘Stan & Ollie’

Stan and Ollie” chronicles the professional and personal lives of the legendary screen team of Laurel and Hardy, who are portrayed by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly respectively. This acclaimed biopic was written by Jeff Pope, who reaped an Oscar bid for his last film with Coogan, “Philomena.” 

Pope admits that he put himself under pressure in writing about his personal heroes. He managed to alleviate that by concentrating on making the story work as just that, a story. “You can’t rely on Laurel and Hardy to get you through. You couldn’t just have Steve scratch his head and pull that face, or John  twiddle his tie. What story do you want to tell? Once I focused on that, the pressure didn’t weigh down on me.”

The secret was to pick a specific moment in their lives to tell their story. “Stan & Ollie” is centered around the team’s gruelling tour of post-war Britain towards the very end of their career. “The first time I sat down and started to write this story, I thought it was going to be a single television film or episode. But gradually, I kept coming back to it and something finally clicked. The experience of doing ‘Philomena’ parted the mists and then I knew exactly what story I wanted to tell and how to tell it. ”

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Pope and Coogan won a BAFTA for that screenplay.“Steve is very much part of my creative family. We met four or five times before we worked on ‘Philomena’ but when we did do that together, we not only clicked creatively, but we also became very good friends so I can’t imagine a point where I’ll not be working on something with him.”

They have two more screenplays they’ve written together, one about the woman who found Richard III’s body in a car park in Leicester and one about a little boy and his father trying to cope with grief. The former of these will feature a female in the lead role, just as “Philomena” did with Judi Dench. “It’s been one of the curious things in my career – the fact that I have written for a lot of lead women. Thinking of the process of writing for women as a man, I’m not ultra-conscious of it.”

SEE Laughing on the outside: ‘Stan and Ollie’ screens for A-list group in NYC

One thing that cannot be argued is how strongly-written the women in “Stan & Ollie” are. The wives of the titular characters Ida Laurel and Lucille Hardy are played by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson respectively. “I felt very passionate about that, for the women to be more than just the wives. One of my pet hates in films is when you’ve got lead male characters and the women are reduced to hand-wringing. The men are off doing something and then they cut back to the women and they’re just ‘I’m so worried for him.’ They only exist to feed into the men’s story.”

Pope has some parting advice for anyone attempting the difficult task of writing a real person’s story for the screen. “It’s about gathering every single piece of information you can about them before you even think about starting to write it and then finding the right point of view. Point of view is crucial. It doesn’t have to be told from the point of view of the person you depicting, it can be anyone’s.”

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