Interview: Co-Writer/Producer Grant Heslov Talks ‘The Monuments Men’, Writing with Clooney, and More

By February 5, 2014
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You may not immediately recognize Grant Heslov’s name, but you know his work: he and his producing partner George Clooney co-wrote Good Night, and Good Luck., The Ides of March, and The Monuments Men; the duo co-produced those films, The American, Leatherheads, August: Osage County, and last year’s Best Picture Winner Argo; and Heslov made his feature directorial debut on the 2009 film The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Mr. Heslov is one of the most successful writer/producers working in Hollywood right now, and a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down and conduct a one on one interview with him about his newest film, how he and Mr. Clooney write together, their development process, the 20th anniversary of True Lies (in which Mr. Heslov acted in a small role), and much more.

Let’s start at the beginning, if you don’t mind. How did you and Mr. Clooney become partners, and what was it that drew you from acting into more of the writing and producing side of things?

We became partners because, as you know, I was acting, and I directed a short film, and then I really wanted to get more involved in making films as opposed to being in them. George had started a company with Steven Soderbergh at the time, and I was like, ‘Look, I’ll come sweep the floors.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t sweep floors, but come work with us.’ And through that time, we did a couple of shows for HBO, the three of us, and then George and I wrote Good Night, and Good Luck. When [Clooney & Soderbergh’s] partnership dissolved, it was just a natural progression for us to become partners.

What’s the writing process like with you guys? Do you sit in the same room?

We sit in the same room. We sit at a two-person desk and in this case, we did a lot of research and storyboarding with cards and stuff. When we write, we just sort of start writing scenes out. Sit there and hack it out.

Since both of you are directors, writers, and actors, I imagine you look at all of your projects from multiple perspectives at all times. From an acting perspective, what’s it like to be an actor and go to work on one of your sets? Are you guys fairly strict with what you’ve put on the page, or is it more free-flowing?

I wouldn’t say that we’re strict, but we try to write scripts that don’t need a lot of improvisation. Sometimes you work on a film and you feel like it could use a little help, maybe. Any of the films I’ve acted in that we’ve done, and I’ve just done these little parts, it’s just more like a gas – easygoing, fun. I mostly stick to the words we wrote.

As far as storyboarding, is that a regular part of the process for you guys? Do you go through the visual aspects of it, too?

No. When I say storyboarding, I actually meant…

Plot beats laid out on a card, kinda thing?

Yeah. We didn’t do a lot of storyboards for this film. George used to use more storyboards. He doesn’t use them so much anymore.

One of the themes that’s presented in The Monuments Men is the idea of ownership of art. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and how it might relate to your own thoughts as a creator yourself.

When you talk about ownership, do you mean the idea of “art shouldn’t be owned?”

Yeah, I think in the movie, it’s clear that that’s the general sentiment. I think there’s a line that says something along the lines of “This piece of art belonged just as much to Napoleon as it does to me.” I just found it interesting – the parallels of a movie about people protecting art, and then you guys being actual creators of that piece of art.

That’s an interesting question. I guess it’s not so much about who actually owns it. It’s about what is done with it, in terms of, ‘Is it accessible? Is it there for the public to enjoy?’ I’m talking obviously more about historical pieces of art as opposed to new art – yeah, of course art can be owned, any of us can buy it – I never really thought about the parallels. I want people to enjoy this art, but they’re going to have to pay for it. (Laughs)

You mentioned accessibility, and Mr. Clooney said during the press conference earlier today that you guys actively made the decision to make this film less cynical than your other ones. Generally speaking, when you approach a project, do you look at it like, ‘Oh, I’d like to do something in this genre,’ or ‘I’d like to do something with this kind of tone’? How do you make those decisions?

Well, some of it has to do with what we’d just done. We’d just done The Ides of March, which is a very cynical film, and a very dark film.

That’s a great movie, by the way. I don’t think it got its due.

Thank you. So, out of just our own sort of artistic fulfillment, the idea of doing another film in that tone wasn’t of interest. Now, the next film we do might be just a fucked up, dark piece, because now we’re ready for it. So we definitely think about it. Not just the story, but what’s the tone and how are we feeling at this point and is there something we want to say.

As far as bringing in and developing new projects, how does that work with you guys? Do you go out and read a bunch of books? Obviously, The Monuments Men was a book before you guys adapted it. Or do you think, ‘Maybe we should do a war movie’ or something along those lines?

It depends. We have executives that are constantly searching for material and being submitted material, and we’re constantly developing movies all the time. We never really know what we’re going to do, if it’s going to be something that we want to direct, or just want to produce, or maybe we want to write it. That’s always going on in the background, and when we’re ready to focus…so, we’ll be ready to focus when this movie’s out and sort of done, and George is finished shooting the film he’s shooting now, and he gets a break. When he gets a break, he’s going to come to me and say, ‘OK, what do we want to do now.’ We’ll assess what we have, assess what’s out there, and figure it out…I might read an article tomorrow and say, ‘There’s a great film here,’ or we might come up with an original idea. There’s no real formula, except that ‘you know it when you see it.’

When you’re ready, you’re ready. So, it’s been twenty years since True Lies came out, and I was wondering if you could talk that. Your memories of that project, and working with James Cameron.

Wow. Twenty years! Oh, my memories of that were great. It was the coolest, best role I ever got to really play in a good film. I was just in heaven. Cameron, getting to work around a director like that and see how they worked, yeah, it was one of my great acting gigs.

I know you’ve been an actor for a long time. Working with Cameron, and some of the high level people you’ve worked with, how much of their styles did you incorporate into your own directing style when you started to get behind the camera?

You know, I think you sort of steal from everybody. I worked with Mike Nichols. Some of his films are films that I idolized, and I would steal anything from that. A lot of it is osmosis. You’re on the set. With Jim, that was a six month shoot, and I was around him a lot. You pick up good stuff, and you also see – not particularly to Jim – but you also see, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do it like that.’ So you get it both ways.

How do you decide what to include when you’re writing a screenplay that’s based on a true story?

Yeah, that’s the hardest part. Particularly for this one, there’s a lot of material. We decided what we wanted the spirit of the film to be, and we decided what those pieces of art were that we were going to focus on, and who was going to die, and who was going to live, and winnowed it down and worked backwards. Then you have to put all of that against the timeline of the war. You can mess around with some things, but you can’t mess around with when the Battle of the Bulge was. So it’s kind of like a puzzle.

George Clooney;John Goodman;Jean Dujardin

The movies that you guys have worked on together always feel very classical to me. They take place in a very specific time, but they feel timeless in a way. There’s a classical Hollywood approach to that. Is that something that you guys think about in the writing process at all, or is that just Mr. Clooney’s directing style?

Some of it is his directing style. Some of it is, I think we’re both lovers of film and part of that osmosis and the stealing and all of the stuff that you do comes from that. And then I think part of it is just who we are as guys, you know?

Do you have any projects that you’re developing right now that you can talk about? I read something about one called Coronado High that’s based on an article…

We’re literally just getting that set up. [The original article was] written by the same guy that wrote the article that we based Argo on. Josh Bearman. It’s a very cool story. But we don’t even have a writer on it yet. It’s a very cool, funny – another period movie.

Anything else percolating that you can talk about?

There’s some stuff percolating, but I’m a very superstitious guy. (Laughs)

I understand. What it is about The Monuments Men that made you say, ‘Yes. Not only do we need to do this project, but we need to do it next. We need to do it right now’?

Part of it is what I talked about before. We were looking for a film that was less cynical. A big, entertaining film. We read the story, we both were attracted to it, we thought it would make a great film, we hadn’t heard the story before, and that was it.

Is there an aspect of the film that you think is more important than the others?

No, I mean, I think the ensemble cast we were lucky enough to get for this film is worth the price of admission. They’re great.

The Monuments Men hits theaters this Friday. You can read our full review here, and hear what the cast had to say about the movie at the press conference right here.

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Ben is a writer living in Los Angeles, California. His work has been featured at ScreenRant.com, FirstShowing.net, MySpace.com, GeekTyrant.com, and many more sites across the web. Some of his favorite movies include The Rocketeer, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Tombstone, Lucky Number Slevin, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Collateral, Double Indemnity, Back to the Future and The Prestige. Follow him on Twitter: @BenPears.
  • That guy used to be quite the actor, right? He looks quite familiar.

    • Yeah, his part in True Lies may be his most famous performance.

      • So, quirky character actor makes it big as writer/director/producer? I guess there is hope for me yet.

  • matt n

    I love the interview format! We need more posts like this on the site. I didn’t care for the movie, but hearing what the co-writer has to say makes me want to revisit the movie and see it in a different light.