On January 16th, I joined a group of reporters at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to participate in the press junket for George Clooney’s latest film, The Monuments Men. The movie opens in theaters this Friday, and you can read Todd Gilchrist’s full review here if you’re interested. I largely agree with Todd’s assessment: the film successfully balances a tricky back-and-forth between heavy drama and breezy comedy, and each member of the cast shines.
For the press conference, Clooney was joined on stage by co-stars Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and his co-writer/co-producer Grant Heslov on the panel. Read on for an account of the Q&A discussion, but beware of some minor spoilers sprinkled throughout. I was also able to take a couple of videos of the actors answering questions, so you can watch and listen to them in their own words.
On whether or not a decision was made to make this film for a broad audience:
Clooney: Yes, we wanted to make an entertaining film. We liked the story. We were not all that familiar with the actual story, which is rare for a World War II film – usually you think you know all the stories – and we wanted it to be accessible. I like all of those John Sturges films. We thought of it as a mix between Kelly’s Heroes and The Train. We wanted to talk about a very serious subject that’s ongoing still, and also we wanted to make it entertaining, so that was the goal.
What drew Bill Murray to this role?
On this film’s potential cultural impact:
Clooney: It’s about looking at the loss of artifacts and art that’s going on in Syria right now. Understanding how important the culture is to each of these countries. And trying to find a way to get them back. It’s a long, long process, and if this raises some awareness and opens some discussions on it…this art that was found in German recently – about a billion and a half dollars worth of art – some of that art was art that was actually found by the Monuments Men and given, supposedly back to people to give it back to the original owners, and he didn’t: the guy kept it. So it looks like that art is going to get repatriated, and that’s a good thing.
Cate Blanchett, on how her scenes were mostly with Matt Damon:
Blanchett: Can you imagine the disappointment? (Everyone laughs)
Damon: (At the same time) That was a request.
Blanchett: I thought I was going to be working with Bill Murray. I’m deliriously happy about [earning an Oscar nomination for Blue Jasmine, which was announced the morning of the press conference] and deliriously happy about this…George, as we all know, is such an incredible raconteur, and I think that carries across into the way he makes films and the way he tells stories about what’s going on in the rest of the world in the other part of his life. In a way, the film is a synthesis of those things. I felt the way George would come to each of us and obviously pitch the story of Monuments Men was not dissimilar to his character in the film going around to gather the characters to be in the film. Yes, most of the stuff was with Matt, and unfortunately, the time in Berlin was incredibly short.
Clooney: The pitch to her was that she wouldn’t have to work with Matt. I lied.
Blanchett: I think we’ve aged relatively well. The last time we worked together was on [The Talented Mr.] Ripley, in Italy, so it’s a slightly different endeavor.
Damon: Slightly different characters, too. (Laughs)
What is the difference between George Clooney the director on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and George Clooney now?
Clooney: Well, George Clooney has learned to speak about himself in the third person…I prefer directing to doing other things. Directing and writing seem to be infinitely more creative. As far as how I’ve changed, all you’re trying to do is learn from people that you’ve worked with. I’ve worked with the Coen Brothers, and Soderbergh, and Alexander Payne – I’ve worked with really great directors over the years, and you just try to see what they’re doing and then just steal it. That’s the theory. Go, ‘I like that, I’m going to do it that way.’ The truth is, your development you hope is the same thing as everything, which is you succeed some, you fail some, and you keep slugging away at it. I really enjoy it. It’s fun. I like it more than acting now. It’s tricky directing yourself, obviously.
Damon: But since you refer to yourself in the third person, it’s a lot easier. (Everyone laughs)
Clooney: It is. I go, ‘George, you were very good.’ (Laughs) Anyway, I enjoy directing, and I don’t know whether it’s improving or not, but it’s certainly evolving into different directions.
On the power of cinema:
Blanchett: Projects like this don’t come along very often with ensembles like this. For me, the power of the story is that it shines a light and a perspective on what we previously thought were very well known facts. There’s a shot in the film…when they find the barrel full of wedding rings and gold fillings. We all know – we’ve seen those horrendous pictures. The power of cinema is that it draws on that collective history, and I feel like the film harnesses our understanding of the second World War but yet opens a door to a very particular and noble and quirky bunch of guys – and girl – who really changed the way we are now and what we understand our contemporary culture to be.
Clooney: It’s based on a true story, and obviously we made some things up along the way, but most of it’s true…things that are odd, like going to the dentist, and then ending up finding the paintings at this guy’s house actually happened. It was a guy named Bunges. Flipping over the painting because they were eating on top of it, that was actually true. Some of the wildest parts of the film were true…Grant [Heslov, Clooney’s co-writer and producing partner] and I tend to make films that are somewhat cynical at times, and we sat down specifically saying, ‘Let’s not do that for once. Let’s do one that doesn’t have any of that in it. That has a real positive outlook at things. That’s what we sought to do with this.
Clooney: We get an awful lot of attention here. Strangely, as you get it, you want it much less. When you’re young, you kind of chase things. You’re hoping to be successful. Then it starts to get way too much, and any way you can deflect it into stories that are important for you to cover and you want it to be out there, I think that’s a very good thing to do. You’ve gotta be careful – you can’t go to North Korea and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Kim Jong-Un.
Heslov: You can…
Clooney: (Shaking his head) You absolutely can. But you have to be a little selective about how you do things.
Clooney: Casting was fun. We couldn’t get Brad [Pitt], so we got Matt. (Everyone laughs)
On filming in Germany:
Balaban: I was amazed at the consciousness in Berlin, especially of the Holocaust and the war. But specifically the Holocaust, is very much a part of present discussion all over the place, which I thought was a great thing. They have little plaques everywhere when you go around in different neighborhoods: ‘This person here was prosecuted. This person was sent to this concentration camp. A family of Jews lived here. They took over its business.’ Little, very discreet, very dignified plaques everywhere. I was really interested, because I’d been in Berlin doing something twenty-five years before, and I guess it was too close to reunification for people to be thinking about much else. I was amazed at how much it was part of everyday life in Berlin.
On acting like a Nazi:
Clooney: I feel bad for actors, though, because for about seventy-five years, German actors have had to play Nazis. And you bring them in to read, and just going, ‘I know, I’m sorry. [Everyone laughs] But I do need you to sort of be really mean.’ And they’d try to, like, ‘Well, maybe he joined because -‘ and I’d be like, ‘No, no, he’s a bad Nazi. [Everyone laughs] You’re going to have to just be bad.’
On Clooney’s pranks on set:
Damon: I read somewhere that he took in my wardrobe an eighth of an inch.
Clooney: Every other day.
Damon: Every other day, he had the wardrobe department do that, because he knew I was trying to lose weight. This was a job where I’d go back to New York where I was living with my family, and then I’d come back for two weeks, and then I’d go back to New York. Every time I came back, the pants were tighter, and I was like, ‘This is weird. I mean, I’ve been going to the gym.’
Clooney: He’s eating, like, a grape, and going, ‘I don’t understand.’
Damon: It’s nice having friends like that.
Clooney: I’m just looking out for you.
Goodman on working with Dujardin:
Goodman: Working with Jean was great. He spoke English this time, and I still refuse to learn French.
Heslov: He spoke this time!
Goodman: It was probably my happiest filmmaking experience this last year doing this film. It was wonderful.
Heslov: Better than Argo? [He’s joking, since he and Clooney also produced Argo.]
Clooney: Also, Jean is really fun and really funny and he really loves what he does. The minute he walks in the room, he’s just funny. Every single prop, he can do something hysterical with.
On how Clooney’s motivation for acting has changed over the years:
Clooney: Well, when you’re just starting out as an actor, you’re just trying to get a job. I wasn’t really ‘motivated’ to be the sixth banana on ‘The Facts of Life,’ but I was thrilled to have the job. So things just change as time goes on. I think Grant and I, as partners for a long time, have been interested in trying to find stories that are unique and also stories that aren’t necessarily slam dunks for the studio to make. That would require us to sort of pick up and carry in. This one, as the cast grew, it became a lot easier to swallow. But it’s hard to make films like this. It’s hard to get Argo made. Took us a long time to get Argo made. Good Night and Good Luck, I had to mortgage my house for it. We’re just trying to do films that you wouldn’t necessarily walk in and everyone says, ‘Yeah. That’s an easy one.’ Sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they aren’t, but they’re the ones we want to make. I think our inspiration in general is to try to get stories made that, if we didn’t go after them, probably wouldn’t get made. Because the others are going to get made anyway.
On what attracted Bob Balaban to the project:
Balaban: One of the things that attracted me to this was, I had always known about the stealing of the art, but never really the extent of it. The question that the movie posed, specifically, and I thought it was great – George, your character actually says this a couple times in the movie – ‘why is it so important that you should kill so many people but also try to eradicate their culture?’ It’s so significant, and also very hard to get across in another piece of art, in a movie. I thought the script and the movie did it beautifully. I think it’s a question that we all are struggling with all the time. Is it just pretty? What does art do for us? How does it represent us? It’s our whole inner life, out there for people to see. It’s subtle and very hard to depict, and I thought the movie did it really well.
Working with Clooney:
Damon: Working with George was very similar to working with Soderbergh, which makes sense, because they worked so much together over the years and had a company together for a long time. George is obscenely talented as a director, I have to say. It can be a little annoying, being his pal because it’s kind of like God said, ‘Maybe this time, I’ll give one of ’em everything.’ [At this point, Clooney pulls out his wallet and start sliding cash over to Damon.] ‘We’ll make him handsome, I tell you what – as he gets older, he’ll even look better.’ In closing, because I think he’s out of twenties… (Everyone laughs) Honest to God, it was one of the best experiences I’ve had, and I’ve had better experiences than I could ever have asked for. I’ve worked with the very best directors around, and he belongs in their company – or ahead of it. (Looks expectantly at Clooney for more money)
Clooney: I’m out, I’m out! (Everyone laughs)
Goodman: This is like an emotional strip club.
Clooney on Gravity:
Clooney: I thought the film fell apart about half an hour into it.
Damon: (Feigning ignorance) Gravity…oh, the Sandra Bullock movie! Fantastic.
Goodman: I didn’t see it. (Everyone laughs)
Clooney: Alfonso Cuaron is one of the great geniuses in the game. He really is a genius. He hasn’t made a bad film. He has great love of what he does. I can’t tell you what an honor it was to work with him and see what he was doing. And man, I’m tellin’ ya – we had no idea what was going on. It was two years of post-production finishing that film. It was crazy. They were doing stuff they hadn’t even invented yet, in terms of CGI and stuff.
On changing character names to protect the innocent:
The Monuments Men hits theaters this Friday, February 7th.
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