While world leaders join today to mark the 70th anniversary of the D Day landings, George Clooney tells HuffPostUK about what war movies have stood the test of time, and why they still matter.
With the DVD release of his wartime caper 'The Monuments Men' on Monday, a film he wrote and stars in, as well as directing his A-list pals Matt Damon, Bill Murray and John Goodman, George also reveals how it helps to bump into fellow stars as parties, and what he feels about his own legacy...
Why did you want to make this movie?
GEORGE CLOONEY: Grant [Heslov] and I make a lot of cynical films, that’s kind of what we like doing. But we thought, what if we did one that just wasn’t so mean-spirited? It would be nice to not have to live in a really rotten world all the time! [Laughs] And we thought this was a fun one to do.
The book 'The Monuments Men' isn’t fiction but it does seem to be a great movie premise: a group of guys ill-equipped and, frankly, too old to be soldiers band together on a mission to save some of the world’s greatest art.
GC: Yeah, we were surprised it was such a good fit for a movie. I mean, I remembered 'The Train' [John Frankenheimer’s 1964 WW2 film about a German soldier smuggling stolen art on a train] though that was such a specific story about this French art, but I’d seen 'The Rape of Europa'[2006 documentary about Nazi plundering of looted art] years ago so I knew something about that. I remembered that Hitler bombed a lot of England but part of the reason he didn’t bomb Paris was because he wanted the art, that he was stealing art and hiding it in mines. I remembered that part of it. Then we started looking at it and it’s like he stole all the art. I mean, he stole millions of pieces. Big pieces and important pieces of art.
So you had the makings of a good ol’ fashioned war movie…
GC: The thing is, when you look at WW2 movies, the reason they run out of steam now is because you know all the stories. But the reason they worked so well for so long is that you had the greatest bad guy in the history of film and they had good uniforms to put on. You know, there were all the right elements. And here is a story that people don’t know. I didn’t know. And it’s sort of natural for storytelling, for movie making, because you can put together your group of men and send them off and make them all old and, you know, that’s fine. Particularly when it’s Bill Murray and John Goodman and Bob Balaban etc.
Were there any other pictures you had in mind as a starting point, like 'The Great Escape' or 'The Dirty Dozen' or 'The Wild Geese' or any of those kind of big WW2 adventures?
GC: Yeah, all of those. But the funny thing was when we started laying out an outline – you know, all Post-it notes on the wall and that kind of thing – we were basing it on our memory of those war films. But then we actually went and bought 30 or so and discovered that for the most part, they don’t really hold up now.
There are exceptions – 'Bridge Over The River Kwai' still works on every level – and you can appreciate elements of others: the storytelling in 'The Great Escape', the cinematography in 'The Longest Day' or 'A Bridge Too Far', but in general what we ended up making was what we remembered those movies to be, rather than what they really are. We’re not making a 1955 film. We want to make a modern version that’s not alienating to everybody.
If some of those old war movies don’t work quite so well now it’s perhaps because modern audiences are more sophisticated or knowledgeable in some ways. You wouldn’t get away with certain things today.
GC: You couldn’t get away with it. You have this issue now – it happened on 'Argo' for us – where all of a sudden someone will say, “Well, this isn’t exactly how it happened.” And you go, “Well, wait a minute, let’s go down the list of movies since the beginning of time. Let’s look at 'Patton' – did they say all those lines like that?”
I mean, we did one film, 'Good Night and Good Luck', where we were fairly sure even the dialogue in the rooms was pretty close to accurate since everyone was a journalist and they all wrote books. But other than that, you’re still telling a story. And for us the interesting story of the Monuments Men was that these men came together to try and do something that seemed absolutely impossible.
And they had no idea how big of a deal it was until they got there. And they didn’t all survive, so there’s drama to it. But there’s the Greatest Generation kind of humour too, which is that they don’t talk about things that they’re scared of, they just make a joke of it.
The movie might surprise some people, as it’s more of a caper, or adventure film, than perhaps a heavyweight awards movie.
GC: We didn’t really want to focus on trying to do “The Oscar War Movie.” We wanted to make a good, solid movie that was entertaining, one that we’d be proud to be a part of and be in. And everybody jumped on board. The whole cast jumped on right away. So we knew that they liked the screenplay, because they’re not getting paid a lot of money, you know! So that was encouraging.
We felt like, “Okay, we’re in the right world.” Everybody wants to make a movie like this and they want to feel good about themselves. At some times in our history we find that we don’t always need to be beating ourselves up since we’re getting beat up in the rest of the world. And this seemed like a good time to make this movie.
Many of your previous movies as director have had relatively small budgets. This has a bigger scale and expense and is aiming for a broader audience. Does that bring additional pressures?
GC: Oh yeah, always. The more money you spend, the more pressure. I mean, it’s that simple. This isn’t crazy expensive and it’s split between two studios. When all is said and done, we did this at a good price. But it’s big. It’s the biggest movie we’ve ever done by far. We did 'Good Night and Good Luck' for under seven million dollars and the pressures are always there. They just get louder the more expensive you get. But you should have heard the conversations about 'Gravity' a year ago when we were doing our first set of reshoots. “This is an 80 million dollar art film!” But now I think they’re happy. So we get the pressure. We understand what’s going on. And we acted very responsibly with the money.
You mentioned some of the cast earlier. It’s an impressive line up. How many did you contact personally and how many were just the normal working deals?
GC: Cate, I called. Matt, we just sent it to, and Bill’s a pal too. John, we were at the 'Argo' party and said, “We’re going to send you this script.” Nearly everyone, in fact, we knew. It’s helpful because a lot of times, when you’re putting a film together, until it is “greenlit greenlit”, agents won’t take it to their bigger stars. They’ll just go when you have the money in place in the checking account. This was much easier because we can go to them and say, “We’re shooting on this date, the money will be in place on this date. Are you interested, yes or no?”
But as director, does all this familiarity create any difficulties? Say, having to tell a member of the cast who is also a friend, “I didn’t like that take, let’s do it a different way”?
GC: Well, yeah. Bill and I have a very good relationship; he and I spent time in the summer at my house. I remember saying to Bill when we started, “Listen, I think it’s gonna be weird to direct you,” – because he’s been doing this forever, he knows exactly what he’s doing – “You know, I’ll want something different at some point.” And he just said, “Just tell me what you want and I’ll do it.”
So, yeah, you have to address it really quickly. Look at John Goodman. John was one of the leads, one of the stars, of (TV’s hit show) 'Roseanne' when I was on that show for the first season. He was the king, the Grand Poobah. So it does feel odd for me to be going, “Here’s what I’m looking for, John.” But he doesn’t make it feel odd. You just feel a little bit that way yourself. But you shake it off quickly. And just do the job.
Even with talented actors though, sometimes a director wants a specific thing because they’re looking at the bigger picture.
GC: That’s true. These guys all got it. They knew what their job was. The secret to an ensemble piece like this, like the 'Oceans' pictures, is that sometimes your job is just to say one line and not get in the way in a big group scene. When usually each one of these actors is the one who does all the lines. So there’s a certain generosity of spirit that comes to play. And the fact is our cast had that. And it makes all the difference in the world.
Did you have many of the cast in mind when you were writing the script?
GC: Yeah, most of them actually. And it’s so much easier to write it when you think about who these guys are. Bill, for example, it’s really easy to go, “Oh, I know what to do here.” And, sometimes, also to write away from what people think of them. Bill has one of the most dramatic scenes he’ll probably ever have, with his (character’s) daughter in the film. It’s a beautiful scene and, as I say, sometimes writing away from things that an actor’s known for, but knowing them and knowing what they can do, can be fun.
With a big, established cast do you have to ensure there’s enough “good bits” to go around?
GC: Yeah, you don’t just want to have them there to fill space! But the trick to that is you can’t just serve every single person in every single scene. So you have to really remember that this set of scenes with, say, Bill and Bob are going to be about this and then these are going to be John and Jean Dujardin. You know, really focus on their stuff when you’re with them and not try to make everybody have their own moment in every scene.
The scenes between Bill Murray and Bob Balaban seem to have a lot of humor.
GC: Oh yeah, Bill just gives him a hard time constantly and then just keeping them in the same frame is fun too because Bill is 6’3” and Bob’s 5’3”.
This film has to balance some laugh-out-loud moments with the high drama of war. Was that a challenge?
GC: Absolutely. We’re after a drama that has good laughs in it, not a comedy with serious stuff, because it’s hard to get an audience back if you do it that way. Tone is always the secret to a film like this. 'Argo' was like that in a big way, a lot of big jokes and a lot of serious stuff.
Although the film has its lighter moments, there are some heavy underlying themes in there too, about the legacy of art and culture. Was that always part of the focus for you?
GC: I think we always knew what the theme had to be; the underlying thing had to be that this art, this world, is really important and without it, culture is gone. The question really is, “Is art worth a life?” And, in some ways, it has to be worth it. Because people died for it, for what it means, for what these pieces of art mean to so many other people.
Because it’s our history. Before we had iPhones or whatever to record everything, this is how we recorded our history. And without it, you take away…well, you see it in Iraq when we don’t protect the museums how terrible it is that this history is destroyed, and this culture is destroyed.
That’s quite a big task you’ve set yourself: to prove that art is worth a life, in what’s essentially a caper movie.
GC: I think, in storytelling, you don’t have to make it work on the grand scale; you have to make it work on a personal scale. So for example, we tied the Bruges Madonna in the film directly to the death of one of the characters. And my character says, “Well, we better get it back,” so at that point, it has to be worth a life, to the story. I think it’d be very hard to prove in a big empty vacuum that a piece of art is worth a life.
But on a very personal note, in context like that, I think we could prove it. But believe me, we had that conversation. In fact, probably the most dominant conversation we had all along was that we have to constantly remind ourselves, and the audience, that we’re getting this piece because we’re not going to let Hitler take it. And we’re not going to let my buddy die in vain because of it.
Does this theme of the movie, the legacy of art, touch on your own career in a way – do you see the movies you’re making now as an attempt to create your own legacy?
GC: I think it’s been our way for years now to try and make movies that last beyond an opening weekend, yes. I’m not getting rich off of these movies but they stick around a while. This and 'Up In the Air', you just go down the list of the things we’ve been doing, 'The Ides of March'…we’re doing these because we like telling stories. We’re not getting loaded off of them – they’re not designed for that.
Nothing’s stopping us from doing big movies where they open big and you could make a lot of money. But it’s not really our interest. And when you’re 70 years old and you sit down and they do that dinner for you, do you want them to say, “Oh he had nine films open at number one” or do you want those films to be viewed by someone flipping a channel or a computer 10 years from now saying, “Oh man, I like that movie!” Does it hold up? That’s what matters.
'The Monuments Men' is available on Blu-Ray and DVD fro Monday 9 June. Watch the trailer below...