Grant Heslov met George Clooney in the early eights and a friendship was born. Both were struggling actors, and while Heslov had a number of key supporting roles throughout the 1990′s (including True Lies and Dante’s Peak), his friend George’s career grew to superstardom. Their friendship stuck, and the two have been writing and producing partners for nearly a decade. The two reworked the play Ides of March for the big screen, and Heslov talked about their working process and the film.
Obviously there’s going to be some kind of reference to Dean’s campaigns, but where were you pulling from to create the Morris Character?
When we optioned this play, someone came up to us and said “you’re doing the Howard Dean play, right?” And I said “Huh? I didn’t know that.” So I talked to the playwright and the producers of the play and they said no. Beau (Willimon) worked on the Dean campaign and that’s true, and it’s where he learned about this world, but for George and I, quite honestly that’s not an interesting campaign to write about. This is a made up campaign. George and I – along with Steven Soderbergh – did this show called K-Street, and we lived in D.C. for fourteen weeks immersed in politics – all we did was talk to politicians, and talk politics for this faux show, and that was really our research, this is where we did our research that’s mostly what we drew from to take the play and open it up.
Knowing what you know from having written it, would you still vote for a Morris?
You mean if knew he (Spoiler excerpted) and did that whole thing? I think I would vote for him, but not if I had seen the scene in the kitchen. If I knew that scene I wouldn’t.
But whomever you talk about – be it Kennedy, Obama, George W. Bush – there are moments like that.
I’m sure there are, I just didn’t write them. It is a double standard of sorts, but personally I don’t care what a candidate’s extra-circular activities are if they’re the right candidate. It’s interesting because the first scene we wrote was the kitchen scene because we knew that’s where we wanted those two characters to confront each other. And then we went back to the beginning to figure out how to get there.
And that broke the story for you?
Yeah. We had the source material, and we knew who some of the characters were, and we knew we were going to set it in this campaign, and we wanted it to be a short amount of time, just jammed in in the middle of things.
When putting the film together, how important was it to divest your personal feelings from the storytelling? Or did you?
I don’t think we did. The Morris character he’s the kind of guy I’d want to vote for. And it’s not everything he believes is what I believe, it’s that he’s willing to stand by his convictions, he doesn’t want to deal or compromise. There’s nothing wrong with compromise – he doesn’t want to compromise on certain things. But slowly but surely he gets hammered down. That was more interesting to us – how that comes about. How it’s virtually impossible to get through a campaign without F-cking yourself.
This theme is a loss of innocence, it seems like the loss of innocence is the scandal, but there’s a bigger compromise that’s mostly off-screen. Where do you see the loss?
Thematically it’s interesting to me to hear you say that, because to me the film’s less about loss of innocence and more about betrayal – let me take a step backwards. George and I had been talking for a long time about taking a character and run him through the ringer – a morality tale, a big old fashioned morality tale. One of the things we keyed off is the Michael Coreleone in The Godfather. He’s the innocent in the story, but he’s not that innocent to start with. And just like our character, he’s not innocent, you can’t be at that level and be that way, but at the end we wanted the character to go through an earthquake kind of change and make those huge decisions. So when I read the play I thought “here’s a great world to set our idea in.” And so that’s what we did. To me it’s more about betrayal. Stephen is betrayed, he certainly does betray, and pretty much everyone in the story is compromised.
You mentioned The Godfather, The War Room’s come up, The Lee Atwater documentary, what were your reference points?
All the President’s Men. The thing about that film is that you know what’s going to happen in the end but it’s still a thriller. That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to keep twisting and turning it, and have people if not on the edge of their sit a little forward.
Giving the shift that happens at the end, where do you see the characters going? How much did you think outside of the 100-115 pages of the script?
I don’t think we do think, I don’t think we ever had a discussion about the next day, but I would imagine all this stuff is forgotten, and it goes away. I mean we do think the right man is elected. We think he’s the right guy, but at what cost, that was the question to us. The price is both of their souls, and that what was interesting to us on a grander scale.
In 1982, you loaned George money, and since then you’ve been friends, but he’s become a superstar. What’s changed?
He never paid me back the money, I always have that over him. The truth is we were friends before we worked together, and we’d be friends after, so friendship overrides everything. It’s a very easy working relationship. We don’t fight much; we have a lot of fun. It hasn’t changed – we just spend more time together.
What is the writing process like between you two?
I’m at the keyboard, George writes on pads, and we just go back and forth. Sometimes we use cards, but not always. With this one we didn’t it was pretty straightforward to us.
As two actors working together are you bouncing off each other as actors when you’re writing?
Not so much in the writing it, once we have a draft we do a read through, and read all the parts, and see if something sounds stupid coming out of our mouths, and then maybe we’ll call people in from the office and read it for them, get a little feedback.
Do you think, as an actor working on a script, “this is some good red meat.”
Yes, you know when a scene feels right.
I was picturing you affecting a Foghorn Leghorn accent while you read the script.
We do, we’ll do all kinds of silly stuff while reading the script. It’s interesting, you really have to get out of an actor’s head when you have to write because actors only care about their part, and it revolves around their part. As a writer you know what the purpose of scene so you have to get out of that space. Because acting is a micro-focus. You’re focused on your arc, but that’s a tiny piece of the puzzle. It took a while to get out of that.
Did you look at Primary Colors, because it’s about a similar terrain?
Not really, I saw it when it came out. Not because I didn’t like the film, but because it’s a different kind of film than that. This film I hope feels slightly thriller-istic, you get taken on this kind of ride, that was more of a comedy.
When did you know Mr. Clooney would be playing Morris? And did that change the role?
We knew it when we were writing it. It didn’t change it, it just – we knew that he would be saying those words, so we mostly wrote them, but he wrote most of those speeches for himself, so the words were something he would say as a candidate.
When did Ryan Gosling come in?
We always were interested in Ryan, we got pretty much everyone we wanted for their parts.
Was there a role that got you interested in Ryan?
I’d been a fan since The Believer. We wanted him to do Leatherheads with us, but he couldn’t because he was doing something, so we’ve always wanted to work with him, but this was the best one.
Ryan mentioned that George playing this character could rub off on his political activism and interests, did George ever think about that?
People are going to think he’s more liberal than he is? He’s not a politician, and he has no aspirations. If you were George would you want to go into politics? He’s got the greatest life in the world.
There’s a certain cynicism to fuel the story, but he’s also out there working for causes and believing in them. How do you get in the headspace for the writing?
I don’t think we’re that sophisticated. We want to tell a specific story, so there’s no dipping your foot halfway, you have to tell it. We’re both cynical and both hopeful – I can’t totally speak for him – we’re all seeing what’s happening right now with politics and big business and sports. Sometimes I’m cynical. But I’m also hopeful – it’s harder to be hopeful, but you can’t avoid hard work, at least that’s what I tell my kids.
Ides of March opens October 7. Check it out.