The cast of The Monuments Men participated in a press conference discussion to talk about the picture and share some behind the scene anecdotes about cast member and director George Clooney. Bill Murray, George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Grant Heslov were on hand to speak with press about this week’s heartfelt historical release based on story of a small group of older gentlemen who set out to save art during WWII.
The movie deals with a heavy subject matter, but it does so in a light, fun, whimsical way. Was there any desire in the beginning to make this story appropriate for a broader age audience?
George Clooney: Yes. We wanted to make an entertaining film. We like the story, we’re 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. We liked, and I like sort of those John Sturgess films. We thought it was sort of a mix of Kelly’s Heroes and The Train. We wanted to talk about a very serious subject that’s ongoing still and we also wanted to make it entertaining. That was the goal.
I was wondering if you (Bill Murray) could talk about what drew you to this role, what appealed to you about playing this character and how it was for you to be a part of this production?
Bill Murray: Well George told me the story that he was going to do about a year before, and I thought gosh, that really sounds like fun. I wasn’t invited to be in the movie the year before, and I just thought that would be really great. Suddenly, about a year later, he asked if I wanted to be in this film. I thought about it for a whole year. So I said yes and the story is so fascinating, and — as they say — untold, most people don’t know this story, and to do it with this group of people was not just ennoble, because everyone’s so good, everyone is such a good actor, but they’re so much fun. I watched the movie for the first time last night, and a number of occasions I went “oh yeah, we got this shot, and then we sat down and we laughed for about 40 minutes after that. Oh yea, we stopped there and then we started cracking wise and laughed for about 40 minutes right there.” It was like that. George and Grant take great care of everyone on the job. I’ve never been so well taken care of on the job. I’ve never felt so protected and covered and all of us as actors, everyone had great scenes to do. Everyone had a chance to have a turn to do a wonderful piece of work. Everyone had great scenes and we got to see a wonderful story unfold. We got to go to great places. We got to eat well, we laughed a lot and I think we’d all do it again tomorrow if we had to start again tomorrow.
What is the difference now between George Clooney as a director on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and you directing now?
George Clooney: Well George Clooney has learned to speak about himself in the third person. The timing for directing is usually because it takes about that long to develop a piece and then do pre-production and then post-production. It usually takes about a couple of years. I preferred directing to doing other things. Directing and writing I think, they 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 [Steven] Soderbergh, Alexander Payne. I’ve worked with really great directors over the years and you just try to see what they’re doing and just steal it. That’s the theory. Oh I like that, I’m going to do it that way. The truth is, your development you hope is the same way as everything, which is you succeed some, you fail some and you keep slugging away at it. I really enjoy it, it’s fun and I like it more than acting now. It’s tricky directing yourself, obviously, but-
Matt Damon: But since you’re speaking to yourself in the third person-
George Clooney: I go George, you’re really good! George Clooney. So anyways, I enjoy directing and I don’t know whether it’s improving or not but it’s certainly evolving in different directions.
To George and Cate [Blanchett], the two of you have had great years. Do you have some sort of confidence going into a project like this, or do you still contain some self-doubt?
Cate Blanchett: Look, projects like this don’t come along very often with ensembles like this. For me, the power of the story is it shines a light and a perspective on what we thought were previously well-known facts. There’s a shot in the film, my children saw it last night even though they’re clearly not the demographic, but even when they find the barrel full of wedding rings and gold fillings, we’ve seen those horrendous pictures, and the power of cinema is that it draws on that collective history. I feel like the film harnesses our understanding of the second World War, but yet opens a door into a very particular and noble and quirky bunch of guys and girl who really changed where we are now and what we understand our contemporary culture to be. Am I confident? Never. I should have just said yes, yes.
George Clooney: I have no doubts.
Can you tell us about the process of casting and scenes like the Christmas scene, everybody is great, can you explain to us how you worked with scenes like that?
George Clooney: The Christmas scene we wrote specifically knowing we were going to use that specific piece of music. A good friend of mine, his daughter, his 16 year old daughter is just an insanely talented singer. I had her record that at her school, she recorded that song, and we just used it. It’s spectacular. She’s a real talent. But we knew all along that we wanted to overlap and tell a little bit of a nonlinear piece of storytelling. Casting was fun. We couldn’t get Brad so we got Matt. [laughs] It was really fun. I think, pretty much, Grant [Heslov] and I, when we sat down and we were writing it, we hadn’t thought of Bob yet and we went to a party, an Argo party and we saw Bob and we had this part and we knew that we wanted Bill [Murray] in it and we kept thinking who are we going to put opposite Bill that Bill can give a really hard time to? And then there was this party with Bob, and I looked over and I was like oh, it’s perfect. And so we called Bob up the next day, but the rest of the gang, we wrote it with them in mind so it helps a little bit when you’re writing. Don’t you think it makes a big difference?
Bob Balaban: Oh it’s terrible. Now I have to go to all parties now. I can’t stay home anymore.
Were there any pranks that happened on set?
Matt Damon: I read somewhere that he took some of my wardrobe and kept shrinking it about an 8th of an inch every other day.
George Clooney: Every other day I had the wardrobe department-
Matt Damon: I think he did that because he knew I was trying to lose weight. So this was a job I would go back to New York, where I was living with my family, and then I’d come back for two weeks, and then I would go back to New York. Every time I came back, the pants were tighter. I was like this is weird. I’ve been going to the gym-
George Clooney: He’s eating like a grape and I’m doing this.
Matt Damon: So it’s nice having friends like that.
George Clooney: Yeah, I’m just looking out for you. I was busy. I didn’t have a whole lot of (time so) there wasn’t a lot of goofing around.
[John] Goodman, could you talk a bit about what it was like working with Jean Durjardin?
John Goodman: Working with Jean was great. He spoke English this time, and I still refuse to learn French. It was probably my happiest filmmaking experience, this last year doing this film. It was just wonderful.
Grant Heslov: It was better than Argo? Better than Argo?
John Goodman: Almost!
George Clooney: Jean is really fun and he’s really funny and he really loves what he does. Everybody gets it. The minute he walks into the room, he’s just funny. Every single prop, he can do something hysterical with.
Grant Heslov: He’s like the French George. They’re like twins.
George, when it comes to motivation and inspiration, do you feel it’s changed from when you first started out as an actor, and can you tell me a little bit about what it is?
George Clooney: Well, when you start out as an actor you’re just trying to get a job. I wasn’t really motivated to be the 6th banana on The Facts of Life, but I was thrilled to have the job. So things just change as time goes on, and Grant and I have been partners for a long time and 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, which will 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 was hard to get Argo made. It took us a long time to get Argo made. It was hard to get Good Night, and Good Luck. I had to mortgage my house for it. There’s a bunch of-we’re just trying to do films that aren’t necessarily-that you wouldn’t necessarily walk in and say oh yeah, that’s an easy one. Sometimes they’re successful, and sometimes they aren’t, but they’re the ones that we want to make. I think all of our inspiration in general is to try and get stories made, that if we didn’t go after them they probably wouldn’t get made. The others are going to get made anyway, so that’s what we’re trying to do.
There was such a quietly intense but brutal scene, the one where they discover the barrels of gold teeth. I wanted to ask you what inspired you to write this scene, which touches upon the Holocaust, and how important it was to show that aspect?
George Clooney: It’s in the book though, isn’t it? That scene. They found barrels of teeth, the Monuments Men did when they found all the gold and the wedding rings.
Grant Heslov: We actually, in reality they found barrels and barrels of stuff. We talked about the idea of somehow making it smaller, but making it more impactful and personal. Not only did George direct that sequence brilliantly but when they’re all going up in the elevator, and Matt’s reaction when they saw, it’s a beautifully done piece of work, but it’s also-we talked about the idea, this was a balancing act because this isn’t a movie about the Holocaust, but you can’t not address it. This was our way of addressing it without getting too far off-track of the story we’re trying to tell.
What is it about art that inspires you still today?
Bob Balaban: One of the things that attracted me to this is that I’ve always known about the stealing of the art but never really the extent of it. The question that the movie poses specifically, and I thought it was great that George, your character has said this a couple of times in the movie, why is it so important that you should kill so many people, but try to eradicate their culture is so significant. It’s something very hard to get across in another piece of art, in a movie. I thought the script and then the movie did it beautifully. I think the 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 but I think it’s very hard to depict but I thought the movie did it very well.
John Goodman, do you go and research the real-life counterpart for your character, fill in the back story of yourself? We find a little bit about these guys as the film goes on. Do you research the character and then have it all in your head when you’re playing the part?
John Goodman: Oddly enough, the guy my character was based on was from my hometown in St. Louis, Missouri. He did a sculpture in downtown St. Louis that I would drive by on the city bus every time I went downtown with my mother. To me, that was very remarkable and it touched something in me and grounded me in that way. I used from what I knew from the gentlemen in the book, among other things that were written about him, and the script tied everything together for me.
Matt, you’re good buddies with George, what’s it like working for him as a director? And for Cate, compared to Woody Allen, how is George as a director?
George Clooney: Oh easy, easy!
Matt Damon: Working with George was very similar with 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 just give one of them everything. How about let’s make him handsome. I’ll tell you what; as he gets older, he’ll look even better.” In closing, honest to God this was one of the best experiences I’ve had. I’ve had better experiences that I could ever have asked for. I’ve worked with the very best directors around and he belongs in that company, or even ahead of it.
John Goodman: It’s like an emotional strip club.
Cate Blanchett: Working with Woody [Allen] is like working in an emotional strip club without the cash. I’m very happy to be working with these fellas.
Are there any Monuments Men still with us? And have you had any feedback from them?
George Clooney: Harry Ettlinger, who is the young German man in the film, the real guy is coming to the premiere, and he’s written us some really lovely notes. At thirteen he fled his bar mitzvah and ended up in New Jersey. The whole Rembrandt thing, you can actually see him in the photo in the end credits holding up the Rembrandt that he wasn’t allowed to see that was in his hometown. And he got to find it. There are a few of them still alive, they’re the younger ones obviously because most of these guys-
Grant Heslov: We’ve got a lot of people, a lot of families who have reached out to us, saying that my grandfather was in the Monuments Men, here are some pictures. In fact, I got a letter from one woman the other day who didn’t know anything about this book, and through the press of the film saw the cover of the book and the photo of the cover of the book, her grandfather was on that photo. She was over the moon so she’s going to come to the premiere.
And George I wanted to ask you about the nomination of the film Gravity.
Grant Heslov: What one?
George Clooney: Gravity, it’s an astronaut film. I thought the film fell apart about half an hour into it.
Matt Damon: Oh, the Sandra Bullock movie! Oh fantastic.
George Clooney: Alfonso Cuaron is, again, 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 was telling you, we had no idea what was going on because it was two years of post production finishing that film. They were doing stuff that they hadn’t had even invented yet in terms of CGI and stuff like that. It was great working with him and fun.
The Monuments Men opens Friday February 7th