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"So they looked at me: d'you wanna kill....? yeah, I'll kill 'em, doesn't worry me."  -Temuera Morrison on his role in The Island of Dr Moreau
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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George Clooney and battlefield director Grant Heslov explain how the film was planned and cast – mostly with their friends – and how they wanted to make a film that isn’t cynical – for a change.

Can you explain a little about the inception of THE MONUMENTS MEN – where the idea came from, when you started work on it, etc.?

GRANT HESLOV: I’m a bit of a history nut and had picked up the book [The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter] a few years ago, read it and really liked it. But I didn’t really think about it for a movie – only because we were busy working and making a movie at the time. It was about a year later, in 2010, I think, that George and I were kicking some ideas around. He wanted to do a big, sort of fun, adventure film and I said, "You know, I read this book and it actually might make a really great movie." And so George read it and I re-read it and…

GEORGE CLOONEY: We called up the studio and I think two days later we were greenlit to go write a screenplay. They liked the idea of the book. We make a lot of cynical films, that’s kind of what we like doing. But we thought, what if we did one that 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. And so we started working on the screenplay and then started prep almost immediately. From when we pitched it to when it comes out will be almost exactly two years, which is a quick turnaround for a movie. 

The book isn’t fiction but, as a premise, it seems almost preternaturally suited for a movie: 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…

GH: That’s what we thought!

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. And 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 for a movie. 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.

…and Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett and Jean Dujardin etc. 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. Even Jean Dujardin, I knew from all the Oscar stuff. Though I went through his agent for this. 

Hugh Bonneville and Dimitri Leonidas are the only two of the main cast that we didn’t know personally.

GC: Yeah, and 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?"

Particularly helpful presumably, given that pretty much all of the cast are constantly working.

GC: Yeah, Grant had a lot of work to do juggling schedules; Cate had to be in a play so we shot her out first. Matt was doing another gig. Bill was back and forth.

GH: Hugh was doing a TV show….

GC: So we had to go to Germany to shoot, then go to England, then go back to Germany, just because of the cast’s schedules. But they all showed up! And were a lot of fun to work with.

Does all this familiarity create any difficulties as a director? Say, having to tell a member of the cast who is 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.

GH: I find the best actors just say, "Tell me what you want." They want you to be pleased as the director. Bill was always saying, "Do you think I got it? Do you think we got it?"

However talented the actor 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. 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 any of these specific actors in mind when you wrote the script?
GH: Oh yeah. I’d say three-quarters of the actual cast were in our minds writing it.

GC: 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.

GH: It also helps because when you’re doing a movie like this – and these are the guys that you have in mind – you want to make sure that everybody has some fun stuff to do, that there’s enough good stuff 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".

You say the intention was to make a fun, adventure movie. 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.

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. 

How long did the script take to write?

GH: It wasn’t that long.

GC: No. We started with a month of research then started writing about November and handed it in around May.

GH: Yeah, maybe five months.

GC: Yeah, five or six months. IDES OF MARCH was about that too. GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK was a lot quicker though. We did that in maybe three months.

How do you collaborate? Do you write in the same room? Or send each other stuff? 

GC: We’re always in the same room. I mean, if you get an idea elsewhere you write it down and bring it in next time and say, "here’s a fixit." You should see how we cut and paste scenes. We literally take scissors and cut the pages, cut the scene out and tape it to the bottom of the other scene and then Grant’s the computer whiz, so he’ll fix it up when we’re done. But normally we sit in a room with two pads we go back and forth on. I’ll write and he’ll write and we’ll flip them around and then Grant will type them in once we get it, once we’ve written it up. We actually have every screenplay we’ve done completely written out by hand.

GH: And then usually when we get enough stuff together, we just read it out loud.

GC: Yeah, we act out all the parts.

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. 

Yeah. And the question really is, "How much is art worth?" Is art worth a life? That was basically our thesis. And I think we answer it. For us, we answer it at the end of the film.

GC: Right. Because 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. So yeah, it’s got to be worth it. 

Does the message 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.

GH: Yeah, though I’d say that this one is more…

GC: More commercial.

GH: More to that model. This one we were making for a broader audience. But we always say we only want to make movies that we’d want to go see. 

GC: That’s true.

GH: And we do talk about legacy, not in a gross way but, if I can speak for George, he did ER, he did BATMAN and he looked in the mirror at one point and asked, "Is this how I want to be remembered?" And we’ve had that conversation many times. And at the end of the day, the posters on the wall of our office, that’s our legacy, right? That’s our library. So yeah, we take it very seriously about the films that we pick to make.

GC: Also, when you think about it, for us to do these things, it’s at least two years out of your life. Usually it’s more. And the way we work, it’s all out. I mean, we finish shooting and we go to the editing room and cut. And it’s just nonstop. Right now we’ve got AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY that we’re producing and we’re working on that almost every day. We were in Oklahoma doing that while we were writing the screenplay and casting THE MONUMENTS MEN. And then we were in Berlin from basically November until June on the film and then… it’s just one thing after another. And if you’re going to be spending this much time on anything, you don’t want it to be time spent on crap! 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!" That’s what it’s about for us.

Published September 4, 2014

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The Monuments Men is available in HD from September 3, 2014
[Note: this week is the 75th Anniversary of World War II]
An unlikely team of art historians and curators, led by Frank Stokes (George Clooney) is tasked by President Roosevelt with going into Germany to rescue artistic masterpieces from Nazi thieves and returning them to their rightful owners. It would be an impossible mission: with the art trapped behind enemy lines and with the German army under orders to destroy everything as the Reich fell. With the help of a well placed French administrator, Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), The Monuments Men, as they were called, found themselves in a race against time to avoid the destruction of 1000 years of significant art and culture; they risk their lives to rescue mankind’s greatest artistic achievements. (Based on a true story)

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