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The Monuments Men - George Clooney interview

The Monuments Men

Interview by Rob Carnevale

GEORGE Clooney talks about some of the challenges of making World War II drama The Monuments Men and the importance of what the real-life heroes who inspired the movie actually did in preventing Hitler from wiping out history.

He also discusses a prank he played on co-star Matt Damon, why he got into trouble for comments made about the Elgin Marbles and how his career has taken shape since Batman & Robin. He was speaking at a UK press conference…

Q. It has previously been said that you all made the decision to change the names of the men involved. What was the reason for that, and what did it allow you to do dramatically with the film?
George Clooney: We wanted to change the names… obviously, some of the names are pretty recognisable. Rose Velon was a hero to the French. But we wanted to be able to tell a story, much like most films do, and we didn’t want to give any of these real men any flaws that would in any way upset their families. You could have a little bit of a drinking problem or a little bit of a flirtation with a certain curator [nods to Matt Damon’s character]. We just wanted to be able to tell a story without offending anyone and most films do that… Lawrence of Arabia isn’t completely accurate but we still appreciate it.

Q. The film captures a great camaraderie, and a sense of humour and team spirit. Was it important that it existed off set as well as on?
George Clooney: Yeah, we’re all friends and we all get along. It was a really wonderful time. But we didn’t lose sight of the idea that we were talking about very important issues along the way. So, everyone handled that with the proper care.

Q. The movies that you tend to make as a director and producer tend to be interesting true stories with a small budget but they’re very different from the films you made as an actor early on in your career…
George Clooney: Do you mean Batman & Robin [laughs]? I made a film about a man in a rubber suit with nipples!

Q. Was that part of your plan – to make as much money as possible from those roles in order to finance projects like these further down the road?
Matt Damon cuts in: He was trying to make Batman & Robin an art film!

George Clooney: It’s kind of amazing if you go back and re-watch it. If you watch it with the sound off and with the colour off, it really is a piece of art. Um… Early on in your career, you just take jobs because you’re excited to get them and a lot of those, at the time, aren’t always necessarily the best jobs. But every one of them led to another place for me. And then for a while we would do films where we would say: “One for the studio and one for us.” But as I’ve gotten older, it’s a little less of that. But we still try to work as much as we can away from the comic book or blockbuster films. As long as you keep the budgets down … from Goodnight, And Good Luck to Ides of March, Michael Clayton, The Descendants or Up In The Air, as long as you keep the budgets down, you’re able to work around the periphery of the big budget films because they’ll still make a profit.

Q. The movie raises the question of where art belongs…
George Clooney: I’ve gotten in trouble over this issue.

Q. Could you comment on that particular issue [about the Elgin Marbles]?
George Clooney: Well, I kind of stepped into one the other day. It was at a press conference like this and apparently got into trouble for what I said, so I had to do a little research to make sure I wasn’t completely out of my mind. Even in England, the polling is in favour of returning the marbles to the Pantheon. The Vatican returned parts of it, the Getty returned parts of it. It is a question in that case of breaking up one piece of art, and whether that piece of art can be as best as possible put back together, obviously it can’t all be put back together. So it’s an argument to say, maybe that’s one of those instances, like the bust of Nefertiti, I think that should be given back [Egyptian piece currently in Neues Museum in Berlin]. It’s one of those pieces you look at and think that would probably be the right thing to do.

The Monuments Men

Matt Damon interjects: But that can’t always be the British default setting. I mean seriously. It’s not actually an argument to say, ‘he’s American, he doesn’t get it’!

George Clooney: But I do think it’s worth having an open discussion. It really wasn’t meant to be… that was one in about 100 questions at a press conference, from a Greek reporter, asking me about the Marbles and I just said that I thought it was probably a good idea if they found their way back at some point.

Q. Would anyone else on the panel like to comment on this issue?
Bill Murray: It seems like it’s a problem all over the world – who owns this art and where does it come from? Do they have the right to give it back? And you know, they’ve had a very nice stay here, certainly. London’s gotten crowded. There’s plenty of room back there in Greece… plenty of room. England can take the lead on this kind of thing – letting art go back where it came from. And you know, the Greeks are nothing but generous – they would loan it back every once in a while.

Q. What are you trying to say about the effect that art has on society and on individuals and how much do you think you succeeded?
George Clooney: I don’t know if it succeeds or not. You never know how… time sort of figures that out. It wasn’t just that Hitler was trying to kill everyone and take their land it was also that he was trying to destroy their culture and say that they didn’t exist. To me, that is the most important part of what these men did, they did amazing work trying to protect things like The Last Supper from ourselves, from us bombing it while we were prosecuting the war. But at the end what was important was to find and return for the first time in the history of war, the victor didn’t keep the spoils, it had never happened before. And that was important because when you see Hitler burning paintings by Salvador Dali and Picasso he’s telling you that this time period and these men and this culture didn’t exist, and I’ve seen that happen in other countries, Sudan for instance, it’s not enough to kill them you have to destroy all of their markings that they left that was their history. So what was important when I was telling the story was to answer the question `Is Art worth dying for?’ Well I don’t know a single inanimate object that’s worth dying for but if it means that are going to erase my history, and the fact that I was here, than that’s very much worth dying for..

Q. Were there any pranks on set?
George Clooney: I was actually busy so I didn’t play a lot of them. But there was one situation when Matt showed up early, when we were about to start shooting, and told me he wanted to lose a few pounds, which he should never have told me. So, over a period of about a month and a half, he went back and forth to the set. He’d do his scenes and then go back to LA for a couple of weeks, and every time he’d go away I’d ask the wardrobe department to take in his uniform half an inch. He was eating, like, a grape and his pants were getting tighter and tighter. I never actually discussed it with him but found out only a few days ago how much it disturbed him.

Read our review of The Monuments Men

Read our interview with Matt Damon and Bill Murray

Read our interview with author Robert M Edsel