Things have changed in the best of ways for George Clooney since TV viewers first noticed him as the sixth banana on “The Facts of Life,” since he gained star status as hunky Dr. Ross on “ER” and since he jumped to leading roles in successful movies with “Out of Sight” and as a feature director with “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.”
Clooney’s newest double-dip project as actor-director is “The Monuments Men,” the based-on-fact tale of a group of American and British art experts who, with the blessings of President Franklin Roosevelt, traveled to Germany in the midst of WWII in an attempt to save some of the world’s great works of art from theft by the Nazis and accidental destruction by Allied forces. The film also features Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman and Hugh Bonneville. Clooney spoke about it last month in Los Angeles.
“The Monuments Men” deals with a serious issue, but manages to do it in a somewhat light way. Was that your plan from the start?
We were 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. We wanted it to be accessible. I like those John Sturges films [“The Great Escape,” “The Eagle Has Landed”]. And we liked the story. We thought of it as sort of a mix between “Kelly’s Heroes” and “The Train.” We wanted to talk about a very serious subject, that’s still ongoing, and we wanted to make it entertaining. That was the goal.
How were the characters developed?
We changed the names of the characters because we wanted to give some of them some flaws for entertainment purposes, for storytelling purposes. You don’t want to take somebody who’s real and heroic, and give them a drinking problem. That’s not really fair to do. So we changed the names because we wanted to be able to play with the story some. But they’re all based on real men. There was a hundred of them eventually. They went to Italy and did the same thing. But they’re based on real people all the way through.
What do you feel the impact of the film will be?
A lot of this art has been found and is in other people’s homes or in museums. There’s a generation who believe they’ve lost 25 million people, and to the victor goes the spoils, and they believe in keeping it. But it seems to be getting more towards returning it to the rightful owners. Sometimes it’s tricky because it’s very hard to raise sympathy for someone named Rothschild, who had the largest private collection, because people think, well, they’re pretty wealthy and it’s not such a big deal, although of course you want it to be returned. It is a long process, and it is a continuing process. Quite honestly it’s also about looking at the loss of artifacts and art that’s going on in Syria right now. It’s understanding how important the culture is to each of these countries, and trying to find a way to get them back. So if this raises some awareness, and opens up some discussions on it a little bit, I think that’s really helpful.
Since you started directing films, you’ve done one, almost like clockwork, every three years. Have you been keeping to some kind of schedule?
The timing for directing is usually because it takes that long to develop a piece and do pre-preproduction and postproduction. That takes at least a couple of years. I prefer directing to doing other things. I think directing and writing seem to be infinitely more creative.
What’s the difference between the George Clooney who directed “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “The Monuments Men?”
You know, 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 and Alexander Payne. I’ve worked with really great directors over the years. So you try to see what they’re doing and then just steal it (laughs). That’s the theory. You go, ‘Oh, I like that; I’m gonna do it that way.’ So the truth is, you hope your development is the same way as everything: You succeed some, you fail some, and you keep sluggin’ away at it. I really enjoy it, it’s fun. I like it more than acting now. It’s tricky directing yourself, obviously. But I enjoy directing. I don’t know whether it’s improving or not, but it’s certainly evolving in different directions.
“The Monuments Men” opens Feb. 7.