With The Monuments Men opening in London, the cast (with the exception of Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett) gave a press conference, aptly enough, in the National Gallery and Movie Ramblings were there to hear Gorgeous George and his gang talk about art, the movie, the joys of working together, on-set pranks and those comments about the Elgin Marbles.

In the film, Frank says “Art is to be held up and admired.” Given our location [the National Gallery], is there a particular piece of art that you admire?

Grant Heslov: Michelangelo’s David

John Goodman: Starry Night, Van Gogh.

Bill Murray: There’s a wonderful photograph of Mariano Rivera one day at a baseball game, where all the players wore the number 42, and he was the last person to wear the number 42, and when he went for the pitching change, there were about seven men on the mound with number 42.

Grant Heslov: Baseball’s huge over here.

George Clooney: The ones that sort of take your breath away. I don’t think I’ve been more moved than when walking in to see the sculpture at the Lincoln Memorial.

Matt Damon: Yesterday we got to see Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Bob Balaban: I’m going for a more contemporary art form. An artist named Philip Guston, and he has a giant foot that I admire.

Dimitri Leonidas: It’s a building. I saw the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The story that really amazed me was that people worked on it and passed away, and then their sons would work on it and pass away, but none of them would see it finished because they’d been making it for over 200 years, and generations of families had worked on this building.

Jean Dujardin: I like Kaminski for his balance, and (sings) Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa...

You made the decision to change the names of the men. What was the reason for that, and what did it allow you to do dramatically with the film?

GC: We wanted to change the names. Obviously, some of the names are pretty recognisable. Rose Valland (the basis of Blanchett’s character) was a hero to the French. We wanted to be able to tell a story, like most films do, we weren’t doing a documentary, we didn’t want to give any of these real men flaws that would be in any way upsetting to their families. If you had a little bit of a drinking problem or a little bit of a flirtation with a certain curator. We just wanted our ability to be able to tell the story without offending anyone. Most films do that.  Lawrence of Arabia isn’t completely accurate but we still appreciate it.

GH: We wanted to be able to tell the story in a compelling way.

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?

(They all whistle together, playing for laughs)

GH: It was hard to get these guys to work because all they wanted to do was play around with each other. work with these guys together. We all got to play around with each other.

MD: Well, that came off wrong.  (Laughter) I couldn’t get out of John Goodman’s room, I’ll tell ya…

GC: That’s the quote that’ll be on the cover of all the magazines.  Yeah, we’re all friends and we all get along. It was a really wonderful time and a wonderful shoot. But we didn’t lose sight of the idea that we were talking about very important issues along the way. Everybody handled it with the proper care.

MD: Well, George actually had to work. George and Grant wrote the script, they were producing the movie and he directed as well as starred in it. The rest of us were used to headlining movies and carrying them so when you get into an ensemble like this, where you’re working two days a week, it’s really fun. And we all just kept reminding each other to smell the roses and appreciate the fact we were in a really great movie with a director who was great and had everything under control and we just laughed a lot basically.

GC: Matt was the only one working two days a week John, sorry.

JG: Was the best time I’ve ever had on a film.  With my pants on.  The spirit of everyone…everyone was very respectful towards each other. We appreciated each other. I was very grateful to be cast in this film. Because George did such careful preparation, it made each day easier – and more fun.

The movies you make as a director and producer tend to be interesting true stories, small stories that we didn’t know about…but they’re very different from the films you made as an actor early on in your career…

GC: You mean Batman And Robin? I thought that was a whole independent film about a man in a rubber suit with nipples….

Was that part of a plan to get your profile as high as possible, maybe earn some money, then move on to the sort of stories that you wanted to tell?

MD: No, he was trying to make Batman And Robin an art film.

GC: It felt like such a good chance.

MD: It’s kind of amazing if you go back and rewatch it.

GC: If you watch it with the sound off and the colour turned off, it looks like an art film.  Early on in your career you just take jobs because you’re excited to gethem and they aren’t always the best of jobs but every one of them led to another place for me and for a while we’d say “One for the studio and one for us.”  As I’ve gotten older, it’s a little less of that, we try to work as much away from the comic book, big blockbusters.  As long as we keep the budgets down on the films, from Good Night, Good Luck to Ides Of March, Michael Clayton, The Descendants, Up In The Air, as long as you keep the budgets down, you’re able to work around the periphery of the larger budget films because they’ll still make a profit.

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The movie raises the question where arts belongs? In relation to something like the Elgin Marbles?

GC: Well, I kinda stepped into one the other day, I was at a press conference and somebody brought it up, 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 from the Pantheon.  I dunno, look, the Vatican returned parts of it, the Getty returned parts of it, it is a question of just breaking up a piece of art and whether or not it should be, as best as possible, put back together.  So, it’s an argument to say maybe that’s one of those instances.  I think the bust of Nefertiti should be given back, there’s certain pieces you look at and think: “It’s probably the right thing to do.” I know that someone yesterday said: “He’s an American, he doesn’t understand.”  Well, he’s probably right.

MD: But that can’t always be the British default setting.  I mean, seriously, that’s not actually an argument, just to say: “Well, you’re an American, you don’t understand.”

GC: I do think it’s worth having an open discussion, which is obviously an ongoing discussion, but it really wasn’t meant to be…it was one in about a hundred questions at a press conference, from a Greek reporter, asking me about the Marbles and I said it’d probably be a good idea if they found their way back.

MD: Well, you’re American.  You don’t understand.

BM: It seems like it’s a problem all over the world.  Who owns this art? Where’d it come from? Do they have the right to give it back? You know, it’s had a very nice stay here…but London’s gotten crowded and there’s plenty of room back there in Greece, plenty of room.  England could take the lead on letting art go back where it came from.  The Greeks are nothing but generous, they’d loan it back every once in a while.

Are any of you planning to visit the British Museum?

GC: We leave tonight, at the end of the premiere, to go to Paris to somehow insult the Parisians about their art, something about a Mona Lisa and Italy, so I don’t think we’ll get a chance to go.

There’s a lot of layers to the story, what were you trying to say about the effect that art has on individuals and on society and how well do you think you succeeded?

GC: Well, I don’t know if it succeeds or not, you never know how it succeeds, time sorta figures that out. What we were doing was talking about the work that Harry and all of his friends, all of his comrades did which was it wasn’t just that Hitler was trying to kill everyone and take their land, he was also trying to destroy their culture and say that they didn’t exist.  And, to me, that is the most important part of what these men did.  They did amazing work in protecting even pieces like the Last Supper, which we didn’t do a great job of protecting, from ourselves, from us bombing while we were prosecuting the war, casualties of war.  But at the end, what was important was, for the first time in the history of war, the victor didn’t keep the spoils.  That’s never happened before.  And it was important because when you see Hitler burning Salvador Dalis and you see him burning Picassos, he’s telling you this time period and this era and this group of men didn’t exist.  And I’ve seen this happen in other countries, I’ve been to the Sudan and you’ll see it’s not enough to kill them, you have to destroy all of the markings that they left, that were their history.  So, to me, what was important about telling the story was also to say: “Is art worth dying for?” I don’t know of a single inanimate object that’s worth dying for but if it means you’re going to try and erase my history and say that I never was here then I think that’s very much worth dying for and I thought this was what these men were so brave in doing and I thought that was an interesting story.

Usually war films are quite hard hitting or overbearing. Did you guys approach it as a comedy or was that something that appeared during writing the script or during the filming?

GH: We always knew that we wanted to have humour in this piece. George and I grew up watching a lot of the war films of our youth.  And a lot of them had gallows humour and these kind of guys dealt with the situation with humour. And we deal with life with humour, so we always knew that we wanted to have some funny tone. But we also knew we were dealing with a subject that was very serious in nature, so there was a real balancing act. And that really was the fun of making the piece, trying to strike that balance and that tone. And then we cast all these guys and they bought another level of humour to it that we didn’t write.

GC: A lower level.

GH: That’s right.  They lowered the level of humour.

Was there any basic training or was it more you all having a bit of a laugh together?

GC: I think John should take this one: was there any basic training?

JG: Definitely. It involved a knife and fork.

GH: It’s the most basic kind of training.

BM: I had some basic training too. It’s a movie about men but I learned things from women.  I learned that when you have to put on a tight pair of pants you lie on your back.  You put your feet up in the air and lie on your back and then your able to close your button.

JG: I’d just say that we couldn’t have done this film as easily as we did without the expert knowledge of Joe Hobbs, who was from this country, I’ve worked with him several times before. He was an expert at military uniforms, kit, gear, he knew what belonged where and to which army, he had a very exacting eye and we lost him around Christmas time, so I’d just like to pay tribute to Joe Hobbs.

Bob, having been directed by the likes of Steven Spielberg, how do you assess Mr Clooney’s skill behind the camera?

BB: He’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with – that’s the serious part. The other part is that we really had fun. To me, good work happens when somebody knows what they’re doing, this is George, plans what they’re doing…

MD: (Joking) Not Spielberg.  That hack.

BB: He’s a really hard worker and he makes it look easy because he kinda knows the secret because he’s been an actor for a few months… (laughs) He knows that you have to be relaxed and happy when you’re working and it works.

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Matt, what is like to be told to do stuff by someone who, essentially, is your mate?

MD: It’s actually much easier to be directed by a friend. Having written screenplays with friends, when you’re partnering with somebody who’s a friend, you cut out all the diplomacy. Which really wastes a lot of time.  There’s a whole way of how you’re supposed to speak to each other on film sets or the theatre, and its all about protecting people’s egos and their feelings. But when you’re working with your friend, they just say: “That sucked.” There’s a baseline of trust that never comes into question and you solve the problems a lot quicker. It makes it more fun because you’re getting stuff done faster and you’re having a good time because you’re with your friends.

Jean, you and John had said your “Adieu!” after The Artist. What was it like to be reunited on this?

JD: (Translated) For me, it was very different. It was a pleasure to be there with everybody, of course, and to have my scenes with John. What I like about being with John is that we don’t bother each other. I love his silences and I have a lot of them too. I have this feeling that we both start to act before the action. It’s always very respectful and I feel that, even if we don’t know each other well, there’s a lot of tenderness. (In English) I love you John.

MD: (Pointing at JD) I didn’t know he was French.

There was a lot of fun on set and we heard there were a few pranks between Matt and George and I wondered if you could talk about that?

GC: Matt showed up early when we were about to start shooting and told me he wanted to lose a few pounds…

MD: That was stupid of me.

GC: You should never have told me that. So, over a period of about a month and a half, he would come and go, he’d work for a couple of weeks and then he’d go back to LA for a couple of weeks and every time he would go away, I would have the wardrobe girl take in his uniform just, like, a half an inch. And he was eating, like, a grape, and his pants were getting tighter.  I never actually discussed it with him, I found out just a few days ago that it really disturbed you.

MD: Yeah.  And I never said anything because I thought I was being professional and trying to lose weight and it wasn’t working.  My favourite prank he (indicates GC) actually did was, his father’s in the movie, at the end of the movie and there’s this beautiful shot where he plays George as an old man and he walks off into the light.  When George ran the film for him, he just privately ran the film for his dad Nick and at the end of the film there’s this final shot of Nick walking away, fade to black…and then it comes up: “In loving memory of Nick Clooney.” So, Nick is like: “What the hell George?” and George is like: “Well it doesn’t come out for like 6 months…”

GC: It’s much cheaper to put it on than it is to take it off.

Sadly Hugh (Bonneville) can’t be here today.  Any Downton discussions?  Could any of you be tempted into a little guest spot?

GH: (Joking) The reason he isn’t here is because we didn’t get along with him.

GC: When we say we all got along, most of us got along.

GH: Also we are not fans of that show.  No, he’s working actually working on Downton Abbey.  And we are all fans.  And it was great to have the lord of the manor there.

One of the questions the film asks is what the world would be like without art and creativity. Can you imagine your life without creativity or if there was a specific moment you can pinpoint in your life where art really has mattered and made a difference for you?

BM: It would be back when I started acting in Chicago, I wasn’t very good. I remember my first experience onstage – I was so bad I just walked out, out on the street, and just started walking.  I walked for a couple hours and then I realised I had walked in the wrong direction, not just in relation to where I lived but in a desire to stay alive. And I thought, “If I’m gonna die where I am, I may as well just go over to the lake and maybe I’ll float there for a while – after I’m dead. So I walked over to the lake and as I got there realised I’d hit Michigan Avenue and I thought: “Well, Michigan Avenue that runs north too, so I started walking north and I ended up at the Art Institute in Chicago and went I inside, not feeling like I had a place to be there. They used to ask for a donation, y’know, when you walk into a museum, but I walked right through – because I was ready to die. I walked in, and there was this painting there, I don’t even know who painted it, called The Song of the Lark. It’s a woman working in a field and there’s a sunrise behind her. I’ve always loved this painting and I saw it that day and just thought: “There’s a girl who doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects but the sun is coming up anyway and she’s got another chance at it.” I think that gave me some sort of feeling that I too am a person and get another chance every day the sun comes up.

GH: I can’t top that.

JG: I could but I don’t wish to embarrass Bill.

GC: I was going to tell the same story…

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