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Exclusive: Robert M. Edsel, Bob Balaban and cast talk 'Monuments Men'

George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" is now playing.
George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" is now playing.
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There are lots of great movies to check out this Presidents' Day weekend. One that is fitting for the occasion is George Clooney's "Monuments Men." Today on Feb. 16 we are excited to share our exclusive interview with the cast and the book's author Robert M. Edsel.

Film Synopsis: Based on the true story of the greatest treasure hunt in history, The Monuments Men is an action drama focusing on seven over-the-hill, out-of-shape museum directors, artists, architects, curators, and art historians who went to the front lines of WWII to rescue the world’s artistic masterpieces from Nazi thieves and return them to their rightful owners. With the art hidden behind enemy lines, how could these guys hope to succeed? But as the Monuments Men found themselves in a race against time to avoid the destruction of 1000 years of culture, they would risk their lives to protect and defend mankind’s greatest achievements.

Robert M. Edsel

Q: How did you first discover the story?

Edsel: I was living in Florence in 1996 and walked across the Ponte Vecchio which is the only bridge not destroyed by the Nazis when they fled the city and I wondered how in the face of the most destructive conflict in history so many of these things survived and who were the people that saved them. And I didn't know and I wasn't embarrassed about that but I was embarrassed that it never occurred to me to wonder. And I started asking other people and they were looking for an easy answer and they all said, 'I don't know. That's a great question.' And that's how it's gone all those years and it's just astonishing to me that as much as we do know about World War II history that none of us knew this story. And it's been a real privilege to represent all of these men and women and all their family members and be apart of telling it.

Q: Can you tell me about the transition of changing the book to a film and how that happened?

Edsel: Well, very smoothly! George and Grant - they're very courageous. This is a big story, it's a complicated story that they found a way to make simple as much as it could be and they brought out the excitement of the story and the humor of it which is part of combat. I'm really proud of the job that they've done.

Q: What next for you?

Edsel: Well, who knows? Maybe we'll see a film about my last book, "Saving Italy," which tells what these Monuments officers did in Italy because that's another dramatic, and very different, story. But I'm chairman of the Monuments Men Foundation and we're really busy trying to complete the mission of these Monuments officers and help find some of the hundred of thousands of missing works of art and get them back to their rightful owners and of course recognize all these men and women.

Bob Balaban

Q: Speak about working with George Clooney.

Balaban: Directors I like working with? They know what they're doing and they have a point of view and they tell you it and they don't muck around too much. And George is like that. He's straightforward, he knows what he wants, and he's smart. So that's a great thing to be around. He maintains a really nice atmosphere. You don't see him sweating and straining. This is, you know, directing this movie, is like a herd of elephants all going into one direction. We're on trucks and we're going on mountains and it's raining and George was praying for snow for the Battle of the Bulge. And then it snowed and it didn't stop snowing until Summer so he really had to deal with a lot. To watch grace under pressure, and intelligence, and wit...that's George and that's kind of common to most of the directors I end up liking a lot. They're all different, they all have different sensibilities. But I think all the great ones are kind of like that.

Q: You have a lot of scenes with Bill Murray, did he give you a hard time?

Balaban: In the movie, we're kind of soul mates in a funny sort of way. I think of us as Bert and Ernie basically which...I don't know what that means. We're an odd couple...he's tall, I'm short. He kind of picks on me in the movie and the truth is he happens to be a really lovely person. It's not even entertaining to talk about because he's just a really lovely guy. So it's not hard being irritated with him because he gives you so much and as an actor he's so good...he's so unique and he's so special and he cares so much about what he's doing, but not in a straining way...he's just open to everything and it's great to be around him.

Dimitri Leonidas

Q: You play a young, Jewish kid, right?

Leonidas: A young German-Jewish soldier, yeah. Unlike the other Monuments Men who were curators and art historians he was a soldier in the army. The Monuments Men were originally made up of intellectual types and he was a young soldier that got drafted to join them.

Q: What was it like being directed by George Clooney?

Leonidas: Amazing. He's just a really talented, lovely guy. And a lot of fun. He wants to make sure the set is a lot of fun. We were on it for five months and he takes his work seriously but he doesn't take himself seriously and I think it's a testament to him that you spend five months or any amount of time working with him and enjoying it. I don't think that's an easy thing to do. Sometimes sets can be very stressful or hard places but he ensures everyones having a good time.

Q: Was there any fun hangouts while not shooting?

Leonidas: There was a few occasions. We filmed for about a month in the forest in Germany so we were literally in the middle of nowhere stuck in this little hotel and all we had was a bar and one restaurant across the street. So for four weeks we were down at the bar with our weekends off together and it was fun. That kind of atmosphere helps especially when you're making a war movie and you get to have that relationship with the other guys. It definitely helps.

Q: Who was the prankster on set?

Leonidas: Well George!

Q: Did he pull any on you?

Leonidas: Well no. I'm wise to it. I had a radar and I was like...he's not gonna get me.

Q: Did he try?

Leonidas: He may have tried. He was unsuccessful so I'm not sure.

Q: Speak about George as a director.

Leonidas: He's a very cool guy and a great director. Especially for actors, I think. Obviously being one, he knows what kinds of things to say to get you in the right mood for the scene. If something's not quite working, he reads it really well. 'I think you're thinking about this. Maybe think about this.' And he gives really sharp advice. It comes really naturally to him, so it's a joy. It's a real joy.

Nora Sagal has a cameo in the film, where she sings one song.

Q: Tell me about how you got involved with the movie.

Sagal: Well my dad and George have been good friends for a while and George has always heard me sing at parties and concerts that he's been too and he has always said that he wanted to put me into a film and finally he found an opportunity because he's always said my voice kind of fits the 1940's era and so it all worked out this year and I sent him a demo and he showed it to all his people and they all agreed I could be in the film.

Q: Is there one particular scene that you're singing in?

Sagal: Yes, definitely. It's only me, it's a capella, and everything else is silent, but my voice and it's also on the soundtrack on iTunes.

Q: Tell me about working with George on the film.

Sagal: It was just incredible. He was just such an incredible director. I went to the Warner Brothers lot where I was in a recording studio with him and the beginning has two younger children in it and he was so great, so professional, directing me and the little girls. Just such a professional!

Q: Do you have an album out?

Sagal: I don't. I'm really an amateur. I'm an unknown, I guess. I'm in a band, The Untouchables. But I'm just a high school senior.

Q: Where are you based?

Sagal: I'm based in L.A.. I've been looking for colleges out here for music.

George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidis, Diarmaid Murtagh, Robert Edsel, Bret Witter and Harry Ettlinger all attended the film's world premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater on Feb. 4. ​Other guests included Dan Abrams, Ashleigh Banfield, Ellen Barkin, Tom Brokaw, William Bratton, Marina Abramovic, Yigal Azrouel, Tory Burch, Joel Coen, Sasha Cohen, Sofia Coppola, Alfonso Cuaron, Clive Davis, Carolina Herrera, Gayle King, Steve Kroft, Padma Lakshmi, Nanette Lepore, Laura Prepon, Norman Reedus, Denise Rich, Lara Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Anna Wintour, Jeffrey Wright, Brian Williams, Vera Wang, Cynthia Rowley, Martha Stewart, Regis Philbin, John McEnroe, Patty Smyth, and Grayden Carter.

Larry Gagosian sponsored the premiere. Mr. Gagosian is committed to ensuring that the extraordinary accomplishments of the Monuments Men during WWII reach as wide an audience as possible through this star-studded movie, based on Robert Edsel's book. Through the efforts of this remarkable group of artists, curators, architects, writers and other cultural experts a significant part of western Europe's cultural heritage was rescued from destruction. Gagosian Gallery invited collectors, artists, museum curators, and cultural leaders from all walks of life to the screening. Never has there been such an accomplished group to applaud a Hollywood film that examines an international, cultural, and historic moment. Gagosian’s close friends and attendees included Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Leon Black, Steven Schwarzman, Mort Zuckerman, Henry Kravis, Graydon Carter, Woody Johnson, Eric Schmidt, Roger Waters, Tory Burch, Vera Wang, Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, and Elie Wiesel. A very chic after-party followed at the famed Metropolitan Club.

The cast also headed to the Berlin Film Festival on Feb. 8, to Milan on Feb. 10, London on Feb.11, and Paris on Feb. 12 for its international premieres.