Based on the true story of the greatest treasure hunt in history, "The Monuments Men" is an action-thriller focusing on an unlikely World War II platoon, tasked by Franklin 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, how could these guys — seven museum directors, curators, and art historians, all more familiar with Michelangelo than the M-1 — possibly hope to succeed? But as the Monuments Men, as they were called, found themselves in a race against time to avoid the destruction of 1,000 years of culture, they would risk their lives to protect and defend mankind’s greatest achievements.
"The Monuments Men" is based on the book of the same title by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter. Oscar winner George Clooney not only stars in and directed the movie, but he also co-wrote the screenplay and produced "The Monuments Men" with his longtime filmmaking partner Grant Heslov. For "The Monuments Men," Clooney assembled an all-star cast that includes Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and Bob Balaban. Here is what Clooney, Damon, Murray, Blanchett, Goodman and Heslov said at the Los Angeles press conference for "The Monuments Men."
"The Monuments Men" deals with a heavy subject matter, but it does so in a light, fun and whimsical way. Was there a desire from the beginning to make this story appropriate for a broader age audience?
Clooney: Yes. We wanted to make an entertaining film. We liked the story and we were not all that familiar with it, which is rare for a World War II film. Usually you think you know all the stories. We wanted it to be accessible, and I like all those John Sturges films. We thought of it is sort of a mix between "Kelly’s Heroes" and "The Train," and we wanted to talk about a very serious subject that’s ongoing still, and we also wanted to make it entertaining. That was the goal.
Bill, could you talk about what appealed to you about playing your "Monuments Men' character? How was it to be a part of this production?
Murray: George told me the story that he was going to do about a year before and I thought, “This really sounds like fun.” Suddenly about a year later he said, “Would you like to be in this film?” I thought about it for a whole year, so I said yes. The story is so fascinating and, as they say, untold.
George and Grant take great care of everyone on the job. I’ve never been so well taken care of. I never felt so protected and covered. Everyone had great scenes to do, everyone had a chance to do a wonderful piece of work. We got to see a wonderful story unfold. We got to go to great places, we got to eat well, we laughed a lot and I think we’d all do it again tomorrow if we had to.
Damon: And if enough people see the movie, we will. Please, please tell everyone you know to come see this movie.
There are 600 pieces of art that are still lost. What is being done about that missing art?
Clooney: There is a lot of this art that has been found and is in other people’s homes or museums quite honestly, and some of it is repatriating that. It’s a long process and it’s not particularly easy. Generationally, 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 Rothchild who had the largest private collection because people think they are pretty wealthy and that’s not such a big deal.
But still, you want it to be returned. It is a long process, it is a continuing process and to be quite honest, 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. That’s a long, long process.
This art that was found in Germany recently, about a billion and a half dollars’ worth of art, some of that was actually found by the Monuments Men and given back to the people who were to then give it back to the original owners, and they didn’t. The guy kept it. So it looks like that art is going to get repatriated as time goes on and that’s a good thing. If it opens up the discussion a little bit, that’s really helpful.
Cate, congratulations on your Oscar nomination for "Blue Jasmine." What was your reaction to the nomination? Also, we thought you were going to be working with all the guys in "The Monuments Men," but it turns out that most of your scenes were with Matt Damon. Did you want to expand your role any to work with the other actors?
Blanchett: I’m deliriously happy about the first bit and was deliriously happy about what this film was saying. George, as we all know, is such an incredible raconteur, and I think that that comes across into the way he makes films and also the way he tells stories about what’s going on in the rest of the world. In a way, this film is a synthesis of those things. I felt that the way George would come to each of us and obviously pitch the story of Monuments Men was not dissimilar to his character in the film going around to gather up the people.
Yes, most of my stuff was with Matt. We have aged relatively well. The last time we were together was in "The Talented Mr.Ripley" in Italy, which was a slightly different endeavor. And then he did "Behind the Candelabra," but fortunately I hadn’t seen that before we did this film
George, you seem to direct a movie every three years. What attracts you to directing and how different of a director are you now?
Clooney: Well, George Clooney has learned to speak about himself in the third person. The timing for directing is that it usually takes that long to develop a piece and to go through pre-production and post-production. I prefer directing as opposed to doing other things. Directing and writing seems to be infinitely more creative.
As far as how I’ve changed, what you try 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, and you just try to see what they are doing and then try to steal it, that’s the theory. You go, “Oh I like that, I’m going to do it that way.”
You succeeded some and you fail some and you keep slugging away at it. I really enjoy it. It’s fun. I like it more than acting now. It’s tricky directing yourself obviously, but it’s a lot of fun.
Damon: Well, since you refer to yourself in the third person.
Clooney: Yeah. I say, “George you were very good.” So anyways, I do enjoy directing. I don’t know whether it’s improving or not, but it’s certainly evolving in different directions.
Cate, would you say that you still go into roles having self-doubt?
Blanchett: Yes, projects like this don’t come along that often, especially not with ensembles like this. For me, the power of the story is that it shines a light and a perspective on what we previously thought were very well known facts. There is a shot in the film where they find the barrel full of wedding rings and gold fillings and we all have seen those horrendous pictures, and the power of cinema is that it draws on that collective history. I feel the film harnesses our understanding of the Second World War, but yet it opens the door to a very particular and noble and quirky bunch of guys and girls who really changed where we are now and what we understand our contemporary culture to be.
Can you tell us a bit about the casting process?
Clooney: Casting was fun. We couldn’t get Brad [Pitt], so we got Matt .
Damon: That’s OK. I got to work with Cate Blanchett.
Clooney: It was really fun. Grant and I sat down and were writing it, we hadn’t thought of Bob [Balaban]. Then we went to an "Argo" party and we saw Bob, and we had this part and we knew we wanted Bill in it. And we kept thinking, "Who are we going to put opposite of Bill? Who Bill can give a really hard time to?"
Then we were at this party with Bob and we looked over and I said, “Oh it’s perfect.” So we called Bob up the next day. The rest of the gang we wrote it with them in mind, so that helps a little bit when you’re writing.
Balaban: So now I have to go to all parties. I can’t stay home now.
How was it working with the actors who had to portray Nazis?
Clooney: I do feel bad for the actors. For about 75 years these actors, German actors, had to play Nazis. You bring them in to read and you just say, “Yeah I know I’m sorry but I do need you to be sort of really mean.” Then they would say, “Maybe my character joined the Nazis because…” and I would say, “No, no he’s a bad Nazi. You’re going to just have to be bad.”
Blanchett: It did feel right to shoot in Germany with the film dealing about what is culture and would you die for it. It is a country ever since the Second World War that had to ask itself massive moral questions, and it has reinforced its identity based on culture. The amount of artists living and working in Berlin is unparalleled. It’s one of the strongest economies globally and it’s because its understanding of its importance of culture, and it felt fantastic working there.
George is known for playing practical jokes on set. Where there any that he played during the filming of "Monuments Men"?
Blanchett: We signed something that we wouldn’t reveal anything, including the horrendous atrocities that happened on set.
Damon: I read somewhere that he took in my wardrobe by an eighth of an inch every other day. He had the wardrobe department do it because he knew I was trying to lose weight. This was a job where I would go back and forth to New York where I was living with my family. And then I would come back for two weeks, and every time I came back the pants were tighter. I thought it was weird because I had been going to the gym.
Clooney: He was eating like a grape, but was saying, “I don’t understand.”
Damon: It’s nice having friends like that.
Clooney: I’m just looking out for you. I was busy so I didn’t have a whole lot of time this time around. There wasn’t a lot of goofing around.
John Goodman, you first worked with Jean Dujardin in "The Artist." How was it working with him for a second time?
Goodman: Working with Jean was great this time around. He spoke English this time. This was probably my happiest filmmaking experience. It was just wonderful.
Clooney: Jean is also really fun and he’s really funny and he really loves what he does. The minute he walks into the room he’s just funny and everyone just gets it.
Heslov:: He’s like the French George. They’re like twins.
Has getting a film made changed over the years for you?
Clooney: I think Grant and I as partners for a long time have been interested in trying to find stories that are unique and stories that aren’t necessarily slam dunks for the studio to make and that would consist of us picking it up and carrying it in. This one, as the cast grew it became a lot easier to swallow. But it’s hard to make films like this.
It was hard to get "Argo" made. It was hard to get "Good Night, and Good Luck" made. I had to mortgage my house for it, so we are just trying to do films that are not necessarily where people would obviously say, “Yes, let’s make it.” Sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re not, but they’re the ones we want to make. I think our inspiration in general is to try to get stories made.
Cate, how does working with Woody Allen compare to working with George Clooney as a director?
Blanchett: Oh easy, easy, easy! Oh, there are so many jokes!
Damon: Working with George was very similar to working with [Steven] Soderbergh, which makes sense since they worked so much together over the years and had a company together. George is obscenely talented as a director. Honest to God, it was one of the best experiences that I’ve had. And I’ve worked with the best directors around — and he belongs in their company, or even ahead of it.
Blanchett: Working with Woody is like an emotional strip club but without the cash.
Are any of these Monuments Men still alive and have they seen the film?
Clooney: There are a few of them still alive. They were the younger ones, obviously.
Heslov: A lot of families have reached out to us saying my grandfather was a Monuments Man, here are some pictures. I got a letter from one woman the other day who didn’t know anything about this book and through the press of the film saw the cover of the book and her grandfather is in that photo, so she’s going to come to the premiere.
George, you were in "Gravity," one of the best movies of this past year. What did you think about "Gravity" director/producer Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Picture?
Clooney: [He says jokingly] I thought the film fell apart about half an hour into it. [He says seriously] Alfonso Cuarón is one of the great geniuses in the game. He really is a genius. He hasn’t made a bad film. He had a great love of what he does.
I can’t tell you what an honor it was to work with him and see what he was doing. I’m telling you, we had no idea what was going on because it was two years of post-production finishing it. It was crazy. They were doing stuff that they hadn’t even invented yet, in terms of CGI.
For more info: "The Monuments Men" website