George Clooney on the Epic Battle to Make ‘Monuments Men’

Cover story: Actor-director on being held at gunpoint in Darfur, finding a new way to tell a WWII story

Cloony Variety Featured

The walls of his rustic chic home, tucked away on a quiet wooded street in Studio City, are graced with framed black-and-white photographs of gorgeous leading men from a bygone era: Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck and Paul Newman, among them. In his living room, next to all the regal portraits, there is a snapshot of him and then-Sen. Barack Obama side by side at a 2006 Washington, D.C., press conference concerning the genocide in Darfur. The walls of George Clooney’s abode — once owned by Gable himself — speak volumes about the man who is at once a charismatic star craving legendary fame and someone who thinks beyond the borders of insular Hollywood.

Meet Citizen Clooney.

The 52-year-old actor-director-producer is among a small group of celebrities, including power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, as well as Oprah, and Bono, who can shine a global camera on significant social issues simply by showing up and enlisting their clout to spread good in the world.

Make no mistake, Clooney, whose woodsy, tropical backyard features a mini-replica of the Hollywood sign on a hillside, is first and foremost a movie star. He grew up watching classic films on TV like “Red River” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” When he moved to Hollywood in the 1980s, he lived with his aunt, torch singer and actress Rosemary Clooney, while he crammed in acting classes. Clooney often sounds like a cross between a film professor and an all-knowing oracle. A lot of this natural wisdom comes from his upbringing in a small town in Kentucky where his father, Nick, was a celebrated local broadcast journalist who loved to embellish tales.

“One of my favorite films is ‘Big Fish,’ which I think is a masterpiece,” says Clooney, attracted by the 2003 fantasy drama’s emphasis on the oral storytelling tradition. “I grew up in a family of storytellers, but Google has destroyed us, because you can fact-check everything,” he laments with a grin, lounging in his outdoor patio on a recent winter night. “We’d always like the stories to be a little better than they were.”

Clooney has told a number of important stories by juggling various roles as an Oscar-winning producer (“Argo”) and supporting actor (“Syriana”), director (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) and screenwriter (“The Ides of March”). Eventually, his journalistic thirst for narrative took him to the Western Sudan, where he appeared in a documentary about the genocide in Darfur, which he witnessed firsthand. It was a dangerous trip. “We got stopped in the middle of nowhere, where we shouldn’t have been,” Clooney recalls. “A little 10-year-old kid came over with a Kalashnikov assault rifle to my head, basically wanted to get us out of the truck.” Despite the traumatic experience, Clooney has returned many times to the region.

Though he claims to have no personal political aspirations, Clooney knows he can make some noise and people will listen: “I like the ability to shine light and make it loud,” he says. “But boy, the idea of administrating and legislating. What a nightmare.”

Clooney’s powers of persuasion are so well known in showbiz that Jeffrey Katzenberg tapped him in early 2012 to spearhead a three-year, $350 million fundraising drive for the Motion Picture Television Fund. Clooney had joined the MPTF board the previous year, and volunteered to beat the drum for the campaign to shore up the MPTF’s finances at a rocky time for the org.

“The worse our situation (became), the more interested he got,” Katzenberg said of Clooney at the time. The MPTF campaign has surpassed $300 million in pledges as of last month.

Clooney also made headlines when he hosted a fundraiser at his home for Obama’s second-term presidential bid that netted $15 million from 150 major donors as well as tens of thousands of smaller contributors, many motivated by the chance to be flown to California to be part of “Obama, Clooney and you,” as the president’s campaign pitched it. The guest list included J.J. Abrams, Nina Jacobson and Bryan Lourd (and the two lucky winners).

After the event, Clooney joined the president, along with Tobey Maguire and Don Cheadle, for an impromptu game of pick-up basketball. “I wasn’t there,” says Grant Heslov, Clooney’s longtime friend and producing partner at Smokehouse Pictures. “I don’t think he considers me a good enough basketball player. He called my brother (Mike Heslov) instead. I was hurt, and I’ll never forgive him.”

Tailor-made Challenge

In a way, Clooney’s latest movie, “The Monuments Men,” seems like a tailor-made challenge for his talents as a congregator-in-chief. The film, which he directed, co-wrote and stars in, tells a little-known story about a platoon tasked with rescuing thousands of valuable artworks stolen by Hitler in the final days of WWII. Clooney says he envisioned the story in the tradition of 1961’s “The Guns of Navarone” (with Clooney, naturally, in the role of ringleader). He wrangled the cast of Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Jean Dujardin, convincing them all to take salary cuts.

“If you pay everybody a full boatload, it’s a $150 million film,” says Clooney, who managed to stay under his $70 million budget. “You just can’t do it. Everybody worked for super cheap, like crazy cheap.” He says the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies operated under a similar business model, although the actors in the Steven Soderbergh franchise earned roughly a quarter of their normal salary. For “Monuments Men,” they were paid a 10th or a 15th of their going rate, but with a meaningful backend if the movie makes money, Clooney adds.

The cast agreed, in part, because Clooney was so devoted to wooing them. He flew to Australia to meet with Blanchett and offered her a role as an art historian. He was familiar with Dujardin from the 2011 awards-season circuit, where Clooney, nommed for his role in “The Descendants,” narrowly lost the leading actor Oscar to the French actor from “The Artist.”

“The first time I saw him was at Telluride,” Clooney recalls. “He’s standing next to Harvey Weinstein, and I put my arm around him and said, ‘If you learn to speak English, you’ll win the Oscar.’ I should have kept my mouth shut.’ ”

Clooney’s casting coups may sound more like diplomatic negotiations — which they are in a way. Charming Hollywood is a natural offshoot of his assertive personality. “He’s completely in control,” says Grant Heslov. “There are never any questions about whose helming the ship and what the course is. He’s got an incredibly deft hand and a very strong point of view. There are times when you work with directors on set, and things are a bit rudderless, and those can be good directors. George’s style is very much that he’s got the rudder.”

Mother Nature Was the Biggest Diva

Last May, Clooney found himself in the middle of the Harz Mountains in Northern Germany, shooting a pivotal scene for “Monuments Men.” The biggest diva was Mother Nature.

“It starts to snow,” Clooney recalls. “You couldn’t get fucked worse.”

Fortunately, his actors came to the rescue. “There’s John Goodman and Bill Murray and Matt Damon all picking up camera boxes and carrying them down this hill with the crew,” Clooney says. “Bill and John would come to the set when they weren’t even in scenes. It was really sweet.”

“Monuments Men” is a departure for Clooney, who directed hard-edged stories like 2011’s “Ides of March” and produced last year’s Oscar-winning drama “Argo.” After a series of such tales, he says, he wanted to return to something more good-natured and uplifting. When Heslov discovered a nonfiction book at the airport about a WWII platoon that rescued stolen art from Hitler, Clooney jumped aboard.

“I had some understanding that Hitler was stealing shit,” Clooney says. “I didn’t understand he was taking all of it. They don’t teach that in school. That’s why I loved the story. We figured at this point, we’ve done so many WWII movies, there really aren’t any new ones. You have to get around to someone as smart as Quentin (Tarantino with ‘Inglourious Basterds’), who can burn Hitler in a movie theater to do something different.”

To prep their story, Clooney and Heslov hunkered down for 10 weeks doing research and outlining dialogue. Clooney pens all of his scripts by hand. “I’ll write scenes, he’ll write pieces, and then we’ll come together,” says the writer-director, who primarily uses his computer to watch videos. “When we do cut and paste, I take a pair of scissors, we cut a scene out of the pages and then we tape it back into another place.”

“Monuments Men” made headlines over the winter when its release date was postponed from December to Feb. 7. “Mostly we just needed to finish the effects, and it takes time,” Clooney explains. Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which is distributing in the U.S. and co-financed with Fox, which is distributing internationally, says it was Clooney’s idea to push back the debut. “We were rushing it, and no movie should be rushed for a date,” the studio chief says. “George was busy working with the music, and he called me up from the scoring stage and said, ‘I’m not finished.’ That’s why we moved it, and it turns out it was a terrific thing, because this was a difficult Christmas.”

Pascal adds that not only is Clooney charming, “but he’s even smarter than you think. Whenever George comes into the building, he has a fan club,” she notes. That club includes Goodman, who worked with Clooney on his first recurring role (on “Roseanne”) and praises the multihyphenate’s storytelling skills; and Alfonso Cuaron, who directed Clooney in “Gravity.” “George’s vision in life is to make people comfortable,” notes Cuaron. “As a director, that reduces part of your workload. George arrives, and he creates an environment.”

For all his star power, Clooney is unusually accessible, giving off a casual, everyman vibe. He is clearly someone who is comfortable in his own skin. Few celebs of his stature are as sanguine in inviting journalists with photographers into their homes. On the day of our visit, Clooney, dressed in a crisp black suit and looking like he just stepped out of a fashion magazine, appears relaxed; he’s chatty even before the interview officially begins. It’s apparent that he closely follows Hollywood news, expressing how he feels about particular bloggers, and inquiring about the new ownership of Variety.

He volunteers the fact that he bought his hideaway on three acres almost 20 years ago — at the start of his “ER” days — for just $900,000, adding that he clearly had to sink a good amount of money into refurbishing the property, which now features a detached house for his assistant, Angel; a basketball court; a swimming pool with an automatic fountain; and a covered dining area and bar. He lives there with his rescue dog, Einstein, a cocker spaniel mix who seems to trail him wherever he goes. When teased by a reporter for being a “Valley” boy, Clooney accepts the challenge with a wink: “Hey, there are some great restaurants in the Valley.”

Early Years in Hollywood

Growing up in Kentucky, Clooney explains that he wasn’t able to go to the movies much.

“The closest theater was a drive-in about a half-hour away,” he says, and recalls seeing “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting” on the bigscreen. Other than that, he says he watched reruns of black-and-white films on TV. “All Saturday long, they just played old movies. I fell in love with Spencer Tracy, Montgomery Clift and Audrey Hepburn.”

These were the movie stars he had in mind when he moved to Los Angeles in his early 20s and stayed at aunt Rosemary’s house. He took an acting class from legendary coach Milton Katselas, who was staging intimate productions in equity waiver theaters on Melrose Avenue. One of his parts, he says, was as Laertes in “Hamlet.” “It was pretty bad,” he adds. “Thank God they don’t have film of me doing that.”

One of Clooney’s early TV roles was on “Roseanne,” as the heroine’s boss. He concedes it was the only part of the show that didn’t work, and he was written off after the first season. “We used to joke and say the factory in the studio was built over a graveyard,” Goodman says. “No laughs escaped there. I would walk by and make cricket noises.”

Writer-director John Wells, the “ER” showrunner who also directed “August: Osage County” (among whose producers are Clooney and Heslov), says it was Clooney’s idea to cast himself on the TV show as Dr. Doug Ross after he got his hands on the pilot script. “George showed up in my office before I’d hired a director,” Wells recalls. “He said: ‘I read this. I think there’s a great part for me. Can I come in and show it to you?’ He came back the next day and had memorized a whole scene.”

Clooney did “ER” for five seasons, but he knew he wanted to leave to pursue a film career. He says the single most important moment in his career trajectory was starring in a movie that flopped — the 1997 sequel “Batman & Robin” directed by Joel Schumacher. “Now I had to think: ‘OK, I’m going to be held responsible for the entire script. If I’m going to be responsible for the entire movie, I want more say. I’m going to write it or direct it or produce it.’ ”

Clooney cites Soderbergh, who cast him in 1998’s “Out of Sight,” as a major influence as he transitioned to directing. And he concedes that it hasn’t always been easy for him to acquire financing for his more ambitious projects. “Here’s the funny thing: “ ‘Monuments Men’ is a commercial film, but every movie is hard to make. ‘Argo’ was murder to get made; it was considered difficult, because of the Iran Hostage Crisis. ‘Michael Clayton’ was a $17 million film, and nobody wanted to touch it — and it’s got a happy ending. They’re like no, no, no.’

“The problems that you have with a $5 million film are basically the same problems you have with a $70 million one,” Clooney continues. “There are 500 marketing people and money people and insurance people, and you can’t do it without them.”
Like most in Hollywood, he wasn’t sure that “Gravity” would be a hit. “I went to two test screenings,” when the effects were unfinished, he says, “and there was panic in the room.”

The only hat Clooney will be wearing in his next film, Disney’s “Tomorrowland,” is that of star. He plays an inventor with a past in the Brad Bird film, due out next year.

The Wider World

Over time, Clooney’s interests have expanded beyond Hollywood.

His relationship with President Obama, whom he met when the politico was a young senator, has helped sustain the Citizen Clooney phase of his career. In 2006, the awards season campaign for “Good Night, and Good Luck” left Clooney wanting to do something meaningful. He read a column in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof on Darfur, and he called up his journo dad the week after the Oscars. “I said, ‘Listen I want to go over there,’” Clooney remembers. “ ‘I’ll go and be the famous guy and you be the reporter. I’ll get us on the morning shows when we come back, and you cut the story.”

If the president has Camp David, Clooney has his own favorite vacation retreat: an Italian villa on Lake Como, and though he’s invited politicians like Al Gore, it’s a favorite stomping ground for many of his Hollywood friends. He hosted John Krasinski and Emily Blunt’s wedding there, which is how he first got to know Meryl Streep. He tells a story about how they all boarded a big boat, and she started belting out songs from “Mamma Mia.”

Cuaron says he once received particularly candid career advice from Clooney at the mansion over a bottle of tequila. And Como helped Clooney get the studio’s final greenlight for “Monuments Men.” After the script was done, he invited over a handful of Sony executives, including Pascal and Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton, to listen to the finished product. “They sat around a gazebo for two days while Grant and I acted the whole movie out for them, scene by scene,” Clooney says.

And, the sweetener: “Grant was playing Cate Blanchett.”