The Monuments Men were a group of men and women who each had an exceptional interest in art and culture. Their honourable mission to protect the works of history from the destruction of Nazi soldiers is portrayed in George Clooney’s fifth film as a director.
The all-star cast features Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, Dimitri Leonidas, Jean Dujardin, and John Goodman. All, except Blanchett, were present at a press conference that took place last week at the National Gallery, with the addition of producer Grant Heslov and surviving Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger.
While making light of many questions, the cast members provided their thoughts on the filmmaking process as well as art in their daily lives.
George and Grant, the stories are clearly based on true events. You took the decision to change some of the names in there. I was just wondering what the reason was for that and what did it allow you to do dramatically with the film.
Clooney: We wanted to be able to tell a story much like most films do. We weren’t making 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 one has a drinking problem or a little bit of a flirtation with a curator. We just wanted to be able to tell a story without offending anyone. Most films do that.
The movie waives the question, “Where does art belong?” Obviously it’s universal but there’s certain particular, for example the Elgin Marbles, something like that. I would just like to comment on that particular issue because it’s been a sore point of contention between Britain and Greece. It’s very much a part of their background, their culture.
Clooney: 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 Pantheon marbles. The Vatican returned parts of it. The Getty returned parts of it. It is a question in that case, of just breaking down one piece of art and whether or not one piece of art should be as best as possible put back together. So it’s an argument to say that’s one of those instances. There’s certain pieces you look at and think that’s probably the right thing to do.
Murray: It seems like it’s a problem all over the world. Who owns this art? Where did it come from? Where it came from, do they have the right to give it back? It’s had a very nice stay here. London’s kind of crowded. There’s plenty of room in Greece. England can take the lead on this kind of thing. Letting art go back to where it came form. The Greeks are nothing but generous, they’d loan it back every once in a while, like people do with art.
What are you particularly trying to say about the effect that art has on individuals and society? How would you have hoped you succeeded?
Clooney: I don’t know if it succeeds or not, you never know. Time figures that out. What we were doing is talking about the work that Harry and all of his comrades did, which was that it wasn’t just that Hitler was trying to kill people and take their land, he was also trying to destroy their culture and say they didn’t exist. 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 from ourselves, from us bombing while we were prosecuting the war.
What was important in writing this film was the question, “is art worth dying for?” I don’t know if a single inanimate object is worth dying for but if it means you’re going to try to erase my history and say that I never was here, I think that’s very much worth dying for. That’s what these men were so brave in doing.
Did you guys mean to approach [the film] as a comedy or was that something that came up in writing the script?
Heslov: George and I grew up watching a lot of the war films and a lot of them have a sort of gallows humour and these kinds of situations with humour in them. We deal with life with humour so we knew we wanted to have some funny tone. We also knew that we were dealing with a subject that was very serious in nature so there was a real balancing act that we did and that really was the fun in making the piece – trying to strike that balance and that tone. All these guys in the cast brought another level of humour to it that even we didn’t write.
[To Bob Balaban] Having been directed by the likes of Steven Spielberg, I wondered how you assess Mr. Clooney’s skills behind the camera? And from that, what it’s like being told what do to by your mates?
Balaban: It makes you very unhappy. [Regarding Clooney] He’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. That’s the serious part. The other part is we really had fun. To me, good work happens when someone knows what they’re doing and plans what they’re doing. He makes things easy because he knows the secret because he’s been an actor for a few months. He knows you have to be relaxed when you’re working and it works.
Damon: It’s actually much easier to be directed by a friend. When you’re partnering with someone who’s a friend of yours, you cut out all the diplomacy, which really wastes a lot of time. There’s a whole way your supposed to speak to each other when you’re on a film set or theatre and it’s all about protecting people’s egos and feelings but when you’re working with friends, you just say “that sucked.” There’s a baseline of trust and that never comes into question, and you solve the problems a lot quicker so it makes it more fun. You’re getting more stuff done faster, you’re feeling good about what you’re doing, and you’re having a good time with your friends.
The Monuments Men is out in cinemas now