(originally posted at Filmoria)
The stars were out in force for The Monuments Men press conference this morning as writer, director and star of the film, George Clooney led a panel which included his co-writer/producer Grant Heslov and actors John Goodman, Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and Dimitri Leonidas. Surviving Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger was also on hand to answer questions about this incredible true story.The author of the book on which the film is based, Robert Edsel, was up first, however, to talk about the history of the Monuments Men, saying that what the Nazis did in collecting these works of art was an ‘extraordinary but despicable achievement’. When asked about the character changes that have been made for the film, Edsel said that he feels like a messenger for the story and that the names were changed out of respect not ignorance.
When the full panel arrived, they were each asked about their favourite artworks, which ranged from La Sagrada Familia building in Barcelona for Leonidas to a legendary baseball photo for Murray. Jean Dujardin said that he favoured the work of Kandinsky but then sung with a smile ‘Mona Lisa’. Ettlinger added that ‘we would not like life with white walls’ and the entire room certainly seemed to be in agreement with him on that score!Following on from what Edsel had said about the changes made to the character names and stories, Clooney explained that ‘we didn’t want to give any of these real men flaws’. They wanted to be able to tell the story without offending anyone. That, after he and Heslov fought over who should answer the question with a hilarious ‘You go,’ ‘No, you go’ to much laughter in the audience.
There clearly was a lot of laughter off camera too. Clooney says that though he was busy (what with all the roles he played for this film!) he still found time to arrange pranks, one of which saw him adding ‘In loving memory to [his father] Nick Clooney’ to a shot of the film which he showed to his still-living father. Matt Damon instists that ‘We laughed a lot’ and Goodman said it was ‘the best time I’ve ever had on a film – with my pants on’.
‘the best time I’ve ever had on a film – with my pants on’ – John Goodman on the fun of being part of The Monuments Men
After a heated debate about the merits of possession of artworks and who the rightful owners should be, Clooney laughed that the team were off to Paris after tonight’s London premiere, probably to insult them too.So why did Heslov and Clooney decide to have so much humour incorporated into such an otherwise serious film? Heslov explained that they knew they wanted humour because ‘we deal with life with humour’. But did the humour extend to any training the cast had to do to become soldiers? Of course it did. Goodman said his basic training involved a knife and fork and Murray said that he learned (from the women) that ‘when you have to put on a tight pair of pants you lie on your back’.
It was also not as scary as one might imagine to be directed by a friend, Damon insists. You ‘cut out all the diplomacy’, he said, explaining that if something was rubbish, Clooney would just tell him as much.Hugh Bonneville, known to many for his role as Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, was not there because he was busy working on the show. However, Heslov said it was ‘great to have the Lord of the manor’ on set.
One of the most fascinating stories came when the panel were asked when art first affected them or for some seminal moment in their lives when art played a really important part. Murray started, with the following story:‘Well uh I think it would be back when I started acting in Chicago. I wasn’t very good and I remember my first experience on a stage I was so bad I just walked out of the theatre. I started walking and I walked for a couple of hours and I realised I’d walked the wrong direction. Not just the wrong direction in terms of where I lived but the wrong direction in terms of a desire to stay alive. And this may be a little bit – not completely true – but it’s pretty true, I walked and then thought, “Well if I’m gonna die where I am I may as well just go over towards the lake and maybe I’ll float for a while after I’m dead.” So I walked over towards the lake and I realised I’d hit Michigan Avenue and I thought, “Well Michigan Avenue, that runs north too” and so I started walking north. And I ended up in front of the Art Institute of Chicago and I just walked inside and I didn’t feel like I had any place being in there they used to ask you for a donation, y’know, when you walked into a museum and I just walked right through because I was ready to die . . . and I walked in and there’s a painting there and I don’t even know who painted it – I think it’s called The Song of the Lark – and it’s a woman working in a field and there’s a sunrise behind her and I’ve always loved this painting. I saw it that day and I just thought, “There’s a girl who doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects but the sun’s coming up anyway and she’s got another chance.” I think that gave me some sort of feeling that I, too, would have . . . get another chance every day.’
After such an incredible tale, the rest of the panel were hesitant about following him with the majority choosing to say nothing at all.