George Clooney’s latest film as both actor and director, The Monuments Men, opens in the UK later this week, so it seemed an appropriate moment to dig out this interview I conducted for the late Uncut DVD in New York with Clooney around the release of 2005’s Good Night, And Good Luck and Syriana.
Both films are Clooney’s big stab at political cinema, and accordingly the conversation covered 60s/70s cinema of conscience, Clooney’s relationship with the media on both the left and right as well as changing attitudes since 9/11.
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How important is it to you to be able to make films like Good Night… and Syriana, films that politically engages with audiences?
I like making films like this, sure. I grew up during the Civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. I think that period is also the greatest time in American cinema – 64’-76’. Dr. Strangelove, Network, All The Presidents Men. It was such an amazing period. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Coming Home, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold…I watch those films and they blow me away. So yes, I love that era and would love to see more films like that now.
Do you think film is a relevant political sounding board?
If you do it right, if you do it responsibly. Cinema either follows the patterns of people pr leads the way every once and a while. The Civil Rights movement was coming along fine, and then you have Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Spencer Tracy says, “I’m a liberal, but I don’t know if I want my daughter marrying a black man.” And its like, “Oh, my god!” Suddenly, there’s a public debate. Or The Young Lions, with Brando playing a Nazi who isn’t a bad guy, or The Best Years Of Our Lives, talking about coming back from a war that wasn’t as glamorous as you thought it was. You watch Coming Home, and it had an impact on the political attitudes at the time.
Do you see a connection between the characters you play in Good Night…, Syriana and even Three Kings, and the classic alienated heroes from the 60’s and 70’s cinema?
I hope so. We’re trying to make those kind of pictures, and that’s what we’re trying to push other people to do. As you know, you only get a little bit of time to force studios to do things that really that they really don’t want to do, and lets face it: these are the kind of movies you think are going to come out of a studio. Studios used to make movies like Harold And Maude. They don’t do that anymore. So its only a matter of time before they take all the toys away, so while you’re there you want to try and push it, see how many films like this you can make before they yank the carpet out from under you.
Your father, Nick Clooney, was a news anchor for 30 years. Was that part of the reason you decided to make Good Night…?
Yes. It started simply as a tribute to him. His hero was Murrow, my hero is my father. He’s the guy who sticks his neck out, when it’s hard to stick your neck out, and I like that. So that’s why we did it.
Is the film an attack on the Bush Administration and the right wing press?
I’ve certainly been outspoken about my arguments with this administration, but this film wasn’t designed as a specific protests against anyone. It was a film about a moment in time, and there are certain similarity issues we have right now, but it wasn’t designed to be a political statement. I made this film as a historical reference, because I grew up as a fan of Murrow, and if you find some relevance in that, then I’m pleased. But my goal isn’t to go out and attack any administration. My goal is just to raise a debate. Actually, when you start pulling out Murrow’s speeches, it makes you feel really patriotic. They remind you of the things you love about this country.
You may think of yourself as patriotic, but you were branded a traitor by the conservative press for your stand against the war in Iraq.
Anybody who said anything about going to war, before the war, was a traitor – and I was on the cover of a couple of magazines and that’s what they called me.
Are you concerned that the right-wing media have it in for you?
I’m fine with it. They don’t come after me all they want. I don’t feel like I’m on the wrong side of history here. The truth always wins, eventually.
Good Night, and Good Luck is filmed entirely in confined spaces – the TV newsroom, the studio, executive suites, offices. What was your model for this kind of film making? I was reminded of movies like Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry men and Fail-safe, even Dog Day Afternoon.
That’s interesting. If you ask me what my favourite film is, I’d say a combination of two – Lumet’s Fail Safe and Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove, I’m a big fan of Lumet and John Frankenheimer, and that late 50’s television thing, like The Twilight Zone. Here, we shot the on air material like a Lumet film, but I was also looking as Godard films and started playing around with trying to shoot in super 16, then I realised it was going to look too cinematic. So [cinematographer] Bob Elswit and I started doing tests, and we ended up shooting everything like a DA Pennebaker documentary, or Robert Drew’s documentaries like Crisis and Primary.
Both your films as a director have been about TV. Why do you keep coming back to it?
It’s what I know. It’s what I grew up around. Television was my babysitter. My father worked in a newsroom and my mother had an access television show. So from the age of four years old, they’d just bring us and we’d hang out at the TV station. I was operating cue cards for guys when I was seven years old. I was teleprompting for my dad for a summer job when I was 11 years old.
How do you think the role of television has changed since Murrow?
Television has had a huge role since Murrow’s time, because television has been where most people get their information. If you look at Walter Cronkite going to Vietnam and coming back, and having an instant impact, television makes or breaks policy. You could argue that it elected Kennedy, that is what all politicians use now. So it has a lot to do with government and the structure of our society now, and the main source of where we get our information. It’s a dangerous thing that Murrow warned us about in 1958, that if its not done responsibly, then there are dangers involved.
You use silence to create an incredible tension in Good Night, And Good Luck.
Well, I remember the first time I saw Fail Safe. I’d been flipping channels, and all of a sudden I saw Henry Fonda in a bunker, and I heard nothing. There was no score, nothing but silence. And I saw him standing there, waiting for the phone to ring forever. It stopped you, because nowadays everybody is afraid your attention span is three seconds. And they may be right, but the funny thing is that I think we now have an over-reaction to silence. It stops you. You think, “why is it quiet? Why is nothing happening?” And in Good Night, And Good Luck, you’ll watch Murrow button his jacket and tap his foot and look into the camera before he at McCarthy, and that to me is as tense as anything I’ve ever seen.
How long do you think you can continue to use your mainstream success to get films like these made?
Listen, Good Night, And Good Luck just fixed it so we can do another title one if we want. It’s made $20 million or so, and it’ll make more. So that one opens up the floor and if I want to go back and make another $7 million black and white film, I could get away with it. But with Syriana, we have yet to see. This movie could make $5 million, or it could be a hit. I have no idea what this movie is going to do.
You’ve got to wonder how it’ll play in the movie malls and multiplexes of Middle America. Here’s a fat George Clooney with a beard in a movie that features suicide bombers and CIA assassinations. It’s going to be pretty hard for those people out there who still think you are as dashing as doctor Doug Ross from TV’s ER.
Sure but I remember reading the script for Traffic when Steven [Soderbergh] was about to do it, and I said, “It’s great, but your not going to get anyone to see it”. And then, critically, people took a look at it, it gone some nominations, and it ended up doing something like $120 million. So there is an audience out there for films like these. We went to a screening of Syriana last night at the multiplex and I snuck in upstairs to Good Night…it was packed to the gills. This is great, eight weeks out. You never know what hits. I’ve done some really good films that have bombed. Three Kings didn’t do great. So I don’t know what works and what doesn’t. I’ve done some bad films and made money!
Why was it so important for you to change your physical appearance in Syriana?
I though Bob had to fall into the woodwork. I though he was a character that needed not to be recognisable from the minute he walked into the room – and I am recognisable. So it was about making this guy look like he was carrying some of the weight of the world on his shoulders, and people didn’t consider me in that way.
Can you tell me a little about Bob Barnes?
He’s a true believer. He’s not a cynic – he believes that his work is the right thing to do, that it helps his country. But he becomes disillusioned because, basically, the company he’d devoted his life to lets him down. One of the aspects of Bobs Story inline is the systematic deconstruction of the CIA and what the effects of that are. It results in there not being many Arab-speaking operatives left in the Middle East, Which is a danger. The idea is that we’re finished with the Cold War and that we don’t need surveillance anymore, we don’t need boots on the ground, i.e.: the operatives. And so Bob gets caught in what is essentially a downsizing.
Were there external pressures exerted on you from either the oil industry or Washington when you started making Syriana?
No, our biggest issues were shooting in Dubai. No ones shot in Dubai before, so we had to get things through the United Arab Emirates, like screenplays, and say, “Look, this is what we want to do”. The truth is, there was not a moment of making that film that was easy, but I find that true of almost every film. I’m always surprised how a film gets made. Along the way, it was tough, yeah, but considering the time that we were making it in, which was extremely politicised and polarised, I thought it went pretty well. When you can get Matt Damon and myself in there, and we were working for nothing, you’re starting from a pretty good position. Believe me, if we hadn’t got Matt, we probably wouldn’t have got this film made. Matt and I were shooting Oceans Twelve, and Stephen and I brought him the script and said, “We think it’s a great part – and it’s never bad to be in a good movie” and fortunately Matt agreed.
How do you feel about being described as an icon for liberal America?
Look, I’ve been involved in social and political things my whole life. I campaigned for a guy for governor when I was 13 years old. The truth in the matter is that at this time in history, unless you’re a Republican helping out a Republican, you can’t show up, you do damage. My father ran for congress last year, and I couldn’t campaign for him, because it was Hollywood versus the heartland, and we’re these immoral schmucks. It always makes me laugh because everytime hey bring up the word ‘liberal’; they talk about what bad people liberals are. I say: we thought the Salem witch hunt was a bad idea and there’s no such thing as witches, we thought women should be allowed to vote, we thought blacks should be allowed to sit at the front of the bus, we thought that Vietnam was a bad idea and McCarthy was a schmuck. I don’t find that socially we’ve been on the wrong side of too many issues. But you can’t participate. John Kerry wanted me to ride on his train – literally, he had a train going cross-country after he was nominated and some actors went on board – and I called him and explained that I couldn’t do it. I’d hurt him, I’d actually cause him harm at the polls. So what I can do is work in fundraisers and wait for the time to come when actors can get up and endorse someone.
Do you think attitudes have changed since 9/11?
You can say after 9/11, we became isolationist for a period of time, we weren’t interested in anybody but ourselves. But on the other hand, probably 80% of the country before 9/11 wouldn’t have know the difference between Palestine and Israel, but now I think everyone is a little better informed about international issues. Certainly, they weren’t interested in anyone’s opinions for a period of time, because the idea was, “We’re right and everybody else is wrong.” Now, the pendulum has swung back to the point where the presidents popularity rating is at 37 percent, and there are some openings there. It certainly wasn’t like that when we were getting the film greenlit. That was right in the middle of an ugly time. So when you talk about Good Night, And Good Luck and Syriana, nobody was really encouraging us to make them. Which becomes the reason why you do them.
You were involved in the 68 Summit…
I’m in a room backstage at the concert in Scotland. We’d just been to Gleneagles, trying to get Chirac and Schroeder to come up with the money. Chirac was pissed that morning because England had got the Olympics, and this thing had been Blair’s initiative. We just couldn’t get the money off them. It was going to be $46 billion. So we’ve got [then-president of the World Bank] Paul Wolfowitz – someone I marched against in Berlin and England – in the corner, Bob Geldof, Bono and me, and we’re petitioning for him to get the money, and then James Brown walks in, in a red jump suit, and he’s going “Where’s Clooney? You gotta say hi to you aunt for me.” Which would be tough, as she’s dead, so Brown says: “Pray for her then.” I thought, “What have I done to end up being in the same room as Paul Wolfowitz and James Brown?”
Will we see you running for office one day?
No, no, no, no, no, no. Drank too much, did too many drugs. The truth is, I spent a lot of time in DC when we were doing K Street and I have great admiration for those guys, but I couldn’t do what they do. In order to accomplish anything, they have to make compromises. And I don’t have to make those kind of compromises in my business. I’m not built like that. I’m more stubborn than that. I’d be a horrible politician.