Eight weeks ago I paid a secret visit to the set of George Clooney‘s Monuments Men in Germany’s Harz mountains. It wasn’t on the level of Henry Kissinger‘s secret visit to China to arrange for Richard Nixon‘s 1972 state visit, but when Sony publicity told me to keep mum until after shooting wrapped on 6.26, I gave them my word. Yes, I’d previously told HE readers I was doing it, but then I clammed up and pretended I’d never posted such a thing. My mother called from Connecticut to ask where I was. “I can’t say, mom,” I replied, “but I can tell you this much — I’m definitely not visiting a movie set.”
On the set of Monuments Men in Bad Grund Germany on 5.6.13: Producer & co-writer Grant Heslov, star-director-producer & cowriter George Clooney.
The outdoor mine-shaft set that was Ground Zero on the day I arrived.
Based on Robert Edsel‘s “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” it’s basically about a bunch of caring wiseacres in fatigues and helmets saving civilization from ruin. Literally. By doing what they can to rescue or salvage tens of thousands of art treasures — mostly paintings — that have been stolen and freighted away by the Nazis. Enlightened warriors, if you will. Guys who know that after World War II ends the quality of life on the planet earth will be seriously diminished if the great European art treasures have been hidden or destroyed. And so they’re out to prevent that with whatever maneuvers they can think of.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, the leader of a ragtag group of art commandos…hold on, I’m giving the wrong impression here. This is not Ocean’s 11 in olive-drab fatigues or an art-appreciating Dirty Dozen or Kelly’s Heroes. Or is it? I don’t really know because a script is only a starting point, but I also know it’s not Schindler’s List. It feels more to me like a “movie” than a “film”, but that in itself might be inaccurate. I really don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.
Do life-threatening things happen to some of these guys? Yeah. So it’s not a WWII romp? No, it’s not — it’s about hard, serious shit. On the other hand there are no Telly Savalas types who strangle blondes in the third act. Every Monuments man seems like a fairly cool cat, or so it seemed to me when I read the script. Besides Clooney we’re talking about about Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonville and Dimitri Leonidas.
To go by Clooney and producer-co-screenwriter Grant Heslov‘s script Monuments Men will be a clever, adult, carefully-threaded, occasionally sardonic and wise-cracking “drama” by way of a skillfully massaged 21st Century Hollywood war-flick attitude. Clooney and Heslov (director-writers of Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March, producers of Argo and August: Osage County) make smart, classy dramas for cultured adults (i.e., guys like me), but with a little polish and pizazz. In the context of Monuments Men that probably means they’re going to be delivering “grave but not doleful,” “better in some ways than The Guns of Navarone” and “about serious matters but assembled with crisp discipline and a certain movie-star panache.” Right now Monuments Men looks good enough to rank on anyone’s list of likely Best Picture candidates.
Is Monuments Men a cousin of John Frankenheimer‘s The Train, which was also about saving art from the Nazis? Well, they historically overlap, but the similarities are relatively few. Cate Blanchett‘s character of Claire Simone is based on Rose Valland, the Jeu de Paume art historian and member of the French Resistance who also appeared in The Train as Suzanne Flon‘s “Madamoiselle Villard.” Otherwise The Train is an apple and Monuments Men is an orange.
The much-beloved Frankenheimer flick, released in early ’65, was about some French resistance workers (led by Burt Lancaster) who don’t know shit about the great works of impressionism but have been ordered by their bosses to try and prevent an art-worshipping Nazi officer (Paul Scofield) from carting off dozens of impressionist classics to Germany. Which they manage to do. Monuments Men has little to do with trains and the good guys are better educated and not French (except for Dujardin, of course). In actuality there were something like 350 Monuments Men operating in Europe, but in Clooney and Heslov’s film the squad is closer to nine or thereabouts. More dramatically manageable.
The Monuments Men trip began disastrously in Berlin when I drove out of a Tiegel Airport rental car lot with my cell phone lying on the roof of the car. After I started picking up speed I heard a “buhlump!” sound. Whatwazzat? Like something that fell on the roof or fell off it. I didn’t stop because I was on the autobahn and going about 50 or 60 kph. I realized what had happened about ten minutes later. I pulled off in a restaurant-and-gas stop and wept real tears. My Berlin pal Marion Magura, whom I’d invited along, unfortunately had to witness my breakdown. I got down on the pavement and howled.
I had to order a new phone from the Apple guys and have it sent to my place in West Hollywood, and then I asked the woman staying at my apartment to synch it with my iMac and then FedEx it to me in Germany. Total cost was about a grand. So I was hugely pissed at myself as I drove out to Bad Grund, which is between two and a half and three hours southwest of Berlin. We got there late, and there was no wifi in the room. Thank you.
The next morning (5.6) Monuments Men unit publicist Rob Harris picked Marion and I up and drove us to the outdoor set on the other side of town. It was adjacent to a huge factory of some kind and was basically using a fake set that represented the exterior of a mine shaft which the Nazis are (I think) using to store several art treasures. Or planning to store or whatever
The first famous guy we saw was John Goodman, dressed in bleached fatigues and riding a bike. “Ohhh, it’s John Goodman!,” Marion said. I gave her a dirty look. “Don’t do this to me, Marion,” I pleaded. “Don’t do the star-struck tourist thing, please. Not on a film set.” She promised to hold back.
We arrived at the shooting location, and within minutes Clooney, whom I’ve spoken to several times at parties and film festivals and who is always cool, open and gracious, came over in his fatigues and steel-pot helmet and about six or seven days of beard growth. He’d heard about my iPhone tragedy. “Howz it goin’ with that?” he smiled. “You holdin’ up?” Yeah, I’m okay, I said. I feel like a fucking asshole but I’ll survive…thanks.
Not long after Clooney told a funny story about some idiot he knew who had his iPhone stashed in his chest pocket and (stop me if I’m getting this wrong) came up on some swans in a pond and he leaned over a bit and honked at the swans and happened to look down and saw an iPhone sitting under a couple of feet of water and said to himself, “Hey, look…somebody dropped their iPhone in the pond!”
I was told by Harris not to take any shots of anything, but I asked George if I could take a few of him and he said sure. I also shot one of Clooney and Heslov, who was sitting under a small tent in front of two widescreen color monitors. Plus a couple of the mine shaft set plus one of a special cake in honor of Clooney’s 52nd birthday.
Heslov is pretty funny in a blunt sort of way. He’s an easy-enough guy to shoot the shit with, but he says what he thinks. He didn’t exactly call me a pathetic loser for leaving my iPhone on the roof of my rental car but he almost did, and I had no argument against that. I like guys who look you in the eye and just say it. He also took a gander at my Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS and said it was a “low tech” device. “But it’s not,” I said. “The resolution is excellent for the size and the cost, particularly with night shots. And it shoots good 1080p video.” Call me whatever you want for losing my phone, Heslov, but don’t put down my equipment.
Clooney was shooting a group scene featuring himself, Damon, Goodman, Murray and two or three others. After each take he would come over to the mini-tent and watch the playback and then shoot a little shit with me before the next take was ready. We talked about The Train and the general tradition of the better World War II movies and how he’s basically looking to raise the bar. Clooney is as sharp as they come but he has what you might call a layered but accomodating temperament. He likes to aim his films at places where people live, and in this context he’s looking to make a film that does the old “play to the smarties but also to the popcorn crowd” routine.
Monuments Men unit publicist Rob Harris (center)
One Clooney quote sticks out: “The Guns of Navarone doesn’t play so well any more.” I agreed, I said, except that it does work up until the end of the cliff-climbing scene. And Dimitri Tiomkin‘s score works pretty well, I added. But Clooney was basically saying that if you’re going to make a good World War II film these days, you’ve got to improve upon the old models because they don’t fit the current sensibility. That’s certainly true.
I loved watching Clooney and the above-named ensemble perform that fast-talking scene in front of the mine shaft. It was just talk but everyone delivered exactly the same way with exactly the same body language in take after take. For whatever reason Clooney wasn’t happy with the playback and so he kept saying “let’s do it once more.” They did it six or seven times. It was like watching big-time actors perform a scene for a final dress rehearsal version of a play. Clooney wasn’t offering any big explanations about what was wrong or what he needed. He was just waiting for it to feel right.
I also shared some brief chat time with Damon (he would soon be leaving for the Cannes Film Festival and screenings of Behind The Candelabra) and Murray. Murray’s skin was the color of Elmer’s glue-all and he had let his hair go gray (nobody pretties up for a war film). It’s been said before that Murray is a relentless hoot, and it’s true. I’ve talked to him in quiet-down modes but today he was on. Every subject that came up he batted around in some flip, snarky way. “Ask me anything…go on,” he said. “Oh, you mean give you straight lines?,” I said to myself. Sure, man. And so I asked him about Wes Anderson‘s The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which Murray costars, and he shared three or four little stories about that. And then we switched over to another topic and yaddah-yaddah. I also love how Murray is occasionally rude or dismissive with simpleton journalists. He’s a God to me in that respect.
I said my goodbyes to Clooney and Damon, who were chatting when I walked by. I thanked Clooney again for letting me come on the set. It was totally his call. The next day a herd of 20 or 30 Hollywood Foreign Press people were due to arrive. Thank God I got my visit out of the way first. And I told Damon that I’d see him in Cannes, which I did by watching him field questions at the Candelabra press conference.
Harris and his wife and Marion and I had dinner that night in a neighboring town. He gave me a copy of his book, “Unexposed Film: A Year on Location.” Rob is a good writer and a fine fellow. I apologized to him for being pissed about my lost cell phone, but he waved it off. I was in a shitty mood as we drove out, I told him, but the vibe of the set was so cool and friendly that I forgot about my loss and learned to relax again.
Incidentally: I don’t like the sound of The Monuments Men — too many syllables. Maybe Clooney or Sony will end up dropping it. Let’s see how it plays out.