The Monuments Men - John Goodman, director George Clooney and Jean Dujardin
The Monuments Men - John Goodman, director George Clooney and Jean Dujardin on the set ©2013 Columbia Pictures

George Clooney’s new movie The Monuments Men tells the true story of the greatest treasure hunt in history, focusing on seven over-the-hill museum directors, artists, curators and art historians who went to the front lines in World War II to rescue artistic masterpieces from the Nazis, and return them to their rightful owners.

Written(with Grant Heslov) and directed by Clooney, he has assembled a stellar cast that includes Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett. He spoke about the movie at the press conference for the film.

The movie deals with a heavy subject matter, but it does it in a light, fun, whimsical way. Was there a desire from the beginning to make this story appropriate for a broader audience?

The Monuments Men - Matt Damon and George Clooney
James Granger (Matt Damon) and Frank Stokes (George Clooney) ©2013 Columbia Pictures

Yes, we liked the story. We were not all that familiar with the actual story, which is rare for a World War II film. Usually you think you know all the stories, and we wanted it to be accessible.

I liked all of those John Sturges films. We thought of it as a mix between Kelly’s Heroes and The Train. We wanted to talk about a very serious subject that’s ongoing still, but we also wanted to make it entertaining. That was the goal.

Can you talk about casting this movie with such great actors?

All these guys are usually in movies where they have to carry the whole movie, but they’re all so comfortable with their own personas that they don’t need to own all the scenes they’re in.

There was a huge generosity of spirit in all the actors – they were willing to come and play, because they were all enjoying each other’s company.

What attracts you to step behind the camera and direct, and what is the difference now between you as a director on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and this?

The Monuments Men - Sam Epstein, George Clooney, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Matt Damon
Sam Epstein, George Clooney, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Matt Damon ©2013 Columbia Pictures

I prefer directing to doing other things. Directing and writing seem to be infinitely more creative. As far as how I’ve change, all you’re trying to do is learn from people that you’ve worked with.

I’ve worked with the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderberg, and Alexander Payne. I’ve worked with really great directors over the years, and you try to see what they’re doing and then just steal it! (he laughs)

The truth is you hope your development is the same way as everything, which is you succeed some, you fail some, and you keep slugging away at it. I like it more than acting now. I enjoy directing, I don’t know whether it’s improving or not, but it’s certainly evolving in different directions.

It’s tricky directing yourself obviously. It’s one of the things you learn in acting class – director-proof is what we call it. I don’t pay attention to a single note I give myself!

Having done the research for this film, what do you hope the impact of The Monuments Men will be? What is being done about the lost art?

The Monuments Men - John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray
John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray ©2013 Columbia Pictures

First and foremost, there’s so many elements of it that are tricky. There’s a lot of this art that has been found and is in other people’s homes, or museums, and some of it is repatriating that.

It’s a long process and it’s not particularly easy. Generationally it seems to be getting more towards returning (the artwork) to the rightful owners.

It is a continuing process and, quite honestly, it’s also about looking at the loss of artifacts and art that’s going on in Syria right now. It’s understanding how important the culture is to each of these countries and trying to find a way to get them back.

It’s a long, long process, and if this raises some awareness and opens up some discussions on it, that’s really helpful.

I wasn’t really looking to make a statement on things. Grant and I tend to make films that are somewhat cynical at times, and we sat down specifically saying let’s not do that for once. It has a real positive outlook at things, and that’s what we sought to do with this.

At the press conference, Bill Murray was asked about working on the film – click here to listen to his reply

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And Matt Damon talked about a practical joke played on him by George Clooney, with a closing remark from Clooney – click here

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Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.