If George Clooney is Batman, then Grant Heslov is his real-life Robin.
Struggling actors when they met in early-1980s Los Angeles, Clooney and Heslov have been close friends ever since. But in recent years they’ve become collaborators, too. Beginning in 2003, Heslov has been the one constant on pretty much every big Clooney project. They co-wrote and co-produced Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March. They co-produced Argo, The American, and August: Osage County. Clooney starred in The Men Who Stare at Goats, and Heslov directed. Heslov has even shown up on-screen in a couple of Clooney pictures.
The latest Clooney-Heslov film—co-written and co-produced, with Clooney directing and starring—is The Monuments Men. Out Friday, the movie tells the unlikely but true story of a team of architects, curators, conservators, and historians sent to Europe near the end of World War II to locate and save thousands of artworks stolen, hidden, or endangered by Adolf Hitler’s henchmen.
Why can’t Clooney and Heslov quit each other? How does their partnership work? We recently gave Heslov a ring to find out. He took us inside the making of The Monuments Men—and told us about a lost 1980s Clooney film waiting to be rediscovered. Excerpts from our conversation:
You and George Clooney have made a bunch of movies together now. Why Monuments Men? How did you find it and why did you think it would make a great film?
I found it. I was literally just in an airport and I just happened to see it. We were in the middle of shooting The Ides of March at the time, but I thought Monuments Men could make a great film. A couple of months after we finished The Ides of March, we were sitting around talking about wanting to do something that felt more optimistic and more open and more commercial and bigger. The Ides of March was a fairly cynical film. A smaller film. So I said, “I read this book. You should check it out.” It ticked a lot of boxes for us.
Let’s rewind a bit. You and George have been friends for decades now. How did you first meet?
We met in an acting class in L.A. I was 19 and he was 21. We were both unemployed actors.
I’ve read that he had to borrow $200 from you.
That’s actually true. I started working a little before George did. I got some really small guest spots on TV shows. You have to have your headshots, and he needed some cash—so I lent it to him.
The beginning of a beautiful friendship. When did you realize you could write together?
We’d always dabbled on very low-level stuff.
What do you mean?
Many, many years ago, George was interested in directing a film, so we shot a trailer for it. This was, like, 25 years ago. The film was never made and I couldn’t even tell you what it was called.
Do you remember what it was about?
It was about group of buddies. We shot it down in San Diego. It was good, actually. It was really good.
George would always dabble like that. I remember one time he was doing The Facts of Life and somehow he finagled…he wrote a role. He literally gave them pages and said, “My buddy can play this part.” So they hired me.
But it wasn’t really until he was working with Steven Soderbergh and I started working with those guys that we really started writing together.
What was your first project?
We started on K Street with Steven, and then George and I did this show Unscripted for HBO. And from that we did Good Night, and Good Luck. Unscripted was very much based on our experiences as actors growing up.
How does your writing process work? I’m interested in that dynamic.
It’s pretty consistent. We figure out what it is we’re going to do, and then we get in a room and beat out story. We’re, like, old-school. We used 3 x 5 cards. We write a scene on a card and tack ‘em up on the wall and then we move them all over the place. We get it to where we want it, and then we have a partner’s desk and we sit and we write. We write scenes together. George writes longhand and I use a computer.
Often what we do is we’ll get three or four scenes and we’ll read ‘em out loud. We’ll play all the parts. We’ll see if it’s terrible or not. And then we’ll kind of plug along. We write pretty quickly. We’ll go into the office at 9:00 in the morning and work until 6:00 at night.
So you’re literally writing the scenes together, eyeball to eyeball?
One of us can go off and do something alone—that can happen—but a lot of the time we’re there together. We’re talking out loud. “Exterior Shot. New York.” I’ll type that in, then I’ll write a description of where the scene is, and then we’ll start writing dialogue. Sometimes out loud, sometimes doodling it out on paper.
What do each you bring to the partnership? How do you complement each other?
In terms of the nitty-gritty of writing, George brings the skill set of being able to get it out on paper pretty quickly. I’m way more self-editing and cautious. He forces us to get it out, and I force us to make sure that we’re not missing anything. Our styles are very different in that way. I think they really complement each other.
We’ve been buddies for so long. We never have fights. George is an easy guy to get along with, and I think I’m an easy guy to get along with. So it’s pretty fun.
No fistfights over bad dialogue?
[Laughs] No, we’ve never had a fight. And the truth is, we’re just making films. If we were talking about life and death we’d probably have more of a chance to get into a fistfight.
What was the greatest challenge in translating Monuments Men the book into Monuments Men the screenplay?
It’s a really sprawling book. It’s 700-plus pages. It encompasses a lot of territory, geographically. It spreads a lot of guys all over the place. So weaving a story where you can see these guys together enough was the trickiest part.
How did you whittle all that material into the final shape of the film?
We decided that there were two pieces of art that were going to be the key pieces, because there was so much art. First was the Ghent Altarpiece, which is one of the most important artworks of all time—the first time the human body was depicted in a way that wasn’t just one-dimensional. And then the other one, Madonna of Bruges—that’s the only Michelangelo that left Italy. We decided to focus on those two pieces as the objects these guys get obsessed with and chase down to the ends of the earth.
We also had to figure out “who were the guys?” Because in reality there were a lot more guys—a couple hundred Monuments Men. We took the ones who we felt we could do the most justice to—the ones there was the most information about. But you can’t change when D-Day was. You can’t change when the Battle of the Bulge was. You can’t change the order of the war. So then it was just a puzzle: figuring out how we can move through this war with these characters and get to the end of the story.
What was the biggest thing you had to change about the true story to make the movie version work?
Most of the events are true. In fact, the ones that seem the most strange are the most true. For instance, at the end when Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are looking for the last piece of the Ghent Altarpiece and they find it being used as a table—that’s true. When they find all that gold in the mine—that happened. When Bill Murray goes to the dentist and the dentist has a nephew who happens to be the Nazi who stole all the art from the Jeu de Paume—that’s true. But we did have to compress time, and we did have to composite some of the characters.
We always have these discussions. At a certain point you have to decide, “Ok, what kind of film are we making?” When me made Good Night and Good Luck, we said, “We really can’t get away from the truth in any part of this.” It was a story about news breaking, and we wanted to make sure we got everything right. We double- and triple-checked our sources.
Monuments Men is not a docudrama. It’s not a documentary. First and foremost we wanted to make an entertaining film. So we felt good about taking a little more license to tell a great story.
Monuments Men had the feel of a classic Hollywood movie to me—not a whiz-bang, ADD production, but careful, character-driven, even patient. Did you guys look to any older films as inspiration?
We watched all of them. From A Bridge Too Far to The Guns of Navarone and everything in between. Mostly because that was one of the reasons we wanted to make this film: we loved those films growing up and we wanted to make a more modern version of one of those films. A lot of them didn’t hold up to the way we remembered them; some of them were great. A Bridge Too Far still holds up.
What did you take from those classic films?
Monuments Men is a movie… I don’t want to say for grown-ups, because some young folks could appreciate it, too. But if you’re expecting Transformers you’re going to be disappointed. We tried to be thoughtful with the story, and we tried to give it its time to unfold. And also, people back then behaved differently than they do now. There was a lot more gallows humor and a lot less talking about your feelings. We definitely were aware of that.
You and George acted out the entire movie for Sony executives in Lake Como. Is that how things are usually done?
[Laughs] It took about six or seven hours to do it. It wasn’t so bad. We were at George’s house. We were outside on the lake. We had great food. It’s not like we were stuck in some office.
But we just decided, “We’ll do a reading out loud so everyone can hear it, and we’ll talk about the scenes as we go along, so if you guys have any issues or questions about stuff, let’s talk about it now, before we go make this thing.”
Did that turn out to be helpful? Not every filmmaker would want studio executives weighing in at that point.
It turned out to be great, because they got a chance to see what we mean by scenes. Sometimes you write a scene and… you may have underwritten it. We could talk about how we saw it and how it was supposed to be, and they could say “there’s something here we don’t understand.” It gave us the opportunity to clear everything up.
Both George and Matt Damon have talked about the difficulty of finding the right tone for the movie—figuring out “how to make it appropriately serious with the highest of stakes…but it should also feel like a heist movie,” as Damon has put it. How hard was that process?
It was challenging the whole time. George and I talked about it incessantly. We wrote more humor than ended up in the film, because you never know exactly how much is going to work. We’d rather have it, see how it’s working, and then cut back from there. So we did.
There were definitely scenes that went longer or farther with humor, or had more humor in them. Particularly once people start dying, you have to figure out how to make the humor not undercut the emotion of the piece. That was tricky.
Was there an “aha moment” when that balance clicked into place?
I can give you an example. There’s a scene when John Goodman and Jean Dujardin get pinned down by a little sniper boy. There’s a whole thing: “You go. No, you go.” That scene went on for, like, another minute. “I hate my wife.” “I hate my wife.” The whole thing. It was great, but it undercut the urgency of the scene and the fact that this is the first time that we see these guys in real jeopardy. So we ended up cutting it.
It was stuff like that. Less whole scenes, and more stuff that had gone too far.
Were you disappointed when the movie was delayed?
No. I wasn’t disappointed at all, because I knew that had we released on our date, it would have been like turning in your homework knowing that you hadn’t done your best job. Like, “Fuck, if I just had another week.” For us, it truly was…we had visual effects we were still working on. Even new stuff. For instance, the Bruges Madonna at the end. All along we had used a sculpture. A reproduction. It never looked right. So we ended up scanning the real Bruges Madonna and putting it in as a visual effect. It was really tricky to do, and it was a last-minute thing. That never would have been able to happen if we had released on our date. Everything would have felt compromised.
And then, having lived through Christmas and seeing, my god, there were so many films out, I’m really happy we’re on a weekend when people may actually get a chance to go out and see it, without all the clutter. I hope.
OK, final question: what’s the worst prank Clooney’s ever pulled on you?
God. The worst he’s ever pulled on me? I don’t know. I think I’ve escaped his pranks more than anybody. And I don’t know why, because he’s just killed a couple of our other friends. [Pauses] I can’t even think of one.
Now you’re asking for it.
I’m sure. It’s all been leading up to this. The 30-year prank.