A transcript of the virtual event BAFTA: A Life in Pictures: George Clooney
Francine Stock: Hello and welcome to BAFTA’s Life in Pictures, with thanks to BAFTA’s supporting partner TCL. Today’s life is that of George Clooney: Actor, director, writer, producer, Oscar winner, BAFTA winner, but most of all that rarest of things – a genuine star. So George, welcome.
George Clooney: Well thank you it’s so nice to be here, nice to see you, I’m glad that we’re able to communicate if we’re, even with both of us… in London but far away.
FS: And everybody out there. And so the format this evening is that George and I are going to talk for a while but we’re also going to invite some questions from you listening out there. If you have those there’s a Q&A facility at the bottom of the screen, so if you have them do send them in and they will get passed over to me in time. We’ve got—a bit of a canter through your life in pictures, inevitably, this, George, but let’s go back to an origins thing: Was it always clear to you or your family that you would become an actor?
GC: No, not at all. My father was an anchorman but before that he had a live television show, The Nick Clooney Show, it was a variety show. My dad would sing on it and they’d do skits, and I’d do all the live commercials for Husbands potato chips and things like that, it was live TV. I grew up in this vaudeville-ish family but acting wasn’t really ever something we talked about. My aunt Rosemary who I knew a little bit, she lived in Hollywood I lived in Kentucky, you know, I didn’t know her very well. She’d come once every five or six years and visit for a couple of days and I was always fascinated with the idea of their life, but we didn’t know them very well. I studied journalism in college and then my cousin Miguel Ferrer and his father Jose Ferrer came to Kentucky to do a movie. They were in Lexington Kentucky a couple hours from where I live and they said come on down and I wanted to, I always looked up to Miguel, I’d never met Jose, and they got me a part as an extra in this movie that never came out. I was there for two months working on this movie on a horse racing track and Miguel said ‘you’ve got to come to Hollywood and be an actor,’ and I said ‘OK!’ and I you know, got in my beat up Monte Carlo with 200,000 miles on it and drove to California with all the intention of making it, and you know, my dad was like this is a terrible mistake. I thought you’re probably right, but I used to say I don’t want to wake up at sixty and wish or say I wish I’d tried this, but now I’m going to be sixty this year so I’m going to move the date up to sixty-five or seventy.
FS: So you worked in TV, you did quite a lot of TV. That rather than stage was kind of your interest?
GC: It’s funny, Los Angeles is not known for its theatre necessarily, but we had this thing called Equity Waver Theater and you know, you’d do probably six or eight plays a year. I did do a lot of stage; I did a play actually at Steppenwolf, which is the big great regional theatre. But that wasn’t my bread and butter you can’t get paid that way, I was getting paid doing television when I got the job!
FS: And the thing that makes you a household name, I guess, is Dr Ross in ER. That’s the mid-nineties and it’s this amazing sort of creative lovechild of Stephen Spielberg and Michael Creighton. Did you know about it early on? At what stage did you become involved?
GC: So I was under contract to Warner Brothers and was shopped out doing lots of different shows. I was doing guest appearances on a show called Sisters, which had been on the air about six years. It was a good show but I was about the seventh or eight banana on it and they called me at the end of that season, the first season, and said they’d like me to be a regular and that would mean getting paid, I’d be paid what a day player gets paid on the show. I was like, you know, I don’t really want to be a regular in the sixth year of a show, and in the meantime this script had come out. John Wells was the real saviour of this script and John was doing that and also doing a sitcom and he wanted me to do the sitcom and I read this script and I said I want to do this part. He said well the lead part is going to go to someone else, you’re not right for the lead, but if you want to play the—you know, he’s number five on the call sheet, he was way down, he said if you want to play this character then come in and read. I went in and read and so I was the first one to get a part of anyone on ER and at the time it was just a two-hour movie of the week. But it was Steven Spielberg and Michael Creighton, who had just had Jurassic Park out that year and Steven had had Schindler’s List also so I was just excited to be working with those guys and then they tested it and it tested through the roof and they put us in the time slot that for sixteen years had two shows, Hillstreet Blues and LA Law and that timeslot took us from being a hit show to being one of the biggest of all time. You know, I got to just ride that wave. I didn’t have to carry the show, Anthony Edwards had to do all the heavy lifting, which is usually laying all the exposition out and I got to just come in, be a drunk, I was a womaniser but I loved kids and took care of kids so you could get away with things. I had a great love story with Juliana Margolies, the wonderful actress, and I got a lot of really nice breaks and got lucky.
FS: This seems like a good point at which we could see a little excerpt. This is from season two I think, a well-known episode which is Hell or High Water. A lot of jeopardy here, there’s a sick child and you’re some way from the hospital. I think we’re going to see the point now, in this clip where Dr Ross takes control.
FS: And there is an excerpt from ER there from a quarter century ago!
GC: I love that the guy, the reporter, goes ‘let’s do it it’s a great story.’ A kid might die in a helicopter – we’ll get it on camera!
FS: Journalistic stereotypes at that point! It’s really interesting about ER isn’t it because there had been medical dramas before, long running medical dramas, General Hospital, there had been soap operas… What do you think was so different about ER?
GC: It was a huge difference. When we got the script, an hour show is really forty-four minutes when you include commercials. When you get an hour show script, every script I’d ever gotten on every hour show that I’d ever done for years, fifteen years before this show, an hours script would be a fifty-two page script, fifty-three, maybe fifty-four. This show, every episode was ninety-five pages. We were jamming stuff in. We were doing, instead of two cases in a hospital we were doing thirty or forty different cases in one episode. We didn’t follow through with them—a guy would come in with an arrow stuck in his head which really happened, and we pointed him to the emergency room and he was gone. We used all this language no one could possibly understand—superventriculartacheomia—and the network at first, NBC were like panicking at the testing, they were like nobody understands the words—and John Wells kept saying if we understand it they’ll feel confident enough and you have to have a little respect for the audience. And so what we were doing was—the other part of it was all other hospital shows before then, if you were Marcus Welby or—you’d do heart surgery one day then eye surgery the next day. We made it very specific to each doctor what we did, and we did things doctors loved, we kept a sterile field when we did the surgery—it was little action films, you never had us sitting round going ‘it sure is hard what we do’ we never had a scene ‘nobody’s dying in that room!’ we really got around that to where it was we just did our thing and kept doing it and eventually people by the end of the show were exhausted and they felt for you. I think it was very good for people understanding what the medical industry goes through. It’s a different kind of a ride than had been done before and I was very proud and lucky again to be on it.
FS: In this kind of necessary telescoping of your career, we’re jumping headland to headland as it were, I suppose your big screen real breakthrough was Out of Sight for Steven Soderbergh, and that’s going to be part of a—you’re going to work with Soderbergh again and again over the years after that. It was an Elmore Leonard adaptation, a great script, really—but also Soderbergh’s first big commercial hit as well. So did you like it because it was genre? What attracted you to it, was it Soderbergh or?
GC: It was interesting, he wasn’t attached but the script came my way. It had been a year, I’d gotten killed for doing Batman and Robin and I understood for the first time because quite honestly when I got Batman and Robin I was just an actor getting an acting job and I was excited to play Batman. What I realised after that was that I was going to be held responsible for the movie itself not just my performance or what I was doing. So I knew I needed to focus on better scripts, the script was the most important thing. You can’t make a good film out of a bad script, it’s impossible. You can make a bad film out of a good script.
So I looked and I looked and I looked and this came around. I think John Travolta was tied to it for a period of time and that sort of fell by. There was a director who I won’t name who was attached to it and then when they put me on he said ‘he’s a TV actor and I’m not going to direct it,’ and he walked away. So then Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg and Danny Devito were the producers, so the three of them, we went over to Danny’s house and we met with Steven Soderbergh. I was on my back foot coming off of a couple of films that didn’t do well, and Steven was on his back foot from a movie called The Underneath that wasn’t critically acclaimed and didn’t go anywhere, and we both needed this to be a success. It was. Now it’s funny, people look it now and think it was a hit, at the time it was a bomb, it didn’t make a dime. It lost money—they tried to release it in the summer it was a bad release strategy, but it was a critical darling and everybody loved it and it changed my career in terms of from that point on I was going to be allowed to make movies and I wasn’t before that, it was all up in the air whether I was allowed to move from TV to film.
FS: That seems like a good cue to show. So you’ve got this script by Scott Frank, a great script, and the premise if anyone hasn’t seen it, I imagine most people have seen it, is that you play a serial bank robber who ends up getting into a cat and mouse game with a US Marshal played by Jennifer Lopez, and here is the point where that cat and mouse game is coming towards a kind of conclusion.
FS: So there you are George in 1998 with Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight. So you say that kind of changed things in terms of—
GC: Elmore Leonard was interesting, he was a tricky character in terms of adapting and there are a lot of films of his Fifty Two Pickup and things like that that just didn’t work because when they were adapting them they were trying to write the plot of an Elmore Leonard book, and the truth is his plots were sort of not—they’re not the strongest point of his books, his characters were. And when you’re writing plot you’re relying on characters, and Scott did Get Shorty before this and he really figured out how to unwind these characters and make it just the characters. So he gave us all these—Don Cheadle as Snoop and Albert Brooks and Steve Zahn—the guys that I got to work with, guys I don’t mean guys, the actors that I got to work with, Katherine Keener, were so good and so specific and have gone on to have their own amazing careers. Everything about it was just perfect for me.
FS: Then you go on to work with Soderbergh again and again and again.
GC: We were partners for ten years or so. He taught me a lot about film. He taught me a lot about telling stories from a point of view, because that’s always a trick in a weird way, it’s about—you know, you don’t want to go in a room having just collected a lot of footage and put a story together, you need to think whose eyes are you watching this through, whose opinions. He really understood that and we took our—his world in a way, he came from the independent film world, Sex, Lies and Videotape and he was pushing all of that aesthetic into the studio system which didn’t exist and also pulling in thing we’d learned from films in the mid-sixties to early seventies, that vibe, and bringing those in and that way of telling stories and jamming that into the studio system. When you watch Oceans Eleven and you go on top of it being a really good film, it is also a film that is done in a style of a film you could’ve seen in 1968, it could’ve been The Thomas Crown Affair, it had that aesthetic to it. It was infusing that back into the studio system who had gotten so far from doing films that we recognised as, you know, everything was a master, a two shot and a close up, it had gotten very simple, and he wanted to shake that up and he did.
FS: And Solaris of course, you made, which was—I mean, a different kind of filmmaking altogether.
GC: Yes. That was—it was funny, that film I remember going to the premiere and it’s just for a very small audience but was being sold as a much bigger space film than it was. At the end of it Brad just looks at me and he goes—Brad Pitt came to the premiere and he looks at me and goes ‘good luck with this one!’ And I was like… he loved the film but he was like, it appeals to like eight people. But that’s the thing that was fun. We did The Good German together in the same way, it was like let’s push this, let’s keep pushing and keep trying and sometimes they were successful and sometimes they were failures but that was the fun of it. We did a TV series together called K Street in Washington DC. A great partnership, we’re great friends.
FS: This is another one of a series of partnerships: You’ve worked with the Coens equally over a series of films. So what’s the great advantage of going back? Is it because you develop a shorthand or is it because you feel you can try things, be more adventurous, when you know the people you work with?
GC: No I don’t think it’s about the being adventurous part. I think it’s when you get to work with—look, if my whole career was Stephen Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuaron and you know, Jason Reitman and Alexander Payne, if you kind of go, just work with those directors for the rest of your life, as an actor I’d have an incredibly full career because those guys are all storytellers of the highest level. I think the Coen Brothers—you have to understand about who they are, most directors the sort of secret no one talks about is they only have their thing for a period of time, there are a few people that break that mould—Spielberg obviously, but for the most part it’s a fifteen, twenty year period of time and then the films they make aren’t as good as the films that they used to make, they lose whatever that element is. The Coen Brothers have been doing this for forty years and they still have every element, they’re interested in and excited about, and for them to send me O Brother Where Art Thou and say ‘do you want to do it?’ I didn’t read the script I said yes I’m in! Because I loved them and I’d just watched The Big Lebowski and Fargo had just come out and I was like of course I’ll do it. Then I got to read it and see that it was this incredible part and that just started us on a path where we kept working together.
FS: So then in 2002 you directed your first film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Had you all along since you started working on big movies decided that you wanted to direct yourself?
GC: When I was in television. I never went back to the trailer when I was an actor. I’m from Kentucky, being in a trailer is not something to brag about, but I always was on the set. I like to be around the crew, I like to see what the director was up to and the writers were up to. I always had the intention of doing it and there was only one reason, it’s completely self serving, which was I was completely aware of the idea that I’m going to age out of the kind of things I’m going to be allowed to do, and I’m going to be sixty or sixty-five or seventy or whatever that age was and have to rely on what some casting director thinks I can play anymore. I love this industry and I love filmmaking and I love being part of this and I wanted to be able to continue to be part of this. So I started writing very early, directing was something that was a natural progression that I wanted to do. I found a really good script and I thought because I have a good script in a way I’m protected as a director for my first directing job and that was sort of how I got there!
FS: I see, so originally it was a kind of defensive idea?
GC: Yes. I think always my idea was that I needed to make sure that I didn’t have to rely on other people for things that I can’t—there’s nothing I can do about aging so I want to have other jobs. Writing was a big part of it at that point, I was very involved in that, and directing, once I saw the script for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind I said I know what that story is, it’s about you know television, and I lived on a set as a kid where the sets would move. My dad would do the news then they would lift up the desk where he did the news on strings and they would come up—it was in Cincinnati, Ohio, and they would come up on those strings and underneath it would be a bowling alley and they’d do Bowling for Dollars like at seven thirty, a television show. I loved the magic of television in that era, creating these game shows and everything, and I thought I had a take on what to do on that film.
FS: And then Syriana, you got a Best Supporting Actor BAFTA for it, but do you think the fact that you were doing writing and directing, do you think that changed your choices as an actor as well?
GC: Sure, but all along, my choices changed really once I’d done the three in a row, I did Out of Sight, Three Kings and O Brother Where Art Thou and I knew that those three screenplays were great, and I got great reviews in all of them, and then it got to the point where I thought oh, you know I got killed for Batman and Robin the year before I did Out of Sight and it’s not like I learned how to act along the way and suddenly with Out of Sight I was a good actor, it was I need the protection of a good screenplay. Once that became the ground, the basis, for everything then it was just about finding good screenplays. And you know, sometimes that fails anyway. Sometimes it still doesn’t work but at least you’re starting from a position where it can and that’s all you can do.
FS: But they’re not just good screenplays, they’re really interesting screenplays that you’re taking on. There’s quite often do you think there are themes possibly starting about then? We’re beginning to see quite a lot of shadowy manoeuvring of organisations, whether it’s governments or corporations coming up in your filmography from then onwards?
GC: A little bit of that. Films when they do it right reflect where we are in society at a certain period in time. They can’t lead because in general it takes you two years to make a film so whatever it was moves on in that time. We were in a pretty interesting time in the early 2000s where we were drumming up this war that no one would speak out loud. I was in London the day that there was the march and it was really interesting because I flew from London to Berlin for the Berlin Film Festival and I was in London where two million people marched against their government going to war and then I landed in Germany, where a million Germans were marching in support of their government for not going to war. I had been very vocal about that and there was a lot of punditry and people who had picketed my films and did hour shows on Fox about how my career is over. I wanted to pick fights. I believe in picking fights. I believe deep in my soul, I think my father taught me one thing very important when I was a young kid, he said ‘you stand up to people with power and you stand up for people who have less power. Period. If you do that in your life, you win. That’s it. That’s all you have to do.’ And I felt like I was now at that point in my career where I was able to do that in storytelling, so there was a bit of a turn after the first Oceans film where I wrote Good Night, and Good Luck because I was mad and looking for other times when the Fourth Estate dropped the ball, when the Fourth Estate didn’t challenge the other Three Estates about going to war. I was angry and I looked back at other times when the Fourth Estate was dropping the ball and remembered this moment with Murrow and McCarthy and this is sort of a good example of when it gets it right, when journalism gets it right. I’m the son of a journalist, it’s important to me that it gets it right.
FS: Good Night, and Good Luck is 2005 and you co-wrote this with Grant Heslov. Was this something you’d discussed, this whole period with Senator Joseph McCarthy and the networks and Murrow—had you talked about all this with your father a lot?
GC: Yeah and it’s funny, I had just done Fail Safe as a live television show and it was the first thing that brought live TV back, it was a big deal, hard to get done. Black and white and sort of on the heels of the Y2K and everything coming in, the nuclear arguments coming back. So I wrote it to be a live television show and then the Superbowl happened and Janet Jackson showed her breast or Justin Timberlake pulled off her thing and showed her breast, and they pulled our live TV show. They said no more live TV and I was depressed for a day and then I called up Grant and said let’s write this, let’s take the commercial breaks out and make it into a film and we’ll make it. So we went to, we had just helped start Warner Independent, it was a thing to answer Miramax and smaller groups at the studio, and we got the movie made. We went out and shopped it around and raised, shot it for six million bucks in twenty-four days on one soundstage. It was an exciting thing because there isn’t much riding on it when it’s six million dollars, so you’re allowed to do what you want and say what you want.
FS: Including making it in black and white.
GC: Which is hard to do, really hard to do. Imagine how, you know there are a few films now that come out in black and white. It was hard man, they didn’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. At that point everything leaned on cable at the end, so at the end of it, at the end of your run which would be if it’s a small film, would be $100,00 or something—I think we did a lot better than that we made I don’t know forty or fifty million dollars, but at the beginning of the film all they look at is how can they get their money back, the investors. And the way they get their money back is by selling it to cable. Cable wouldn’t touch black and white, they didn’t want to touch Schindler’s List, they wouldn’t touch black and white. You sort of had to put—I had to put the mortgage of my house up against it, which was interesting, and I wasn’t worried, I had a day job I could make some money back if I lost it.
FS: Well thank goodness you did because it’s terrific. We’re going to see a little excerpt now. This is Edward R Murrow played by Edward Strathairn and Fred Friendly his producer played by you. This is when they’re first starting to think about it. So if we can see that clip please.
GC: Good Night, and Good Luck there.
GC: I take credit for writing that scene but you know all the guys in that room were journalists and all of them wrote books. And every single one of them wrote that scene as it is, exactly as it is. You know, so, we felt like that was pretty accurate all the way down the line. That’s Tom McCarthy who went on to direct wonderful films including the film Spotlight that won the Academy Award, and David Strathairn giving one of the—just beautiful performance, it’s not an impersonation it’s just a beautiful performance.
FS: And how is it directing yourself?
GC: A drag. Embarrassing. It’s embarrassing! You don’t want to do more takes on yourself than you do on other people because then you look like a jerk. It’s hard! Well it’s not hard, cut tobacco for a living that’s hard, but it’s tricky because you know, you’re asking other actors—if you and I are doing a scene together, it’s a really rotten thing for the other actor to say to you OK we’ll do it again, this time do it a little faster. Two actors aren’t supposed to have that conversation, but as a director I’m looking at another actor going ok well… So it’s a drag when you’re in the scene and you’re directing. It’s not fair to the other actors either, I don’t enjoy it. It was a pretty small part in that one so it was easier to do, I could focus on David and what we were trying to do and get accomplished.
FS: I guess it’s also sometimes essential for raising finances and things?
GC: It is. There are plenty of films that I’ve just jumped on—I remember I did a movie called Welcome to Collingwood that was the Russo Brothers big break into LA, into Hollywood, they’d done this other tiny film and we wanted to introduce them to Hollywood and now they’re like the biggest things in the world and really sweet, really wonderful guys. But I just got on it because I wanted to help them get the film made. That’s the fun part of it.
FS: So you said just now you started directing because you weren’t confident in your longevity as an actor. But I would say the years are going past and I don’t think there’s going to be any shortage of scripts landing on your desks. But you are still directing once every three years or so, so…
GC: Yeah I like directing and I have to say, the acting roles are different now. Somebody asked me the other day, they said, this cracked me up, when they saw Midnight Sky I’ve got this long beard and shaved head and I look really old and they said ‘is this the direction you’re going to try and go with your career,’ and I said I’m not going to try and go, I’d like to be out of sight I’m just twenty five years older now I have to go that way! So you know, in some ways it’s about what’s available and what’s available that would be—there’s one, a couple of actors, but one actor who I was good friends with at the end of their life, their last few, ten years or so—Paul Newman. Paul Newman was a movie star, like a real, proper movie star, they don’t get bigger than him. At fifty-ish he figured out OK I’m done being the guy that kisses the girl and he did The Verdict which is a masterful performance, I think his best, and he continued to work as a sort of character actor. The roles were different and the roles were less frequent because the roles, it gets harder to tell those kind of stories. But he’s a good one to try to fashion your whole life actually if you look at his philanthropy and stuff, he’s a good one to fashion after.
FS: And even if the roles aren’t quite so big they’re really interesting, so—
GC: Yeah that’s right. And you know, and I do them because I want to do them not because I have to, and that makes a big—it makes a different because you think I want to do this and I want to go to work. The phone still rings right now, I’m waiting for the right calls.
FS: Looking at your directing projects, you know Leatherheads, The Ides of March, Monuments Men, Suburbicon, Catch 22 of course on TV and now Midnight Sky—so different, lots of different kinds of…
GC: Well that’s the other thing you know, another lesson I learned from Steven and if you look at Steven’s career is you just have to keep trying different versions. I remember reading you know Sydney Lumet’s book and it was saying I want to work with colour, so he did—I’ll think of the name in a minute—but he’d do films based on what he was trying to explore and I think that’s a really important part of it. I was lucky in a weird way that as an actor I never got massively successful in anything, you know, in a funny way. I never was—I did an action film like Peacemaker and it wasn’t a hit, if it had been Die Hard, which it wasn’t, then that’s who I would have been. I would have been the action guy. I did One Fine Day, if I’d done romantic comedies and any were a massive hit, I would have been the romantic comedy guy, and then I couldn’t have done drama and the other way I couldn’t have done comedy. Because they weren’t, and if you go through my career a lot of the things weren’t home runs at all, it’s allowed me to do and try other things. I’m allowed to do a comedy or a drama, so I can do something as whacky as O Brother Where Art Thou and something as straight as Michael Clayton. I’m not relegated into one category or another, partially because of my lack of success in a weird way. As a director I’ve also enjoyed that thing where I can go I want to focus on these things, I want to try this, and I’ve failed a few times, a couple of times, and I’ve succeeded a few times and you know it’s about figuring it out. We go into it with the best intentions.
FS: You mention Michael Clayton which is a really interesting film for a number of reasons, partly because it has this conspiracy, shadowy—it’s a thriller that is where all the tension is in the situation rather than the action, though it does have moments of action as well. But again it’s that shadowy, the idea of all those shadowy forces. Here it’s corporate rather than government, but was that the thing that Tony Gilroy obviously wrote and directred.
GC: Yeah, interestingly it was based on I think it was a Mother Jones article about Ford. Ford maybe in the ‘80s had a problem with the Ford Pinto where if you hit it from behind it would blow up. They were sued and there was an internal memo by the Ford company at the time saying look it’s going to cost you three billion dollars to recall—I’m making up numbers—three billion dollars to recall all these cars, class action suit, eleven people die a year, you can absorb that for $200 million. Our recommendation is don’t recall the cars. And eventually, after years, that internal memo got out, got to a judge and he said ‘are you crazy?’ and then it was this big massive class action suit that cost them a fortune. That was the story that Tony was writing, so he changed it to making chemicals, but it was with that sort of passion of how a company can get so big it loses sight of humanity and all of the people who play those parts who make it ok. It’s really interesting because you see it now with all of these lawyers who jump on this bandwagon with Trump right now where they’re going ‘I’m just doing my job and we’re going to play this out til the end’ and you go—the election process is over, the electoral college has voted, it’s done. Those lawyers, those are the same people that I played in Michael Clayton.
FS: The people doing the job. And I guess film drama, the arts allow us to have the oversight to see, where the people doing the jobs are just down there and not always looking. The clip we’re going to see is you and Tilda Swinton. I mean—
GC: I know which clip this is.
FS: We can’t give—if people haven’t seen it I can’t give too much of the plot away because it’s so complicated, but basically we’re getting towards the end where our character, Michael Clayton indeed, who is a sort of fixer in many ways is about to confront Tilda Swinton’s corporate lawyer with what she’s done.
FS: There you are with Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton.
GC: I just—it’s the funniest thing, Tilda always plays these kind of characters. She won the Oscar for this, she’s a brilliant, brilliant actress, and the funniest part is if you didn’t know who she was you’d think oh she’s this just iron woman but she is the warmest, the funnest, has the biggest laugh of any human. I adore her, she lights up a room when she comes in, but then she plays these—she can do anything but she gets known for that.
FS: So that’s—we stopped that clip just before a reveal of some kind, but then there’s this terrific—it’s a film that visually is very strong actually in a very restrained way because we then see Clayton walk out of the building and get into a car and get a good close-up of his face.
GC: The thing, the funny story about that car is first of all, it’s about a three and a half minute take of me looking ahead. If you started the film off with that shot it’d be the most boring shot in film history. What’s so fascinating about it is that people would come up to me and go ‘what I loved about that movie was I felt like you were reliving the whole film through that moment.’ Because people put on it what they experience watching a film. That’s that test we’ve seen where you show the old man watching a train wreck and then he watches a comedy. It’s the same thing, you’re having—everyone has this reaction based on what they’ve gone through with the film. We didn’t know how we were going to end the movie and we sort of at the last minute thought well we’ll do sort of a the end of The Graduate when they get in the back of the bus and they’re laughing and it’s what happens after happily ever after and you sit with them. So we thought OK that’s what we’ll do. But we hadn’t gone to the police, we were in downtown New York in the middle of the day. We hadn’t gone to anybody to get a permit to do it, we’ve got lights all over the camera and we just start to drive down the middle of Manhattan. And everybody sees us because we’re this giant eyesore in the middle of town and it’s packed and we’re stuck in traffic and the entire take of me sitting there looking around. Everybody, if you could hear it, all you could hear is ‘eh it’s George Clooney. What you doing Georgey boy look over here! Eh!’ through the whole take, and all I’m trying to do is not laugh, that’s all I’m trying to do. Just don’t laugh. It’s a one-er. You can’t tell, I’m literally going just trying not to laugh and people read through you whatever they take away from the film, so it was also a really good lesson for actors who will come up to me later as a director and say—or I’ll say ‘got it,’ and they’ll say ‘I didn’t feel it,’ and I’ll say ‘I don’t care if you didn’t feel it I care if we feel it.’ It’s good as an actor to remember it too.
FS: Well clearly you were struggling with something we just don’t know what it is. But that’s so interesting because that’s what film is all about really, that projection, that it’s also what the audience brings to what they see. Particularly with close-ups actually.
GC: It’s true but also there’s so many different ways to get a performance, right. You could—actors have different versions of who they are. Daniel Day Lewis was the great method actor who like Brando, you know, just lives in the skin of this character for a while. Spencer Tracey just walked in picked up the paper, and I could watch them both on screen all day because of the way they work. I’m fascinated with, all I care about is however you get there that we believe it when it’s happening and there’s so many different intricate ways into it. I can be directing a scene with five actors and they all have different ways of working and you have to constantly go—they’re going to live in the character, they have a lot of questions, they don’t want to talk they want to read the newspaper until you say action, he’s on his phone—you just have to figure out how to work with each of them.
FS: You can tell on set when it’s working, or is it when you look back later?
GC: You can tell on set. There are some times when a film will work that you didn’t know was working or thought was going to have problems, I’ve had that a couple of times, but most of the time what you know is when it’s not working. You’re on the set and you go… When you’re struggling, when you’re rewriting all the time, when the lines don’t come out easily, you know you start realising there’s problems and you can feel it and you can feel the energy on the set kind of you know shrink in a way. It’s frustrating when that happens. When it’s going great you know the days are half as long. There’s something about that element where everybody clicks and you go ‘oh we’re here.’
FS: So we’re going to move on now and talk about The Descendants which Alexander Payne directed. It’s a film about, and in a sense Michael Clayton is too, but this is a film about personal responsibility, a sense of how you—partly it’s getting to know things about people you thought you knew and the great mysteries we all are, but it’s also about what you have to do yourself.
GC: It’s also getting to know and understand, you didn’t understand that you were cuckolded until you understood it. You don’t understand that your seven year-old daughter has more on the ball than you do. It was an interesting character for me because it was the first time I had to play a guy who lost every single fight he got in, he just loses every fight with his daughter, with his friends, and there’s no—there’s a sequence where I’m running in flip flops, and I’m a jock I played sports my whole life, and I run like a dork in it, I run like a geek in it. And people now go ‘oh I saw him running like—‘ it actually makes me proud like yeah, good. It was a character I really was excited to play because he was taking all this veneer of who people think I am and just said here’s a guy who doesn’t have any ego or id or anything because it’s all been worn out of him over the years. I like that a lot and I like that his daughters, particularly Shailene Woodley who I just adore and think of her as my daughter, they force you, they give him the energy to become a man. I really—Alexander Payne is a dear friend and an extraordinary director and he knows how to tell stories in the best way. There’s a few directors that if they called me today I’d be on a plane, well not today on a plane…
FS: What he does do here is he takes subject matter that could be, I mean it has to be really delicately handled because it could be mawkish or it could just be very over-sentimental or melodramatic in a way that it isn’t. The premise for anybody who doesn’t know, your character Matt King is a landowner in a particularly beautiful part of the world and his wife is in a coma with no prospect of emerging from it and in this extraordinary period he discovers all kinds of things including that he’s being cuckolded. The scene we’re going to see is where your character Matt King and his daughter played by Shailene Woodley go and see the man in question.
GC: Oh good, that’s a funny scene.
FS: You’re with Shailene Woodley there and also Matthew Lillard terrific in The Descendants.
GC: He’s fantastic. And Judy Greer, I worked with her on Three Kings years and years before that. She just, I mean there is a—she beats to a different drum as a performer, not as a person as a performer. She has this really unique rhythm that just makes everything sound new and fresh. She’s a remarkable actress. Matthew is great in it. I hadn’t seen this in so long. God he was great in it.
FS: So it is that idea of personal responsibility I suppose and that would bring me round in a rather inelegant way to say humanitarian work. That was always in mind once you had the wherewithal as it were and the ability to do it?
GC: Well yeah. I think people go through these places in their lives and you know, when you’re just trying to get a job that’s not where your focus is. I was doing all these Block Bork parties when Judge Bork was going to be on the Supreme Court and all the anti-apartheid stuff in the early eighties, I was protesting and doing all that kind of stuff, but it was very hard to be deeply involved because you’re trying to get work and you’re broke. Then when you start, or things start to work out or whatever, then you’re able to point towards the direction that you were raised in a way, which is to say you’ve gotten some luck and now it is your job to make sure you spread that luck to some other people in whatever way you can because no matter how you look at careers, and people love to look at their careers and they’ll say ‘well eventually talent would rise up,’—there were a lot of talented people I had in acting class and it didn’t hit for them. Luck plays a huge part in this. You create some of that luck, I think it was Jack Nicholas who sunk a sixty foot putt and they said lucky putt and he said yeah it’s amazing the more I practice the luckier I get! You create some of that luck but you still need it, it’s got to hit. You’ve got to have a show that hits Thursday night at ten o clock on NBC. You need those moments that had nothing to do with your work. If you’re going to get that and it’s going to hit in the way that it hits, then I believe it of course is your responsibility to make sure that that luck gets shared you know. Luck can grow like crazy, it’s like a seed in the ground, and you can turn around and say let’s figure out other ways to make sure that this isn’t just selfishly hoarded, this thing of luck and it’s this ability to push it out to other people. As I said before, my father taught me as a young man to pick fights, and that’s fun.
Amal and I we have a foundation and it has three legs to it. One of them is called The Century and it’s something I’ve been doing for a long time which is chasing down war criminals and chasing them down with forensic accountants that we’ve hired away from the FBI and we follow them around and get their bank accounts. Sometimes they’re so stupid and put on Instagram when they’re on a jet and stuff like that. We’re able to shut down, some stuff we give to the Treasury department as long as they didn’t have to use our name the Trump Treasury Department would take the stuff we gave them and shut down these bank accounts of these war criminals, and also we went to the banks and they’ve been incredibly helpful doing the same thing. Banks in London we sat down with them and talked through the process of making it impossible for these guys to use dollars and pounds and euros. It’s fun. It’s fun to do. it’s fun to shut these guys down. And then the other element we have, where Amal is the centre, is this trial lodge. So many of these authoritarian governments are using the court system to pretend that they are a legitimate democracy, and they say ‘well we put them through a trial, it went through a judge and a court and they were found guilty.’ And the judge is also the prosecutor. That’s not a joke, that’s happened many, many, many times. So we have monitors now, we’ve had monitors in thirty different countries, Hong Kong, monitoring these trials to create this sort of justice index to say where does this country—and by the way the United States is not number one by any stretch of the imagination—a justice index on where we stand in terms of putting journalists in jail, simple things like that, freedom of speech. It’s really exciting and probably takes up you know, thirty or forty per cent of our days and I love doing it, I love it being part of our lives. Amal is brilliant at it while she’s in the middle of her real world trying to get Maria Ressa to keep her from going to jail and Duterte’s trying to put her in jail. Her line, and it’s really true, is that the people who are reporting these stories are all going to jail and the people committing these crimes are all getting away with it. That’s what she’s working on in her real life, in her job, and then we try to bring what we can into the foundation. It’s really exciting.
FS: So that thirty, forty per cent of your time that you’re talking about, is that an increase on what it was, is that growing?
GC: Growing yes. That’s not unusual for people, you know when you get to be my age as you get older your focus becomes more and more and more about—how much and what, how much you pay attention to your time and what you’re able to do with it and how much you can spend trying to participate in other people’s misery in some ways and try to make it better.
FS: You’ve got this film on Netflix coming up pretty soon before Christmas, The Midnight Sky which I guess is, apart from being terrific to look at and a great adventure and everything is also pursuing a number of these things that you are really concerned about, it’s the way that the human race is pretty much messing things up on one front or another.
GC: Sure. I mean I’m concerned about, you know, leaders of certain countries who have decided to politicise things that Nixon and Regan didn’t politicise. I’m concerned when we talk about the kind of hatred and division that we’ve been going through, and it’s not just in my country it’s all over the world and you know it also takes place in Hungary with people like Viktor Orban, all these—if you played those out over thirty years it’s not at all inconceivable that we would blow ourselves up or burn ourselves to the ground or blow a hole in the atmosphere. That was sort of the idea, that’s what we stepped into when we started the movie. We wrapped in February and then the pandemic shut us down for post-production. We did that from my home, the editing room in my home. As we were working on it, it became clearer and clearer that it was also about how deeply important it is for us to be able to communicate, and deeply important it is for us to connect with one another in real life and not like this. I miss my parents, I miss being with my mum and dad and it’s a rip off to take a year away in their late eighties. It’s not fair. So I miss—you know the whole world is going through the same trauma at the same time, it’s going to be years of getting through that. Not me personally, of course it’s traumatic but I haven’t lost a family member or a job… I’ve been incredibly lucky in this pandemic so I’m not making it about my misery, I just mean the globe in general is dealing with this inability to be next to one another. You can’t say goodbye to your family members. It’s rough, it’s a rough time and it’s going to take some time to heal.
FS: Clearly that sense of sort of global catastrophe pandemic is kind of timely in that sense isn’t it as you say—
GC: That’s unfortunate yeah. That would never be something you would ever hope for. It’s surprising how badly we dealt with all of this because we were the country who put someone on the moon. We’re usually the ones who—the United States is a funny country, we’re the country that, and Winston Churchill actually had the greatest line about it: ‘they always do the right thing after they’ve exhausted every other possibility.’ There’s real truth in that but I’m always an optimist about us and feel like we’re going to get through it, and we are. There is light at the end of the tunnel, we’re going to get through all of this and we’re going to do it together. It is frustrating we have to keep reliving the same lessons and that was the part of the movie too that is about, you know if we’re telling ourselves the truth it’s about redemption in a way. It’s about—for me it was always a story that ultimately always had to have redemption at the end. Then it is literally on the beach and it’s the darkest film ever. It needed to have some redemption because regret is such a cancerous thing as we get older. Regret, and friends of mine who are older than me, it really wears them down. They’re angry and mad that time has caught up and they haven’t done what they wanted to do or pursued their dreams or any of that stuff. Deep. That was all part of what I thought was interesting in this story.
FS: And also the themes of isolation too, inevitably. The physical isolation that we see. In this tiny little excerpt that we’re going to see it’s where your character, the wonderfully named Augustine Lofthouse, what a name—all the associations that come into that name!—he’s setting out across the Arctic waste with a small child who has mysteriously appeared in his office.
FS: Battling through the blizzard there through the frozen wastes. That looked pretty persuasive as frozen wastes go.
GC: That was Iceland. It was cold. It was a funny thing, we’d go up on this glacier and you’d be sitting there waiting to shoot and you could see for a hundred miles, it’s beautiful and you’re looking out and we’re waiting for the wind to pick up because we need the wind. You’re watching it and once it hits it comes in like a dust storm, it comes straight in like a wall. We were all tied to each other with rope which we digitally took out later. We shot it on sixty-five millimetre so it’s on this giant camera and it’s handheld and the guys are all trying to hold onto it and we’re just getting the absolute shit beaten out of us. The whole time this wave would come in and last two or three minutes where everybody just knocked around and you couldn’t see what you got, and then we’d run in to this van and play it back and see if we got it and we’d go back out and do it again. It was an adventure, that’s for sure.
FS: Again, I suppose one of the interesting things to note is what really motivates you, I mean you’re so proven in terms of acting and directing and producing and big success, you are a star as I said at the beginning. What makes you want to go out and make life that difficult for yourself? What is your motivation now, what’s the great inspiration?
GC: It’s fun. Do you know what, it’s fun. It’s fun—it’s a fun thing. I get sent a script that may or may not be made into a film unless they can get a name that can make it as an actor. This is a tough one because there’s only a couple of actors who can do that now and get it made. So to take it on and say ‘ok let’s go do this.’ Netflix jump in and say let’s go do this, very brave of them to do this because this isn’t a big action film. We did it to be slow paced, to be able to absorb sound and time and music and score. It’s a tough thing to be able to get made and to be able to say let’s put 500 people to work and let’s go do this for a year and a half, it’s fun. I mean look, as I said, I did construction work, I cut tobacco for three dollars and thirty cents an hour, I sold ladies’ shoes at a bargain store, I sold insurance door to door. Those aren’t fun jobs. You live for the weekend when you do those jobs, you do it, you take your pay check, you get home and the weekend comes and you celebrate it because you’re not working and you’re with your family and friends. I celebrate every single day because I get to do what I love. These are the toys you get to play with and until they take those toys away, I’m going to keep doing it. it’s exciting and fun to do and anybody who tells you it’s torture, they’re just lying. We love what we do for a living. If you’re an actor, a director, a writer, a producer, you love what you do or you wouldn’t do it and it’s so much fun. There’s lots of hurdles to overcome but people aren’t dying because if it you know. We’re not frontline workers, we’re very lucky in the way, in the world, the careers that we’ve chosen that we get to do it. I think it’s exciting that we get to tell stories.
FS: Was there a moment you thought or actually could feel if you like the inspiration. Where you could think OK this is what I’m meant to do.
GC: Is there a moment? It’s interesting, it goes way back to acting class. I remember I was in this acting class in 1982 and I got into the class that had all the working actors. Michelle Pfeiffer was in the class and she was in Scarface at the time. There were all these really interesting working actors there and I’d never had a job before and when you first start part of your belief is you can’t call yourself and actor until you’ve been paid. I don’t know why but that’s sort of what happens. I’d never been paid but I started working with working actors and I was able to hold my own which you didn’t think you could do. You’d do a scene and you’d sit down and the acting coach would critique it and say ‘well you know George here’s what you did that was great,’ and you think well if they’re working and I’m in a scene with them and you know I’m being critiqued as equally as they are then why can’t I work. It changed everything for me. When things started changing around, I didn’t think I’d have the career I have, this is a shock—I thought I’d be a journeyman actor, which I was for fifteen years or something, I thought that was what my career was going towards. Usually you don’t get a break at thirty-five years old, usually it starts earlier quite honestly, so I thought I was going to just work and read for projects for the rest of my life and I was fine with that. Then things got more interesting.
FS: I’m going to throw at you a few questions from the audience. First one is actually connected to The Midnight Sky so we’ll start with this one. It’s from Sandro Minnetti, who wonders how if at all the experience of making The Midnight Sky changed the way you look at the world and your place in it, particularly bearing in mind the events of the last year?
GC: I’m not sure that the movie changes your mind. I’m not sure movies—I’m not quite sure movies change people’s minds in general, I think that they just talk about subjects. There are a few times, you and I talked about this before we started, there are a few films that have changed people’s minds, sometimes not for the best. The original of Birth of a Nation, brought back the KKK and changed people’s minds in the worst possible way. Not often, I think most of the time it just reflects where we are and I thought the film to me was reflecting where we are in mankind. This was before the pandemic, as I said. But I did feel like it was reflecting this sort of sad, sorrowful feeling that we’re unable to connect with one another or get along with one another and the issues that could come from that. Things coming from that worry me, they always do.
FS: OK here’s a question now from Darren Campion, and Darren is wondering, we have slightly touched on it, but some actors can’t watch themselves on screen. As a director clearly you have to but it’s that kind of disconnect. How do you actually manage to hold on to that?
GC: Well watching yourself on screen is a weird thing always. It’s a funny thing, since everybody’s got one of these, a phone, they’re all taking pictures of themselves and videos of themselves, so they’ve all seen themselves on screen much more than we used to. My kids, I showed them, we were screening or I was editing and it was on the big screen and I was cutting and the kids came in and Amal said there’s papa on the screen. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s not amazing to them because they’ve seen everybody on screen already. I’m not sure that that—I don’t know, I find that it’s fine. I look at things, I can look back, like you show me Out of Sight and I can look at that and go I look like that guy’s father now. The reality is it’s twenty-five years later I probably could be his father. But I just look at that as—you showed me some scenes tonight I don’t remember shooting those scenes. I don’t remember shooting the scene in ER at all except I remember it was cold. I can watch them and go oh that’s funny. There isn’t a single performance any actor, unless there’s some actor I don’t know, there’s not a single performance any actor can look back at and say give me another shot, I can do it better. There’s not a single one! Every performance you go ‘oh God,’ or think you’ve stepped on something really obvious. But it does reflect the place and time where you were and I think that’s really interesting.
FS: OK now I’ve got an interesting question here from Ken Ross, and Ken says, he congratulates you on your incredible career and O Brother Where Art Thou is one of his most favourite films. He’s saying that in the industry trying to level up to create more opportunities for people with learning disabilities in the film industry. Do you have any ideas, things that could help organisations like BAFTA to give it a boost?
GC: That’s a good idea, a good question. I will say this. There’s an interesting moment right now going on. First of all, I do see a turn towards inclusion that I hadn’t seen in a long time that I’m excited about on a lot of levels. I also see, you know I know there’s this panic about cinemas because they’re not being looked after by our governments which is a huge industry issue. We subsidise oil companies, we could subsidise the movie theatres for a period of time. I’m not worried about us being back, cinema will always exist, we’re all going to be back together, you still have to go out some time right? You still have to go to a concert, go see a movie. You want a collective. But here’s what streaming services have done they’ve democratised and opened up so many different avenues of storytelling for young, interesting storytellers, that when I first came to Hollywood in 1982. If you had a show, like in 1984 I had a show and you would open up the newspaper on a Monday morning to see what the ratings were and there were sixty-four shows and you’d see what your number is and see whether you were going to have a job next week. Maybe fifty of them were acting jobs, some of them were new shows. Fifty shows and maybe fifty films were being made, there was no room, there was no room for any of these, for opening other doors, all of these other experiences that are just being shoved away or being played by an actor who isn’t working with these disabilities and all these kinds of things. But now between the streaming services there’s thousands and thousands of acting jobs and directing jobs and producing jobs. The world is open and the world is in need of content. So I’m really excited as I see this blossom, in the idea that we’re going to be getting more and more and more of this opening up. I completely understand the question and I think we’re going in the right direction. I hope, look I’ve been wrong before about this but I think we’re going in the right direction.
FS: Thank you very much indeed. OK so I’ve got, before we wind things up because we’re getting to the end of our time now, I’ve got a question about—you said just now about Paul Newman, you said there was a real movie star. This whole thing about being a star, because you are, I mean you have whatever the star thing is, you have it. I wondered if you had any reflections, not to say I know why I am, but it is interesting that there are so few people who seem to attract that.
GC: I don’t know. I can’t comment on that because I can’t comment on how people perceive or how I am perceived by people. I can comment on movie stars in general. I know a few of them and I’ve known some big ones. I was really good friends with Gregory Peck, he was a big one. Newman, there’s some other ones I’m friends with who are movie stars, proper movie stars. Brad Pitt’s a movie star, Julia Roberts is a movie star. I suppose the only thing—I can’t remember who it was, a government official once said, you know I can’t give you the definition of porn but I know it when I see it. It’s sort of that way with those stars, there’s not one specific thing, there’s something intangible about them that I see, that is impossible to describe it’s just… You watch Gary Cooper who is an interesting actor and Bogart and actors like that and you go ‘why are those guys movie stars? He doesn’t look like Cary Grant,’ but you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Same thing with Spencer Tracey, you couldn’t take your eye off that guy. No matter what he did you’d watch him like clockwork. Can’t describe it, can’t figure it out but it is something I think is a real thing and people are attracted to that. Sandy Bullock’s a movie star, and I worked with her and I’ve known her since she wasn’t a movie star when we were both young actors and even then there was something about Sandy that you just knew she was going to be a hit. I knew it when I first met her and she was dating my friend Tate Donovan, and she was just this really nice young girl who was a good actor—well didn’t know if she was a good actress because we hadn’t seen her act. But she had something about her. My wife will say things like ‘they just have to have [clicks] that.’ There’s something about that with the actors that I know, if you’re asking me about other movie stars. For me, I wouldn’t dare comment and couldn’t comment on how other people perceive me, but the people I know who are stars—you know, Gregory Peck, he was eighty and sitting in his chair, I remember I was with him the night of the 2000 election and it was when they at first announced Al Gore had won then came back and said actually no we think George Bush has won. He leans over and is like ‘it’s a son of a bitch, ain’t it?’ And I was like it’s a son of a bitch, Gregory. Just this beautiful deep voice kind of laughing about it and how insane the world was. But his voice just you know, at eighty or late seventies or whatever it was, he was a movie star then. I can’t explain it. I don’t know why.
FS: Well George, thank you very much indeed. I have to say that The Midnight Sky will be streaming on Netflix from December 23rd—is that right? December 23rd. I should thank TCL who have been the supporting partner for this BAFTA Life in Pictures, and I would like to thank you for your questions, and you wider audience for joining us. But most of all, George, thank you.
GC: Thank you. Thank you for staying up late and doing this too because it’s a long evening for you, so thank you.