Sunday, December 18, 2011

George Clooney Is Having A Very Good Year

Despite the inordinate gossip-media attention George Timothy Clooney gets for his love life, this dapper male star deserves the spotlight for his other assets -- acting talents, social concerns, creative work, self-effacing humor and general good-guy demeanor.

Earlier in 2011, The Ides of March was released, a film Clooney directed and performed that's earning his co-star, Ryan Gosling, award noms including a Golden Globe. And now that the suave 50-something has starred in award-winning director Alexander Payne's latest, The Descendants, Clooney's revelatory performance is garnering numerous nominations, some of which will surely result in wins.

Clooney plays Matt King, scion of an old Hawaiian land-owning family, who re-connects with his two daughters -- 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scotti (newcomer Amara Miller) -- after his wife Elizabeth winds up in a coma through a boating accident. While coping with this tragedy, he grapples with new and old responsibilities.

They travel from Oahu to Kauai to confront the young real estate broker, Brian Speer (played by Matthew Lillard), who was having an affair with Elizabeth before her misfortune. But there's much more to Payne's adeptly woven story than this simple plot line.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, George is the son of local newscaster Nick Clooney, who hosted a talk show on a Cincinnati station for many years. Since he was five, he often frequented the studios at Clooney senior's invitation. Declining to compete with his father, he quit broadcast journalism to pursue an acting career and made his TV debut in 1978.

As Clooney gained fame portraying Dr. Douglas "Doug" Ross on the long-running medical drama ER (from '94 to '99), TV provided him with his first accolades. During the series, he attracted a range of leads in films such as 1997's Batman & Robin and Out of Sight (1998), where he first teamed with frequent collaborator, director Steven Soderbergh.

In 2001, Clooney's celeb status expanded with his biggest commercial success, Soderberg's re-invention of Ocean's Eleven, the first of a profitable trilogy based on the 1960 movie of the same name starring Rat Pack members including Frank Sinatra, who played Danny Ocean, Clooney's character.

Clooney made his directorial debut a year later with the 2002 bio-pic thriller Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and has since directed Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Leatherheads (2008) and now The Ides of March. He won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the Middle East thriller Syriana and has received two Golden Globe Awards as well.

Also a social activist, this Renaissance man has served as a United Nations Messengers of Peace since 2008. Clooney's humanitarian work also includes seeking a resolution for the Darfur conflict, raising funds for the 2010 Haiti earthquake, 2004's tsunami and 9/11 victims and in creating documentaries such as Sand and Sorrow to raise awareness about international crises.

The following Q&A is culled from a New York Film Festival press conference preceding its 2011 NYC premiere and following its debut at last year’s Telluride Film Festival.

Q: How did you come to do this film?

GC: Well, Alexander failed to find me fascinating when I met with him for Sideways, which I've not yet let go.

Then it was about two years ago -- this time, almost [of the New York Film Festival premiere of the film] -- that we met in Toronto and [Alex] came and said, "I have a script coming I'd like you to look at." 

And I said, "I'm doing it whether I read the script or not" -- which didn't work with Batman & Robin, by the way. 

Q: And how did you work out your scenes with Judy Greer, who plays adulterer Speer's wife -- which are very intense, pivotal moments in this film?

GC: Do you remember what our first scene was ever? Not in this movie. We did a scene in Three Kings and our first scene together is us having sex up against the desk.

Q: Surely George Clooney in real life will never be cheated on by a woman, so what would you do if it ever happens to you?

GC: No idea, because I know how any answer will read.

Q: So much depends on your relationship with the daughters in this film. What was the process of your coming together as a family? Did you do any sort of bonding exercises?

GC: Yes, we did bonding exercises. I would say, "You guys stay over there and don’t talk to me."

No, it’s a process that I very much embrace in the rehearsal process. We’d go over the scenes a little bit, but mostly it’s about spending time with one another.

Because the truth of the matter is, once you get to a set, everything is so different. We could sit here and work out the hospital scene, but the blocking alone is different.

Everything changes so drastically when you finally get to do that.

The rehearsal process in general is about trusting one another, and so a big part of it was just getting to know the gang and all of us getting the ability to feel comfortable enough to give each other shit. But there’s some truth in that, and once you can get to that place, it’s easy.

The lucky thing is that they’re all such talented actors. But we got a really good script and a really good director, and that sort of protects everything else. 

Q: They really managed to put you into the ugliest pants. 

GC: Those were my pants.

Q: How did you work with the costume designer and why wear those pants?

GC: I’m not completely against khakis, it’s just the level you have to wear them at. The higher you pull them, the more excruciating it is.

This whole process was just about schlubbing up a little bit, and this seemed kind of easy to me. I grew up in Kentucky; this is standard, just different colored shirts.

Q: Speaking about colored shirts, how was it filming in Hawaii?

GC: Well, most of the time I’m working in places I’m not familiar with. Sometimes that’s Slovakia, and then sometimes it’s Hawaii -- and not to bash on Slovakia, but I really did enjoy Hawaii, as you can imagine.

I think everybody will agree, it’s a great script, great director, and you’re shooting in Hawaii; there’s no downside to this. It was fun for me. I haven’t spent much time there, and certainly not in Oahu, Honolulu, so it was fun to see.

It’s such an island, it really is an island. On the freeway the speed limit is like 45 miles an hour, and it takes you awhile to get into that rhythm. So I’m driving behind people and I’m like, "Move it!" and they’re like "Hey, hey, hey."

I was an alien because I wanted to go 50 miles an hour. But that’s just my problem. Eventually you got into their rhythm, so that was fun. I really enjoyed it there.

Q: So how different then was it to shoot in Hawaii versus being in your places of origin like Cincinnati, where you shot some of shooting Ides of March?

GC: Well, I didn’t have relatives on the set every day. When you’re shooting in your hometown, you’ve never met so many cousins. I mean really, they were like, "This is your cousin;" I’m like, "I have no idea who that is, but okay, you’re my cousin." I didn’t have a whole lot of that in Hawaii.

Q: The crux of The Descendants is notions of forgiveness, maybe redemption. What are your thoughts on forgiveness, both in the context of the film and in real life?

GC: "I forgive you. Now I don’t forgive you. I take it back." You’re absolutely right, there’s a big part of it [that's] forgiving yourself... because so much of what happened was also his responsibility.

I think a big part of that release at the end, when he’s with his wife and he looks at her and he kisses her goodbye, is understanding his part in this as well. Yes, she cheated on him, but he was not there and he was not a good father as much as he thought he was. He was busy working. And that happens.

So part of it was coming to understand that, and I think that forgiving yourself is a very big part of that. I think we all go through those experiences of understanding that the older you get, the more forgiving you are of other people’s mistakes.

When you’re young, you find that anything that stands against something you believe in is just plain wrong. I remember there would be relatives of mine who would say something and I would say, "Well, he’s a bigot," and then come to find out later that I was way too judgmental. I was making the issue much bigger than it was.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist" Goes Beyond Words & Wins Awards

Wily provocateur and indie screen mogul Harvey Weinstein sees beyond the obvious and recognizes value in some rather offbeat films. Thankfully, that support has so far paid off. Four of Weinstein’s pictures won awards at this year’s Golden Globes, with a bloc going to one of 2011's most unusual films -- The Artist.

In making The Artist a black & white, silent movie, French director Michel Hazanavicius defied expectations. For anyone else, this would be not only a strange concept, but a retrogressive idea, simply a throwback to another era. Yet this veteran French filmmaker employed a sufficient sense of irony to take the idea beyond preciousness and imbue it with a wit and charm that makes it feel both classic and contemporary.

The director works from an eternal scenario. In 1927 Hollywood, the arrival of talking pictures creates turmoil for silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) who fades into oblivion as he resists the change.

Meanwhile, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young dancer gets a big break by meeting Valentin, shifts into stardom by embracing the talkies while George sees a reversal of fortunes. As he slips into near-poverty, George and his dog Jack (Uggie) stay true to each other as everyone else moves on -- except Peppy, who, in the end, offers him a chance to redeem himself and share the spotlight with her.

And now that the film has been nominated for 10 Oscars, the film racks even more attention as a cautionary tale: adapt to new technology or get left behind.

The following Q&A with director Hazanavicius is excerpted from an exclusive roundtable held before The Artist’s American debut at the 2011 New York Film Festival.

Q: Even before the pitch, why did you think you could do this and that we would want to see it?

MH: You never know, actually. You can't be sure. I said to the producer, "First, I have to write the script, and I'll know after that if the movie's doable or not." In writing the script, I had to find all the solutions of how to direct a silent movie, and what you're going to ask of the actors and what you're going to ask of the director.

In this case, [the director is] myself, but, in a way, it's pre-directing the movie. I had this exit in a way, and if the script was not convincing, we would never do the movie.

Everybody tells you that nobody wants to see a silent movie, that nobody wants to see a black & white movie. People think that black & white, silent movies are old, and they're right. But they're old because they were been done in the 1920s, not because of the format.

The format is really good. I had the hunch that the format would allow me to do a very specific movie. You just have the hunch that there's a good movie to do. 

If you do a script with the normal paper and letters like this, when people read a script, they just read the dialogue. They never read the action, except maybe for action movies.

It was really just action here, and over three pages you have just one card. So we tried to do a nice object, and that's what we did. We did an object that respected the ratios.

It was a square paper, old paper, like a little bit yellow, typewriter letters, a little bit bigger. That makes people think that it was easy to read because they turn pages often, more often than like this. We put a lot of pictures, photos in the script. It was the producer's idea and I think it was a really good idea.

Q: The script will be a collector's item...

MH: Yes.

Q: How long did it take you to storyboard it?

MH: The script was, strangely, very fast to write -- four months, which for me is very fast, and especially because I spent a lot of time watching movies. Usually it takes me six or eight months, and it's not the dialogue that takes me four months, it's very easy to make the dialogue.

The storyboard, I don't know. I drew [them] myself, so I would say three weeks or maybe a month. But it's during the preparation, so I don't do just that. I work on the storyboard the morning and the evening and then do other things.

Q: How did you cast Dujardin and Bejo?

MH: I wrote the script with them in mind. I wanted to see them as actors in that kind of story, in that kind of element.

They have ageless faces, and are really credible in period movies. They don't have modern faces. And when you put a costume on an actor, that helps a lot. [Actors] don't move the same way [in a costume].

The other actors, the American cast, I found with casting director Heidi Levitt, who was really great; we tried to work with some expressive actors because there are a lot of great ones.

When an actor like John Goodman (who plays the studio mogul, Al Zimmer) says something, all of his body and face express what he's saying, so I had to work with that kind of actor. I've been very lucky that a lot of great actors joined us on that movie.

Q: Was Uggie the dog -- playing one of the film's best actors -- always part of it?

MH: He was in the story from the very, very beginning, in the movie before Hollywood. Hollywood came after the dog.

I didn't realize exactly how important he was at the very beginning, but now when you do the promotion of the movie, you talk and talk, and in talking, you realize things that you've done and you have another understanding of your work.

I realized that that dog is very important for two reasons. The first one is the character -- it changed the main character.

When you create a character, you don't just create one character, you are helped with the other ones, they put another light on the character.

The character of George Valentin is not very sympathetic; he's very egocentric, selfish, and he's very proud. He started the movie with a woman and he finished with another woman.
But the fact that he has a dog who loves him and follows him all over the movie, in a way, it saves him because you trust the dog. You think that the dog knows, that he has instincts, so if the dog loves him, somewhere he's a good person.

The other thing is, this dog is the only friend of George. George has a problem with sound, with the talkies, and his only friend is a character that doesn't speak either because he's a dog. So yeah, he's very important.

You think he's a good actor but he's not. He's a dog. He doesn't act, he doesn't read the script, he doesn't care about the situation, he doesn't care about his partners. He just cares about sausages. That's what he wants for real.

Q: The Artist was shot in only 35 days. What did it take to make a film in such a short time?

MH: It’s as if you tried to paint the Mona Lisa on a roller coaster -- it's crazy. You have to go very fast. The preparation of the movie is really, really important. We always speak of the shooting, sometimes the editing, sometimes the writing. But the preparation -- you [make] all your mistakes in shooting through the preparation, so the more you prepare, the [easier] the shooting is.

That's why I storyboarded everything. We worked very quickly. It was not so difficult to edit because the movie was really well prepared and I didn't do a lot of takes because I had to go fast.

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