By George, He’s Got It!

Roger Durling Chats Movies and Life with George Clooney

Modern Master Award, Friday, February 3, 8 p.m., Arlington Theatre

It’s been quite a year for George Clooney, from writing, directing, and acting in the acclaimed Ed Murrow vs. Senator Joseph McCarthy black-and-white epic Good Night, and Good Luck to his dedicated onscreen work — weight gain, bad injury, and all — in the controversial Syriana, a film about going to war over oil. Both films, unfortunately, are poignant social commentaries for today’s global affairs, which goes to show that Clooney’s careful selection of films reflects his concern for the frightful trajectory of current events. Simply put, he’s a likable face on a progressive mission to inform the public, via mainstream means, about what’s really going on. That’s masterful indeed.

Along the way, Clooney also wore behind-the-scenes pants on such box office hits as The Jacket and Rumor Has It …, the TV show Unscripted, and a remarkable short film called The Big Empty, with Selma Blair. As we said, quite a busy year, and 2006 isn’t looking any less busy.
We asked Roger Durling — an occasional contributor to The Independent who, as director of the Film Fest, has unique insight into why the actor was selected for the Modern Master Award — to chat with Clooney. What follows is an edited transcript of that telephone conversation.

Have you noticed the films that are getting all the accolades and nominations this year? It feels like we’re in the ’70s — politically charged movies, socially conscious movies, a movie that revolves around a homosexual love affair (Brokeback Mountain), a movie that is about class relations and racism (Crash). And then, your movie (Good Night, and Good Luck), which deals with journalism, hypocrisy, and the disintegration of civil liberties. Well, I think that, unfortunately, we’re in the ’70s for other reasons as well. … Socially and politically we’re also having the same sort of concerns again. That is reflected in films. It’s reflected in television. It’s reflected in news. And I think that it’s good that it’s reflected.

The great thing about democracy is that we do tend to, at some point, step in and say that we are concerned about the National Security Agency’s secret wire-tapping, and we are concerned about a Patriot Act that actually tears into civil liberties. I’m not sure we want to trade that, even if you want to say it’s for safety.
There are a lot of those issues playing out in public and I think that films are reflecting that. So, I don’t know that it’s as much that film is conscious as it is us reflecting. I think you’ll agree — if you sit around a table outside a restaurant in Santa Barbara now, you’ll hear a lot more political talk than you would have five years ago.

What do you think about the timing of the release of Good Night, and Good Luck? It couldn’t have been more perfect with the disclosure of the National Security Agency’s activities. When you read Murrow in 1954 saying, “We will use fear to erode our civil liberties away,” I thought that was interesting then. It’s just that it’s become more and more timely as the last two years have gone on. I don’t find us being particularly good at just outwardly saying, “This is what you have to do,” because we’ve been sort of marginalized and polarized. So, I tend to find ways to say, “These are issues we should talk about,” because I do think these are issues we should talk about. I think that they should be, as Murrow said, “argued about endlessly.”

I’m fascinated that you have successfully used your stardom to get political films made without alienating your audience. There are some actors out there who are very politically active, but their voice becomes strident. Listen, I have great, passionate feelings about the direction our country has gone in. I think they’re embarrassing and I think they’re sad. But, they’re also cyclical. And we did do this when we rounded up Japanese-Americans in 1941, you know? We’ve done these things before because we’re scared. I find that if you pick something that matters to you — and matters to at least 50 percent of the country — and jump up and down and scream about it, oftentimes you’re just appealing to that 50 percent of the country and the other 50 percent is polarized and knocked away.
And I find that the best way to do it is with a sense of humor. The guys who’ve done it the best — and that includes Kennedy, for that matter — always had a sense of humor. That includes Reagan, saying, “I should’ve ducked.” We liked Reagan, even if we didn’t agree with any of his politics because we sort of thought he had a sense of humor. We liked Kennedy, even if you were a conservative, because of the same thing.

What’s your fascination with the media? Your first film as a director, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, dealt with the media, and Good Night, and Good Luck deals with the same subject. You direct what you know. I’m really familiar with television and broadcast journalism. That’s what I grew up in. I spent my life on the floor of a newsroom and around talk-shows and around game shows. I’ve been behind the scenes the whole time I was growing up, so I understand it very well. I have a clear view about what is great about it — and I think there’s a lot of great — and what I think is bad about it. So I feel that you should write and direct and talk about things that you have a good understanding of, or at least have a good point of view of.

One of the things I admired most about Good Night, and Good Luck was the overlapping dialogue. It reminded me of Robert Altman. I stole things from Robert Altman. In fact, I talked to Elliott Gould about how they shot M*A*S*H and whether it was the actors adjusting the volume of their performances or was it done in the mix. I did a lot of things but mostly it was about using two cameras and miking everybody.

But some of the scenes felt so freshly improvised … Some of them were improvised, within a structure. … I did two television series in a row, K Street and Unscripted, and learned so much from doing that about how you can form a fairly tight outline — how you can tell a story, and then give everybody a certain bit of information so they make their own truth, make their own piece of information. And then, put them in a room and they’ll give you exactly what you need.

Those actors all got newspapers in the morning from October 4, 1954. They’d come in, and they would type up their stories. And then I’d have two cameras running, and I’d sit down like my father used to do in the newsroom and say, “Okay, what’s your lead?” And they would each pitch me their lead, just as I’d seen my father do for 15 years. So it gave a real sense of personality to the stories.

Working with director Steven Soderbergh and the Cohen brothers, you must’ve learned quite a lot. (Laughing) Sure. Learned. Stole. Whatever word you want to use.

What drew you to the complex story of Syriana? Well, I’d been interested in the idea of everyone’s complicity. The thing that was interesting to me was the terrorist boys who end up blowing up an oil tanker. [It shows that] the idea of fighting not against a state but against an idea … is terrorism. …
No one’s ever won that war ever in the history of the world … [as well] no one’s ever won the war against terrorism. … It’s not something you can go bomb away.
The truth is you have to understand why it is people feel a certain way. It doesn’t make the other people right, it doesn’t make these two young men right at all, but if you’re going to keep it from happening, you can’t kill them. You’ve got to understand why it’s happening and do what you can to try and change that. … That was an important story to be told.

For a little bit more of a frivolous question, you gained about 30 pounds for your role in Syriana … It was actually about 35.
How difficult was that — and you got injured filming? It was not comfortable to put it on, but it’s been a very tough time. Not just taking it off, but I got hurt so badly. … I’ve had several operations. I had to do a procedure today. … You know, I’ve spent a quarter of the year in and out of the hospital.

You’ve had a rough year, but ironically, career-wise, you’re having one of the best years of your life. Certainly this year and the first year on ER were the biggest years, career-wise, of my life. But, I would say that physically it’s been, without question, the worst year of my life. You know, it’s hard to explain. … If you’re talking to a doctor, they understand what spinal fluid headaches are like but they are everyday, and they are brutal. So it’s an ongoing process.

Do you feel vindication now that you’re a respected writer, director, and actor? You only feel vindicated if you felt somehow slighted before. And I’ve never felt slighted. I’ve always felt lucky to be working as an actor. And then I felt lucky to be working as a writer and then as a director. I’ve always felt lucky. So “vindicated,” I don’t think, would be the proper word.
When I did Confessions, for the most part, people were surprised what kind of film it was and the way it was told and the kind of storytelling I was doing, and that made me happy and made me feel good about it.
And this film [Good Night, and Good Luck], in many ways, is the same thing. The same thing with the shows I was doing. I’m really proud of those shows. K Street suddenly looks very prescient as Jack Abramoff and lobbyists start to become the main point of every news story.

The Modern Master Award is not something that we give out every year. We gave it to Peter Jackson, prior to you. And, it goes to somebody who’s proven themselves in several aspects of film. You were perfect this year. You’re actually overqualified. That’s very nice of you. It’s been a good year for me, I’ll tell you that.

We’re thrilled that you’re coming to Santa Barbara. I can’t wait. It’s gonna be fun. I love Santa Barbara. It’s a stunning place to be. I was there for Confessions and I just thought, it’s just filled with people who really like film and it’s always nice to be around.

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