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

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
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

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

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
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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