The writer, producer, director takes on depression era football
For his third directorial effort, producer and star George Clooney is tackling America's nascent pro-football league in depression era 1925. Clooney plays Dodge Connolly in Leatherheads, a charming, brash football hero who is determined to guide his team from bar brawls to packed stadiums. When the players lose their sponsorship and the entire league faces certain collapse, Dodge convinces a college football star to join his ragtag ranks. The captain hopes this latest move will help the struggling sport finally capture the country's attention.
We recently caught up with Clooney for a sit down chat about his latest project. Here is that conversation:
How does George Clooney the director work with George Clooney the A list actor?
George Clooney: It's funny. With the three films I've directed, the other two I only had bit parts in them. I wasn't the lead. It becomes tricky, because there is an enormous amount of narcissism that comes into play. You are breaking the trust between two actors when you are in the lead. If you and I are doing a scene together and we're talking, I'm not supposed to be judging you as an actor. Some actors do that, and they'll tell you what to do. In general you're not supposed to break that trust. The director is. If we are doing a scene and we finish, then I go, "Okay, cut. Now try it like this." It really requires an amount of trust. You have to go to each of the actors before you start and say, "Listen, this is going to be awkward." You just get it out in the open and lay it out early. You say, "It's gonna be strange all the way around." As an actor, it's easy because I know precisely what I need to do in that scene. I've cut out that step where the director has to explain it.
Why did you choose to take the starring role in your own film this time out?
George Clooney: The truth is, I did it because I wanted to play this part for a long, long time. I always thought I was the right guy to play it. I also thought, "I'm 46. If I don't do it now, I'm done. This is it. This is my last shot at it." Soderbergh was going to direct it in 1998, when we were going to do it and I was very excited about that sort of prospect. Things kind of moved on. The script wasn't in shape. We had an outline. We had two or three scenes that we loved and characters that we loved, but we didn't have a plot. Some years passed. I thought, "I want to do something that is completely away from what I have been doing." I like screwing with different genres. This was a world I knew a little bit about. The style of film I knew. So, I spent a summer stealing from Philadelphia Story, homaging the hell out of those types of films. And Hail the Conquering Hero sort of helped too. I was stuck in this world where I was going to direct it, and I was going to play the lead. What I hadn't really paid attention to was that I was also going to be playing football. And it hurt. The first day I got hit by some 21-year-old that knocked me on my ass. I was like, "Okay, I'm in trouble because I've got four more months of this." I would never, by design, do a film that I would play the lead in ever again. It was really one of those things where all of it came together very quickly. It was a dumb move in some ways because it was a little too much to take on.
As a director, who did you look to for inspiration on this new film?
George Clooney: I stole from Howard Hawks and Preston Sturgess in a big way. I'm trying to think of whom all I stole from. Wait, it's called an homage. I homaged the shit out of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturgess, and early George Stevens. There is a film called The More the Merrie we were trying to rip off a lot. It was an homage-off!
How difficult was it to time the rapid-fire dialogue? John Krasinski said it was like acting on your front foot as opposed to reacting. That you are always thinking about your next line?
George Clooney: We called it front foot acting. The tendency is to internalize it. That's great, and it's made for some of the most amazing work ever. You're almost answering as if you couldn't have heard the question. It has to be that quick. We'd rehearse the scene as if we heard it all, and then I'd go, "Now go! Go, faster, faster, faster, faster." To the point where it's too fast and then you have to go, "Okay, now we can slow it down." It's just one of those things where you have to understand that it's a rollercoaster. It'll go really quick and then it will slow down. That finds itself when you rehearse it a few times on the set.
How would you describe your time spent shooting in North Carolina?
George Clooney: It was really fun, actually. We were looking for a place that would have a change of seasons, but not quite the Minnesota change of seasons we'd get while shooting in February. That didn't really seem fun for us. It didn't seem like we were going to be able to catch everything we wanted. We needed some scenes with trees. We knew that we could change the colors from green to orange and red digitally, if there were some leaves on the trees. But we knew North Carolina would be great for old stadiums. That was important to us. And they also had a bit of a change of seasons. We ended up getting caught in some pretty cold weather, shockingly, which was unfortunate. But I'm telling you, we loved both North and South Carolina.
Where did all of the mud come from?
George Clooney: Nature provided the mud. We then shipped it all into that football field. That is the same field where we do the opening sequence, where John runs a touchdown. We came back a month later and shipped in tons and tons of mud. We had to do mud testing to find the right mud that would stick to you. And it was sort of funny that first day, because it was seventy degrees, and we all just jumped in the mud wallowed around. You get up and you start shooting. But that stuff adds another thirty pounds to you. All of a sudden, you're running in mud. Then the next day, it was twenty degrees, and we were covered in mud. It was just mudsicles. We looked like fudgesicles out there. It was miserable. It was about four days of truly miserable shooting. It took us a week to do that whole sequence. It was really complicated because there is a lot of CGI in that scene.
What was it like working with the cow?
George Clooney: That Cow almost killed us. I'm telling you, it took us four different times to get that cow to stand still and look the right way. "Look over here." It would look the opposite direction. It's like working with Krasinski really. It's very similar.
Why weren't you in the "I'm F*cking Ben Affleck" video?
George Clooney: They asked me to do that. I was working. I would have liked to have been in that. I do love Jimmy Kimmel. I've been with Ben Affleck and I will say on the record, he is a bobcat in the sack.
Can you tell us anything about Burn After Reading?
George Clooney: I'm playing Harry Pfarrer in the film. I have now leaped heads and shoulders over the other idiots I have played. This is my trilogy of idiots with the Coen brothers. This one is going be fun. I actually had to go and do an extra shot yesterday. I grew a beard back for half a day's work. I went in there and they showed me little bits of it. I was like, "Turn it off, I don't want to see it. It's so big." It will be fun, though...I think. The only thing that makes me feel good is that Brad (Pitt) is an even bigger idiot than I am in it. It makes me feel safe.
Can you address this rumor that you may be coming back to ER?
George Clooney: All of that stuff came up on the Internet. I got calls yesterday saying, "I heard you are going back to ER.'' I never heard of that. I don't know. It would depend on who asked me. John Wells is a good friend. I have a funny feeling it's not really fair to the other actors on the show necessarily. But who knows? It's not something I'm against. Literally, my office is fifty feet from the ER stage. They are still family there. It's not like I've gone away.
Leatherheads opens this Friday, April 4th, 2008.