IN SEPTEMBER 2009, American writer and businessman Robert Edsel released “The Monuments Men,” a compelling account of a group of middle aged museum directors, curators and art historians tasked with going into Germany in the closing stages of World War II to try and rescue artworks requisitioned by the Nazis.
“The Monuments Men,” produced, directed and starred in by George Clooney along with a very impressive cast including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Leonidas Dmitri, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett is set amidst a war that cost the lives of 65 million people when mankind’s cultural and artistic fingerprint is at risk of being destroyed. Their small group of middle aged museum curators and artists and architects, called The Monuments Men, the most unlikely of spies, who volunteer to go into military service and try and save these things and ultimately recover them.
Matt Damon was one of the many to get the direct approach. Damon further discusses in the following q&a of his involvement in the film and working with a great cast.
Q: How did you first get involved with Monuments Men?
A: “I was on my way to pick up my kids from school and I got an email from George [Clooney] that said, “Are you busy in the spring?” So when I got home, I called him and he told me a little bit about what he was up to and then he sent me the script. I read it and instantly just loved it. That was maybe four or five months before we started shooting. But I literally had no notes on the script at all. Grant and George had done all of the heavy lifting already so it was a very easy movie to just kind of slide right into.
Q: Were you aware at all of the original Monuments Men story and their wartime activities?
A: No, I actually didn’t know anything about it. I’m surprised that such a great story had eluded me in every history class I had ever taken about World War II. And this idea of these guys who were, you know, a little past their prime soldiering years, kind of dropping everything and going through basic training and going to the front, risking their lives to save artwork was just an incredibly compelling story.
Q: You’re friends with Clooney. Does that make the working process easier or trickier in any way?
A: It makes it much easier because, you know, there’s just a shorthand. He doesn’t have to spend any time worrying about my feelings. There’s an implicit trust there that goes both ways. If I’m screwing up a scene, he can say that to me!
Q: What kind of a director is Clooney?
A: He’s both very in control and very relaxed, which is really the mark of a great director. He never raised his voice. There was never any tension on set. Even though this was a very big film, in terms of cost and production value, it went along like we were doing a tiny little kitchen sink drama. It was right on schedule and I think they even came in under budget.
Q: Would you say Monuments Men was similar to other ensemble films that you’ve been in, like the Ocean’s movies?
A: Yeah, it’s similar to the Ocean’s movies, I think. Partly, hopefully, in tone. It should feel fun and entertaining, the way those movies did. And I think in terms of process, it was extremely similar as well: the actors had a blast. But these movies are always the hardest for the director and the producers. So for George, directing and producing and starring in it and having written it, and then Grant – who wrote it with George and then produced it – those guys were very focused and had a lot on their plate. I mean, we were all focused too; we just had less on our plate.
Q: Clooney is notorious for on-set pranks. Were you the victim of any on this film?
A: Well, he never copped to this to me, but he did give an interview saying that he was taking in my wardrobe by like, a 16th of an inch every few days. Which, I had attributed to my poor eating habits while I was making the movie. But it makes a lot of sense when I heard that! [Laughs] Honestly though, he was so busy on this one. He’d always have a big dinner on Saturday night with the cast and the crew. But that was like a two- or three-hour thing and the only free time that he really allowed himself. He and Grant had their heads down on this one.
The greatest heist story in history is about to be told when “The Monuments Men” opens today, February 12 in cinemas nationwide from 20th Century Fox to be distributed by Warner Bros.