During World War 2, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi forces were plundering the culture and art of occupied Europe. Hitler’s intent was to create the largest museum of artistic works the world had never seen. A group of soldiers came together to defend these works and reclaim what they could. They were called the Monuments Men. In theaters Friday, the film of the same name follows this group of critics, artists and intellectuals as they join the war effort to reclaim the culture of a continent for the world. We caught up with Grant Heslov who co-wrote the script with co-star/director George Clooney to talk about the film, Bob Balaban and the tone of Monuments Men.
Nerdist: What is the writing process like between you and George? Do you take turns on the script?
Grant Heslov: We don’t really. We write together. We sit in a room together and we write it out. We talk about it. This one we did a lot of research. Our office was covered. All the walls were covered. We had a researcher, actually, who basically compiled photos and timelines and maps. We had everything. It was the whole room was covered. We break the story. We figured out. We worked with the writer of the book for about a week. He came out in like a class, basically. Eight hours a day we’d sit with him and go through stuff. We break the story. We do three-by-five cards. We put them on the wall. We move them around. We figure out what we’re going to do. Then we sit down and we start popping at the seams.
N: You gave the audience plenty of time to take in the scene; the phrase “pregnant pause” comes up in my mind. With the subject matter you were dealing with, how important was that to you to let people process?
GH: I think when we write, we definitely wanted to take people on a ride, but we wanted to orchestrate the tempo of the film. For instance, the moment when Matt [Damon] and Cate [Blanchett] are walking through the building or when they find the gold. These reflect-moments we want them to breathe a little bit. We want the moments to land with the play. Some of that is just [that] George is the director of that. We’re willing to let those moments play.
N: One of the things about the film that I really liked was if you gave a character a trait, you let that character be the one to own the trait. You let the audience relate to that person for those feelings. Bob [Balaban] is clearly the audience’s frustration with World War II. It makes him one of the most relatable characters. This guy is pissed. He knows what’s happening and he’s mad. What was that process like defining the characters, as you go through the book and you know they’re based on real life?
GH: Bob’s character is based on a real guy, this guy Lincoln Kirsten who was a New York sort of … He started the New York Ballet and he was an impresario. Some of that is what Bob brought to it, being an actor and making his choices. The idea behind that character really was a guy who … and we don’t address it. The character is Jewish, but we never talk about it. Some of that is probably the subtext of Bob playing those beats. I love that character, I love his character’s great. I love the relationship that he and Bill [Murray] have.
N: It’s weird to say that somebody who has had such an established career had a breakout role in a movie.
GH: Yes! Bob’s been around forever, but he’s never. That’s why it’s so fun that he gets to be the junkie and do the press and all that stuff. I don’t think he gets that much. He’s a character actor.
N: Since we’re speaking about Bob there, there’s one scene that I really need to ask you about, if it came up when you were writing it between you and George. Did you already know you were going to be putting Bill Murray in dentist chair again?
GH: Yes, we talked about that. We talked about it, but that really happened.
N: I audibly laughed.
GH: [laughs] I would be lying if we didn’t say that he did that in real life, but it felt that we needed that.
N: You’ve made a very human movie where people aren’t always funny and they’re not always serious. These are people who use humor to process tragedy. When you guys were discussing those beats, did you know what rhythm you wanted going into it, or did you feel those moments between the two of you?
GH: We did know. We knew we wanted when we made the film. Then we had to go, and when we edited we had to say, “Okay, too many jokes here.” For instance, at the sniper scene when Jean and John find the kid and they have that little dialogue, “You go. No, I want to go. I hate my wife,” all that stuff. There was more there. There was more back there. There was some really funny stuff that happened.
N: I was about to say I didn’t hear “I hate my wife” in the final film.
GH: It wasn’t, yes, it wasn’t in there. There was more banter there, but we had to lose it because it undercut the scene. That happens. It’s the same thing when, I’m sorry, the same thing when we made Argo. That was the same. We had to balance the humor with the tension and the drama. I think it was the same exercise at this one. That was the trickiest part of making this film.
N: Is there any worry at any point that we have become such a media-hungry society that people are going to overlook research and what actually happened? Suddenly, a fictional character is going to carry this legacy?
GH: No! I’m not too … I don’t worry about that. I feel like I think people are sophisticated enough. My hope is that people will get like I do when I see a film. For instance when I watched American Hustle, I got on the Internet after because I wanted to really see what happened with that Abscam. That’s not. They didn’t tell the true story of Abscam. They took a lot of creative license. It was great to be able to. It didn’t diminish the film for me though. I also know that. If you look at a film like Batman, it’s not all accurate. You have to tell a great story. You got to find great story moments.
N: How does it feel to know that you’ve made a film where it can mean a lot of the details mean something very different to different people?
GH: I love that! Yes, I think it’s great. I think it is. I loved making a film. I think any kind of art, painting or music that people bring their experience to it. To me that’s the greatest. In some ways that’s the greatest compliment. The film causes people to … it brings up whatever feelings, emotions, memories in ways that we never even intended. It works the same way when you work with actors. You write a scene and the actors bring it to life. They bring something to it that you never intended or never imagined when you were writing it that makes it better. This part of the process is fantastic.
The Monuments Men is in theaters Friday. Are you excited to see it? Let us know in the comments below