On a recent day in New York City, George Clooney joined his longtime producing partner, Grant Heslov, to talk about their latest film: The Monuments Men, about the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit that, in the waning days of World War II, sought to rescue millions of pieces of art looted by the Nazis. The film marks Clooney’s fifth directorial effort, and represents the kind of film that he and Heslov have been dedicated to making since forming their company, Smokehouse Pictures, in 2006 making such films as The Men Who Stare At Goats, The American, The Ides of March and Argo.
When Clooney talks about the back end, he refers to a strategy of leveraging his star power that he didn’t invent but has nonetheless potently reinvigorated over the past several years, agreeing to waive or dramatically reduce his usual $15 million salary in favor of a percentage of the film’s revenues. It was that strategy that allowed films such as Syriana, Michael Clayton, Up In the Air and The Descendants to be made, and it’s that strategy that Clooney has adhered to at Smokehouse and, earlier, at Section Eight, a company he started with Steven Soderbergh. As both director and producer, he paid himself $1 to co-star in Good Night, and Good Luck, about journalist Edward R. Murrow.
It’s also a strategy borne of what might be called the “After Batman” era of Clooney’s career, which hit a painful pivot point in 1997, when he starred in Batman & Robin.
“Until then, I had just been an actor,” he told The Washington Post. “I had only been an actor in TV series, and then I got E.R. and E.R. became this big thing.” His breakout feature roles – One Fine Day, From Dusk Till Dawn and The Peacemaker – all came about because he was eager for the work. “And then I get a call, ‘Do you want to be in ‘Batman?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’”
“With all of those things, it was just me as an actor going, ‘Look at the part,’” Clooney continues. “And after I got killed for Batman & Robin, I realized I’m not going to be held responsible just for the part anymore, I’m going to be held responsible for the movie. And literally, I just stopped. And I said, it now has to be only screenplay. Because you cannot make a good film from a bad screenplay.”
The next movies Clooney did were Three Kings, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Out of Sight, directed by David O. Russell, the Coen brothers and Soderbergh, respectively. “Those were all great screenplays,” Clooney said. “And great directors. So there’s an understanding of, that’s what I’ve got to focus on.”
Clooney’s career has been a testament to shrewd commercial choices — the Ocean’s Eleven franchise was a huge success, and he had one of his famous back-end deals on last year’s science fiction epic Gravity, which is approaching $700 million worldwide at the box office. In the ensuing years, Clooney has also mastered the art of celebrity comportment, becoming the kind of old-school movie star that most famous actors today, with their dressed-down play dates and daily-grind trips to Whole Foods, eschew. With features out of the Grant-Gable look book, a rakish motorcycle, an Italian villa and a near-constant string of gorgeous girlfriends, Clooney is our closest thing to a matinee idol of the old school. Even when he’s up to his ears in problems and production details while directing a movie, he’s been known to take time to greet locals who have been waiting for hours to catch even the briefest glimpse of him. Along with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, Clooney has made working a rope line less a smile-and-wave quick-step than an improbably moving ritual of connection and magnanimity.
“I grew up in Kentucky, and I remember Raymond Burr coming to my home town,” Clooney said. “I understand what it’s like to see someone famous in person. It actually sort of catches your breath, and I understand what that’s like. So . . . it’s a dance you do, and it requires a little bit more patience than you would think, and it requires tuning out things that would really upset you otherwise.”