Fun encounter with The Monuments Men

Raymond de Asis Lo, L.A. Correspondent (The Philippine Star) - February 10, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Have you ever wondered what happens when you put together in one room five of the biggest stars in Hollywood along with 30 or so international journalists with various story angles to cover? It’s one boisterous, fun hour of good-natured ribbing and bantering, especially when the stars have found someone to focus their attention on.

Two weeks ago, The Philippine STAR was invited to the junket for the new film The Monuments Men and, if you must know, the epic adventure film set during World War II has one of the year’s biggest and most star-studded casts!

Matt Damon! Cate Blanchett! Bill Murray! John Goodman! Jean Dujardin! And George Clooney (who also directs!).

Yes! And all of them, with the exception of French superstar and Oscar winner Jean Dujardin, were present during the junket in Beverly Hills. It was one of the best starts to any year this writer slash movie fan has ever had. How much fun? Well, with permission, I took lots of “selfies” with them and it wasn’t just me. There were many others who had their “selfies” taken with the superstars after the one-hour press conference.

And, during that one hour, Matt took most of the teasing from George, a notorious prankster and jokester, and, quite surprisingly, from the beautiful and radiant Cate. (Yes, up close, she does sparkle!)

Cate, who is the favored Best Actress winner at next month’s Oscars for her masterful turn in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, surprised many when she teased Matt about his turn as Michael Douglas’ lover in the Liberace biopic Behind The Candelabra.

“Can you imagine my disappointment? I thought I was going to be working with Bill Murray!” she jokingly replied after I asked her how it was working with Matt again. (They did The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1999.)

Her funny retort elicited huge laughter from everyone. Even Bill obliged a rare smile. The Oscar-nominated actor sat mostly silent during the junket with his iconic smug look — but he did smile when I asked him for a “selfie” after.

“The pitch to her was that she wouldn’t have to work with Matt,” George added to what Cate said. “I lied.”

“Yeah, but we have aged relatively well,” Cate said continuing the set-up to her joke. “The last time we were together was in Ripley in Italy… and in between times he made Behind The Candelabra — fortunately I hadn’t seen that before we made this film.”

“Oh, we did!” George exclaimed. “Mamma Mia!” The room has gotten so loud at this point.

Matt, ever sport, happily played along with George and Cate although he would later disclose the impressively elaborate prank that George did to him while filming the movie.

Apparently, George was tipped that Matt was trying to lose weight during the filming of the movie so he did what a normal prankster would do: He conspired with the wardrobe department to adjust Matt’s costumes a size smaller every two weeks.

“This was a job that I’d go back to New York where I was living with my family and then I come back for, you know, two weeks, then I’d go back to New York and every time I came back my pants were tighter,” Matt recalled. “It was weird because I go to the gym! It’s nice having friends like that.”

“Yeah, I was only looking after you,” George told Matt with a wicked smile on his face.

Luckily, there were instances during the press conference when Matt got to hit back at his friend, prompting a witty remark from John Goodman, considered by many as one of the greatest comedians ever.

“This is like an emotional strip club,” commented John after Matt gave George a glowing and almost false praise while at the same time emptying George’s wallet. “I am out, I am out!” George finally conceded holding all the $20 bills in his hand.

Working on this movie, Matt recalled, was “one of the best experiences I ever had.” “I’ve worked with some of the best directors in town and he belongs in their company — or even ahead of them,” he added to George’s utter embarrassment.

“George is obscenely talented as a director, I have to say,” Matt continued. “It can be a little annoying because it is, kind of, God said, ‘Maybe this time I’ll give one man everything! How about this dude? I’ll make him handsome and as he gets older, he’ll even look better!’”

The press conference did turn serious at times specially when talk focused on the sensitive theme of the movie and George’s epic career in Hollywood.

The Monuments Men is George’s fifth feature as a director and it is based on the remarkable true story of the greatest treasure hunt in history. The film retraces the unlikely story of a group of inexperienced artists who undertook one of the most dangerous yet unheralded missions during the war. Their mission was simple: They have to go to Germany to recover art masterpieces from the Nazis and return them to their rightful owners, most of whom were Jews, but getting there and getting out of there are the biggest hurdles that they had to cross.

“I’ve worked with really great directors over the years and see what they are doing and just steal it,” George humbly declared. “The truth is you hope in the same way as everyone: You succeed some, you fail some and you keep slugging away. I really enjoy it. I like it more than acting now.”

As a director, he takes pride in having the opportunity to be able to tell stories that he feels are important for the world to know and his motivation for The Monuments Men can be gleaned from the movie’s premise: What does art do for us? How does it represent us? Why is it so important that you should kill so many people but also try to eradicate their culture?

Art represents “people’s lives.” That is how Cate’s character in the movie answers that question.

“The power of the story is that it shines a light and a perspective on what we previously thought were very well-known facts,” the actress said addressing the subject of the film. “The power of cinema is that it draws on that collective history and the film harnesses our understanding of the Second World War but yet opens a door into a very particular and noble and quirky bunch of guys — and girl, who really changed where we are now and what we understand of contemporary culture to be.”

But when you ask that question about art, there’s always got to be a joke somewhere when you have Matt or George in the room and we wouldn’t end the junket (or this story) without a wise crack from either two.

“There are some art forms I don’t think we need to preserve. I mean, interpretative dance?” Matt volunteered.

To which George replied, “Boy, are you going to get letters now!”

The Monuments Men opens in theaters on Feb. 12.

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