After nabbing Oscar notice for recent dramas like Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Michael Clayton, it was time George Clooney lightened things up. This week’s Leatherheads does just that; a 1920s period piece about the early days of football, the sports comedy — produced by, directed by, and starring Clooney himself — also strives to recall the golden age of the feisty, fast-talking screwball comedy.
Clooney’s debt to the likes of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks is both apparent and considerable, as he acknowledged recently at a press day in Los Angeles. What he jokingly admits to as “stealing” is quite obviously homage, as the central romance in Leatherheads — actually, a love triangle between Clooney’s huckster footballer, Renee Zellweger‘s sassy reporter, and John Krasinski‘s star athlete — often gives way to lively Tommy gun patter resembling classics like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby.
Read on for more with George Clooney on being on both sides of the camera in Leatherheads, the limitations of the screwball comedy in modern movies, paying homage to the classics, and completing his trifecta of idiots in the next Coen brothers film.
Leatherheads pays tribute to the classic screwball comedy in a big way. Were you going for a Hawks-Sturges kind of tempo?
George Clooney: I stole from Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges in a big way. I stole a scene. Wait, homage. I homaged the s— out of Howard Hawkes and Preston Sturges and early George Stevens. There’s a film called The More the Merrier that we were trying to rip off a lot.
How does George Clooney the director work with George Clooney the actor?
GC: Of the three films I directed, the other two (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck) I had parts in but I wasn’t the lead. It’s tricky, because there is an enormous amount of narcissism that comes into play. You’re breaking the trust between two actors, particularly if you’re in the lead. If you and I are doing a scene together, I’m not supposed to be judging you as an actor — now, a lot of actors do, and they’ll tell you what to do, but in general you’re not supposed to break the trust; the director is. As an actor, it’s easy, because I know specifically, precisely what I need in the scene, so I cut out one step. But it’s embarrassing when…you’re sitting across from Renee [Zellweger] and she’s doing a tremendous job in a scene, and you can feel the camera is in too close, too soon, and you just go, “OK, cut. Let’s try that again.” It’s a weird, awkward thing but you just acknowledge it off the bat and get over it.
Is the sort of rapid-fire dialogue and timing in Leatherheads unnatural for a modern actor?
GC: We called it front-foot acting. The tendency, probably since Montgomery Clift came on the scene, is to internalize. That’s great, and it has made for some of the most amazing work ever, but what gets lost in that is that ability to…almost answer just as if you couldn’t have heard the question. It has to be that quick. The difference is, you can’t do it exactly like Rosalind Russell. She was brilliant, but if you took that performance and put that into a modern film…it would just be like an impersonation. So with someone like John, or someone like Renee — they’re actors who don’t feel contemporary, which is important. There are a lot of actors who just feel like it’s 2008 no matter what you do.
We had the same problem with Good Night, and Good Luck. You had to have actors that didn’t fill everything with, “You know,” and both [Krasinsky and Zellweger] are very crisp, clean actors. We’d rehearse the scene as if we’d heard it all. And I’d go, “Ok now, faster, faster, faster,” to the point where it’s too fast then we’d slow it down. You have to understand that it’s a rollercoaster and it’ll go really quick and slow down. That finds itself when you rehearse it a few times on the set.
The Coen brothers did something similar with The Hudsucker Proxy. Did you talk to them about that?
GC: No, but I certainly watched Hudsucker Proxy…because, you know, I’ve stolen — homaged – the hell out of those guys over the years. And certainly there were things on this film that I was using that were from other films they’ve done. But Hudsucker I loved; I know people love to smash that film, but I really love that movie. But you have to be careful that it doesn’t leak into an impersonation of any kind.
Why make Leatherheads right after your Oscar-nominated role in Michael Clayton?
GC: Right after Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana, everything that was coming to me was an issue film. They were happy to let me direct, but they were going to be the Richard Clark book — “We’re gonna do the big Valerie Plame story” — whatever it was, it was going to be something political. And I had a great fear of being the “issues” director. Because the issues change. And I have a much bigger interest in being a director. So I thought, “I want to do something that’s completely away from this,” and I like screwing with different genres. This is a world I knew a little bit of. So I spent a summer stealing — homaging — from Philadelphia Story, those films. The thing I came up with, it’s horrible, really, was the whole John Kerry-swiftboat thing; the idea that he’s holding a secret. Not that I thought that John Kerry wasn’t [a war hero]! It’s just that I thought, well what if he wasn’t really a war hero, and if there was an innocent way to do it where you didn’t make him a bad guy?
Renee’s character seems to be a throwback to the old heroines of screwball comedies, like Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn…
GC: In the original draft of the film, John’s character and Lexie were boyfriend and girlfriend in college, and they came out together. She wasn’t active, she had nothing to do. And, I was now too old to be stealing the college girl [laughs]. So it felt as if it needed to be changed and she needed to have something to do. Really, it was more about…there weren’t women sportswriters in 1925; they’re fighting to do it now, even. So it felt like that was a great ballsy thing to be. But it wasn’t a comment on the press, I was just having fun.
What kind of idiot are you playing in the next Coen Brothers film?
GC: Well, first of all, I’m playing this character, Harry Pfarrer in Burn After Reading. I’ve now leaped heads and shoulders over the other idiots I’ve played; this is my trilogy of idiots with the Coen brothers. That one’s gonna be fun. I had to go and do an extra shot yesterday, I grew a beard back for half a day’s work, and they showed me little bits of it and I was like, “Turn it off, I don’t want to see it!” It’s so…big. The only thing that makes me feel good is that Brad [Pitt] is an even bigger idiot than I am in it, so that makes me feel safe.
Leatherheads is in theaters this week and currently has a Tomatometer of 45 percent.