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George Clooney, Grant Heslov and the 'reality show' theatrics of politics

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The actor/filmmaker and his frequent producer are once again mining politics, this time with the film, "Our Brand is Crisis."

George Clooney and Grant Heslov are partners in the production company, Smokehouse. They won a best picture Oscar for "Argo" and they've turned the camera on U.S. politics and the media with the HBO series "K Street,"  and the films “The Ides of March" and "Good Night and Good Luck."

This week, they’re releasing a new movie, "Our Brand is Crisis." It’s loosely based on real events in Bolivia, when American political consultants — including James Carville — worked on the 2002 presidential election, resulting in chaos. There was a 2005 documentary of the same name made about the consultants' work.  The fictional film from Clooney and Heslov recasts the story with Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton.

The producers recently sat down with The Frame's John Horn.


People who have not seen the 2005 documentary on which this film is loosely adapted might be surprised to learn that, even though it's fictional, a lot of what happens in the film is based on a true story. This is a period film that is oddly contemporary all of a sudden, isn't it?

CLOONEY: It's never not been contemporary. It's about the process of how we elect people — whether we export it to Bolivia or whether we do it here at home. Grant and I shared an office with Mary Matalin and James Carville and Stu Stevens while we did "K Street." We got to see a lot of process going on there, behind the scenes, on how you elect people. I think it's a fascinating insight into the idea of how impersonal and how much of a business it is — and less about an ideology. 

Is there a moment in history now that makes this film the right one to tell at this moment?

HESLOV: It wasn't so planned, but I do think it's the right film to be telling at this moment. When you watch the debates, how we elect our officials, you look at this film and you'd feel like we planned it.

CLOONEY: After the Democratic and the Republican debates, you'll also watch the spin room afterwards, which we've been in. It's an amazing event where each of these people try to go off and tell people what they saw. Watching the spin version of it, it feels really contemporary.

What did you see when your dad ran for office that influenced this film, or made you think about the issues you wanted to address?

CLOONEY: The money involved in electing people. My father was running in a small district in Kentucky. You're not really fighting for Cincinnati, Ohio dollars. You don't have to raise that much money. But you have to raise enough. And it was still a couple of million dollars to run for Congress. 

Here's the deal. Let's say you get elected and you're making $150,000 a year, which isn't much to live on [when you're] flying back-and-forth to Washington. But, on top of it, you're already starting to fundraise because it's only a two-year term. So you start immediately afterwards. And the influence of money then becomes incredibly important because you can't survive without it. You can't get elected without bundling money together. And my father had a very tough time being the guy that would make the kinds of deals you have to make. And there are deals you have to make to be elected. I was very proud of him for not being that guy.

Why set the movie in Bolivia? What were you getting that you couldn't get if you set the story in the U.S. or elsewhere?

HESLOV: When you export the way we elect our officials here, and you put it into another world setting, it highlights it. It also doesn't hit it over the head in a way I think it would if we did it here.

CLOONEY: It shows how ridiculous it is, how silly it is when you take a genuine emotion like crying and [say], "Well, if you'd just turn towards the camera so the tear comes down your cheek." And that happens.

That's not ridiculous though.

CLOONEY: And that's part of the idea. Great tragedies or successes in real life are used to try to move the electorate.

We recently spent some time with Beau Willimon on the set of "House of Cards," and with Jay Roach, [who's] shooting the LBJ movie. They both have very different ideas about using their filmmaking soapbox to talk about issues. Beau says his isn't a show about issues or politics — it's about a couple and it's about power. Jay says: "I have a voice. I have a chance to affect debate." Where would you place yourselves on that spectrum?

CLOONEY: Part of what we've been doing over the years is reflecting on things, not necessarily [trying to] affect debate moving forward. When we wrote "Good Night and Good Luck," it was because I was angry at being called a traitor to my country for saying we shouldn't be going to war. We looked at the times in our history when speech and dissent were not defended by the press. They took a pass during the lead-up to the Gulf War. It was interesting to compare those two. People seemed to understand that.

But for the most part, we were holding a mirror up to our recent history to say, Are we sure this is how we want to do this? And if so, I want to make sure we all know this is what we're doing. We're not trying to lead the debate. We just want to make sure we don't forget what got us here.

HESLOV: We always like people to leave the films that we make at least having some sort of discussion about the interests that it's raised.

How would you go about fixing the political process?

CLOONEY: Well, I'd do everything I could to get Citizens United overturned. The idea that you could think that some group is willing to put $800 million into an election and doesn't think they'll get something from it, and that group happens to run an oil company, well that's idiocy. Money isn't speech. It never has been. That's a ridiculous argument. So I think that's the first step. Then, redistricting is huge. Gerrymandering is the next thing. Nobody [in Washington] has to go home and face real criticism, and because of it they can polarize the government. And both sides have done it. But I think that that's a huge, huge part of why we're as polarized as we are. Those are two gigantic things we have to look at. And the reality is that at some point we will. Because the great thing about our country is — honest to God, if you look over our history, we've done a lot of dumbass things over the 200-some years we've been around. But we fix a lot of them as we go forward. And we make sense of them. And we hold people accountable, sometimes, or usually. So I have great hope in the idea that at some point we'll get rid of those things.

Do you think this movie is optimistic like that? Like you are?

CLOONEY: I think it is. I think there's a great optimism in the idea that [Sandra Bullock's character is] looking for some redemption. In one way, at least, the redemption is that she's not going to continue selling her soul to the devil.

What do you think you can do as an actor or a filmmaker that's more effective than being a candidate?

CLOONEY: Well I don't know that there's anything more effective. You can't make policy when you're an actor. All you can really do is make moments louder that matter to you. But I don't have to compromise and I don't have to make deals. 

Clearly you can't do the same thing as a politician. I can give you plenty of examples of politicians who would talk about the genocide in Armenia. They would talk about it as a reality, which of course it is. There was a genocide in Armenia in 1915. There's no argument about it. Now, history has changed and the Turks don't want to talk about it anymore. And because we have military bases in [Turkey], suddenly those same politicians who before could say, "Yes, there was a genocide," can't talk about it now. You can't call it that. I've had conversations with senators where I'll say, "Can we talk about the Armenian Genocide?" and they'll say, "Absolutely not, because Turkey is our partner in the war on terror."

So, how can artists change a conversation like that? 

CLOONEY: Well if you look at certain versions of that — and you can point to probably the Vietnam War as one of the firsts where artists had a real impact in bringing attention. The civil rights movement — artists were a big part of that. You could also point to Nelson Mandela, which was a policy no one paid attention to until mostly the music community got a hold of it. There are times where you can at least make it loud enough that you can't ignore it, and that's a big part of it.

Why did it take so long to get "Our Brand is Crisis" made?

CLOONEY: The honest truth is we were busy for seven years. We just had other films we were doing. We got a call from Sandy [Bullock] a couple years ago and she said, "I read 'Our Brand.' What would you think about changing the lead into a female character?"

The character of Jane was a man at that point. Had you cast it at all?

HESLOV: No, we really hadn't touched it ... so George and I looked at each other and we thought, Wow, that actually adds another level that we'd never planned on. It almost turned us upside down in a way we thought was really interesting.

CLOONEY: It is also a very funny thing when she first said it. My first instinct was like, Yeah but this is for a guy. And then Grant and I were talking and we were like, Actually, why? We changed it to a girl's name and almost all of it immediately turned. It wasn't like you had to put breasts on the character to make it work. It really just worked. And Sandy was completely right about it.

This is obviously a movie about the dark side of political campaigning and strategy and negative attacks. You guys worked on "K Street," which was similar. You've been around a lot of politicians. Has the creative and personal work that you've done changed your view of politics for the better or the worse? 

CLOONEY: There isn't that much difference between the work and the behind-the-scenes that we've been able to do. And how it's been exposed to almost everybody know. I think everybody knows who Karl Rove is. I think everybody know sort of how campaigns are run. It's not much different from what we got to see. We had a different view of it because we were literally in an office with Mary Matalin and James Carville.

Who are "we," though? You're not talking about the American people. The American people don't have this level of knowledge.

CLOONEY: Sure they do. Turn on any channel on TV. You can watch Fox News, you can watch MSNBC if you're right or left. And you'll be able to get some version of the machinations of how we elect our officials that we didn't have or understand 10 years ago. And that's part of why I think there's a bit of a disenchantment with politics in general. And probably a big part of the rise of [Donald] Trump. He doesn't have one of those people because he is his own spin doctor. I think that people are sensing that there are puppeteers and strings being pulled. They have a greater awareness of that, for good or ill.

HESLOV: What worries me a little bit going through all this is it feels a little bit like reality television has sort of trained people to perceive things in a certain way. So, with Trump and with all the craziness that goes on, that seems to be attractive to people. As opposed to, really, what it's about? Which are the issues.?

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