‘The Monuments Men’: Saving the art behind enemy lines

George Clooney and Grant Heslov sat side by side recently at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills for a panel discussion on their new World War II movie, “The Monuments Men.”  Both are credited with writing and producing the film, which opens on Feb. 7, but they couldn’t appear more different. Clooney, 52, looked suave and square-jawed, every bit the movie star famous for films such as “The Descendants” and “Up in the Air.” Heslov, 50, meanwhile, was soft-spoken, thoughtful and slender with soulful brown eyes and tousled curls. 

Yet their friendship dates back to when they were both struggling actors, and Clooney was so broke that Heslov had to loan him $100 to get his headshots done.

Throughout the years, the friendship flourished and the pair are now two of Hollywood’s most sought-after filmmakers — Heslov co-wrote and produced Clooney vehicles including “Good Night and Good Luck” and “The Ides of March,” while Clooney produced and starred in Heslov’s 2009 directorial debut, “The Men Who Stare at Goats.”  Last year, both men took home best-picture Oscars for producing the Tehran hostage crisis saga, “Argo.”

Along the way, Heslov said, he has gotten used to being elbowed out of the way by Clooney’s eager fans:  “I have literally been stepped on; I’ve been practically raped,” he quipped.  “But I could never be like George, ever.  I just don’t have the constitution for it.  I covet my privacy.”

Heslov has kept his relatively low profile intact with the release of “Monuments Men,” which is based on a true story and stars Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray as a team of museum directors, artists, architects and curators who went behind enemy lines during World War II to rescue master artworks stolen by the Nazis in order to return them to their rightful owners.

Heslov only learned about these efforts while browsing through a bookstore at LAX several years ago, when he chanced upon Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s 2009 “The Monuments Men:  Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” at the time one of only a couple of scholarly books written.

Heslov devoured the tome, discovering that this team from the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives division of the Allied forces were hardly seasoned soldiers, but rather mostly middle-aged art professionals. They were assigned to protect historical buildings from the Allied bombs and to ferret out the Vermeers, da Vincis and such that had been stashed down deep salt mines or in Mad King Ludwig’s neo-gothic castle at Neuschwanstein.  Their mission became all the more urgent in the last days of the war, when Hitler decreed that all the plundered art would be destroyed.

Heslov said that in writing the screenplay, he and Clooney didn’t think of the story as a World War II movie per se, but rather as a heist film. Even so, the plot could not help but touch on the Holocaust.  

For Heslov, one of the film’s most poignant scenes takes place as Damon wanders through an impossibly vast warehouse crowded with artwork stolen from the Rothschild family and other French Jewish collectors.

“What is this?” he asks Blanchett’s character.  “Peoples’ lives … Jews,” she says.  

At the press conference, Clooney noted that the set for that scene was “based on a real photograph; in Paris they collected all of the belongings of Jewish families and in fact set up rooms that looked like showrooms for blocks and blocks.”

From left: George Clooney and Grant Heslov, co-writers and co-producers of “The Monuments Men,” on the set of the film.

In another sequence, the soldiers are searching a mine when they are aghast to discover two barrels filled with gold teeth removed from Jewish bodies.  “In reality, they found barrels and barrels of that kind of stuff, but George and I talked about the idea that making it smaller would be more impactful and more personal,” Heslov said.  “It was our way of addressing the Holocaust without getting too far off track of the story we wanted to tell.”

Heslov said he personally identifies in particular with the Jewish character of Sam Epstein, played by Dimitri Leonidas and based on the real-life survivor Harry Ettlinger, who fled Nazi Germany the day after his bar mitzvah and was inducted into the Monuments Men, initially as a translator, while serving in the United States Army.

As a youth in Karlsruhe, Ettlinger couldn’t go see the famed Rembrandt self-portrait that hung just three blocks away from his home because the local museum that housed it was banned to Jews.  Then, in the deep caverns of the salt mines in Heilbronn-Kochendorf, he chanced to lift the masterpiece from a crate and joyfully viewed the painting for the first time.  “It’s a beautiful story,” Heslov said of why the writers included a similar sequence in the film.

Clooney felt guilty about casting German performers to play the baddies of the film:  “I felt bad,” he said, “because for about 65 years German actors have had to play Nazis, and you’re bringing them in to read and you’re just going, ‘I know, I’m sorry, but I do need you to sort of be really mean.’ ”  

Heslov grew up attending Temple Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes, where his father, a dentist, was a founding member.  As a boy he aspired to become an actor, and later attended USC’s drama school as well as Milton Katselas’ renowned acting class when he was 19.  It was there that he met Clooney, then 21, and their friendship took off when Clooney asked the younger actor to perform with him in a scene from Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”

While Heslov went on to snag roles in a number of TV shows and films, including “True Lies” and “The Scorpion King,” he recalled having “an epiphany” while waiting for an audition for a tiny part in a sitcom 12 years ago.  “I recognized all these middle-aged actors from ‘The Bob Newhart Show’ and ‘All in the Family,’ ” he said.  “And I knew I just couldn’t be 50 and auditioning for a three-line role.  So that led me to want to be a writer and a director.”

Heslov enjoyed some good notices for his ensuing short film, “Waiting for Woody,” based on his own disappointing audition for the reclusive director.  Around that time, he had a heart-to-heart conversation about his career with Clooney, who invited him to work at Section Eight Productions, the company Clooney founded with director Steven Soderbergh in 2000.  When Soderbergh left the company six years later, Heslov and Clooney together created Smokehouse Pictures, which not only produced “Argo” but also the current Oscar contender “August:  Osage County.”

At the “Monuments Men” press conference, Heslov and Clooney cited the recent discovery in Munich of a billion dollars worth of masterpieces that had been hidden by the former German art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, noting the ongoing international struggle to return Nazi-looted art to its rightful owners.

“If the movie can help to raise awareness about this, we’ll be thrilled,” Heslov said.

“The Monuments Men” opens in theaters on Feb. 7.