July 1, 2005

Hybrid philosophy gets Clooney top mileage

By Anne Thompson

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Wouldn't it be great ifmore movie stars were like George Clooney?

He's the modern model: He's too cool to demand a $20million salary to prove his self-worth; he writes, directs andproduces; and he expends his movie star capital to push for thethings he believes in.

"I'm a hybrid," Clooney said last week after he acceptedthe Los Angeles Independent Film Festival's first Spirit ofIndependence Award. "I succeed in both worlds. I hope thatselling out on 'Ocean's Eleven' is not such a bad deal. Thetrade-off is, I get to go make something uncommercial that willprobably lose money."

Clooney is confident enough to go toe to toe with Fox News'Bill O'Reilly or to protect a movie extra from an abusivedirector or to coax not only fellow "flaming liberals" to joinhis campaign against hunger in Africa but also Pat Robertson aswell. (On ABC's "Nightline," Clooney got the televangelist toadmit that in certain extreme situations, condom use is a goodthing.) And when a completion bond company backed out ofClooney's second directing effort, the $8 millionblack-and-white drama "Goodnight, and Good Luck," starringDavid Strathairn as newsman Edward R. Murrow, Clooney offeredto put up his house, worth $7 million, to insure the moviehimself.

This is not your average star. So though Clooney boasts aproduction deal on the Warner Bros. lot, he has more thanearned the label "independent." Along with his Section Eightproducing partner Steven Soderbergh, Clooney balances suchbig-budget studio pictures as "Ocean's Eleven" and "Ocean'sTwelve" that rake in cash with riskier fare that he sometimesstars in and produces -- such as "Solaris," "Insomnia," "FarFrom Heaven," "Welcome to Collinwood," "Criminal" and hisdirecting debut, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind."

Section Eight's next three movies also push the edge of thestudio envelope: Besides "Goodnight, and Good Luck," in thefall Clooney will star in the provocative Middle East terroristthriller "Syriana," written and directed by Oscar-winning"Traffic" writer Stephen Gaghan -- "We're going to get in a lotof trouble for putting a face on the evildoers," Clooney says-- and he is just starting to shoot Soderbergh's post-World WarII mystery "The Good German," which he also expects to stircontroversy.

So it wasn't a total surprise when, on Saturday night,Clooney accepted the Spirit of Independence Award "for someoneof undeniable integrity who inspires us," as Film Independentdirector Dawn Hudson put it. After a fancy sit-down awardsdinner in a Westwood office penthouse, during a probing Q&Afrom film critic-turned-studio-exec Elvis Mitchell, Clooneyrevealed his unusual filmmaking philosophy.

"Steven and I have a great relationship inside the studiosystem," Clooney said. "We make the kinds of films we want andcommercial films at the same time. Steven and I have lost a lotof money. We are way in the hole. But this is not a day job.I've got some cash. I have a nice house in Italy. I do OK."

Clooney's change in approach came, he said, after hestarred in two studio duds, "The Peacemaker" and "Batman &Robin." "I got tagged. So I said, I've got to be responsible.What are you going to do at 70 years old and they're doing aretrospective and they're all big commercial films? I startedlooking for scripts. I held out for a year."

Clooney went on to make Soderbergh's "Out of Sight," theCoen Brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" David O. Russell's"Three Kings" and Wolfgang Petersen's "The Perfect Storm." Now,the triple threat prefers to take more chances on movies byslashing his salary, as he and the ensemble cast did on the"Ocean's" movies.

Basically, Clooney figures that it makes sense to take his$20 million upfront salary and put it onscreen to produce abetter, riskier movie -- hopefully along with a few other moviestars to help carry the picture. (It's also a lot lessstressful and more fun.) This "Ocean's Eleven" model "has paidme big-time, on the back end," he said.

It's a smarter bet to finance and market a $30 millionpicture with three stars, Clooney argues, than a $40 millionmovie with only one. "If you do that," he said, "you're free totry and pick the best films possible. I don't want to work withpeople where you feel like they're just collecting footage. Ifyou want to get these films made, you have to be an investor."

It was not easy to put together "Goodnight, and Good Luck,"a serious drama set during the McCarthy era that Clooneyinsisted on shooting in black and white, which lessens a film'svalue. The only way to wedge nonmarquee actor Strathairn intothe leading role was to play CBS News chief Fred Friendlyhimself, Clooney said: "I cast myself to pay for the film.That's part of the deal."

Clooney looks back fondly on the '70s golden age, he toldMitchell, "when the inmates were running the asylum." He hasassembled 100 films from the period to give to his friends,including all the best movies that were released between "Dr.Strangelove" in 1964 and "All the President's Men" and"Network" in 1976: "One of the great dark comedies ever," hesaid of "Network." "Everything Paddy Chayefsky wrote about hashappened."

On the horizon: Clooney plans to follow up his most recentCoens film, "Intolerable Cruelty," with "Hail Caesar," abouttheater actors in the 1920s putting on a play set in ancientRome. "The star would have an idiot toga and a pencilmustache," he said. "This would complete my idiot trilogy."

That's another thing we like about Clooney: He enjoysmaking an ass of himself. Onscreen, that is.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter