It was the story of a black family moving into a white neighborhood in Levittown, PA, in 1957 that first set George Clooney on a path toward directing Suburbicon, which had its world premiere in Venice before traveling to Toronto this week.
When the mailman got wind that the family unpacking in Dogwood Hollow was black, he went door to door to tell the neighbors, and by the end of their first day, there were harassers banging on drums and erecting fences in an attempt to drive them away. “I’d been thinking about making a film about that story,” Clooney told me at Deadline’s Toronto studio yesterday, “but it’s hard to find a full feature out of it.”
Instead, he dug out a script he’d read that the Coen brothers had written many years ago: Suburbicon, a richly comic film noir about life in the suburbs of the 1950s and one family’s inexorable slide into insurance fraud and murder. The finished film combines both stories, brilliantly hinting at the ease with which seemingly good people can make bad choices so easily and masterfully puncturing the notion of the American Dream prosperity of the postwar period. “I loved the idea of our take on the suburbs,” Clooney said. “It was that Leave It to Beaver time when we thought everything was simple — and if you were a straight white man it was. But other than that, it probably wasn’t.”
He’d alighted on the Levittown story in the wake of last year’s fierce presidential election. “I’d been seeing a lot of things on the campaign trail, talking about scapegoating Mexicans and Muslims, and I always like to look at stories backward and remember that nothing is new.”
It was Clooney’s marriage of this true story with the dark noir comedy of the Coens’ script that appealed to Julianne Moore, who plays twins in the film and stars alongside Matt Damon. “I was quite intrigued by—and when I saw the film, really impressed by—the tone,” she told me. “It’s wonderful how it leads you in with the sense of being clearly very entertained by these slightly comedic everyday people. And as it proceeds, the tone changes, and it becomes darker and darker until it’s really, truly noir; bad people doing bad things. It leaves you in a very thoughtful place because you have this juxtaposed against this actual storyline.”
The movie has taken on an added resonance in the wake of the Charlottesville protests, adding a literal layer Clooney wasn’t expecting. “It wasn’t designed to be that,” he said. “You don’t have to be a soothsayer to realize we’re going to constantly have to deal with these issues; they continually pop up. It’s too bad we’re still fighting these fights. I didn’t think we would, growing up in the ’60s in the South. I thought after segregation was gone we were going to really move forward, and we didn’t, really. We stalled. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Clooney related a story from his father, a news anchor in Cincinnati, who in the 1980s covered a skinhead protest. “Six idiots, Fountain Square, Cincinnati. They’re saying all the stupid things those idiots say. There are about a thousand people around them yelling at them. My dad covered it because it’s a news story, but then he went up to the top of Carew Tower, which [was then] the tallest building in Cincinnati, and he shot these six little, tiny people in a town of 400,000. To put into perspective how little they represent of us.”
It’s important, Clooney says, to bear that in mind. “When you see those idiots [in Charlottesville] carrying torches and stuff—those chickenshit little pussies walking around with their stupid little Tiki torches—they don’t represent one percent of this country, and that’s the truth. And so, we have to fight against it and stand up against it, but we have to remember that they don’t represent enough to spend that much time thinking about them.”
See more from Clooney and Moore in the video above.
Deadline Studio at TIFF 2017 is presented by Calii Love, Watford Group, Philosophy Canada, and Equinox. Special thanks to Dan Gunam at Calii Love for location and production assistance; and Ontario Camera for equipment assistance. Video producer: Meaghan Gable; lighting and camera: Neil Hansen; design: Dialla Kawar; sound recording: Ida Jokinen.