EXCLUSIVE: George Clooney meets me at the door of his incredible home in the English countryside, from which he, wife Amal and his Smokehouse producing partner Grant Heslov will commute for the London Film Festival Premiere tonight of The Tender Bar, the film he has directed for Amazon Studios based on the J.R. Moehringer memoir. Having read so much about another home of his elsewhere in Europe, I jokingly ask him, ‘where’s the lake?’ Turns out we are not far from a body of water, the Thames, and there he’ll shoot the rowing scenes for The Boys In The Boat, the drama he’ll direct for MGM on the University of Washington’s unlikely path to win Gold at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany.
The Tender Bar is another kind of underdog story, the path Moehringer took to become a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper reporter who now is reportedly helping Prince Harry write his $20 million memoir. The Tender Bar is exactly the opposite of Harry’s tale though there are equal doses of adversity. The movie begins as a child watches his single mother dejectedly move back into the ramshackle home in Manhasset Long Island where she grew up. His own father a deadbeat dad radio DJ — the youth combs the radio dial to find his distinctive voice and have some connection with him — JR finds father figures in a most unlikely place: Dickens, a watering hole run by his uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), who nurtures the boy’s dreams of being a writer by turning him into a reader. Helping are a few of the regulars who haunt the place, hunched on barstools. The movie is all heart, and these unorthodox father figures help navigate the transition from child to adulthood.
“We are always trying to elevate human authentic stories and create an emotional connection with viewers around the world,” said Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke, who shepherded the adaptation with Amazon Movies co-head Julie Rapaport and Ted Hope, the former Amazon exec who produced this with Clooney and his Smokehouse partner Grant Heslov. “This story is so relatable for its commitment to family and love in the face of so many emotional obstacles; there is an incredible relationship between a mother and her son, but also how a family orbits around this kid they love. And this mentor/father figure relationship that develops so pans out on the screen even more than it did in the book.”
While we wait for Heslov to arrive from the airport, a good chat with Clooney covers everything from Covid to politics, to staying in shape when you reach 60. George used a Keto-based regimen to drop pounds to be ready when he has to jump in a pool shirtless in a romantic comedy with Julia Roberts, with whom he has made numerous films including Ocean’s Eleven, Money Monster and August Osage County. Photos abound in the house of Amal Clooney, his accomplished human rights lawyer wife who is more than a photogenic match for her husband. I suggest she is all the motivation he needs to not turn up fat, for the body shaming he’ll take in the press, if he’s standing frumpily next to her. He acknowledges that pressure, but all in all, he’s aging better than any 60-year old I’ve ever met.
DEADLINE: We were all locked up, yeah. How are you making out with this whole COVID this?
GEORGE CLOONEY: Well, it’s terrible. And frustrating, because there are things we can do to make it less so, but [vaccinations] have become ridiculously polarized…
DEADLINE: It is curious that so many people have drawn a line in the sand, even if it costs them employment, while the rest of us have just gotten jabbed twice and moved on with life without thinking much more about it.
CLOONEY: Also, when did we stop caring about our fellow man? When did we start saying, fuck off, if you guys all got the vaccine, then why do I have to? It has become, like, fuck everybody else, I’m the only one that counts. Societies don’t survive like that. [Anti-vaxxers] keep saying, it’s my right, it’s my choice. Fine, it’s your right to smoke, but you can’t do it on a train. It’s your right to drink, but you can’t do it and drive. I was just listening to this podcast about the rollout of the polio vaccine. A lot went wrong in the very beginning that created some hesitancy. Some kids, they ended up getting polio from the vaccine, early on. There was one factory that was making them that didn’t properly filter out the formaldehyde, and it got some kids sick, and it killed some kids. We haven’t had any of those kinds of failures. This has really been an insanely, shockingly, amazing rollout, when you think we haven’t had any of those kinds of catastrophes. I keep saying, every generation, since the foundation of this country, has been asked to sacrifice something for their fellow man, including dying for your country. The ask here is, get a shot and wear a mask. It really isn’t that much to ask.
DEADLINE: There was no internet and dissemination of misinformation. My fear is, it might take unvaccinated people spreading the Delta variant to their children, and paying an unimaginable price for stubbornness.
CLOONEY: Like polio, with kids. Polio would attack children, and so, people acted quicker because it became, save your kids. My hope is that it stays in the older generations and that we figure it out. I think there is a slow [building pressure], which happens with private industries. Our industry has to get better at it. Our industry has to say, you can’t come to work if you won’t get vaccinated. If you’re going to put 300 people on a set at risk because you demand your rights, then don’t come to work. It should be that way, and it’s happening in some [industries]. The more it happens, the more you can’t fly to places you want to fly to, and the more you can’t go into establishments that you want to go to, you’ll start to go, eh, just suck it up and get the shot.
DEADLINE: It shouldn’t be that difficult, but Sean Penn stayed away from finishing his scenes in the Watergate series Gaslight, because the studio was in a legal bond because its agreement with unions only went so far as to require vaccinations in Zone A, the area where actors and filmmakers intersect directly with crew. Finally, the studio made it so the only people on the set when he’s there are people who’ve been vaccinated. He made his point, but it seems unusual that it has gotten to this difficult place.
CLOONEY: Everything is still chaotic because Trump’s still alive and screaming. There is still this us and them thing, and we need to slow down on that a little bit. At some point we’ll get there, because we’ve been here before, we’ve had the know nothings and we’ll get past them again. The funniest thing is, Trump in a rally said, get the jab, and everybody booed him. So he’s like, okay, never mind. I think he really did it just so when the class action suit comes after him he can say, I told people to get the jab. But the reality is, if he really got out and made a program of it, he’d get another ten percent of people to get the shot, and that’d be enough to kick us over the top. I think that’s one of his most irresponsible things; he was part of getting the vaccination made in the first place. He should be out there bragging about it.
DEADLINE: I’ve read reports that he doesn’t want to help Biden.
CLOONEY: Yeah. Well, because it will help the economy; once people can go back to work safely, there’s going to be a lot more work. So, I don’t know, it’s also just vindictive, it’s just an angry, vindictive, small little man that does angry, vindictive small little things that end up being part of a lot of people dying. You can see these groups who are raging and angry, and they were drummed up by him. He comes back from the hospital, where we find out now, he was much sicker than we knew. He got the monoclonal, and then he comes back and walks up the stairs, where he can barely breathe, and rips off the mask in this show of defiance.
DEADLINE: This is your second film in a row for a streamer after The Midnight Sky for Netflix, and before that it was Catch-22 as a Hulu miniseries. Such a change from the way you switched from ER to movies. It seems unrealistic to make a movie like The Tender Bar for a wide theatrical release, unless you are doing Dune, and even there, it’s going day and date on HBO Max. The Tender Bar will debut for its first two weeks in theaters before it goes to Amazon Prime.
CLOONEY: The last three or four years, the studios aren’t making the kind of films that I’m in or want to do. They haven’t for a long time. So, it has been a game of diminishing returns. The thing that’s been helpful with the streamers has been, they know that they have to release them in movie houses, which has been very helpful for the smaller films. When you do a film for seven million dollars, that’s not going to get a release at a studio on the big screen.
DEADLINE: That’s probably true.
CLOONEY: It’s completely true. [Steven] Soderbergh and I battled to get Warner Independent made so we had some place else to take independent movies at Warner Brothers. Good Night, And Good Luck cost six million bucks, but if you go to big Warner Brothers with a six million dollar film, it doesn’t matter that it got nominated for six Oscars. They have a piece of machinery where, the minute that film gets slotted into it, they’re going to spend a minimum of 35 million dollars, much more usually, in prints and ads. They don’t know how to do it any other way, and they have a business structure that is designed to do it that way. They can’t get around the idea of spending 50 million dollars on an ad campaign on a six million dollar film. It just doesn’t make sense to them. That’s why you always needed these other places to go, to be able to do the kind of films that aren’t just necessarily Marvel films. I’m not here to knock all that, because those films are a reason we still have a film industry. But those are not the kind of films for me. I did my Batman, and that [phase] came and went pretty quick. So, I would never be in that line of bashing the streamers for the kind of stuff that they can do, because I wouldn’t have a business model otherwise.
DEADLINE: How did you feel at the end of the day on The Midnight Sky? I drove to NYC in the pandemic and saw it in their screening room, on a large state of the art screen. I watched again on my TV and honestly, the spectacle part of the sci-fi was much better on that big screen.
CLOONEY: Yeah, it was made for a big film, and it was supposed to open on IMAX.
DEADLINE: I saw Dune in Toronto that way, and I was moved in a way I don’t think I would have been if I’d seen it on a TV set.
CLOONEY: When we did Midnight Sky, it was designed with large landscapes. We really worked hard to make it a big film release, we had a date for it, a two or three-week window where we first came out in the theaters. It was really exciting, and then you know, it fell apart.
DEADLINE: The pandemic did that to many movies…
CLOONEY: Honestly, it cost us a lot of reviews, quite honestly, because you know, if you see it small it doesn’t play the same way. Some people liked it and some people didn’t. I think that would have been a very different outcome had we been able to open on the big screen.
DEADLINE: The space footage, and the scenes in that frozen tundra, begged to be seen on a large canvas.
CLOONEY: That’s where you get screwed with that, right, but that was the pandemic that really took us out. A film like that needs a two to three week window. We’ve got that here. This isn’t a big, ha-ha comedy, but there’s light comedy in it. People laugh in a crowd, they don’t laugh sitting at home on their couch. It isn’t the same. I enjoy a theater experience, but a lot more people will see it because of Amazon, and this is the trick because this is a very low budget for what we’ve tried to do. We didn’t have much money for it, and Covid doubled that budget.
CLOONEY: Down to, where you put eight people in a van, you can only put two people in a van. Everything just doubled immediately. So, it was frustrating to make all the way around. It’s hard to do a family dramedy where everyone’s wearing masks, and shields, and we’re talking about the scene, and then you go, ready and action, and everybody whips it off, sits on it, and does their scene, where you go, okay, now you’re a family. So, that was tricky. The great advantage we had was that we had actors who were really up for it. Ben showed up on this, in a really big way.
He came in and was like, I’m in. He knew all his lines, he knew everybody else’s lines, he was the first guy on the set. He was open and sharing, and those things go from the lead on down. If the lead acts like a dick, everyone tends to be kind of dickey. The way Ben showed up made a big difference in the right direction. It was like when we did ER. Tony Edwards was the lead, and a great guy, and it rubbed off. It never became like these other shows we’re reading about after ten years, how, people were yelling at Denzel, and everybody was yelling at everybody.
DEADLINE: That was Grey’s Anatomy.
CLOONEY: Yeah. We never had any of that because it started at the top. And Julianna [Margulies] was so great, and Noah [Wyle] was so great, Eriq [La Salle], everybody there participated in an idea that started with Tony, that we were going to respect the set, and it was always that way. Ben showed up and made it really easy for us. And then, we got this kid we found on TikTok or something, his mom filming his foul mouthed rant, about this fucking lockdown.
DEADLINE: That’s how you found Daniel Ranieri, this doe-eyed kid who plays the young JR…
CLOONEY: We’d been looking at kid actors, they all looked like actors, and this kid seemed great, and he went to do the Jimmy Kimmel show the night that I saw that video. I called Jimmy up, I go, you got that kid there? He goes, yeah. Well, put him on the phone. I had him read some lines…
DEADLINE: He know who you were and why he was reading these lines?
CLOONEY: His mom did, but I thought, he probably doesn’t know. But I called up Amazon and said, I think this kid can do it. But the reality is, when you’re ten years old, are you really a professional actor, are you just the right person for the job? When you watch this film, we do a scene with Max Martini, the guy who plays his father, and it’s a sequence where they’re driving in a car, seven pages, shot in one take with no cuts. We did it in one take with that kid. One take! We were prepared to shoot all day. We shot one take from the front, and I looked at Grant, and I was like, we got it. He’s like, you sure? We went back and watched it on the monitor to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind. I wasn’t. This wasn’t like either Grant or I being smart, it was more about being lucky in finding that young man. Sometimes you get lucky.
DEADLINE: He just read a few lines while filming Kimmel and that was that?
CLOONEY: Yeah. He’d just done Jimmy Kimmel. We actually did a funny bit. Jimmy, who’s a really good friend, they promised the kid a PlayStation for doing the show, and he never got it. So, Ben and I were on the set, and I’m going to use this on Kimmel’s show for sure. [He plays the video, where egged on by Clooney and Affleck, the young actor describes in raucous terms how badly he got effed by Kimmel over the slight. It’s a visual gag best left when Clooney promotes the film on Kimmel]. This kid was amazing.
DEADLINE: [At that moment, Heslov finally materializes from the airport] This is a movie steeped in the ‘70s, about the importance of fathers in the lives of their sons. Why did the two of you spark strongly to this?
CLOONEY: We were finishing up Midnight Sky, a pretty nihilistic, dark film and it was a pretty nihilistic time in the middle of Covid. We were in the midst of ending the Trump presidency, and there was a lot of anger on all sides, a pretty dark period in the world. We were sent this script that was really kind, and gentle, and tender, to use that word, and we both immediately responded to it. We didn’t develop it.
HESLOV: But we did read it when it was published, and tried to buy it even before it was published. This was something I always loved, exactly for the same reasons that you were just talking about. It spoke to me as a son. I come from a family of three, and my father was a big influence on our lives, and I thought it would be nice to do a coming of age story that’s for adults.
CLOONEY: If you look at the period this kid grew up…Grant’s 58, I’m 60. We were that age, that was the music of our lives, the cultural references were the cultural references of our lives. In some ways it felt like simpler time, though of course there was infinitely a lot of dumb shit things going on then as they are now. But when we look back at it, we think of it as a simpler time. When we started reading it we felt like, you don’t see scripts that have long, sort of fun storytellers telling stories. And Ben has these great monologues, pontificating. And, I grew up in a bar in Kentucky, and I could feel these guys…
DEADLINE: Explain your childhood bar experiences. I always got the impression, from you directly and from reading about you, that your dad was pretty exceptional and might keep his son away from that kind of thing.
CLOONEY: He was a good dad, and still is. But our family was pretty eccentric in a lot of ways. My Uncle George, who is actually my great uncle, my father’s uncle…he was young, only a couple of years older than my dad. I was named after him, and he could be a drunk, a bad drunk, a sloppy drunk. But he also lived and worked right next to River Downs racetrack, which is not a great horse track, Cincinnati, Ohio, across the river, and he lived above a bar like the one in this movie. In the summers I go and work, at 12 years old. I’d work the parking lot, and I’d be a hot walker.
DEADLINE: What’s that?
CLOONEY: You walk the horses after they’ve raced, until they take a leak, and I’d make a couple bucks. They’re all jacked up and you’ve got to walk them until they relax, until they take a piss, and then you’d wash them down and take them into the stall. There was a bar right next to that shitty racetrack, and Uncle George lived above it. There was a cigarette machine and he’d give me 50 cents and I’d go down and get him a pack of cigarettes and bring them up. I got to know half the guys in the bar, they were all the same guys in that dark bar. I can’t remember the name of the bar, maybe it was Gilbys, but my dad and mom called it Bucket of Blood.
DEADLINE: That’s pretty specific. Why?
CLOONEY: I think somebody got shot there years earlier, and they always called it Bucket of Blood. When you’re a kid, in that world, and in that life, none of that stuff was even remotely a worry. It was just fun. Fun to be around grownups cussing and getting drunk. It was a fun thing to be around, but it didn’t feel like a bad influence in any sort of way, and drunks treat you like an adult. Hey pal, come over here, go there and get me a pack of cigarettes…go behind the bar and pour me a coca cola. They were funny characters and it was just fun. Now if I was married to one of them, or the son of one of them…my uncle was a great man. Grant actually knew him. But he was also a disaster of a guy. He dated Miss America, and he was my Aunt Rosemary’s fan manager, and he was a B17 bomber pilot. Good looking, he had the world, but then he was a drunk, and he ended up with a long white beard, sleeping in a tack room. But he was always funny, he always made us all laugh, and when his act was together, it was great. These were a big part of my summers. It’s how I could make a little bit of money and I loved it. So when I was reading about the bar, I felt I knew everything about JR’s world. I knew exactly how this bar smells. Grant and I were talking about it because it was really a part of our lives you know, that kind of world, and so… DEADLINE: Grant, did you frequent watering holes as a child?
HESLOV: Well, I drink a lot. But no, I didn’t have the [childhood] bar experience. It was more that I’m just attracted to dysfunction, stories that have quirk to them, and crazy grandparents. I love the way that the author in the book handles all of that. It’s just a fun world. Midnight Sky was huge, it was a bear to make, and we wanted something different. Covid was also an unexpected factor, but this was fun.
DEADLINE: How different was the approach to the two films?
CLOONEY: When you’re doing, Midnight Sky, or films like that, you’re doing a page and a half a day. When you’re doing this one, you don’t have that luxury, and you’ve got all this overlapping family dialog, everybody’s on top of one another. It’s like you’re doing a little play every day, and that’s fun, man. Those are the films we grew up loving.
DEADLINE: It’s a coming of age story, but the fulcrum is the bartender uncle who becomes JR’s North Star. Why Ben Affleck?
CLOONEY: He was hungry for this, and Ben’s a better actor than he’s had the parts for. He came in and all you had to do is point everybody in the right direction and leave them alone, because they were all really accomplished actors. He has a great part, so he gets to show off what he can do.
HESLOV: It’s a performance that reminds you of his work in Good Will Hunting.
CLOONEY: But it’s been a while, and a lot of the parts haven’t asked that much of him.
HESLOV: What’s interesting is that, Good Will Hunting, these are the kind of parts that he should have been doing all along. But he always wanted to play Batman, he wanted to be that guy as opposed to being…
DEADLINE: I’m sure you can relate to that, George. You came to the conclusion you didn’t like the fit of the Batsuit, and from there you traveled a path with different priorities and choices…
CLOONEY: Also, he’s getting offered those roles, and you go where your bread is buttered, and sometimes they don’t butter your bread on Good Will Hunting. He was at the right place when we went to him, because he’s not getting paid much here. We got this call from him, and we got this text from him that I still have. It would take you half an hour to read it, but it was all about what he’s going to do with his part. This was just from reading the script the first time. He was all in.
DEADLINE: He was the only person you sent it to?
CLOONEY: Yeah, and I’ll tell you exactly why. This is a character, this is kind of like if The Sopranos were doing that Peter Weir film Dead Poet’s Society. The guys in the bar are really literate. All the guys at the bar know who King John is, and who Gerte is, something weird like that. Ben is a guy who can come off as that smart guy, he knows a lot, very intelligent, and he can also come off as the big goomba you know, the Boston version of a big mook. That’s not necessarily something that’s easy to just act. He was the right guy for it because you go, I can totally see him fucking off and not making it — not him personally, his character – but I also could totally see him being really smart and pontificating about things, having a sense of humor. You sit down and go, who’s the actor who can play this part that will make Amazon happy, because we’re not just discovering somebody. And it was clear that Ben was the right guy. And so was Lily Rabe, and there it was a fight to get Lily out, because we loved her, we wanted her…
DEADLINE: What do you mean, get her out?
CLOONEY: She was doing American Horror Story, and it was scheduling, but they did an amazing job for us in letting her get out and come work for us. Lily is like Don Cheadle. Anytime you get them in a project with you, the project gets exponentially better. Any time Lily’s in something, it’s just better. She is an actors actor. She can do anything, and she just came in with both barrels, and if anything, I had to say, bring it down two notches. She was ready to go and it was really fun.
HESLOV: She comes from good stock.
CLOONEY: She does, and then in populating the rest of the movie, and we got Christopher Lloyd for grandpa. Grant and I realized, when we were talking about him, that he’s finally the age he’s been playing for 40 years. Grandpa doesn’t have as much to do as the other guys, but he’s an actor that fills those moments in a beautiful way. We didn’t know if we could get him. We just thought, well, lets aim high, and he called back and said yeah, he’ll do it. We were really surprised, and really happy that we got him, and then all the other characters sort of fell in, the guys in the bar; we’ve worked with Max Casella a bunch, and he just kills me. He can make any scene fun. And Max Martini as the boy’s father, that was a fight because they kind of wanted a name.
DEADLINE: Would it be too much to imagine they wanted you to play that deadbeat dad role?
CLOONEY: I think maybe they did want me, didn’t they?
HESLOV: Your imagination is not getting the best of you. There was a conversation.
CLOONEY: I was too old to play the part, and you know, it wasn’t the right thing for me to do, but I think once something gets in somebody’s mind, then it’s hard to get them to give that up. But Max came in and read. He’s a guy who has like 95 credits on IMDB. He’s been around and he has this great voice, and he’s dangerous on screen in a way that you need a guy to be dangerous. He kept coming up to us going, I think I got to play it darker. We were like, it’s plenty dark already, you’re good, brother. That was one where you go, guys, I promise you this is the right guy. Everybody else, from Tye Sheridan down to the kid, they approved right away.
DEADLINE: You directed yourself in Midnight Sky. What’s the advantage in not having to pull double duty?
CLOONEY: Ask Grant the difference of my disposition when I don’t have to direct myself as an actor. I’m just so happy.
HESLOV: It’s all about having to split your focus. You just never get a break. When you’re directing, you don’t have to worry about your performance.
CLOONEY: Also, there’s an immodesty to doing more takes on yourself than anyone else. You’re doing a really unfair thing, breaking an unwritten rule of actors. If you and I are doing a scene together, and I’m directing as well, and we’re talking, and the camera’s pushing in, and I’m telling you you’re not doing it the way I want you to do it…it’s really shitty for one actor to say that to another., Like, say it a little differently, pick up the pace. It’s not a shitty thing for a director to say. So, you’re also breaking some rules that I think aren’t necessarily all that fun to break, and you have to have a really trusting cast that goes, okay, I get it, I understand, but I don’t enjoy it at all. If I could not do that I would.
HESLOV: You look at a movie like, Reds, and you’re like, how did Warren Beatty do that?
DEADLINE: Talk about this search for father figures the kid finds in the bar, after his own father proves to be such a train wreck.
CLOONEY: There’s a little bit of The Wizard of Oz here, the young man is longing for a father, and all the things he’s longing for, it turns out he had all along in his uncle. All the things he was in search of, he already had, and all he had to do was get a little older and see who that actual father – the one he’d been putting up on a pedestal — really was. And then he goes, I get it, it was my uncle all along. There’s a line in, Inherit the Wind, when they’re talking about Fredrick March, and Spencer Tracey says, you just look for God you know, too high up or too far away…or something like that. The point is, you look past the things that were there all along. I always thought that was a really interesting theme to this. Grant’s father is gone now, but he and I were really lucky to have really good father figures. So, as film makers, we didn’t have this great search for somebody stable in our lives. So, it was much more about exploring these characters than exorcising some demons that we had.
DEADLINE: The burden of JR as he struggles as a young adult falls to Tye Sheridan, who we saw in Ready Player One.
HESLOV: Terrific actor whose also able to be very vulnerable, and there’s a lot of scenes in this movie where he has to eat some shit. We auditioned a bunch of people and we were like, this is the guy. We got on Zoom with him, and what a good kid. He wants to be a filmmaker, and he’s created some software for this company that he’s launched.
CLOONEY: He was really good in this film. He has to do scenes where people shit on him a lot, and you have to root for that guy, because if you don’t like him, then you lose. We had that with the kid, too, because both those characters were the same person.
HESLOV: We loved the scene where he’s in the bar and this girl he’s crazy about has dumped him for the umpteenth time, and [his younger self is] saying, you got to get your shit together. And Tye is like, I don’t have any shit to get together you know, he’s just good.
DEADLINE: That whole dynamic between him and his college love interest is quite adventurous but frustrating, she unable to commit. What were trying to show about his situation?
CLOONEY: Well, there were two things we were looking at. One is, sometimes you just have the girl that made you crazy, and she made you crazy because she didn’t know what she wanted in life. She wanted you for five minutes, and then she didn’t want you, and then she had another guy. We wanted to play with that because I remember the first time we screened it for people and the audience was like, is she going to make up her mind, and wouldn’t that be more satisfying? But every guy I know, when they were young, dated a girl that made them fucking crazy you know, so I thought, this is kind of how it actually was, and then we loved the idea of class, and that you know, the idea of you know, the have and the have nots. We talked about it a lot in the film. I think the biggest laugh in the film is when Ben says, the real rich you know, hide because everybody will kill them. And this girl’s family is rich.
DEADLINE: I imagine you have had an easier road with women unwilling to commit than most of your species, George. You’ve been through that hell?
CLOONEY: We all had that. We all had them.
HESLOV: He had one in particular.
CLOONEY: He remembers, very well, and she will remain nameless.
HESLOV: I mean, it was on again, off again, on again, off again, and she…
CLOONEY: Yeah, and then she dumped me in the most insane way.
HESLOV: She’d love him, and then…
DEADLINE: How did she dump you?
CLOONEY: I don’t remember now…
HESLOV: But the more she dumped him, the more he loved her.
CLOONEY: Yeah. Yeah. It was hysterical. I was 23, what did I know?
DEADLINE: We were talking about the actor who played young JR. He said in the production notes that he loved your Batman, which makes one of you. What’s it like for this young man to be working so closely with two Batmans?
CLOONEY: And his mother, who we cast in a part, to be around the two sexiest men alive? I mean, it’s just too much, it’s too much sexy. Yeah, you know, it’s funny, I literally gave him media coaching, before he did his interview, to talk about how much he liked me as Batman.
DEADLINE: Did you?
CLOONEY: Yeah. I was like, you got to tell them. Now remember, when you get asked about it you just got to say, I really loved George as Batman you know, which I thought would get to Ben…
DEADLINE: But you held back on having him talk about the benefit of your nipple costume, something you often bring up.
CLOONEY: I didn’t want to say the word nipple in front of a ten year old. It didn’t seem right. That kid is going to be offered everything on earth because of his personality and how absolutely professional he is. They’re going to be lining up to hire him once the movie comes out. He’s like a kid in the Bad News Bears. He’s really good, really solid actor, and you either have that or you don’t.
DEADLINE: He can be in a G-rated movie…
CLOONEY: You saw the tape. He can work blue also. Bill Monahan didn’t write the scene where the kid meets his older self. We put that in, after futzing around with an idea that it would be helpful for JR to have this discussion with his former self. Like, I thought you were going to do something with your life, and since he was going to be drunk, we thought this is a good place to put it. His uncle has told him to cut back his drinking, and we knew that the only way you could say fuck you to a nine-year old, is if you’re saying it to yourself. And that kid, the very first ‘fuck you’ out of his mouth is so spectacular, it just comes trippingly off his tongue, you know?
HESLOV: We never had to watch our mouths around that kid.
DEADLINE: The Tender Bar will get its theatrical release December 22, and find its way to Amazon Prime two weeks later. Deadline recently broke news of an Apple deal for an untitled drama you’ll do with Brad Pitt and Spider-Man writer/director Jon Watts. I’d heard that you could have gotten more money had you not insisted on a proper theatrical release. How did all this come about?
CLOONEY: Brad and I heard the pitch from Jon. We thought it was spectacular. Brad and I tried to do a couple of things together since Burn After Reading. We haven’t really found anything, and it had to be something worth doing, because we’re friends too. Suddenly, we had this right pitch. I hadn’t seen all the Spiderman, Spider Universe so I wasn’t all that familiar.
DEADLINE: Oh, it’s very good.
CLOONEY: Yeah. And everybody says it’s very good, but his pitch was great you know. The package went out, and it just started this weird feeding frenzy of what it could be. Bryan [Lourd, his CAA agent], Brad and I had a long conversation, and we took considerably less money so we could have the theatrical release.
DEADLINE: I heard it was a low 8-figure concession. Why?
CLOONEY: Because I don’t want to be part of the demise of it. I do believe [theatrical and streaming] can coexist. I think they have to. And so we felt like we should do that, and also we want it to feel like a big film. So, it’s going to get a three-week window, and then it will be on Apple. So, for us, that was worth taking a financial hit on. It still is a good payday for us.
DEADLINE: But why would you have to take a financial hit? It still serves their model and you could have taken a deal with one of the studios. Why was this better?
CLOONEY: It came down to the budget for the film, which…
HESLOV: The budget, the greenlight, like they made it all difficult to say no.
CLOONEY: One of the studios said to the writer, Jon Watts. Listen, we’ll make the deal, but if your script is ready and those guys are working, then we reserve the right to recast it. Well, that’s not what the package is. So, that’s a stupid offer. So, there was a lot of figuring out where, but the main thing was, Apple was going to approve a really decent budget, meaning we could shoot what Grant and I know we need, from the position we’re in on every single film. There have been plenty of times we’ve said, is there any way we can get a little bit more for the music, or is there any way to get more for…it’s a constant battle, and this is one where they said we’ll guarantee you an amount of money that we know you can make the film for, and we’ll guarantee, if all three of you agree to do it, it’s greenlit, you’re going to make it. Well, that’s all very helpful and it just made it more appealing all the way around. So, their initial offer was higher than what we took because what we wanted was to be in theaters as well, that was important to us. We were in the lucky position to be able to sort of push that.
HESLOV: It also makes it feel less like development, because with so many of these things you go, whatever happened to that one? Assuming Jon gets the script right, and everything is based on that but his track record is good, then we can actually make this movie in the next couple years.
DEADLINE: So, the green light trigger is Apple approving the script?
CLOONEY: It’s more about Brad and I committing.
DEADLINE: We’ve seen packages like this, or the two Knives Out sequels and Emancipation go to streamers for mind boggling sums and it seems like a way for talent, filmmakers and their reps to regain leverage lost to streamers who can move a whole theatrical slate to their streaming sites without telling talent, as WarnerMedia did. There isn’t packaging for the agencies like there was in the days of ER, but this gives those who can command it the ability to have controls. Do you see it that way and how does the recent agency consolidation, CAA’s purchase of ICM Partners, factor into where all this is going?
CLOONEY: That’s a business I don’t understand really. We’ve had several agents in our lives, and Bryan [Lourd] is mine, and also my friend, and one of the nicest gentlemen I’ve ever met in my life. I always put my faith in the idea that he’s looking out to do what’s best, not just for the agency, although he is, but he’s also looking out for what’s best for all. I’ve been in situations in negotiations with him with a studio over something, and he’s says, I can rake them over the coals, but what’s fair is this. And I go, okay, fair enough. I don’t know where all this is going, but I feel safer with things in his hands than I would with things in other people’s hands. As far as this sort of packaging and stuff, it always was this way. When I started to get into the movie business, which was ’95, that was when it was sort of peaking, 20 against 20, 20 million dollars against 20% of first dollar gross. I didn’t get quite there financially, but a lot of the actors around me were getting that kind of payday. But it was good paydays for all of us because you were getting actual percentages that paid off, not the adjusted gross. You could make some money even if the movie didn’t make that much money. And then they took all of it away, and for the last 10 or 15 years or so, that’s all been gone, and salaries have kind of been going down and going down. It’s an interesting time now because there’s so much more work for actors, When I got into the business in 1982, if you got a television series like say, Facts of Life, on Monday morning you went to the back of the LA Times, and you looked it up. There were 64 shows, ABC, CBS, and NBC, three networks. There were 64 shows, and you looked to see where your show was in the rankings to see if you still had a job the next week. And that was it. There are 600 shows now and so much more work. But actors aren’t necessarily all getting part of that food chain. My buddy Richard Kind is sort of a journeyman actor who works all the time. He used to be able to make a really good living doing what he does. Now, those same jobs are paying considerably less. So, it’s also about trying to find some ground to get that element raised. I think that’s something that’s really important to Bryan. So, hopefully that will be something that comes out of this.
DEADLINE: Grant, why did you veer from acting into this end of the business, where you write and produce and take the occasional role?
HESLOV: Well, it was sort of two-fold. One is, I had been to an audition at Warner Brothers Television. Have you ever been to the TV building there? It’s a big glass building, and there’s a long hallway, about as long as this room, and it’s got chairs, and that’s where all the actors sit during pilot season. It could be five, six, seven pilots that they’re casting out of there.
CLOONEY: And there could be 20 actors sitting in those chairs.
HESLOV: I was 26 or 27 and I went there and sitting there were like, six actors reading for the same part, three lines. And they were all guys that I recognized from when I was a kid, all guys who had been like, on All in the Family, like one of the guys in the bar, this guy was on The Jefferson’s I was like holy shit, I don’t want to be 60 years old, or maybe they were 50, maybe they were younger than I am now. But I didn’t want to be in that position. So, it didn’t stop me right then, but then I got married, I had a daughter, and then I had another daughter coming, and there was a writers strike coming. I had directed my first short film, and I really loved doing it. I loved that I loved it. It’s such a different experience, and I went to George, hat in hand and said listen buddy, I want to make a career change. I want to come work for you, if you’ll let me. I’ll do anything, I’ll scrub the floors, whatever. He and Soderbergh had just started their partnership, and so, he said okay.
CLOONEY: I said, we don’t have a TV division. You’re now the TV division.
HESLOV: And then we started writing together. We wrote, Good Night, And Good luck, and then you know, everything kind of went from there.
CLOONEY: The thing about Grant is, sometimes our friends don’t get, theyl’ll think, George and Grant just did this, and now Grant’s producing, and everybody thinks producing is just like slapping your name on something and saying you’re a producer. That does happen, so I know why people think that. There are very few people that are proper, badass producers, old school, who reads a book, finds material, options it, get’s a great director and star, like did with Argo. What Grant did with Argo was spectacular you know, found the writer, pushed him, found the star, all this stuff he did, and then it’s on the phone to the location guy trying to eek out a deal where it’s like, they’re not going to let you shoot there unless you do this, and you’re like, okay, I’ll call you back, and then he’s on the phone with another guy going, well if you wave a French flag over there, then you can shoot it. All the kind of real proper producer stuff to where it takes pressure off of me, as a director when I’m directing. I don’t even have to deal with things that other producers would always ask me to deal. I worked for years without Grant as a producer. He’s the best producer I ever worked with, by far, by leaps and bounds. So, it’s actually you know, it happens to be that he came to me and said I want to change my career, it also happens to be that he’s the best at that you know, he’s better at this than he was a journeymen actor, and he was a really good journeymen actor. So, it just changes, and it makes our dynamics really easy.
DEADLINE: George you made a ton of pilots before ER hit for you. Did you find that auditioning process that demoralizing?
CLOONEY: If you’re an actor in Hollywood, working at all, even if you’re doing a shitty television series, if you’re working, you’re beating the odds by a long, long, long shot. I mean, it’s still hard to get a fucking acting job and get somebody to pay you to act. So, I knew that I was disappointed in the jobs that I was doing, because every time you do a pilot you’re like, this is going to be great, and you always think that it’s like if Spielberg was directing it, and it was written by William Goldman, and most times it’s not. And then ER happened, and that’s just luck you know, and also being available and being around for it.
HESLOV: The the irony for me is that my career was probably at its best point at that point because I had done, True Lies, and Congo. As soon as I asked George if I could come work with him, like literally, four weeks later, I had an offer to do this movie with The Rock, The Scorpion King. I went to George and Steven and said, look, I know this is a terrible way to start, but I just got the second lead in this big Universal film. Can I do it? So, I was working on that film, and during the day I would be on the phone cold calling agents, just introducing myself and saying where I work now. It was a very strange transition and time, because just as you’re making that break, you’re getting this validation. But I knew in my heart that I was never was going to have the success as an actor that I had imagined I’d have when I was a kid, when I wanted to be Jerry Lewis.
CLOONEY: Grant’s first two auditions he got. It was like, Joanie Loves Chachi and Happy Days. Most people audition a hundred times, if they get anything. For Grant it was instant success, and the truth was, it never dried up for Grant, it just wasn’t catapulting him in…
HESLOV: In a sustainable way. And God bless people who do it, but that audition life that our friend Richard Kind loves so much. was soul crushing for me.
DEADLINE: Sounds like this is more sustainable than the Section Eight partnership George had with Soderbergh?
CLOONEY: He called it quits. Steven’s still a good friend, and without question he taught me the most about film making in my ten years together with him. Having said that, when we formed a partnership, the idea was, lets create a company that can work all the elements that he learned from independent films and from seventies films basically, and reinfuse that back into the studio system. If you watch, Oceans, it really is shot like an independent film, and certainly, Out of Sight. So, it was like, okay, let’s do this, force the studio system to try and get back to the kind of films that Warner Brothers use to make. It was really exciting, but once we started, he said, I’m in this for five years. I think we lasted six. G But that’s classic Steven, right? Like I’m done film making. He set a time limit and he stuck to it, and Grant was already there, and we had written Good night, And Good Luck as a live television show, because we’d done, Fail Safe as a live show for CBS, and then the whole Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, ‘Nipplegate’ Super Bowl thing happened, and they pulled our live show. We were depressed, Grant and I, because we were doing the television department, and we were now moving away from Section Eight, we were in the process of moving to our own company. I went into his back office, and he was sitting there with his head in his hands, and I was like, so fuck it, let’s make it a movie. And we were like, yeah, why not? Let’s make it a fucking movie. Let’s just take out the commercial breaks, and figure out what we can do with it.
HESLOV: It took us a day to make those changes.
DEADLINE: How close were you to going live TV when they pulled the plug, and how close in proximity was it to that whole Super Bowl?
CLOONEY: We hadn’t cast it yet.
HESLOV: We were just getting ready to start that preproduction, and Les Moonves called.
CLOONEY: And said, you’re out. I can’t do it, boys. Live TV suddenly became dangerous no one had been doing live television. I really pushed John Wells to let us do an ER as a live show, and then, really pushed hard on doing Fail Safe, as a live production. It was really exciting, and nerve racking. Grant’s in it actually, he’s in the plane with me…
HESLOV: And Don Cheadle.
CLOONEY: It was nerve racking like you can’t imagine, and fun, and exciting. This was certainly before streamers, and the only thing pushing television was The Sopranos, on HBO. Everything else was really becoming middle of the road. ER was by far the biggest show, we were doing 40 million people a week, 10 million more than Friends, which was an hour earlier than us when it first started out. So, it was like how are you going to push television, and it was like, well if you can’t match what you can do in the feature films, then you got to push it by doing something else that feature films can’t do, which is do it live. And that all went away in one really quick moment. We were like uh oh, because we were going to do, Network, as a live production. We were going to actually do it in ten different cities. We were ready to go. So, it was like, boom, boom, boom. We had a whole structure for our TV department, and it just went away. It was gutted.
HESLOV: Les Moonves wanted to be in that, too.
CLOONEY: Yeah. He wanted to play the Ned Beatty part.
DEADLINE: Well he was an actor before becoming a TV executive…
HESLOV: Yeah, but he wasn’t that good of an actor.
CLOONEY: If you watch Ned Beatty in that part, that’s a performance, you know?
DEADLINE: How did you wriggle out of that one?
CLOONEY: I believe we did say, I think we have an actor. Because we wanted Frank Langella to do it.
HESLOV: Now, that’s a great actor.