Suburbicon press conference, Clooney:”We wrote it during Trump’s campaign trail”
Suburbicon is George Clooney’s latest film. This grotesque and political crime story is the result of the juxtaposition of two scripts: one written by Clooney himself and Grant Heslov, the other by the Coen brothers. The director and main cast were all present at the official Venice Film Festival press conference to discuss the work behind this picture.
This script was written a while ago, did you expect it to be so current because of the racial tension in the US?
George Clooney: Well. The genesis of the screenplay started when I was watching a lot of speeches of the Trump campaign trail, on building fences and scapegoating minorities. Many times in our history we fell back into these things. I found this story that happened in Levvitown, Pennsylvania. We tried to make a movie about this story and the Coens wrote a script about Suburbicon, so I thought they would be a good match. Making American great again is a concept from Eisenhower, from the 50s, if you were a white straight man maybe it was great, otherwise not so great. The real problem of this country is it didn’t come to terms with it, unfortunately these are issues that are never out of vogue in our country. We are still trying to exorcise them.
There’s a great balance between normality and madness in Matt Damon’s character. Why did you mix his story with a 1950s America that, instead of going forward, goes backwards?
GC: I would agree that the insane side of Matt Damon has never been so awful. We looked at the idea of talking about these issues. I grew up in the south in the 60s/70s during civil right movements. We had to put to bed many issues, including segregation. And they were coming back every few years. The idea of juxtaposing these two stories was that you are looking in the wrong direction if you think to blame this African American family for the problems of the world. You can’t blame it on minorities. Putting the insane family in the middle of the story has nothing to do with that, the idea of putting inside this great story about the Meyers family feels right for this movie that looks in the wrong direction.
How do you feel about your character?
Matt Damon: I agree with what George said. I think it’s the definition of white privilege to run around the bike with blood on you and the black family is blamed for it. We didn’t expect Charlottesville, that race riots could be like that again. It explains these issues are not going away in our country. About the character, George told me: “This is the stuff you’ve never been able to do so far in your career.” It was fun to play those scenes and take a leap with George.
Would you like to play characters different than your usual in future?
MD: I don’t get to play the bad guy a lot but I have a good range of guys. Directors tell me “I like you because you don’t look like a movie star”. He meant I look like an average American person so directors can have fun playing with different variations of what that means. George knew exactly what he wanted to say with the film. I was useful to him in that way.
Grant Heslov: Can I just add this character is the closest thing to the real Matt Damon we’ve ever seen! [laughs]
And you Julianne, did you enjoy playing two characters?
Julianne Moore: George asked me to play both characters and I said:”Ok, that’s fun!”
GG: I was trying to save money.
JM: It was interesting that one of the two sisters was so desiring the other one’s life. Margaret has no agency, she’s not married, she doesn’t own a home, she has a job in the grocery store. For her the sister Rose has a perfect life. She’s the one who initially tells Nicky: go across the street to play with the new neighbours. She notices what she means to be marginalised because she’s marginalised herself. Then she changes. The comedy and “bad” parts were really interesting to me.
GC: She made it so creepy, it was her idea to get the hair dyed like her sister!
Is the message that the traditional family isn’t that reassuring after all?
GC: You got it, that was the idea. The idea that iconic American families doing terrible things. Particularly because when we started working on this Trump started to run. There was the impetus for the whole thing, he talked about building fences and marginalise people.
It’s such an angry film, what are you angry at?
GC: I think you need to see a therapist. We’ll talk after. [laughs] It’s an angry film. The reality is, in general, it takes two years to make a movie, so by the time your movie comes out, you have moved on. It puts a pin in a time/place in history, so we can look back where we were emotionally, physically involved. That’s when a film works really well. If you go to our country, it’s probably the angriest I’ve ever seen it and I lived through the Watergate period. There’s a dark cloud hanging over our country. I’m optimistic, I believe in youth that they will get over these things. I think the institutions of this government tend to work with the press but people are angry. At ourselves, at where the world is going. This seems to reflect that, I think that’s ok. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, i think it’s a fair thing to do. The idea was that we didn’t want this to be polemic or a civil lesson. We wanted it to be funny and mean. But it was angry and we got angrier as we were shooting.
The point of view is the kid’s and the real criminals are the family.
GC: What Jack Saw was the very original screenplay, early 80s. We didn’t want to give him anywhere to go, to tell anybody. We wanted him to feel uncomfortable about it. When they are together at the end, we didn’t want the kid to get adopted. We felt as if these two boys went through the worst night of their lives and they will be ok. That was the most important thing, watching it through their eyes. I’m still very patriotic. I’m a positive person, optimistic. I look at them and how they see the world. That they want to make it better. That’s the sense we got when we worked on the screenplay. Because we didn’t write a scene about the afterwards. I went to Alexandre and said “we haven’t written anything here, they will just play baseball. The music will tell what happens” and he wrote this insanely beautiful piece of music. It’s their point of view but heightened by the beautiful music of Alexandre.
Alexandre Desplat: This violence, anger, and the light of these two boys on top of it. The rest is – in this ideal little city which was created out of love – falling apart. I just had to keep in mind all these elements while I was composing. And you are a movie star. [laughs]
GC: Sexiest man alive you know.
MD: Once! Not two times.
The bad guys are actually bad, usually they aren’t that bad in Coen’s films
GC: I think they are very sweet people [laughs]. It’s a funny thing about monsters. They way they are formed is not that they twist their moustaches and they’re bad people …you are formed and it happens through a series of really stupid mistakes and compounding them. These two characters make a plan, not the best plan, and every single fork in the road they make the wrong choice. Every single opportunity they get, they don’t really know how, it’s no stupidity. They hire killers because they don’t become killers. They become monsters. What he tells to the son at the end, by then he had changed. Same Julienne, she originally only wanted a happy life and a happy family.
JM: Monsters are created by the monsters that we make. Playing a complicated character, you realise each choice is the wrong one and you understand we can make the wrong choices.
GC: The suburbs are a big part of our lives, big part of World War Two, a new way for the middle class to have a home with a garden, swimming pool and school. Everybody could get a little piece of it.
MD: If you were white!
GC: That’s exactly the point. Only certain people were allowed to play in that swimming pool. It’s not a movie about Donald Trump, it’s about the fact of us coming to terms constantly that we have never addressed our issues with racism. We tried. The petition, it’s the actual petition we found from Levvitown, Pennsylvania. When they say the black people aren’t educated yet. That subtlety we are trying still to cope with. It will be part of our history for a long period of time. The Suburbicon script didn’t have the African American family in it. It was just people killing each other. After Fargo they didn’t want to go back to a film like this.
Is there hope for the next generations?
JM: Young generations should be better, more ethical, egalitarian. Every generation wants that but the only way for it to happen is that the generation before does it too. In the US people argue about confederate monuments. They must be removed, you can’t have these people from civil wars in our town square for children to see. As a parent and citizen I need to be active. We have to take responsibility for it. We can’t just say the next generations have to do that.
GC: This discussion is happening right now in the US, about the confederate flag. I grew up in Kentucky. They would do civil war reenactments. You could pick if you wanted to be unionist or rebel. I didn’t understand the history of the confederate flag. It was a flag designed to fight against the US and in favour of slavery. And they lost. If you want to use it, go on, see what happens. But don’t put it in public building, they cannot stand, with Afro American people paying taxes. It’s important.
JM: I went to a high school in North Virginia for two years. The name was the name of a confederate general. We didn’t realise it was a general. Now I’m part of a coalition at Fairfax County School – I’ll be there next week – to change the name. Now as adult we feel like we can change this. The children can’t change it, but we can if we insist. We need to take these actions.
Let’s get back to the subject of monsters. The scenes with Oscar Isaac. Why him and how was working with him. These scenes were really the turning point for the monster quality.
GC: Originally in the 90s when they tried to get this movie made they offered me to play that part and I wanted to do it. When they came around to do the film again I thought of Oscar for this because, did you see Ex-Machina? he’s the real deal. He’s an actor of real substance and someone I just adore watching. The fact he was gonna come and take this in a new direction with a shot of energy, we knocked it out. We shot it in a day and a half.
JM: Oscar is a brilliant actor. Feels the part so beautifully. He’s so powerful and delightful and funny to work with.
Did you ever consider playing that part?
GC: It’s not really fun to direct yourself. Saying “and cut'” on the scenes is a terrible thing to do. I really didn’t want to do it. I couldn’t imagine him doing it any better so no.
MD: I did 7/8 movies with George. The key is that when you get direction you do the opposite. He’s like he’s the greatest director in the world, you always know what to do, everything works out great. [laughs]
JM: Ok…well…when you look at the calibre of talent he attracts, and how often he works with Matt Damon, great DOPs, composers, it’s really really impressive. I was thrilled and delighted.
Some say you’ll run for president
GC: I’d like to be the next president? Yeah that sounds like fun. Can I just say I’d like anyone to be the next president right away [laughs].
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor
Photo: Laura Denti