Interview: The Monuments Men
17th February 2014
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Was there any point when you were researching the book where you thought, ‘this would make a great movie’?

"I started off with the same reaction most people have – that is, a sense of disbelief as if to say, 'You’ve gotta be kidding me, with all the movies out there, this story’s not been told?' My role has been to preserve these heroes’ legacy and share it with the largest audience possible. The challenge that I faced as a writer and a storyteller is how do you condense a story of this magnitude? Amidst a war that cost the lives of 65 million people, mankind’s cultural and artistic fingerprint is at risk of being destroyed and yet you have this small group of middle-aged museum curators and artists and architects, the most unlikely of spies, who volunteer to go into military service and try and save these things and ultimately recover them."

It’s particularly strange, given there has been so much written about the war...

"Yes, when you think about it, there are thousands of books about D-Day alone, never mind the tens of thousand books about World War II. So it’s just been a giant hole in the general public’s understanding about this epic part of World War II history that has been hidden right in front of us. My epiphany occurred on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the only bridge not destroyed by the Nazis in August 1944 when they fled the city. One day I wondered, 'if Europe was so beat up during the war and so many of the cities were devastated, how did so many of the works of art survive and who were the people that saved them?' And I didn’t know the answer, but I was hugely embarrassed it had never occurred to me to ask the question. The Monuments Men, and many other volunteers, put so many things back like they were before the war that it tricks our eye. We see them and think, 'Wow, okay, everything looks as it always did'. But then you start thinking about it: 'Well wait a minute, this city suffered severe damage during the war. So these things must not have been here. Where were they? What happened to them during the war?' That’s where it all began for me. It didn’t begin with a desire to write books, I was just curious. I was frustrated that such an exciting and important story---an epic moment in civilization’s history, wasn’t in the public conscience, especially when you consider that this is the most document and photographed period in history. There just seemed to be this giant gulf of information about these men and women that did all this, and their own story, and that’s what led me ultimately to try and find their letters and their family members because it’s a human story, it’s a personal story and it’s got to be told through their eyes and experiences using their words."

Time-wise, when were you in Florence and first thought ‘How has all this art survived?’

"I moved to Florence in 1996. I’d sold my business – I had a successful oil exploration business – but I was looking for something more meaningful. I was 39 years old, my son was two, I didn’t have any time to spend with him and I just thought it was only going to get worse. And I was finally a little bit ahead, not hugely so, but I had a chance to see what else I could do and had a lot of other things I was interested in, so we just decided to do kind of an un-American thing and take time off at a younger age. And I started learning about art and history and architecture---and what better city to do it in than Florence? And I was reading a lot of books including one by an independent scholar, Lynn Nicholas, titled The Rape of Europa, which focuses on Hitler’s museum plan, Nazi looting, and it introduces the Monuments Men. That whet my appetite. My curiosity had led to the reading of this and other books on the subject. Over the course of time I became a co-producer of a documentary based on her book. But it seemd to me the focus on this story by most others was always the bad guys - Hitler and the Nazis. But I was particularly interested in the good guys, the Monuments Men and women. I wanted to know why these middle aged museum curators, architects, artists, and professors, who had life made as we know it, with families at home, would volunteer for military service and risk their lives. What did they tell their wives and families? What were those conversations like? 'Hi, honey, how was your day?' 'Well it was fine.' 'What are we doing next week?” 'Well I’m gonna be in a military uniform in Europe in combat…' 'You what?'"

Yes, those must have been some strange conversations.

"Absolutely: 'Where’s the food gonna come from to be put on our table? Are you gonna have a job when you get back? When are you coming home?' 'Well, I don’t know. I hope I DO come home…” To me, that is a dramatic story. Maybe less so with the British because I think they are perceived as having a greater cultural sensitivity and rightly so. But Americans oftentimes are perceived, maybe maligned, as less culturally sensitive, not as interested in the arts. We’re a newer country. And so the idea that Americans, of all people, might think of this idea and get behind it and work with the British on this operation is counterintuitive to a lot of people and yet these Monuments officers believed that these works of art, be they in Berlin, Paris, London, wherever, they belong to everybody. And if we don’t go out of our way to try and protect them, the United States and American Army and our Western Allies are gonna become the goats of civilization because in the process of trying to defeat Nazism, we may destroy everything that civilization has created over thousands of years. "

It’s an amazing story.

"Yeah, I’ve had several World War II historians, dear friends, and other colleagues, express their view that this story presents a entirely new perspective on the war---through the angle of art the role of the Monuments Men. And it’s a story that we’re still living with today because there are still hundreds of thousands of works of art and documents worth billions of dollars missing. And the search continues. The Monuments Men Foundation, which I created six years ago, has been involved in the recovery of some of these things. And you can imagine what’s going to happen with the worldwide awareness that this film will soon generate. It’s going to help us illuminate the path home for so many of these missing things. As I’m sure you’ve painfully watched, and I did living in Europe, the aftermath of the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq and the damage to their National Museum and National Archives and others… it was a black mark on our leadership, especially when considering that the United States and Great Britain set the high bar for the protection of cultural treasures during a World War. And yet 60 years later, it was all forgotten."

What was the journey from book to film?

"A film was on my mind before I started writing the book. I had already started thinking how the story of the Monuments Men was a great teaching story, a great instrument to help recover the works of art that are still missing. But no matter how good a book is, nothing reaches a worldwide audience the way a feature film can. And great films are stories based on people. That is the path to connect with audiences around the world. So I needed to tell the people story. I had this fateful meeting with one of the Monuments Men who was 98 years old, a man named S. Lane Faison, and it was for me kind of an anointing, because I came away from that meeting just knowing that this is what I was supposed to do with the next phase of my life. I had to tell these people’s individual stories through their letters home, through their family members and I couldn’t do it in one book. The Monuments Men, my second book on the subject, tells the story of what took place in Western and Northern Europe exluding Italy. My most recent book, Saving Italy, tells the story of what took place just in Italy, because it was a very different kind of problem with the Italians being Allies of Nazi Germany the first three years of the war before switching allegiances. The theft that took place in Italy was of a much different character. And even still that only gets us up to the end of the war in 1945. It’s not surprising when you consider how many books are written about just D Day, that it will take more than three four books to tell this incredible story; a lot more. George Clooney and Grant Heslov, to their credit, saw the hugeness of the story, embraced it, and committed themselves to telling that big story, not pick off some low hanging piece of fruit to tell some smaller portion of it."

They have displayed a real passion for telling this story.

"Both of them, and all the actors in fact. I was on set three times. I had a lot of discussions with the cast and, to the person, they all seemed genuinely passionate about their chance to pay tribute to the Monuments Men and their story. I mean, what are the chances of you being an artist, i.e. an actor at this remarkable stage of your career where you can pretty much do anything you want to do, and here comes a story involving World War II with the goodest of good guys and the baddest of bad guys and you have a chance to play a fellow artist, in this case art conservators, historians, architects and so on, who walk out of their set lives to put on a military uniform to go do something noble that saves art and culture for all time? I mean, you could look for a lifetime and never find a role like that. And here it is."

It’s inevitable that a screenplay will make certain changes to tell a dramatic story. How much of the original Monuments Men that you wrote about do you see in the movie characters?

"An enormous amount. The way I look at it, there are pluses and minuses to being a writer versus a filmmaker, but in the end we’re both storytellers. In my situation I’ve got an unlimited number of pages to work with. It could be 400, it could be 800, it could be 300, whatever it is. But I can’t deviate from the historical record. I can find ways to tell it through my voice, through other people’s voices. I can choose whose shoulders we’re going to sit on to walk through this part of history, but I am very, very restricted with respect to deviating from historical record. Filmmakers on the other hand have the freedom to use adjust the historical record to create the most dramatic telling of events. But their problem is this: they’ve only got a two hours or so to tell the story. They must find a way to collapse this story and condense the time line in such a way that they can present it to audiences. My perspective has always been this: does the film address the overarching elements of my book? Absolutely. People who see this film are going to know that this was an American-British led operation that had never been tried on a scale like this before. That General Eisenhower and President Roosevelt empowered these men and women to go do this. And that they ultimately located and returned some five million objects, most of which had been stolen by the Nazis. Five million. I mean, it’s mind-boggling."

Five million objects not only recovered but returned.

"Absolutely. That was the policy of the Western Allies: to return these things to the countries from which they’d been taken. They weren’t going to be the spoils of war. And we also cover the fact there are still hundreds of thousands of things that are missing. So from my point of view, how the filmmakers go through and adjust the details of the story to find the most dramatic way to encompass the telling of those overarching historical facts places form over substance. I think the substance is that the principles of the story and the key elements of what took place are intact. And if someone wants to know all the details, please, by all means read my book, it’s all in there"

How did you find dealing with George Clooney and the other actors? Presumably any initial starstruckness passes because you have a job to do?

"Well, I’m fortunate. I had a brief career trying to play professional tennis so I had plenty of experiences being around celebrities. But everybody’s human; you can’t help but react to meeting someone that you’ve seen on the big screen. And after all, George Clooney is George Clooney. But at the end of the day, I had a job to do. I was asked to come out and meet with George and Grant and spent about a week with both and… well, let me put it this way: I have a number of researchers in my office, most of whom are women, and they called me and said, “Oh, what’s it like?” And I said, “You know, after about the first 10 minutes, it’s like every other meeting I’ve had discussing the Monuments Men. My passion for the story takes over and, you know, I’m just in fifth gear sharing my enthusiasm for these remarkable men and women’s story. So the first 10 minutes, yeah, I’m sitting there thinking George Clooney… you know, “We’re a long way from Kansas now…” but then I got into doing what I needed to do. And they were outstanding students of the story so I stopped thinking about the celebrity factor and focused on doing my job. But I will say periodically, I’d say something funny and George would smile that megawatt smile of his and I’d think, “Wow, there’s George Clooney.” Then you kind of put it out of your mind and get back to it. As I say, they were great students of the story. They took notepads full of notes. They asked outstanding questions. I was really impressed because it made my job both easy and fascinating because of the kinds of questions they asked, some of which were challenging questions trying to figure out who were the key characters, and how they were going to tell the story that they wanted to tell. And there was a lot of creative exchange about that, trying to get them in a position where they could then write the script. My hat’s off to them. I’ve seen how incredibly hard they’ve worked for two solid years. This isn’t a job to them, it’s a passion and that comes through loud and clear when you speak with them."

Having, so to speak, lived with the real life Monuments Men for so long, how was it seeing their movie incarnations?

"It was interesting. Take Bill Murray for example. I mean, I’m 56 and I’ve grown up with Bill Murray, like so many others. I think of him in roles like Caddyshack and Ghostbusters, you know, things that are just gut-bustingly funny. These films are part of our cultural fingerprint today. But Bill Murray, as you well know, is an extraordinary actor with tremendous range. And George and Grant have a keen eye and they see that kind of talent and realized that there IS something funny about a bunch of middle aged, really cultivated guys putting on military uniforms and going to the frontline with combat troops. There is something intrinsically humorous about that. And there were a lot of humorous moments in reality. The idea that one of these Monuments Men, Lincoln Kirstein, who was the founder of the New York City Ballet after the war---a gay man who was highly cultivated, a cultural impresario, was receiving smoked salmon and cheeses in his packages from home, would be paired up with a guy who’s from a dirt poor area of Alabama, a man who hadn’t traveled, was receiving Hershey chocolate bars, is both fascinating and at times funny. They are both opening their packages at the same time and looking at what the other has received. I mean, you can’t help but laugh. It’s funny. And I think George and Grant saw and understood innately that during the most horrible conflict in history, there were funny moments. Humor was an important coping mechanism for millions of soldiers and people just trying to figure out how do I get home. A lot of times it was gallows humor. Bill Malden, the great Army cartoonist was one of the most beloved figures during the war because he depicted the life of a soldier that gave people something to laugh about amidst all the horrors of war. So this is a serious film and it’s got plenty of gravitas that conveys the seriousness, but these people are people and, you know, they tried to find comic moments to figure out how to get through some really, really horrific experiences. That was something I tried to bring out in the book and I think George and Grant grasped that aspect of their personalities and then found some tremendous actors who could convey both of those type experiences through their wonderful crafts."

As well as meeting up with George and Grant before the script was written, you also visited the set. Did you see much footage from the film?

" I saw short clips. Sometimes it happened standing next to George, other times watching some of the scenes on replay. I tried to help where I could but it was as much a courtesy as anything else – I mean, they weren’t holding up production because they were desperate to have me there! They just wanted to provide me the opportunity, knowing how many years of my life and resources I’ve sunk into telling these heroes’ story. Grant said it best: “You know, it’s always a special moment when the writer comes on set.” I didn’t really understand it until I got there but he was right. I made a point of taking my four researchers so that all of them who’ve worked so hard on this project could share in the experience. And George and Grant reestablished a new standard for graciousness by taking time out of an extremely busy schedule to make all of these ladies feel welcome and special and orient them. They just couldn’t have been kinder to them which their experience all the more special. I had a few more set visits that coincided with book launches in Europe. I spent one day just talking to the actors, sharing something special out of our archives with each one of them about the character they were portraying. Things that weren’t necessarily in my book, because I wanted to try and imbue them with something unique about each person – just to give them a little bit more insight, help them get inside the person’s head. And they all really appreciated it a lot and told me so. So it was wonderful just being around people that are so passionate about doing their job."

It’s been an amazing journey from a thought on a bridge, to a book, to a film…

"It has been and it continues to be. And of course, it’s not about me. It’s about these men and women, American, British, who risked their lives to do something noble that was for the benefit of civilization. In the end the effort involved representatives of thirteen nations. We owe them a debt of gratitude we can’t repay, but we certainly can make a start by knowing their legacy and preserving it. So that’s my ongoing work both as a storyteller in future books and films, as well as Chairman of the Monuments Men Foundation. It’s been personally gratifying and meaningful for me in so many ways, especially knowing that many hundreds of these Monuments Men’s kids that are my age, and their grandkids, will now know what their grandfather or grandmother did during the war. This is what has defined my life and brought me meaningfulness beyond measure"

Monuments Men is in cinemas now.

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