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The Team: George Clooney and Grant Heslov

Once they thought the time was right, they made a second run at 'The Ides of March.'

September 04, 2011|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • George Clooney and Grant Heslov co-wrote and produced "The Ides of March," which Clooney directed and co-stars in.
George Clooney and Grant Heslov co-wrote and produced "The Ides of… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

George Clooney and Grant Heslov were all ready to make "The Ides of March" — and then Barack Obama was elected.

The actor-director and his longtime producing partner had adapted Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North," a story of backroom betrayals during a critical moment in a fictional presidential race, significantly ratcheting up the play's realpolitik. Willimon's unsentimental drama, under Clooney and Heslov's revisions, became a somber, provocative thriller. "Grant and I were sitting at lunch, saying, 'We need to do this, we need to do that,'" before shooting started, Clooney said. But Obama had just become the nation's first African American president. "And then we said: 'Wait a minute. We can't make this movie. Everybody is too happy. Everybody feels too good. This movie is too cynical.'"

Such glad tidings didn't last long, particularly in Washington. As soon as the healthcare debate and the midterm elections polarized government and the nation once again, the filmmakers recognized that it was time to revive "Ides of March," which hits theaters Oct. 7.

Clooney, who also directed, plays Gov. Mike Morris, a hard-core liberal's dream candidate. He's unapologetically and unequivocally progressive: for gay marriage, against the death penalty and wants to do away with internal combustion car engines. But before he can take the White House, he first must take the tight Ohio primary. Morris' campaign is run by Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) Zara's most talented — and unreservedly idealistic — aide. "Nothing bad happens," Myers remarks at one point, "when you're doing the right thing." Two seemingly innocent Myers encounters — between him and a campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood) and an advisor to Morris' rival — sets off a chain reaction that threatens to take down the candidate.

"We were interested in writing about a character who makes a profound change — and not necessarily for the better," Heslov said of Myers, this fall's second standout performance for Gosling (who's also the lead in Sept. 16's gothic crime story "Drive"). "We also wanted to tell a great story that had thriller elements, without it being a classic thriller."

Clooney said some of Morris' positions are drawn from decades-old columns written by his father, Nick Clooney, a veteran journalist who ran (and lost) as a Kentucky Democrat for Congress in 2004. "We wanted the Morris speeches to really say something," Clooney said. "They had to be believable enough that they would excite the base." Nick Clooney wasn't simply an oratorical inspiration for "Ides of March"; his actor son also incorporated what he saw his father endure. "He ran a clean campaign," Clooney said, "and got beaten down like a baby seal."

Yet "Ides of March" doesn't dwell on negative campaign tactics. Instead, it is interested in exploring loyalty and compromise — how the most impassioned true believers, driven to win, can abandon the very principles that once anchored their lives. "We wanted this to be a story about a man who goes from being great at his job to being the best at his job," Clooney said. "And the only thing it costs him is his soul."

Brian Oliver, whose Cross Creek Pictures ("Black Swan") co-financed "Ides of March" after Warner Bros. passed on making it, believes the movie's themes are hardly limited to the C-Span crowd. "The whole thing could have happened at a law firm or anywhere else," Oliver said. "Which is why I think it will have a bigger audience than a straight political film."

Clooney, conceding that audiences might not find the movie "necessarily optimistic," said "Ides of March" is intended to be provocative, not preachy. "We didn't want to send a message. We wanted to leave things ambiguous," he said. "We wanted people to say at the end of the movie, 'So what do you think happens next?' "

john.horn@latimes.com

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