'We felt like we were in the wrong room'

George Clooney walks into a plush Toronto conference room looking almost absurdly Clooney-esque: Trim and fit at 56, his skin a biscuity shade of Lake Como gold, his movie-star teeth birch-white. He offers warm, firm handshakes all around and chats breezily about bringing his newborn twins to meet his parents in Kentucky, accepts condolences for the recent passing of his elderly dog, Einstein, and gives a pretty hard sell to the crudités platter. But as he settles in to promote his latest project, the Coen Brothers-penned Suburbicon — a pitch-black satire of murder and mayhem in a Pleasantville-style 1950s planned community starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, and young newcomer Noah Jupe — the conversation quickly widens to include the film’s tense racial overtones, the reason he cut Josh Brolin from the final cut, and why he always comes back to Matt Damon.


“It’s hard to find a script, and we were working on another piece about [the original post-War model of suburbia] Levittown. I remembered the boys — sorry, that’s what I call the Coen Brothers, and I tell each of them that they’re the special one — had written this script a long time ago, and they offered me the part that Oscar Isaac ended up playing in the movie, but it never got finished and they moved on. So I called them and said ‘I have some idea of mixing these two up, a fun way to do it.’ They were like, ‘Let’s go, let’s have some fun.’ But to get Matt Damon, we had to wait a little bit.”


“The kid [Noah Jupe] was hard to find. He’s British, believe it or not, and we budgeted more time for him, but he did everything in one take. It was really humiliating to watch as an actor, him nailing it every time. [laughs] I played a pediatrician on ER for years so I worked with a lot of child actors you know, and 99 percent of them shouldn’t be there, it’s really more about the parents. But this kid is just dead center great and easy, and he had to do a lot of really weird emotional stuff, like Matt Damon telling him he’s gonna kill him. [laughs]”


“While we were shooting, Trump got elected, so it sort of changed the temperature of everything. The goofy seemed too goofy. Josh had done some really funny scenes and, in the process, it became really apparent that it was not going to fit this film anymore. Things were darker and angrier. He was playing the baseball coach, and he was absolutely batshit crazy, you know, he teaches all the kids how to say ‘f—‘ really great, but I had to call him and tell him he’s cut out.”


“Obviously, films are two years behind the news cycle. That’s the nature of it. But all these issues are constantly bubbling to the surface, and it was really written as a piece to talk about, to circle the idea that there’s a group of white Americans who are terrified of losing their place in society and blaming minorities for it. And we thought that that was sort of a universal theme. That whole idea of ‘we’re not bigots but don’t come live with us’ — we had tons of discussions about that.

“None of this stuff is new. We have to remind ourselves every time we see these things. It’s ingrained in our soul, it is part of our original sin, and it’s something we’ll have to deal with forever, fight forever. And if that’s part of the conversation people want to have, great. But we did not set out to make a political film. We wanted people to be entertained. We wanted Matt Damon riding a tiny bicycle. [laughs]”


“The killers in the movie were goofier. The Coen brothers wrote them very similar to the guys in Fargo in a way, some pretty slapstick stuff — a bus chase. We shot it, and it’s a really funny scene. But again, we felt like we were in the wrong room. And along the way, the tone, in general, became much more of a ‘f— this’ kind of thing… [In regard to the black family] There’s a lot of people better qualified than me to tell the story of being African-American in suburbia, and I’m very aware of that. Really, we’re telling the story of white angst.”


“Matt is an everyman, he really is. He’s very sneaky how talented he is as an actor because it’s so natural. You don’t see him sweat at all. And he’s really fun as a sort of buffoonish fish out of water guy — the same guy who can go do a Bourne movie and kick everybody’s ass and now get punched in the face by some chubby killer.

“And quite honestly he’s just great to work with. I’m 56 years old and I’ve lived my life, I’ve done films with crappy people and sometimes those films ended up being good, but it wasn’t worth the life hell of doing it, and I’m dead serious. I got paid $50,000 to write, produce, and direct this film, and I have no back end. But I sold a f—ing tequila company, I’ll be fine [laughs]. So it puts me in the position that if I’m going to do this, it should be something I’m excited to work on and with people I want to be with.”


“On the set of The American, I remember turning 50 and going, ‘Okay, that’s the last time I’m gonna kiss the girl, and that whole thing.’ The guys that I loved, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, I was friends with both of them, and watching the way their careers morphed into character actors, if you think about it that’s what they did. I’d love to do that, but I’m not going to do stuff just to be on camera anymore.”

Suburbicon is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival and is out in theaters in October.