Notes from the opening day’s press conference at the Berlinale, when George Clooney lost his cool.
There are signs in the press-conference room that something big, something international is afoot. On one wall, there are clocks displaying the time in Los Angeles, New York, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Beijing, Tokyo. At the other end are booths, where translators convert sound bites to German, English and French. I’m wondering how hot they must be in that glass cage, for even sitting outside, it’s terribly warm for a city that’s recording 5 degrees C, with icy rain to boot. The heat comes from the packed room, with journalists and TV crews and arc lights. (Well, not exactly arc lights, but this is a film festival after all. Some flourishes must be made.) We were waiting for the cast and crew of Hail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers comedy that opened the 66th Berlinale.
“Hail Berlinale! Hail Caesar!,” joked the moderator Anatol Weber, as he introduced Channing Tatum, George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Ethan and Joel Coen, Alden Ehrenreich and Tilda Swinton, who got the loudest applause. (Weber called her “the queen of Berlinale,” owing to her many appearances at the festival.) You’d think the questions would be different from the usual press conferences we see during, say, a film’s opening, but international journalists are people too, and a lot of the session played out like friendly banter. The accepted etiquette in these events is that you ask nothing terribly personal or provocative and they, in turn, turn on star wattage and josh around, giving the impression of letting you past that velvet rope, into their private circle of celebrities.
And for a while, this script was faithfully followed. A Canadian journalist said she wanted to make love to the film. A Polish journalist began to ask Clooney about his legendary on-set pranks. “Are you flirting with me?” he interrupted. The journalist took some time phrasing her query, and when she finished, Clooney said, “I was literally an ingénue when the question started.” He then joked about how the Coens thought of him every time they wrote a script about a knucklehead. “If I said anything nice about them, it was because I was drunk at the time.” Someone asked Tatum about his dance routine in the film. “Why don’t you dance for us now?” Someone brought up the Coens’ long-time cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Ethan deadpanned, “We just show up on the set and don’t bother to talk to each other anymore.”
There were a few serious questions too, but nothing too serious. Someone asked if the Coens were nostalgic about the era depicted in the film, which is set in Hollywood of the 1950s. Joel said, “It can’t be nostalgia, for we weren’t there.” He said it was more affection, admiration. “But we’re not sure how we’d have functioned in that environment.” The Coens were asked about Son of Saul, the Hungarian Holocaust drama which won the Grand Prix at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where the Coens chaired the jury. “I hope it drew attention to this movie,” Joel said. “That’s what these awards are for.” Then, it was back to Clooney, “Have you ever seen a Russian communist?” He replied, “Am I looking at one right now?” The question had to do with his role in the film, where his character becomes interested in Communist teachings. Clooney even mimicked Joseph Welch’s famous retort during the McCarthy hearings: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
By then, everyone was resigned to the fact that this was more or less a Clooney show. The actor was asked if he’d make a sequel to Syriana, the Oscar-winning film on petroleum politics that he produced. He said, “There is a lot wrong with the world, as we all know. But we are in a political period in our country today, and we’re not talking enough about the world. As filmmakers, we react to events. We don’t lead the way. The film happens years after the news story breaks. And you need a good story, good characters.” He spoke of his humanitarian work in Darfur (“it’s very close to me”) and how he’d like to make a film around the conflict. “But we haven’t found the proper script yet.” He said he was meeting Angela Merkel the next day.
Finally, a journalist from Mexico broke through the bonhomie. Referring to the refugee crisis, which she called a “human catastrophe,” she asked what Clooney, as a public figure, intended to do. To everyone’s surprise, he looked at her and said, “What is it specifically that you have done for refugees?” The woman behind me muttered, “Brutal!” But the journalist was unfazed. She went on to explain that she worked with an organisation that made toys for children and helps refugees learn German. Clooney was in no mood to back down. “Those are the people you are working with. I asked what you specifically were doing?” He had a smile on, and yet, for a minute, we got a glimpse of a cracked facade. It was left to Joel Coen to cool things down. “It’s absurd to say that anyone in public life or the creative world should be telling this particular story.” A question about Trump brought the script back on track. “He’s a strange phenomenon,” Joel said. “It’s surreal.”Everyone laughed.
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