In the 30 years since a recurring role on TV’s The Facts of Life officially put George Clooney on the map, something he still isn’t afraid to make a crack about during a recent interview in Los Angeles for his new film Monuments Men, the now 52-year-old actor has played a wide range of memorable characters on the big screen.

Save for that dreadful Batman movie and a couple of romantic comedies that, let’s just say, didn’t leave a lasting impression with audiences, the Oscar-winner has managed to choose his roles well— whether he was partnering with the Coen Brothers in 2000’s O Brother Where Art Thou?, masterminding the perfect casino heist in the “Oceans” trilogy or tackling weightier subject matter in Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Michael Clayton and The Ides of March.

But as much as he enjoys disappearing into a motley crew of characters onscreen, Clooney recently admitted that it’s directing, not acting, that actually makes him the happiest.

Admitting he prefers directing to acting because he thinks “it’s infinitely more creative,” he says he found inspiration in a true story that was far less cynical than his previous projects.

Citing his last directorial turn in the politically charged The Ides of March, a project he was proud of but leaned a little heavy on the cynicism, Clooney says that he and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov were not only excited by the thrilling, dramatic real-life story behind Monuments Men but for the opportunity to tell an optimistic story on an epic scale.

“We’ve made some cynical films, but in general, we really aren’t cynical people,” Clooney admits. “We wanted to do a movie that wasn’t cynical, a movie that was straightforward, old-fashioned and had a positive forward movement to it.”

 

Unlikely Men on a Mission

While looking for a new directorial project that captured his attention, Clooney first became aware of the source material after Heslov finished reading the book, The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter. While living in Florence, Italy, the author says he was inspired to find the answer to a question that he couldn’t stop wondering about.

“When I was living in Florence and walking across the Pontevecchio Bridge—the only bridge that wasn’t destroyed by the Nazis as they fled in 1944—I wondered how all these cultural treasures were saved and who saved them,” Edsel says. “I wanted to find out the answer.”

As it turns out, the answer was an unlikely group of men on an unlikely mission, namely the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives group. Heading to the front lines, a small group of artists, art historians, architects and museum curators, led the rescue effort.

“The story of the Monuments Men is one that really very few people know,” says Clooney. “Artists, art dealers, architects—these were men that were far beyond the age that they were going to be drafted into a war or volunteer. But they took on this adventure because they had this belief that culture can be destroyed. If they’d failed, it could have meant the loss of six million pieces of art. They weren’t going to let that happen, and the truth of the matter is, they pulled it off.”

Making a World War II movie with a new, mostly unheard angle was an exciting prospect for Clooney. But what he probably most loved about working on Monuments Men was that it was a story that featured fascinating characters.

“There’s a certain romance to movies like The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, The Bridge on the River Kwai,” Clooney shares. “In those movies, you fell in love with the characters and the actors as much as the story. And we thought The Monuments Men was a great chance to cast interesting contemporary actors together for our version of that kind of movie—it’s a fun and entertaining way to do it.”