If there’s any true horror movie this Halloween, it’s eclectic filmmaker George Clooney‘s The Ides of March. The play adaptation follows a hopeful and naive young hotshot, Stephen Myers, as he loses all of his morals to get ahead, which is apparently what the world of politics requires. If someone in the film sticks to their respectable rules, things most likely won’t turn out too well for them.
Like a great paranoia thriller, everyone’s constantly on edge about their place on the political food chain.
However, The Ides of March isn’t so much a film about politics, but the downward spiral of a once idealistic campaign runner. Clooney’s fourth directorial feature is a dark and cynical character drama underneath the surface of a low-key thriller. Co-writer/producer Grant Heslov (director of the very underrated The Men Who Stare at Goats) and Clooney delved into the idea of trying to stick to one’s rules in a bloodthirsty world with Good Night and Good Luck, but while that story lent itself to a more optimistic feel, the duo took a far more cynical approach with The Ides of March.
Here’s what Heslov had to say about getting this dark character drama made, the film’s idealist-turned-ruthless protagonist, and why he doesn’t wake up dreaming about writing in our spoiler-filled conversation:
Considering how dark the film is, did that at all make it a tough sell when it came to getting it made?
No, it wasn’t tough for the domestic market. For the foreign [market], it was a little tougher to the point where George and I had our cast, went to the ASM, and sat down with foreign buyers, and pitched our take of the film. In that sense, it was a little difficult.
For foreign buyers, was the selling point that it wasn’t a film about politics, but more so about a guy losing his morals?
Yes, that really was what we were interested in — showing the arc and dilemma of a guy who starts off as a true believer, for all the right reasons, and then at the end still gets his guy elected, but sort of compromises everything and sells his soul, but still might have gotten the right guy elected.
Do you think the film says it’s dopey to be that true believer in politics?
I don’t mean true believer in the sense of a naive guy. Ryan’s character says at the beginning, “Look, I’ve worked on a lot of campaigns, more than most people at 40. This is the one.” Meaning, Morris is somebody he can get elected and stands for all the things that Ryan’s character believes in. I don’t necessarily think that means squeaky-clean, but at the same time, with the storm that happens between Stephen getting wedged out by his own team, the candidate fucking the girl and the girl dying, all that stuff forces his hand, in a way. He had a couple of choices, and he chose to do what he did.
I don’t know if I’d say it forces his hand, because he does things that he doesn’t really have to do. Like, taking advantage of Molly’s death.
Exactly, that’s what I mean. He makes a decision to not only save his own skin, but to also keep the campaign on track. He could have blown the whole thing up, right? He could have done a lot of different things, but you’re right, that he did sell his soul and make the most reprehensible choice.
[Laughs] I was worried he was going to blow the whole thing up at the end. If it was the big Hollywood ending, he would have talked about all the terrible things that happened in that interview.
Oh, God, that’s the worst.
So, you guys never got the note for an ending like that?
No, no. We didn’t really get many notes, because we didn’t do it through the studio. Sony’s releasing it, but they didn’t make it. We raised the money independently, and one of the great things about that is you don’t get a lot of notes.
Well, I’d imagine they’d trust you guys after Good Night and Good Luck.
Yeah, I guess. Hopefully we can keep that up.
[Laughs] You don’t sound very confident, with the “I guess.”
I mean, who the hell knows who to trust when money’s involved. The reason we make these films and make them for relatively little money is so we can make the film we want to make, and without having to put an ending on it to make you cringe.
I’d say this ending also adds a lot to the connection between Mike and Stephen. Mike has this line about how he “keeps pushing the line in the sand he initially wouldn’t cross,” and that’s what Stephen does throughout the whole movie. Did you, George, and Ryan talk a lot about that idea, how similar Stephen and Mike are?
Not really, but that’s an interesting observation. Now that you’ve pointed that out, I can see that. I don’t think we really talked about that. We certainly talked about it more on a macro-level, that that’s what happens in politics. Everyone goes in thinking they can change the world, and then you slowly get eroded by the system.
It also says how you can’t really survive if you try to be the good guy. You don’t see Paul — maybe the most moralistic character in the movie — do anything wrong, and yet he gets screwed over.
If you ask Philip Seymour Hoffman if he’s the most moralistic character in the movie… I suppose in our specific story, that’s true. I feel he would do anything to win as well. I think you’re right — in our story, he is the cleanest.
What made you guys want to have Mike be a more central part of the story, since he wasn’t prominent in the play?
We wanted to open it up, and we thought it made for more interesting stakes to have it be the candidate who has the indiscretion, as opposed to just Paul. The play was more about Stephen being pissed off at Paul, because they were sleeping with the same woman. That was okay, but here it’s different. This is more about the candidate possibly fucking up his opportunity to be elected, so the stakes are much higher.
Was it also important not to make Mike an antagonist?
We wanted to make him a candidate you would want to vote for, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. Even if you don’t like what he stands for, it was important for you to see he’s a man of morals and had integrity. The more you believe that, the better the turn.
Is it tough creating a great, believable candidate? I’m sure you notice it as well, but all the time you see candidates in movies who come off more dream-like than believable.
Yeah, we tried to do that. I’ll let you answer that question. It’s better for you than for me to answer that.
I think he’s believable.
I think we did that. I think he seems like a believable candidate, and George is believable as a candidate. I think whatever baggage he brings with him helps in that case.
With both this and The American, you guys really turn Clooney’s charming image on its head. Is there a sense of fun in going against that known persona?
Yeah, I think it’s fun for him as an actor, for sure. I think it’s always interesting to see actors in movies you don’t necessarily see them in, if they’re good actors. If they suck, then it’s bad. If they’re good actors, then that’s good.
They’re tough, unspoken roles, too. There’s very little exposition about Mike.
No, no, that’s right. We’re not big on exposition.
[Laughs] Besides the obvious answer, why’s that?
I think it’s more interesting to throw people into a story and let them catch up instead of explaining and feeling like you have to slow down for them. I think audiences, for the most part, they don’t want to be ahead of you.
Do you think certain studios don’t give enough credit to the general audiences’ intelligence?
I do think that. I mean, just look at the films that are made. I think audiences see what they demand, but for us, we want to make films we would like to go see. That sort of dictates what we want to do.
Is it tough getting to make the films you want to see?
No, because I love to see all kinds of films. If we were trying to make this film for 50 million dollars, then we would have had a hard time. Relatively speaking, this was an inexpensive film. The people who put money into it have already made it back in foreign sales. In this way, nobody really gets hurt if the film isn’t a box office smash. If it is, then you get to make some interesting shit.
Did that inexpensive budget help the final product, you think? The film really has this low-key and intimate sense of scope.
Do I think the budget helped us?
Yeah, when it came to the final film. I’m sure there were days where you may have wanted more time or money, but —
Well, we really didn’t. Actually, we came in under budget and finished two days early. This wasn’t a terribly complicated film to make. This is the fourth film George has made. Obviously, he’s been in front of the camera so much, too; he’s really gotten it down. It’s just like Clint Eastwood — he has a real system for who he works with and knows who he gels with. The amount of money we made the film for was exactly the right amount of money. I mean, everyone works for less money than they usually work for — and I’m talking about the actors — and they all participate, so there’s an upside. That’s what makes the film so special, for the most part.
I’m guessing your financiers were happy about coming in under budget.
Yeah, they liked that.
In terms of writing, do you find the process of adaptation more challenging, or writing original material?
In some ways, adapting a play is easier because you have source material, you have the idea, some of the characters are already developed, but there are some tricks. You got to find ways for things that weren’t working or you want to work better. When you’re writing an original screenplay, you have to start from scratch and there’s more details to go through. I think writing an original screenplay is more difficult, but they’re both difficult. I find writing very difficult.
Is there any part of the process that comes easily or naturally?
[Pause] No, none of it comes easily.
[Laughs] So, what made you get into the writing business? What do you find the most gratifying, the final product?
Well, that is very gratifying. You sort of have to do it if you want to make the things you want to make. I don’t make my living writing, I make my living as a producer and as a director. When I write, I make decent money doing it, but I don’t wake up dreaming about writing.
[Laughs] Do you enjoy directing?
I love directing. To me, writing is the hardest. When George and I are working it’s fun, but it’s just not the easiest thing to do. Creatively, it’s great, because when you write your own movies, you get to create whatever you want.
Directing-wise, are you thinking about doing another feature soon?
I am working on a couple of things, but nothing is set to go immediately. I’m working on this film Argo right now, which takes me past through the holidays. After that time, it’ll be time to figure out what’s next.
Great. To wrap-up, I think Stephen’s last line to Ida, about how she’s his “best friend,” is pretty sad. He’s really all alone at that point, so was that the intention?
No, I think that’s just a big fuck you to her.
It’s a callback. Remember that scene they have in the overpass?
He’s like, “Ida, I thought we were friends, and you stick a fucking knife in my back?” She’s like, “You thought we were friends? Come on, I do favors for you and you do favors for me.” Later, when she comes back like, “Aren’t we friends anymore?”, he just gives that line, “Yeah, Ida, you’re my best friend…”, as a total fuck you. For me, that’s a total fuck you, but that’s the beauty of movies — six people can watch the same movie, but get the different idea. I do feel when he says… you’re right, by the end, he’s stripped himself of everything. He’s fucked everybody, and he won the prize, but at what cost?
The Ides of March is now in theaters.