George Clooney stars both in front of and behind the camera in his latest film, about a little-known group of heroes who risked all to rescue stolen art from the Nazis in World War II.
And he managed to persuade some of his fellow A-listers to take big pay cuts to appear in the "The Monuments Men," which is being released Friday in the United States.
The movie is Clooney's fifth as a director, after 2002's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Good Night, and Good Luck" (2005), "Leatherheads" (2008) and 2011's "The Ides of March."
As well as Clooney, its stars include Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray and Oscar-winning French "The Artist" star Jean Dujardin, in his second Hollywood film after Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street."
Based on an eponymous book, the movie follows a group of experts, gallery owners and artists sent to Europe to salvage hundreds of thousands of works of art stolen by the Nazis, and to protect thousands of others threatened by Allied bombs.
"We were not all that familiar with the actual story, which is rare for a World War II film. Usually you think you know all the stories," Clooney told a pre-release press conference in Beverly Hills.
The "Monuments Men" -- about 100 in all, across Europe -- were tasked notably with finding works stolen by Hitler from Jewish families and major European museums, to create his megalomaniac project of a gigantic art museum in Linz.
"We liked the idea that there was a bunch of guys that you would never expect to go to a war zone," producer and long-time Clooney collaborator Grant Heslov told AFP.
"Guys who were museum curators and artists and architects. They weren't young. They weren't really made for war and for such heroic things," he added.
How our societies protect art
Despite the weighty subject matter, the film is basically entertaining.
"That was a tone that George and I wanted," said Heslov. "We wanted to make a film that was in some respects a call-back to the kind of war films we grew up on. There was always a little bit of tongue in cheek in those. So we wanted some of that.
"We knew we weren't making 'Schindler's List' or 'Saving Private Ryan.' Those are excellent films, but they have a very different perspective on the war."
Clooney also revealed that he got actors like Damon, Blanchett, Murray and Dujardin to take a pay cut.
"If you pay everybody a full boatload, it's a $150 million film," he told Variety, saying he managed to stay within a $70 million budget. "You just can't do it. Everybody worked for super cheap, like crazy cheap," he said.
Lots of the works of art stolen by Hitler were found and returned to their rightful owners after 1945. But "it is a long process, and it is a continuing process," said Clooney.
"Sometimes it's tricky, because it's very hard to raise sympathy for someone named Rothschild, who had the largest private collection, because people think, 'Well, they're pretty wealthy and it's not such a big deal,' although of course you want it to be returned."
Of his latest turn as a director, Clooney admitted: "I really enjoy it, it's fun. I like it more than acting now. I don't know whether it's improving or not, but it's certainly evolving in different directions."
He was honest about where he learned the craft.
"You know, all you're trying to do is learn from people that you've worked with.
"I've worked with the Coen brothers and Steven Soderbergh and Alexander Payne. I've worked with really great directors over the years. So you try to see what they're doing, and then just steal it."