The Tender Bar – Official Trailer | Prime Video / Starring Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Christopher Lloyd, Lily Rabe / Directed by George Clooney

Directed by Academy Award® Winner George Clooney

Written by Academy Award® Winner William Monahan

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning author J.R. Moehringer’s memoir “The Tender Bar”

Produced by Academy Award Winning Producer Grant Heslov and Ted Hope

Starring Academy Award® Winner Ben Affleck, Tye Sheridan, Emmy Award Winner Christopher Lloyd,

Lily Rabe, and introducing Daniel Ranieri

The Tender Bar tells the story of J.R. (Sheridan), a fatherless boy growing up in the glow of a bar where the bartender, his Uncle Charlie (Affleck), is the sharpest and most colorful of an assortment of quirky and demonstrative father figures. As the boy’s determined mother (Rabe) struggles to provide her son with opportunities denied to her — and leave the dilapidated home of her outrageous if begrudgingly supportive father (Christopher Lloyd) — J.R. begins to gamely, if not always gracefully, pursue his romantic and professional dreams — with one foot persistently placed in Uncle Charlie’s bar.  The Tender Bar is based on the best-selling memoir of the same name by J.R. Moehringer.

104 Minutes | Rated R


Long Synopsis 

In 1972, 9-year-old J.R. Maguire (Daniel Ranieri, later Tye Sheridan) spends hours scanning the airwaves for The Voice, his name for the radio deejay father who deserted him and his mom years earlier. As he dreams of the day when they can be reunited, he and his fiercely protective mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe) live with her family in his curmudgeonly grandfather’s (Christopher Lloyd) rundown house in Manhasset, Long Island, both working tirelessly to fulfill her dream of an Ivy League education for J.R. 

Hungry for male attention, the boy finds comfort at the nearby Dickens pub, where the man behind the bar is his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck). A self-educated truth-seeker with a closet full of classic books and a thirst for knowledge, Charlie takes the boy under his wing, encouraging J.R.’s aspirations of becoming a writer. As J.R. grows to young adulthood with sporadic contact with his birth father, Charlie guides him through the mysteries of manhood and includes him in bowling nights, ball games and trips to the beach with his loyal band of quirky friends. 

But when winning a scholarship to Yale, falling in love with a brilliant and beautiful classmate and getting his dream job still don’t seem like enough to J.R., he retreats once more to the bar, only to discover he already had everything he needed in order to claim his own dreams. Directed by George Clooney, The Tender Bar captures the heartache, vulnerability and humor of a boy’s struggle to become a man. 

The Tender Bar is directed by two-time Oscar® winner George Clooney (Good Night, and Good Luck, The Ides of March) from a screenplay by Oscar winner William Monahan (The Departed, The Gambler) and adapted from the memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J.R. Moehringer (Resurrecting the Champ). The film stars Ben Affleck (Argo, Good Will Hunting), Tye Sheridan (Mud, The Card Counter), Lily Rabe (Miss Stevens, “American Horror Story”), Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, I Am Not a Serial Killer), Max Martini (13 Hours, “The Order”), Rhenzy Feliz (“Runaways,” “American Horror Stories”), Briana Middleton (Augustus, Sharper), Max Casella (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Jackie), Sondra James (“Sick of It,” Joker), Michael Braun (“The Sinner,” “The Affair”) and newcomer Daniel Ranieri. 

The producers are George Clooney, Oscar winner Grant Heslov (Argo, Good Night, and Good Luck) and Ted Hope (The Ice Storm, Martha Marcy May Marlene). Executive producers are Barbara A. Hall (“Big Little Lies,” The Ides of March) and J.R. Moehringer. The director of photography is Martin Ruhe (The Midnight Sky, “Catch-22”). Production designer is Kalina Ivanov (“Grey Gardens,” “Lovecraft Country”). Costume designer is Jenny Eagan (“Olive Kitteridge,” Knives Out). The film is edited by Tanya M. Swerling (“Defending Jacob,” “Cinderella”). The composer is Dara Taylor (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, Colewell). 



Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J.R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar was published in 2005 and lauded for its lyrical depiction of a hard-knocks upbringing spent searching for the nomadic father who abandoned the author as a young child. Moehringer’s loving portrayal of his fiercely ambitious mother, his miserly grandfather and, above all, his charismatic Uncle Charlie and the barflies at the pub where Charlie pours drinks is by turns poignant, raucous, hilarious, hopeless and hopeful. In other words, perfect fodder for an unforgettable coming-of-age film directed by George Clooney. 

Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov received a copy of the script, adapted by Oscar- winning screenwriter William Monahan, from producer Ted Hope, who was then an executive at Amazon Studios. “It’s the story of a not-privileged kid deciding to do the fundamentally impossible,” says Monahan. “But beneath the ordinary world, it is kind of an epic. It’s the very rare first book by a writer who doesn’t throw family and friends under the bus after chewing them up for material. It says of the family, I am them and they are me. 

“J.R. had a very supportive, very loving family,” he adds. “They got him into Yale, they helped him, they compensated for his lack of a present, decent father. And in the end, despite his searching, he realizes that he always had a father — his Uncle Charlie, and even his grandfather. There’s something heroic in his story.” 

Heslov had read the book before it was published, and loved it so much he tried unsuccessfully to option it at the time. Although Clooney wasn’t familiar with the memoir until after he read the script, he was instantly won over. “The version we received was a tremendous adaptation of the book,” he recalls. “Bill Monahan’s a really great collaborator and a really smart writer, whom we admire greatly. When you have a really wonderful screenwriter like that, you can’t go wrong.” 

Clooney and Heslov are both around the same age as Moehringer, and their connection with the material was strong and immediate. “So many of the elements of J.

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R.’s childhood are things I share with him,” says Heslov. “It just resonated with me.” 

Clooney felt an even more specific kinship to the material. “Growing up in Kentucky, which is nothing like Manhasset, I had an Uncle George who I was named after,” he says. “George lived above a really beat-up old bar. When I was 9 or 10 years old, which is the exact time period in which the early part of the movie is set, he’d give me 50 cents to go get him cigarettes from the machine and a can of beer. So I grew up in and around a bar like the bar in the film, with all the wild characters that called me ‘kid.’” 

Turning a 400-page memoir into a two-hour movie inevitably involves some changes. And Clooney, who with Heslov has made several other projects based on books, including Syriana and “Catch-22,” knows from experience that a screenplay can never be exactly the same as a book. “They’re two completely different animals,” he says. “A book will tell you what someone is thinking, and a movie has to show you. But we think we stayed true to the essence of the book. The Tender Bar is still a story about class, about being raised in a bar and about the intimacy of family.” 

Despite the changes, Moehringer agrees that many of the important themes of his memoir remain. “The lost father,” he says. “The particular loneliness of being an only child of a single mom. The search for surrogates. The terror of being at an Ivy League college — any college, really — and feeling that you don’t belong, academically or socially or both.” 

Clooney has starred in some of the films he’s directed, while remaining strictly behind the camera in others, as he did with The Tender Bar. “That simplifies the job for sure,” he says. “This was an easy one to direct anyway because it was a really good script, we had really wonderful actors and we had a great crew. I just loved all these characters. It’s The Wizard of Oz in a way. J.R. is constantly looking for happiness and his place in the world, and it’s right there all along. I think that’s a voyage we all enjoy watching.” 


Everybody Needs an Uncle Charlie 

The most influential male in young J.R.’s life is his Uncle Charlie, his mother’s brother and the bartender at the local pub, Dickens. Charlie is a man’s man who lives by a simple code he refers to as “the male sciences.” The code dictates how a man treats women (“You don’t hit a woman, ever, up to and including if she has stabbed you with scissors”) and how he takes care of his business and family. In Charlie’s view, they are basically everything a boy needs to know to become a man. 

“Once we told Amazon we wanted to do The Tender Bar, the question was who was going to play Uncle Charlie,” says Clooney. “The character had to have two specific qualities. You have to believe he’s really smart and really well read. That is a no-brainer with Ben Affleck. He’s a really smart actor and a smart man. And then he has to be a little worn down. He needs a bit of gravitas. Ben is a different actor now than he was 15 years ago. With age comes a little bit of gray in the hair and a little bit of crinkle in his eye. Ben couldn’t have played this part five or 10 years ago. Now he is exactly right for it. As soon as we read the script, we thought of him.” 

Affleck had already collaborated with Clooney and Heslov when he directed and starred in the Academy Award®-winning espionage thriller Argo, which the three also produced. “The luckiest thing that can happen to you as an actor is to have a great script with a great director fall out of the sky,” he says. “That’s what happened to me. The character’s intelligence and use of language, as well as his evident compassion for his nephew and the non-traditional ways he shows it made it extremely appealing.” 

Charlie, Affleck says, reminds him of what his character in Good Will Hunting might have been like 25 years later had he grown up on Long Island. He also recognized a lot of his own father in Charlie. “My father was a bartender in a working people’s bar in the 1980s. He was very well read and had strong feelings about elitism and education. So I had a lot to draw from.” 

The actor says he’s never worked with a director with as strong a command of the practical aspects of performing on camera. “In fact, it’s easy to say George gave me the best performance notes I’ve ever been given,” he says. “He understands how much of acting comes down to the choices an actor makes as much as how he or she is able to connect with a character’s emotional life.” 

According to Affleck, in a roughly 40-year career that began as a child actor, shooting The Tender Bar has been one of his most enjoyable professional experiences. “I cannot say I had a bad day or even a bad moment, except when George made us all go swimming in the ocean in March. That’s not something normal human beings do in Massachusetts because the water is 33 degrees.” 


J.R. and J.R. 

Casting the character of J.R. posed an unusual challenge: The character is 9 years old at the start of the film and in his 20s by the end. Obviously, they would need two actors who would be believable as the same person separated by at least 10 crucial years. 

Tye Sheridan, who plays the older J.R., was impressed by the seamless transition from boy to teenager to young man in the film. “That can be credited to a well-written script and a flawlessly constructed narrative,” says Sheridan. “I could not trust anyone more than George to guide that ship so that the audience believes this journey into the older version of the character.” 

Clooney had had an eye on Sheridan’s work since he appeared as a teenager in 2012’s Mud opposite Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Paulson. “He’s a really unique young man who has a natural aptitude for storytelling,” the director believes. “You don’t ever question whether he’s telling you the truth on screen. That doesn’t happen often with young actors. They usually try to show you a little more than you need. We were thrilled to have him come on board.” 

According to Heslov, the actor had everything the filmmakers were looking for. “He is good-looking, but not a pretty boy. Watching him, you automatically feel empathy. He does a lot of reacting in this role and that is something he does really well. He’s also just a really smart kid who is curious about everything that happens on set because he wants to be a filmmaker.” 

Sheridan says reading the book before filming was initially helpful, but once production started, he set it aside. “It’s great to be aware of the source material,” he notes. “But you can get confused by what’s in the screenplay and what’s in the book, so eventually I just focused on the screenplay.” 

At the beginning of the film, J.R. already carries the weight of his mother’s high hopes for him. “He feels a great responsibility to accomplish certain things — specifically to go to Yale and become a lawyer — but all he really wants to do is be a writer,” says Sheridan. “He has a lot to overcome in his life. That was something very relatable and really exciting for me to play.” 

Despite the presence of his Uncle Charlie, his grandparents and extended family in his life, his mother is the only person J.R. feels he can totally depend on. “She’s his only parent,” Sheridan observes. “She’s it. Their relationship is tender and sweet. Sometimes he gives her a bit of an eye roll, but he loves her for all she is and has given to him. Lily Rabe, who plays J.R.’s mother, is a phenomenal actress who brings a depth that I don’t think many people could bring.” 

Eight-year-old Brooklynite Daniel Ranieri, who plays the younger J.R., was discovered via a YouTube video that has come to be known as the “f—ing lockdown video.” In 2020, Daniel’s mother was talking to him about the upcoming summer and all the outdoor activities it would allow. Daniel launched into a colorful rant about the need to comply with COVID-19 restrictions by staying indoors. 

The video she took of his comments went viral, earning him an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” A star was born. “A friend sent the video to me as a joke, while we were trying to cast the young J.R.,” says Clooney. “We’d seen a lot of kid actors but the reality is when you cast kids, it’s less about the quality of the acting and more about how close they seem to be to the character. Daniel has a great East Coast accent. He was very funny and has really good energy in the video. I got in touch with his family, sent over some pages and he read them on Zoom. He was just right for the part. Every take we did with him was one take. He is just phenomenal.” Even Daniel’s mother, Danielle, was given a role in the film, playing J.R.’s aunt. 

Ranieri admits he was very surprised to get this opportunity. “I never met anybody famous before or filmed a movie. I think I was most excited to meet George Clooney. I have seen him in a lot of movies, like Ocean’s Eleven and Batman. I love Batman. He told me that I shouldn’t be nervous to film the movie and that I did very good with my lines. And it was great having Grant’s and George’s dogs around, ’cause I love dogs.” 

At a point in the story when the adult J.R. is at his lowest, sitting alone, drunk, at Dickens, he is confronted by his younger self, who berates him for giving up to easily on his goals. “That scene was very cool,” says Ranieri. “J.R. is drunk and his younger self is mad because he thought that he was going to grow up to be a writer, but meanwhile here he is a copy boy and he’s always drinking! Young J.R. is very mad about that. I felt like that was a very good scene because I got to tell him off and that was great.” 


Every Unhappy Family 

As J.R.’s stubbornly ambitious mother, Dorothy, Lily Rabe is radiant, tough and deeply vulnerable all at the same time. Dorothy gave up her chance at an education when she had her child and was soon left to care for him alone when her husband moved on. Although hardworking, she never seems to be able to get ahead. She is periodically forced to bounce back to her rundown family home and sleep in her childhood bedroom with her son, a situation she finds utterly humiliating. 

“She is dancing as fast as she can,” says Rabe. “The character felt like no one I had ever known and yet there’s something so relatable about her. Every time she leaves, she thinks she’s leaving for the last time and every time she comes back, she’s coming back for the last time — but it keeps happening.” Having given up her own dreams, Dorothy has turned her indomitable energy to making her only child a success. 

“I have wanted to work with Lily for a long time,” Heslov says. “When this came along, she was just right for the part. She is really smart, she’s funny and she’s excited about the work in a good way. Honestly, once you cast the right person, I think the rest is pretty easy.” 

Getting someone of Rabe’s caliber for the role was fantastic, Clooney agrees. “She’s first and foremost one of the really truly great actresses in her age category,” he says. “I have come to find out she’s also a great person.” 

Rabe enjoyed playing mom to both Sheridan and Ranieri. “There’s incredible sensitivity and awareness to each of them and I loved the soulful experience of interacting with them,” she says. “It was also one of the most exciting scripts I’d ever read. The writing is so beautiful — it’s delicate, restrained and specific. No character is simply a placeholder or foil for someone else. I fell in love with Moehringer’s story and it was such a gift to have his book offer details about his mother that aren’t in the script — like the way that she would sing certain songs in the car really loudly, particularly when she was feeling down.” 

Although there is a lot of conflict and contradiction in the household, Rabe observes there’s also room for surprise, humor and love. “And great comfort,” she adds.

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“They can be exactly who they are with one another, and there’s something so loving and safe about that, even if it’s also a nightmare in certain ways.” 

To play Dorothy’s cantankerous father, the filmmakers were looking for an actor who could be crusty and funny and unpredictable when they met with Christopher Lloyd. “Obviously we got the right person for the part,” says Heslov. “He’s all those things. He’s got such a great face. We were all thrilled to be able to work with somebody we’ve been watching for years.” 

Clooney describes the actor as “amazing and funny and fun to work with — a lot of the fun is just watching Chris be Chris.” Affleck confesses to feeling a little intimidated acting alongside Lloyd. “He was the first celebrity I ever saw in real life,” says the actor. “I was 12 years old in Boston. I had just seen Back to the Future and decided it was my favorite movie ever when I saw Christopher Lloyd walking down the street. I followed him for blocks. I had watched him on ‘Taxi’ my whole childhood and I couldn’t believe it was the same person in real life. Working with him, seeing him on the set, I felt the exact same star-struck feeling I had in 1985. I never got over it. And I never really got up the nerve to talk to him.” 

Frugal and unsentimental to a fault, Grandpa is openly dismissive of his daughter’s aspirations for her son. “She makes 30 bucks a day, how is her son going to go to Harvard or Yale?” Lloyd muses. “It just ain’t happening. But it does. I think everyone senses that J.R. is special. He’s such an adorable, sweet, imaginative child that the one good thing Grandpa can do is to help him along.” 

His character has led a strange and unconventional life, according to Lloyd. He once aspired to be a pro baseball player but he was cut from the team. “Maybe people just couldn’t stand being in the dugout with him,” the actor suggests. “He’s a Dartmouth man, speaks several languages. He made some money in the insurance business and was canny enough to invest it well. When he reached the point where he thought he had made enough money for the rest of his life he quit his job, bought the house and there he is. Every day he goes to the railroad station to pull the last edition of the newspaper out of the trash because he won’t spend a nickel to check the financial news. He’s kind of raggedy but he doesn’t care. 

He’s carved out his own existence and the world has to deal with that.” Because much of the story is told through the eyes of a precocious 9-year-old, it holds a great deal of warmth and charm for Lloyd. “J.R. is like an alien in the household come down to see who these people are and how they live,” he says. “There isn’t anybody in the script that’s vicious though. There are difficult moments but everybody is looking for love and that comes out in a strong way.” 

Grandma, played by Sondra James, who passed away in September 2021, is Grandpa’s perfect match, quietly going toe to toe with him at every opportunity. “She’s unforgettable in this part,” says Heslov. “It’s a small part but she made the most of it. Sondra was like a firecracker full of energy.” 


The Voice

J.R. knows his father best as The Voice, a peripatetic deejay who abandoned him and his mother shortly after his birth. His father’s career has taken him up and down the East Coast, as J.R. follows, surfing the radio dial. “J.R. is always trying to listen to his dad,” says Ranieri. “Because he can’t see him, he tries to connect to him through the radio. But his mom always stops him. She doesn’t want him listening to the dad that left him.” 

Played by veteran actor Max Martini, The Voice is still a handsome man with a seedy charm that some women — and his kid — find irresistible. In addition to good looks and strong acting chops, the person playing the role had to have certain very specific qualities, according to Clooney. “He had to have a great voice. Also, because Ben’s six-foot-three, it had to be a guy that you believe could kick Ben’s ass, and that was tough. Max had all of those qualities. It’s just a beautiful performance.” 

Martini never shied away from the character’s darker impulses, according to Heslov. In fact he relished them. “Whenever we think there might be a door open for him to do the right thing, he grabs the opportunity to make the wrong choice.” 

The Voice is basically surviving on his ego and an overabundance of confidence in his celebrity, says Martini. “That doesn’t really mix well with this family struggling with a working-class existence. The family is trying to protect the kid, so when they run to shut off the radio or try to change the subject it’s for his own protection. I do think this really pathetic character is making an effort to reconnect with his son, and the tragedy is that, in the end, he fails miserably. But the victory is that his son grows from the experience, learns to let go and moves on with his life.”


The Denizens of Dickens 

Michael Braun, Max Casella and Matthew Delamater play a trio of barflies that frequent Dickens and serve as a sort of Greek chorus for the film. Bobo (Braun), Chief (Casella) and Joey D (Delamater) are a constant in the life of the bar. A combination of about 10 characters from the book rolled into three, they join Uncle Charlie in taking J.R. under their wings and become surrogate dads in their own peculiar ways. 

“Dickens is a place where the older J.R. can escape,” notes Sheridan. “It’s a place where he discovers who he is and what he’s going to be. He looks up to the people there and fantasizes about them in a way that’s similar to how he created a dad who was more than he was in reality — but in this case there really is something special about these people. They are all unique, lively and have character, and I think that they’ll always be inspiring to him.” 

Clooney has known Casella since they made the film Leatherheads together in 2008. “Give him something to do, and he’ll make it funny and fun. He is one of those actors who makes every scene better,” Clooney says. 

Casella says he was inspired by the script and the picture it paints of Dickens. “The dialogue is just so good. These are guys who don’t want to go home to their wives or their children or their lives in general. Dickens is the place where Chief feels the most at home. It’s like a microcosm of the community.” 

J.R. spends hours at Dickens every day, bellied up to the old wooden bar doing his homework and shooting the breeze with his heroes. “They might be just a bunch of knuckleheads but they’re friends with his uncle and they’re men,” says Delamater. “They swear, they play sports and they appear to have interesting lives in a world that J.R. doesn’t get to experience day to day. He becomes this fixture of their world. And they become really invested in his journey.” 

Dickens has all the trappings of a classic neighborhood bar, but along with its physical appeal, it is the atmosphere that Uncle Charlie creates that brings in the regulars. “After a year of being cooped up because of COVID-19, it was just nice to be back in a bar, even a fake bar,” laughs Braun. “But it’s the wisdom that can come out of certain, unexpected places that is surprising, and that combination of highbrow and lowbrow sums up Dickens.” 


Higher Education 

To his surprise and his mother’s delight, J.R. is admitted to Yale. The less-than-two-hour drive from blue-collar Manhasset, Long Island, to the school’s elite New Haven, Connecticut, campus transports him into a whole new world where the possibilities seem endless and the pressure inescapable. Luckily his roommates Wesley (Rhenzy Feliz) and Jimmy (Ivan Leung) are better prepared for the transition to the Ivy League. 

“Wesley is a pretty fortunate, affluent kid — an interesting, smart guy in a nerdy kind of way,” says Feliz. “He’s very together and knows the lay of the land much better than J.R. does, so he looks out for him. I think Wesley tries to help him grow into himself and be more confident. They become very close friends.” 

The other roommate, Jimmy, “is a little naïve — everything for him is nice and beautiful,” says Leung. “He’s the comic relief. They become like the Three Musketeers.” Wesley and Jimmy fill the same role for J.R. as the barflies in Dickens, encouraging, advising and enjoying the young man, according to Sheridan. “They allow J.R. to understand that everybody’s lucky to be at Yale and that it’s hard whether you come from a rich family or a poor one,” he says. “Working with Rhenzy and Ivan has been really fun. Our scenes together aren’t like any others in the film because their characters are on the same path as J.R. They’re also fun and full of life and they get a kick out of being introduced to J.R.’s world — his home, Dickens and Uncle Charlie.” 

J.R. soon notices a beautiful girl named Sidney in one of his classes and she returns his attention at a party. She turns out to be smart and part of a wealthy family, and J.R. is intrigued by her and the world she comes from. “He becomes really infatuated with her and then falls completely in love,” says Briana Middleton, who plays Sidney. “He’s clearly a different breed than anyone she’s ever encountered before. And the more they get to know each other, the more interested she becomes in trying to figure him out. But when talk of a future together starts, she realizes maybe this isn’t for her in the long run.” 

Middleton finds the story funny and touching, but also romantic. “Not in a hearts-and-flowers, lovey-dovey way,” she says. “We see different, sweeping, beautiful romances throughout J.R.’s life — for the bar and these men and later, for Sidney. One of the most powerful parts of the film is how J.R. gets his family — just not the one he envisioned.” 

With Sidney, once again, J.R. has come to believe that a person he cares about is something they are not, observes Sheridan. “Just as he comes to realize this about his father, he realizes that maybe Sidney’s not the dream girl he thinks she is. We’re all attracted to people who are out of our league, the ones you can’t quite catch. I think that’s definitely going on in the dynamic between J.R. and Sidney.” 

A graduate of the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts, Middleton makes her feature debut in The Tender Bar. Heslov says after seeing her work on set it was hard to believe she hadn’t acted in a full-length film before. “It’s not an easy part because she’s not a likable character,” he says. “A lot of times people will try to make the character nicer than it needs to be. She didn’t do that. She was like a laser.” 


Manhasset Comes to Boston 

While the story of The Tender Bar is set primarily in New York and New Haven, the filmmakers chose to shoot the film in Boston. Costumes and hair, music and cinematography all help transport the audience to 1970s and ’80s Long Island. The town of Manhasset, where the bar Moehringer’s uncle worked in is located, is now an affluent bedroom community and looks nothing like it did 40 years ago. “It’s completely built up,” says Clooney. “So we couldn’t really shoot there. We had to find a location that had streets that looked like the lower middle-class residential streets of Manhasset back then. We also needed to be able to find a lot of other sets. Boston gave us locations that made sense.” 

Affleck’s Boston roots are well-known, but shooting The Tender Bar was not exactly like going home for him. “I stayed in some fancy area that I never once set foot in while I was growing up,” he says. “But the book suggested that Dickens was not very different from the bars I grew up in. So the set felt very familiar, down to the prop cigarette machines and old television, as well as the sense of community I found as a young boy, admiring this mysterious world of men in the bars my father worked at when I was about 9 to 14.” 

Clooney worked in very close collaboration with a top-flight creative team that includes director of photography Martin Ruhe, Emmy®-winning production designer Kalina Ivanov and costume designer Jenny Eagan. During pre-production, Ruhe, Ivanov and Eagan exchanged reference photos and were surprised to realize they had pulled many of the same images, particularly William Eggleston’s Kodachrome photographs of everyday people, objects and locations. 

Ruhe, who also served as DP on the Clooney-directed Midnight Sky and “Catch-22,” says Clooney is a highly visual and inventive director. “He is always looking for change and variation. It’s never formulaic. As an actor, he’s worked with some of the best directors there are, so he’s had a lot of experience and his instincts are very good.” 

According to Clooney, every era has a visual aesthetic that can instantly turn back the clock for viewers. “We did Good Night, and Good Luck in black and white, because Edward R. Murrow never broadcast in color,” he explains. “Shooting this in oversaturated colors and using a lot of zooms sends you back to 1972, because we know movies and television at the time did a lot more rack focusing, as opposed to using the dolly track and pushing in, which is a much smoother effect. All that helps the audience remember and recognize the time period.” 

Production designer Ivanov’s challenge was to make everything in the film look as natural as possible. “The danger in period movies is that one can get very precious and it ends up looking contrived,” she says. “I wanted to create an environment that was evocative of the characters and the time but never theatrical.” 

To do that, she stuck to the dictum that less is more, says Clooney. “Kalina has a great eye. She found stuff that looks real. Sometimes when you see a period piece, every car is from that exact year and they’re all shiny. But in reality some people have cars that are 25 years old and beat up. It was always about making sure that everything was less put-together looking.” 

Although the exterior of Dickens is an actual bar in Boston, the production built the interior as a set on a soundstage. Small enough so it could appear crowded easily, it also had to accommodate the camera and crew. “When you’re in one place that much, you start to run out of angles to shoot,” Clooney says. “The challenge was to be able to have enough cubicles in it that you could make it feel like it’s a little bit different, but that’s where good writing and good acting can help you out.” 

For Ivanov, the idea of masculinity is woven into the bar and that maleness is essential to the story. “It is a place where guys hang out and have guy talk,” she says. “I was very enchanted by that and wanted to portray it accurately. We actually wrote graffiti on the bathroom walls, but it’s passages from David Copperfield. That kind of detail, even if it’s not on screen, was for the actors, for the director, for everybody to feel the atmosphere.” 

The other central set of The Tender Bar, J.R.’s grandfather’s home, was also a combination of a real exterior and a constructed interior. “The house is meant to give the impression that the family was probably doing pretty well in the 1950s,” says Clooney, “but by the ’70s, they’ve run out of money and they’ve gone from middle class to much below that.” 

Ivanov envisioned a house built in the 1940s, when the residents were embarking on their dreams. “Everything had to be aged just right, disheveled but not unsanitary. It had to be a place where people could still enjoy getting together and having dinner. For the transition from the ’70s to the ’80s we replaced the TV but not the large appliances because Grandpa would never invest in a new stove or refrigerator,” she says. “And they still have radios in just about every room.” 

Costume designer Eagan strived to dress the characters in ways that immediately tell the audience who these people are, without overdoing the period style. “I wanted to have that reality to it,” she says. “You’re going to get some bell-bottoms and other things that people in small towns like Manhasset were wearing on an everyday basis. In later scenes, like at the New York Times offices, we get a little Working Girl and All the President’s Men.” 

Despite her financial challenges, Dorothy is always well put together, says Eagan. “That doesn’t mean she’s wearing top-of-the-line clothes. She probably shops at places like Sears or Montgomery Ward. Her clothing is simple, colorful and well fitting. She always puts her best foot forward and she tries to teach her son that as well.” 

Charlie on the other hand has a touch of flash. “He’s showing off a bit,” she observes. “In this working-class neighborhood he’s a little different.

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He’s got the car, the gold chains, the ring and the watch. While the clothes may have not been the most attractive at that time, Ben’s got a great physique for the period and the clothes fit him exceptionally well.” 

From the perms and eyeshadow to what Heslov calls “the terrible shirts and bad jeans” of the era, the producer says he loves all the physical details they have managed to include in the film. “It was so exciting to discover so many things. We shot in a bowling alley that was perfectly preserved down to something I had never seen before: candle pins. Everything there brought me right back to playing in a bowling alley as a kid, only we didn’t have that kind of bowling alley in L.A., where I grew up. It’s an East Coast-only phenomenon played with tall narrow pins and small balls. I can’t remember seeing candle pins in a film before and we felt it was a really special touch.” 

But there is perhaps nothing as effective as music in evoking a certain time period, and the filmmakers have used it to great effect in The Tender Bar. Popular songs of the 1970s and 1980s provide a soundtrack for J.R.’s life from Manhasset to New Haven to Manhattan. “A lot of songs will send me right back to a specific moment in my life,” says Heslov. “Normally we like a big score and often we work with the prolific Alexandre Desplat, but we really didn’t feel like this was that kind of film. We wanted as much as possible for this to be wall-to-wall music of the era. We ended up using some of it as background music on set just to get people into the right frame of mind in between takes.” 

Heslov estimates he and Clooney listened to hundreds of songs before selecting the music for the movie. “We would call each other while driving to set or on the weekend and play dueling songs,” he says. “We have similar taste in music, so it was fun. Eventually we realized we were going to need some score to tease out the emotion we were looking for, so we hired a young composer, Dara Taylor, who wrote short interstitial pieces that really weave everything together.” 

With a modest budget and a short shooting schedule, the biggest challenge the filmmakers faced was of course the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions it brought with it. “Everything took longer and cost more,” according to Clooney. “Probably a third of the budget was dedicated to accommodating COVID protocols. I’m directing a kid who has never acted before while wearing a face shield and a mask. Where we used to fill a van with eight people, now we can only put two people in. It just took more time.” 


There’s No Place Like Home 

The bar at the heart of Moehringer’s memoir still stands, but new owners changed its name to Publicans. It is still a popular neighborhood bar, but Joey D, Chief and Bobo no longer warm the barstools every night and Uncle Charlie is no longer behind the bar. 

Moehringer saw the movie with his wife on a Friday morning in an old theater that was totally empty save the two of them. “I figured it would be an emotional experience, but I still wasn’t ready,” he admits. “My wife and I watched it all by ourselves. It still brought me back, revived old memories. The scene with my grandfather, when he takes me to the father-son breakfast, the scene when my mother and I get the letter from Yale…several times I teared up. I hope that audiences are moved by the performances and by the sweet energy of the film. And I hope they think about the book and maybe give it a try.” 

Monahan was deeply moved by writing the film and hopes he has communicated a few things to the audience: “Family matters and love is actually the answer. If someone hurts you or doesn’t love you, you don’t need them. Wherever you start in life, you can do anything in the world if you try. These things are all  in the picture. I took them to heart in the writing and when I saw the film I thought, maybe other people will as well.” 

Clooney describes The Tender Bar as a sweet story about a young man who ends up writing a bestselling book and how he got there. “But within that there’s the idea that we keep looking for happiness, and sometimes we can’t see that it was there all along,” he says. “You had a loving mother; you had an uncle. Even though you thought that the Wizard, or in this case, The Voice, would be the key to your happiness, the truth of the matter is you didn’t need him. You never needed him. You had a family all along, all the time you were looking for one.” 

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