"Houston is Syria quite honestly."

And just like that, George Clooney steered his Suburbicon press conference into serious territory Sunday afternoon at TIFF, comparing the Syrian refugee crisis to the hurricane devastation in the southern U.S.

"People in Houston are now refugees based on something that had nothing to do with them. They didn't do anything. They are now victims and they're out of their homes and they are going to be suffering for a long period of time," he told reporters.

'Houston is Syria quite honestly,' says George Clooney0:53

"Much like the people and children in Syria, we are going to have to find ways to be involved. That is our job as citizens of the world."

As the festival rolls into its fourth day, both mega Hurricane Irma and the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey were top of mind, with some of the fest's celebrations dialled back.

A few TIFF parties thrown by Miami's film and tourism industry were scrapped out of "concern" for the people of Florida while a handful of Florida-based filmmakers and actors missed the fest.

Many others brought it up on the red carpet and at press events, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Idris Elba and Kate Winslet.

"I can't even put into words. I don't think any of us can. I keep watching news reporters and I'm just screaming at the TV 'Where's your crash helmet?'" Winslet told CBC News. "I just want to armour them up."

Nailing the tone

And it wasn't just Irma and Harvey — much of the Suburbicon press conference revolved around the news, with Trump, Charlottesville and race relations dominating the conversation.

The film — directed, co-written and produced by Clooney — stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. Set in a suburban neighbourhood in the 1950s, it focuses on a family caught up with the mob, murder and money issues. The mood is darkly comedic — the Coen brothers share a writing credit and had actually tried making the movie with Clooney as a star in the 90s.

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George Clooney gestures to fans who push forward from behind a barrier to see him, as he greets members of the public before the screening of Suburbicon on Saturday. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

But it strikes serious subject matter in highlighting the struggles of the first black family to move into that same neighbourhood and the torrent of racism that follows.

They are protested by angry neighbours, who build a fence around their home and try to overcharge them at the grocery store. Balancing the tone between Coen-fuelled crime caper and civil rights struggle proved difficult — early reviews are already complaining the film doesn't pull it off.

Clooney admits they had to change some of the film in editing because of tone issues — including cutting out Josh Brolin's character entirely.

'I don't like the idea of winking at white supremacists:' George Clooney talks Suburbicon0:51

"While we were shooting, Trump was elected and it changed some of the temperature of the film in a weird way because the country got angrier," he said. "It reminded us that we have to play with this tone a little differently."

"Tone is what you win or lose on in films in general, particularly when you're playing in this kind of genre. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. I've had it go both ways."

'We never could have predicted'

The script has also drawn comparisons to current race relations in the U.S. — something Clooney said was intentional.

"I've been hearing a lot of discussions about building walls and scapegoating Mexicans and Muslims and I always thought it was important to remind ourselves that these aren't things we've just heard," he told CBC News Saturday night at the premiere. "These have been around for a long time."


Actress Karimah Westbrook, writer/director/producer George Clooney, actors Julianne Moore, Matt Damon and writer/producer Grant Heslov attend the Suburbicon press conference on Sunday. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Still, the black family's story takes on an added relevance after racially-tinged violence in Charlottesville, the Virginia town where white supremacists and neo-Nazis clashed with anti-racist demonstrators. Matt Damon said the filmmakers never could have predicted something like that would happen around the film's release.

"I think you write these things and you make 'em because they feel honest and true and relevant and then sometimes current events agree," he said. "You become right in the bullseye of the zeitgeist and sometimes you don't."

Surburbicon will be released in theatres Oct. 27.