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George Clooney has a unique distinction when it comes to Oscar history. The multi-faceted filmmaker and star has been nominated for Academy Awards in an impressive six different categories, a rare feat that includes for Best Picture (Argo), Actor (The Descendants, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air), Supporting Actor (Syriana), Director (Good Night, and Good Luck), Adapted Screenplay (The Ides of March) and Original Screenplay (Good Night, And Good Luck). He has won twice, as a producer on Argo (2012) and Supporting Actor in Syriana (2005). He could well find himself in contention in many of these categories again for his latest film, The Midnight Sky, which Netflix will launch on December 23 — his first movie project made for the streaming giant.
Clooney stars, directs and is a producer on the film based on the 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton with a screenplay from Mark L. Smith (The Revenant). The story takes place in the near future after an unnamed global catastrophe devastates the human race, and a lone Arctic-stationed scientist named Augustine (Clooney), severely ill himself, tries to connect with and warn a deep space astronaut (Felicity Jones) and her crew (Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone) of the apocalyptic event and the extreme danger of coming home after two years off the planet.
It is an exceptionally well made and engrossing film, an epic told on an intimate scale that I think could and deserves to be on anyone’s short list for awards recognition. Its images have certainly haunted me since I saw it a few weeks ago, particularly in the facial expressions of Clooney’s young co-star, 8-year-old Caoilinn Springall, chosen from among hundreds who auditioned. I could easily see nominations for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Score, Film Editing (from longtime Clooney associate Stephen Mirrione), Sound, Hair and Makeup, Visual Effects and for Clooney’s lead performance, an understated turn that is deeply moving.
Like much of what attracts Clooney to make movies these days, this one has a penetrating resonance and pertinence for what is going on in our lives, and despite a large-scale production shot in Iceland during horrific weather conditions and on a soundstage in England involving a virtual spaceship and other VR challenges, it is ultimately an intimate story full of silences and internal thought and the need for human connection. Oddly, it also offers hope. It is that last part that not only makes this an exciting and also meaningful adventure, but one that also makes this film feel incredibly relevant right now. I will have more to say when I can review The Midnight Sky formally next month, but late last week I got to spend 45 minutes taking a deep dive with Clooney into the making of this film, his seventh feature as a director and with Good Night, And Good Luck his best and most urgent, and why it was important for him to take it on. We start with the worldwide coronavirus pandemic and how that suddenly deeply affected the course of this film when it hit the editing room.
DEADLINE: When you embarked on this project, you had no idea how relevant its themes of isolation and human connection would become in light of COVID-19, did you?
GEORGE CLOONEY: Yeah. Things changed. There were a couple of things. When I was pitching sort of my take on it with Netflix, I said, look, this isn’t a big bang movie. This is a meditation and there’s some good action set pieces but in general this is a conversation about if you play out all of this hatred that we see, not just in the United States, all around the world between all of these sort of authoritarian leaders, and you play that out for the next 30 years, that it’s not that all inconceivable. It’s not impossible. It’s not science fiction that we could destroy the world. That was sort of the pitch and that’s sort of what we were paying attention to.
We finished shooting mid-February and then immediately were sent into isolation and bit by bit it became really clear that what we were talking about now was how you and I talk instead of meeting at an event, or how you talk to your family now or not being able to go home for Thanksgiving. It becomes about this isolation and this inability to communicate in the way that we want, and an inability to touch and be close to one another and that feeling of loss and coming to terms with it. As we went through the film, as I was in the postproduction part, I certainly leaned more into that storyline as we went because I got into editing to make sure that we were able to discuss these kind of things in cinema. It’s certainly, unfortunately, timely. That wasn’t in any way something we could have foreseen.
DEADLINE: These themes run throughout it, that need to connect that your character Augustine, especially with the little girl he discovers there, has to change the dynamic of his isolation at the end of the world. Augustine seems very pertinent to play right now.
CLOONEY: First of all, as an actor, I loved it because you can never go wrong if it’s you and a kid. I played a pediatrician on ER. I was a womanizer on the show and I was a drunk but as long as at the end of every episode I’d be like “Don’t touch that kid” then I could get away with anything. So I knew it gave me an opening as an actor to not have to try and make this guy necessarily likeable. That all I had to do was try to protect the girl and then everything else you could be as unhappy or as angry. He doesn’t smile at all or anything.
I was interested in the character, as an actor. I was really interested in the story because I love the idea of what we’re capable of doing to one another if we don’t pay attention. None of this is a given and we’re learning more and more as we see even an election isn’t a given anymore. All of these things. Jimmy Carter had a great line once where he said ‘Peace, like war, must be waged.” I always loved that because it just says to you that everything, nothing can be taken for granted. I love the idea that this was a movie that wanted to talk about these big themes. The thing that I also loved about it was at the end there is redemption. It’s a story of redemption and particularly of my character. And redemption, in a way, gives us some hope for mankind. It gives us the idea that there is a reason for this fight, a reason for this struggle.
DEADLINE: I noticed your little homage to Stanley Kramer’s 1959 film On the Beach, a movie I kept thinking about while watching yours. In that film the characters are right there in Australia waiting for the nuclear radioactive cloud to finally come there, and a banner in the town at the end says,”There is still time brother.” And you did put a brief clip of it in the film.
CLOONEY: Yeah. I put the clip in. When I read the script the first thing I said, it’s like the modern-day On the Beach. The only difference, I thought, was that On the Beach is so nihilistic by the end. It really is the end of all mankind and there is no hope. It’s one last kiss, one last love before it all ends…and this one, there is life to it and there is redemption to it and there’s hope to it and all the things that sort of make the struggle worth it. That’s what I loved about it was it’s not just, yes, there’s a lot of bad sh*t that goes on, but there’s a reason for fighting and I like that a lot. If it was just, “OK, everybody dies in the end,” it wouldn’t feel like a story we need to see right now.
DEADLINE: In that optimistic regard I think you stumbled onto something that actually also gave it greater resonance than you had in the script or from the original novel. That is when you discovered that Felicity Jones was pregnant in real life?
CLOONEY: Wasn’t that crazy?
DEADLINE: Incorporating it, though, that was the brilliant stroke because that does give you what you were just talking about, that sense of hope and renewal that happens right there.
CLOONEY: Well, it’s a funny thing. Her son while he was still in the womb, he really was a character suddenly. He became somebody that was important to all of us. The first thing you do is go, “Great. I’m thrilled for you.” Now it’s a problem for us and we’re going to have to solve it. The way we tried to solve it initially was by pretending it didn’t exist. Like shooting her from the neck up and doing body doubles and all that kind of stuff. On top of it being really tedious, it was draining the life out of the scenes. We’re shooting scenes three times and she wasn’t comfortable with it because she was trying desperately to hide it, and she was showing pretty good at that point.
So I woke up in the middle of the night and I just said, “people have sex.” That’s what happens on two-year trips, and then I sort of pitched it to Felicity as think of Frances McDormand in Fargo where there was no real reason for her to be pregnant. That wasn’t a real storyline. But pregnant women do go to work every day, they do all of these things and they sort of never get represented. [SPOILER ALERT] I said let’s just make her a pregnant astronaut. Then, as it went on, we had to start writing scenes to introduce that. It started to become really clear that little Wilber there was so important. He was the future and that we were to guard him really carefully. That’s sort of the ending, and sort of the long version of her walking down the stairs. All of that just felt like there is a future here and that’s why it ended up feeling as if it should have been in the script all along.
DEADLINE: Sometimes little accidents happen along the way that are meant to be.
CLOONEY: I used to do improv and one of the things you learned in improv is you could never deny something. You can never say “no,” It’s always “yes and.” So if you say that wall is blue and you go, ‘Yes, and the light is green.” You can’t ever go “No, it’s not blue,” because everything stops, the improv stops. So once you have this situation and your first thing to do is say, “OK, she’s not really pregnant,” you’ve stopped any flow of creativity. So the trick was to be able to say, “OK, we’re going to take this and make it a plus” instead of something we have to get over. We were lucky enough that we had a story that would work for it.
DEADLINE: You have worked with outer space elements before in movies you have been in like Solaris and Gravity, but why did you decide to direct this one as well as act in it?
CLOONEY: Well, they sent it to me to act in it, and then I called them up and said I think I have a take on how to direct this that might be different than what you guys are thinking about. The first person I called was [composer] Alexandre Desplat, and I said I have a movie that’s going to be more of a meditation than an action film. I’m going to need you to write more music than you’ve ever written for a movie. I sent him the script and he said “I get it and I know what to do.” So all along, my thought about the film was that I wanted the action, the set pieces that we have a few of, but I wanted them to be earned. There’s something about silence. It’s funny, I can’t remember the name of the movie. I remember seeing it as a kid. It may be a terrible movie, I don’t remember. It was with Jackie Gleason, and yes I think it was called Gigot. And he played a hobo, a kind of guy who couldn’t speak. With a little girl, and the mother I think was a hooker or something. I remember being really moved by that character because he couldn’t communicate very well. I always remember thinking about that too, strangely. Whether or not that movie works, I don’t remember at all. I just remember as a kid seeing it and being affected by it and thinking there’s something about this inability to communicate and having to communicate with silences. So we had beautiful moments like that, with this little girl I found, she’s never acted before. I mean that’s just crazy to me.
So here’s this little girl, she shows up. And actors, kid actors in particular but most actors, they kind of plan out how they’re going to do a scene. But she would just be in the scene and when we’re looking up at Polaris, and we’re sitting in those chairs, she doesn’t just kind of react like she knows she’s supposed to. When I say look up at Polaris, she looks up, and then she looks at me. She really takes it in and it gives us the ability to keep those moments really full. She puts to shame a lot of grown actors, including myself, who had to prepare for a scene.
DEADLINE: What was it like shooting in that freezing weather in Iceland?
CLOONEY: It was freezing. It’s hard, too, because it’s mid-October so we only have a little bit of light from about 11:30 to 2:30 or 3 so you have to shoot fast. Martin [Ruhe, the cinematographer] and I really planned everything out I mean to the tee before we got there. We spent six months sort of mapping out every shot because we knew we weren’t going to have much time. We were shooting on 65 and 65 handheld is a heavy-ass camera. So there was a lot of work we had to do on that specifically. I wasn’t as intimidated obviously by that because as an actor, and as a director, it’s really easy to act cold when it’s 40 degrees below zero. It’s easy to know this looks great. You look over and you see the snow blowing over the top and it’s backlit and you go “that’s beautiful.” That’s easy to do. The hard part was the stage stuff [in England] because we’re doing all of that in virtual. I had a VR headset and I’m walking around on a virtual spaceship and designing shots so that we knew what pieces to build. That was months and months of work with Jim Bissell, the production designer, and Matt Kasmir, the visual effects supervisor, and with Martin, who is an amazing cinematographer. I think he shot the sh*t out of this film.
DEADLINE: In the book Augustine is about 70, but you seem to enjoy embracing the idea of playing an older man who is clearly very ill as well. Is this kind of challenge where you want to head now in your acting career?
CLOONEY: Well, it’s not where I want to head. I mean it’s where I’m headed. I can’t stop it. If I could avoid it I’d like to look like I did in the Out of Sight years but you can’t stop the clock. So I didn’t know that the guy was 70 because I hadn’t read the book when I read the screenplay. So I just knew that he was really sick. So I started that summer, I lost about 25 pounds so that I was more gaunt and more drawn in. It’s a trick because what you want to be is weak for the part, but you’re also directing, which you need to really be strong for and in shape and ready for.
So it was a balancing act. We had a skeleton crew so we’re carrying camera boxes out there ourselves. You could only do a take out in the snow without goggles and I could only last for about a minute and 10 or 15 seconds before my eyelids would freeze shut. So I’d have to come back in and they had a blow dryer. We were sitting in a van and they would blow dry my eyelids so my eyelashes would melt. Then I’d go back out and shoot the scene again. All of that stuff really helps for an actor to be able to have all the elements in your favor. That part, for me, was something I really relished and was really excited to do. I also knew that I was surrounded by people I’ve worked with who I trust immensely.
So I was always covered. And Grant [Heslov, producer] and I, I mean we’ve been together for 40 years now. We’re like an old couple. It’s fun because when you’re directing yourself your tendency is to just go, “OK, that’s fine. I got it.” Because you kind of know what you want but you’re not really sure what you got because you’re on camera, and Grant would sit by the monitor and I’d come over and go “I got it” and Grant would go, “Do another take, shmuck. Go back over, do another take.” So it’s good to have somebody that you know and trust to tell you to do another take.
DEADLINE: A lot of people may look at this story and try to label it “science fiction.” Is that what it is?
CLOONEY: It was more science fiction about a year ago than it is now. Well, I don’t think it’s science fiction. Yes, it’s science fiction because the spaceship itself, we have no idea how we’re going to travel in 40 years. These were some best guesses. We went to some NASA people and we went to people who said these are some of the things we’re playing with. The idea of 3-D printers and breathable kind of spaceships that are almost inflatable with an endoskeleton and an exoskeleton and all those kind of things for weight…not weight when you’re in space but for putting together on Earth. All of that stuff we tried to include, but you’re still guessing so it does make it fiction. But that’s the bigger part of this. That’s the traveling through space part of it, but the stories, they’re little. The stories are about each other and who we are and what we can do to one another and whether or not this struggle is worth it. To me that was the beauty of On The Beach. Yes, all of mankind is going to die ,but it’s also about Fred Astaire always wanted to race a racecar.
DEADLINE: In terms of your character, we also get flashbacks of him when he was much younger. Ethan Peck, Gregory Peck’s grandson, plays him in those scenes. Was there talk of using the de-aging process so that you could actually play younger yourself here?
CLOONEY: Yeah. I had a long talk with Netflix about it because The Irishman used it and had not come out yet. They said we just did it and they showed it to me and I thought [if I did it] that’ll just become a topic then that people will talk about. I didn’t know how people would react to it at the time. I just said I think you’re going to talk about it. It’s tricky because people know basically what I looked like when I was 35 years old. So it’s trickier, but Ethan, we both have good eyebrows. So he’s better looking than me and if I’m going to cast somebody why not f*cking cast somebody who’s better looking than me. He’s like 6’3” and here’s what he did that was really great. I said to him, look, my voice is pretty recognizable. So we’re going to have to work together, you and I, and we’re going to work with…sound. We’re going to work with everybody on blending your voice with mine. It’s a hybrid. Believe it or not, it’s so complicated. It’s broken down into hundreds of tiny bits and patterns because it can’t be my voice because my voice was much higher when I was younger. Everybody’s voice is higher when they’re younger.
Funnily enough, his voice is deeper than mine, the f*cker. He’s already got this fantastic voice. So I talked to him and said, “Look, this is going to be a performance where we’re going to be sharing the voice. I hope you’re OK with that.” He gives such a beautiful performance because he’s playing my character at an unlikeable time. The reason that he needs redemption is because of that. So it’s a really brave thing he did, which is he came onboard and said, “Yeah, let’s do it. I’m up for it.” He just gave a wonderful performance.
DEADLINE: This is your first film for Netflix. Is streaming the future of the business? Or is it just now?
CLOONEY: I really enjoyed working with them. It was really fun. I have to say, I feel as if everybody I think is afraid because of COVID right now that it’s just kicked everything into, OK, goodbye theaters. I don’t believe that to be true. I think we’ve gone through that with television and VHS and DVDs and everything. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think there’s going to be room for all of it. I mean Netflix, they were going to release this on a few hundred screens and we shot it in 65, so clearly it was designed to be released in a theater. But I see it as the ability to do both I think is always going to be there.
Look, you can’t constantly say to your significant other let’s just stay home and watch sh*t on TV. You’ve got to go out sometimes. I don’t think we’re looking at the end of anything. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to have something like this now, but of course it is upsetting that it’s not going to be screened on big screens like it was designed. There’s an awful lot of bigger problems in the world than my not getting my movie seen on a big screen. But I will say that it is awfully nice to have Netflix out there that you can go OK, I’m going to be able to still see these things, which if it weren’t for them we wouldn’t get the chance to do that. I’ve had nothing but a great experience with them and would do it again in a heartbeat.
I think it’s an exciting time for them. Look, If you’re an actor or a director or a writer or any part of the business end of this, this is nothing but good. There are so many more outlets and ways. If I was a young actor, so many more opportunities for work. I just think it’s all good news, ultimately. I think cinema is going to continue on. Chris Nolan’s right about writing for the cinemas. Of course we should and we should always do that and we will continue to do that. I think right now it’s a lot to ask people, we’re telling people not to go to Thanksgiving dinner and put their kids in school. It’s hard to say “but come see my movie.”
DEADLINE: So looking to your own future, what is next for you?
CLOONEY: Yeah. I’m doing a bunch of things. The first thing I’m doing is I’m going to direct is The Tender Bar, which is a really wonderful script based on a terrific book. I’m supposed to do that in March. Who knows? Our plan is that. We have a location scout and they’re looking at locations. She’s coming home now so who knows, but that’s our goal. The only thing you can do is keep moving forward and hoping. Grant and I are adapting a John Grisham book for Bob Dylan, which is pretty funny. It’s a really great book called Calico Joe and Bob Dylan got the rights from Grisham. He called us up and said, “You guys want to adapt it?” I was like, “yeah.” It’s a great sort of baseball story. It’s a really good story, and we get to work with Bob Dylan of all people. So we’re in the middle of that right now, too. Then we have Boys in the Boat, the screenplay is ready to go. That was a bestselling book about these kids from Seattle winning the rowing competition and beating Hitler in Germany in 1936. It’s a truly great, big sort of epic film. It’s at MGM. We’re ready to go but the truth of the matter is we’re waiting until we can put 5000 people in stands because that can’t all be CGI. You can’t do everything with CGI. It can’t just all be fake.
So that’s three projects. It all kind of comes down to when we’re able to get back to work, and then when we’re able to get back fully to work. The good thing about The Tender Bar is it’s a small story. It’s a beautifully, beautifully written story but it’s small. So that’s the next one, if we can…just even work. I’ve got a son with asthma. It’s not like I can just go taking any chances. I had to drop out of the Soderbergh film (No Sudden Move) that he was shooting because of that, which was a bummer because it’s a great part. It looks like I would have gotten to work with Don Cheadle and everybody again. It really looked like fun.
DEADLINE: Finally, right now we have been hearing about something you did that would make a great movie itself. You gave away 14 suitcases, each with $1 million in $20 bills, at a specially arranged dinner party with friends who helped you when you were struggling to make it early in your career. Wow.
CLOONEY: I didn’t bring that story up. Somebody else brought it up and then they asked me about it. It was for GQ. They asked me about it and then I sort of told them how it went down. My favorite part of the story though is that when I was at this dinner with Steve Wynn, who’s sort of a knucklehead. He goes why would you do that? I was like why wouldn’t you, you jerk. I mean he’s a multibillionaire and he’s like why would you do something like that? It was so funny to me. The truth is… I was making out my will for all the things you do when you get to be in your 50s. You write out your will and who you’re leaving things to. I was like I’m leaving everybody a little bit of this. But I was thinking why am I waiting? Waiting for everybody to be 80 and buy really nice dentures? I just want to get going.
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