Inside George Clooney's New Sci-Fi Epic 'The Midnight Sky'
The actor-director even drew on his work on the ’90s medical drama “ER” for lessons in how to get the audience invested in his postapocalyptic sci-fi drama
A movie that’s set partly in outer space and partly in the frozen expanses of the Arctic, “The Midnight Sky” is by far the biggest and most ambitious of the seven movies that George Clooney has directed. Based on the novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton, it takes place about 30 years in the future, when an unspecified calamity has threatened to make Earth unlivable and a team of astronauts is returning from a scouting mission at a potentially inhabitable moon of Jupiter.
In addition to directing, Clooney plays a key role in the earthbound scenes as a terminally ill scientist named Augustine Lofthouse who’s remained behind at an Arctic base that he thinks is deserted until he encounters a young girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall). He’s driven to contact the returning astronauts, who include David Oyelowo, Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandler and Demian Bichir, to tell them not to come back to Earth — but they’re experiencing their own problems, including the unexpected pregnancy of Jones’ character.
The Netflix drama is large-scale filmmaking even if it’s destined to be seen on small screens, though its VFX-heavy setpieces are counterbalanced by quiet, emotional moments.
In an interview with TheWrap, Clooney spoke eagerly about everything from shaving off the shaggy beard he wears in the film to taking valuable lessons from his formative years playing Dr. Doug Ross on the NBC medical series “ER.”
Congratulations — because of this movie, you had a COVID beard before the rest of us did.
Before it was popular, I know! Well, it was tricky. I lost a lot of weight and I was pretty weak, which works for the part, but it doesn’t work for directing. Directing is like you’re a general charging up a hill. So the hardest part was swapping between directing and acting. And once I finished acting, I literally took the beard and shaved it off the day I did the last take. I thought, “I gotta get it off. My kids don’t recognize me, they think I’m Santa Claus.”
There’s a very timely sense of doom to the film, but it never gets specific about what has happened to put humanity in peril. The only thing your character really says is, “It started as a mistake.”
Well, there wasn’t a pandemic when we started, right? That’s sort of changing the temperature of what the movie is about. But at the time there was this other version of that was going on, which is that there’s so much hatred and anger right now in the world. It’s not just the United States, although it’s very much in the United States. But it’s also in Brazil with (President Jair) Bolsonaro, or (President Recep) Erdogan in Turkey. You could go down the list — in the Philippines, there’s this hateful sort of authoritarianism and all this anger.
When I was pitching Netflix on the way I wanted to tell the story, I said, “It’s not inconceivable that 30 years from now, playing this kind of hatred forward, we blow the whole thing up.” I consider this a hopeful film, but it was important to say that the toxic anger and hatred could pour into the world and we could really do something stupid. And then the pandemic happened, and the movie also becomes about communication and being able to touch and talk to and see one another.
Did you finish shooting before the pandemic and then do postproduction during it?
Yeah. We finished on February 12 or something, and flew back to L.A. to start working. I went into the editing room with (Stephen) Mirrione for about a week, maybe. We’d been hearing about COVID, obviously, and people were getting a little nervous. And then all of a sudden we turn on the TV, I think it was when the NBA players walked off the court. The first thing they said was, “Don’t worry, it only affects elderly people — people 55 and older.” I’m like, “What??? I’m the elderly??” And then within a day, I think, they were like, “Don’t come back to work.”
So everything was done at home, either on my computer, or I have a screening room to look at some of the visual effects. It was fun, but man, the hardest part was the score. (Composer) Alexandre (Desplat) couldn’t go to England, which was where we were recording at Abbey Road. And he could only do, like, 10 musicians at a time instead of a 150-piece orchestra. He was conducting from Paris, doing sections of music, 10 people at a time. And I’m up at five in the morning in my screening room with Zoom on one side and a live view of the score on the other.
I’ve done three other films with Alexandre, and I would always go to Abbey Road with him. You sit at there and he conducts and you hear the whole orchestra play, and then you can say, “A little bit less of the tympani” or “I think there’s more urgency in this scene.” Alexandre is directing them and I’m talking to Alexandre and it’s moving and flowing. And then all of a sudden that’s gone. And thank God it’s Alexandre Desplat and he’s a genius at what he does. After a while, it just became kind of funny to get up at 4:30 in the morning to go score a movie in my downstairs screening room.
The movie has a grand scope, but it’s also got real intimacy in the storytelling.
It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done, but also, the stories were so small, you know? It’s a guy and a kid and it’s some people in space trying to connect. The size of it’s really small.
You know, we shot all my stuff first. And then a couple of weeks into shooting that, Felicity calls and tells me she’s pregnant. And I was like, “Oh, f—. This is great, but we’ve got to change some things.” We tried shooting each scene three times and doing a head replacement using CGI. And at some point I was just like, “This is ridiculous, it’s taking the life out of the movie.” You know, people have sex. They’re on a two-year trip, and they had sex. And once we embraced it, the temperature of the film changed in a weird way. There was a continuity to it. It wasn’t part of our script when we started shooting, but by the end we felt like it was a good thing. Every film has some hurdle it has to get over, and this was a happy hurdle, you know? We wanted to give her baby a credit at the end of the movie.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, your character has a little girl to take care of.
We looked at several hundred actresses, young girls, and they were all fantastic. But we needed one that had that a mystical look about her. And the funniest part was, she just put all these other actors, myself included, to shame. I would say to her, “OK, I need you to run away, and I need a big scared, afraid look.” And she’d start running and just turn and do it — one take, every time. Got it! All the rest of us were like, well, it’s a sad scene, so you’ve gotta kill your parents in your head … With her, just tell her what mark to hit and how to feel, and she does it.
Visually, the scene where a character is bleeding in zero gravity is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.
In the script, she’s running out of air. But I started watching all of the space movies, trying to figure out what made “Gravity” work and what made “The Martian” work. And watching “Gravity,” I realized that there’s a whole scene with Sandy (Bullock) running out of air. And I was like, “Oh s—, we can’t do that.” I was watching footage of Mark Kelly and the astronauts in the space station, and they would drink and spill some of the water. There would be bubbles floating, and they would slurp them up. So I called up the effects guys and said, “Can we make blood float?” And they were like, “I don’t know. We can try.”
It was also a case of working with the guys doing the visual effects and saying, “OK, look, this is a meditation. This isn’t a high-octane film in general, and the blood needs to be sort of a ballet.” And they worked it out, did a beautiful job. And then I had to go to Alexandre, who can’t see the blood yet because we hadn’t finished the effects. I said, “This has to be a ballet.” And he goes, “A ballet? OK. A ballet!” So he wrote this beautiful piece of music for it.
Was it tricky to balance the two parts of the film, what’s happening on Earth and in space? For a long time, we’re mostly following the story on Earth, and because it’s you and a little girl, we’re emotionally invested in that. But then you have to work to get us invested in that other story out in space.
It was always a trick. Because you’ve got basically two movies. One half is “Gravity,” the other half is “The Revenant,” and they’re bouncing back and forth. I knew that emotionally, we were going to be fine on my side, because it’s a guy and a little girl that he’s protecting. I played a pediatrician on “ER.” I was a womanizer, I was a drunk, but as long as I was nice to kids and looked out for kids, the audience would be like, “Oh, he likes kids!” So I knew that our stuff was going to be protected.
That gave me the freedom to focus on making sure that you root for them (in space) along the way, but you can’t just have them sit there and give exposition after two years in the ship together. They can’t talk to each other about their whole lives, because they would have done that already. So you had to find things in the moment that caught you up emotionally. Sometimes it was the fun things — sometimes it was the guys singing “Sweet Caroline.” Sometimes it was giving each other s—. And sometimes it was how good they perform under stress. I kept talking to the guys about it: “Listen to those black-box recordings of planes that are going down. Those pilots are just matter of fact. They don’t panic.” So we really focused on making sure that these guys were professional at all times.
It sort of, again, goes back to “ER.” When we did “ER,” what separated us from other hospital shows was we never sat around and felt sorry for ourselves. We just kept doing job after job, case after case after case after case. And that the overwhelming feeling at the end was, “Wow, they’re really accomplishing something.” But none of us would ever say, “We’re really doing great work!” That was the feeling we had on this, which is to constantly keep everybody doing their job and nobody panicking. You tend to rally around people like that.
It is a trick. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t, but it helps when you have really good actors and good writing.
I was fortunate to see it on a big screen, with my wife and I the only people in the biggest screening room at Netflix. It was impressive, but odd to see it like that.
Isn’t it weird? The only time I’ve seen it on a big screen, we rented out the Village in Westwood. This guy opened up for us, and there were cobwebs all over, and posters for the John Krasinski movie (“A Quiet Place Part II”) everywhere, because they’d done the premiere there. It was just (producer) Grant (Heslov) and I sitting there watching the movie on this giant screen. It was fantastic, but sort of like a “Twilight Zone” episode.
We shot it on 65 (mm), and it was really designed to be shown on IMAX. It’s frustrating, because I don’t really see that happening in the normal world. There’ll be some drive-in theaters, maybe, but in general I don’t see much of a chance of us being on a big screen. It’s not safe now.
It’s funny, I was thinking back to when the seat-belt stuff was going on, when Ralph Nader and other people were pushing seat belts in the late ’50s and early ’60s. I remember that jingle: “Buckle up for safety, buckle up!” And people were like, “F— you, we’re not wearing a seat belt!” But bit by bit, the insurance companies actually came in and lobbied the government and they made a law and then they did it, eventually.
At some point, people are gonna go, “Dude, put on a f—ing mask. It’s not that big a deal.” You’re free to drink until your liver falls out, but you’re not free to drink and get behind the wheel of a car. You can smoke until your lungs explode, but you can’t do it on the subway with grandma. There are rules. That’s all.
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