When he couldn’t get to his home in Italy after the March lockdown, George Clooney wound up hunkered down with his family in his three-acre Laurel Canyon compound and with no domestic help. When he wasn’t doing dishes or laundry, or playing with his three-year-old twins, he was remotely finishing his seventh feature film as a director. “I had to take a six-month crash course in visual effects,” said Clooney, who is now calling from a beach house in Hawaii. “But it’s not jam-packed with exploding things.
“The Midnight Sky” (December 23, Netflix) could return Clooney to Oscar contention for the first time since 2013 Best Picture-winner “Argo” (produced with his partner and frequent co-writer Grant Heslov and director Ben Affleck). That came one year after Clooney scored not only an acting nomination for “The Descendants” but also an Adapted Screenplay nomination for “The Ides of March” (with Heslov and Beau Willimon).
Clooney can do whatever he wants. Three years ago, he sold Casamigo, his tequila company with Rande Gerber, for $1 billion. Not that Clooney has anything to prove after his 2006 Supporting Actor win for “Syriana.” (He’s also been nominated for his performances in “Up in the Air” and “Michael Clayton,” and received writing and directing nods for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which was also nominated for Best Picture.)
In a time when movie stars are scarce, Clooney is the rarest of breeds: He can get movies financed and greenlit (and TV series, like Hulu’s “Catch-22”), even when they are not overtly commercial (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Leatherheads,” “The Monuments Men,” and “Suburbicon”).
Netflix approached Clooney to take on his most ambitious directing assignment to date with a dystopian sci-fi outer-space thriller, “The Midnight Sky,” with a budget heading toward $100 million. It meant tackling serious VFX for the first time as well as starring. “It’s a real drag directing yourself,” he said at his London Film Festival career tribute in October — one of many this awards season, including MoMa December 7. (“The Midnight Sky” premieres via AFI on December 8.)
In the end, despite having to complete post-production during a pandemic, Clooney delivered a rousing crowdpleaser that could be his most commercial project to date. Backed by Netflix, the movie will connect with audiences all over the globe, and could wow Academy voters, especially in tech categories, when big-scale movies are in short supply. Netflix is all in. “‘The Midnight Sky’ might be Clooney’s best directorial work ever,” said Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos. “His performance is fantastic, but the movie is incredibly accomplished.”
As Clooney and Heslov developed the script by Mark L. Smith (an adaptation of “Good Morning, Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton), they looked back at sci-fi movies by Ridley Scott and A.G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant,” as well as Clooney’s own experiences with Steven Soderbergh (“Solaris”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”). A quiet movie without much dialogue, it’s often meditative but punctuated with intense action sequences. They could not have predicted that their space drama would play out during a global pandemic, with so many people isolated and alone.
Clooney, who likes to say he’s “almost 60” (that’s May 6), grew a bushy grey beard and lost 25 pounds to play a cancer-ridden scientist who is hunkered down in isolation at an Arctic lab after surviving a global nuclear disaster. He’s waiting out his days until a silent girl turns up (seven-year-old discovery Caoilinn Springall), and trying to contact a returning spaceship whose crew, led by a husband-and-wife team (David Oyelowo and Felicity Jones), has been unable to contact someone on Earth.
To reach them, the scientist and the girl must travel across icy wastes through an arctic windstorm to reach another station with a more powerful signal. That presented one of the movie’s biggest production challenges: shooting an actual windstorm. The 50-mile-per-hour winds were real, captured by a small crew with heavy 65mm cameras with no visibility at the top of an Iceland glacier at 40 below zero.
“We waited for the wind,” Clooney said. “The elements help. Logistically, with the arctic skeleton crew, we were relying on luck and weather and got it. It was a tricky one by virtue of the fact that we couldn’t control it.”
Also out of Clooney’s control was Jones’ pregnancy, which came as a surprise three weeks into the production. At first Heslov and Clooney figured they’d hide her behind boxes, or use head replacement, or fix it in post, but they swiftly decided to embrace her changing body, inspired by Frances McDormand in “Fargo.” They gave her a crane seat instead of wires in the weightless scenes, adding digital floating legs later. “She wasn’t acting against being pregnant,” said Heslov. “It was one of those happy accidents. It added a whole layer to the film.”
Clooney’s crash course in LED ILM screens, CGI, and previsualizations, lead him to realize how far technology has come since “Gravity.” Shooting the part of the movie set in outer space “was infinitely more complicated, working six months ahead with virtual reality, putting goggles on, and taking the camera around an empty gym,” Clooney said. “We built the spaceship in virtual reality. You could walk on it, design shots as if walking on the spaceship, so we could understand what parts we need to build and what we could do virtually.”
Working with German cinematographer Martin Ruhe (“Catch-22”), Clooney resisted the sharp look of most outer-space movies and opted for a grainier approach with camera flares. “I wanted it to look like a movie,” he said. And like Eastwood, whom Clooney admires, he shoots fast and rarely does more than three takes. “I don’t walk away if I don’t get it,” he said. “If an actor thinks you’re going to do 30 takes, he’ll start casually — ‘It doesn’t matter what I do.’ But if the actors think they only get one crack at it, they come in armed for bear, ready to go! Thirty percent of it is done in one take.”
Heslov always keeps an eye out during filming, giving Clooney a look when he should shoot another take of himself. “He doesn’t want to be that guy,” said Heslov. “We always finish a couple days early, the way a lot of the guys he loves work, like the Coen Bros. and Soderbergh. They shoot with a point of view. They’re not just collecting footage. He knows what he wants and doesn’t spend a lot of time on stuff he knows he’ll never use.”
Production designer Jim Bissell researched the latest NASA science in creating a massive spaceship 30 years from now with a rotating arm to combat weightlessness. In this movie future, spaceships are repaired with laser printers. During the spacewalk, the astronauts had to exit a zero-gravity escape hatch equipped with wires. “We had puppeteers holding people,” said Clooney, who added that creating the effects sequence when meteors slam and batter the ship, hitting one of the spacewalkers, was “fun to do.”
The injured astronaut has blood floating inside their space helmet, and later, inside the hatch, flowing out in a surreal and beautiful blood ballet. The script described running out of air, but Clooney was inspired by footage of Space Station astronaut Mark Kelly drinking floating water globules, and asked French composer Alexandre Desplat to compose a “blood ballet” to accompany the scene.
“I talked to the sound and visual effects guys,” he said. “I want this to feel like the scene in ‘All That Jazz’ when Roy Scheider is starting to have a heart attack and he’s playing with a pencil and you hear his heartbeat as he’s scratching and twisting the pencil. All the focus becomes about the blood.”
Ruhe used a special 58T camera lens for certain POV sequences, which creates images that are clear in the center and soft and fuzzy on the sides. He also introduced a Rosco stage rear-projection lighting system he had never used before, which replaced blue or green screens and helped to match exterior skies and color temperature with stage recreations.
Clooney always has his editor cut while he shoots. “I don’t do reshoots,” he said. “I want to make sure I have what I have. It’s difficult to come back and recreate things. I had the first cut of the film, twenty minutes longer than what we have now, four days after we wrapped. I knew what we had, and the order.”
After he flew home, he had one week in the editing room before the shutdown. Then he and Oscar-winning editor Stephen Mirrione (“Traffic”) whittled the film, balancing the Arctic and spaceship sequences. “It’s always what happens, you cut what doesn’t further the story,” said Clooney. “We were doing everything here at the house over Zoom and Overcast, bouncing back and forth.”
Instead of all being together at Abbey Road, Clooney was up at 4 AM in Los Angeles Zooming with Desplat in Paris who was leading an orchestra in London, recording 15 musicians in a room at a time. “Everything had to be done four times,” said Heslov.
At the end of post, Clooney was agonizing over the last FrameStore VFX shots of the planet K23. “It could be anything,” he said. “Ultimately, we realize it has to be welcoming. It was tricky to build a world unique to what we have and still feel comfortable to live on and not make you crazy. It was nerve-racking as the last shots got done.”
About a month ago, with a week to make final touches, a small team got to look at the movie on a big screen at The Village in Westwood. “We could see where we missed something,” said Clooney. “We missed a camera in the shot!” Final color corrections and the sound mix were done with safety protocols at Warner Bros. One sound innovation: Clooney blended his mature voice with Ethan Peck, the actor who plays his younger self in the movie. “Lucas Sound mixed thousands of pieces to blend together. It was a complicated process, to go back 30 years when my voice was an octave higher.” (He resisted the “Irishman” computer de-aging option because “it took me out for a minute. That was not beneficial.”)
Finally, in an all-too-timely way, Clooney’s dystopian fable is about the importance of human connection. “This man is trying to right a wrong in his life,” said Heslov. “To somehow be the father he never could be. There’s a lot of sadness with that character, and a lot of empathy for him. As we get older those things resonate more with us. George has kids now. All that stuff seeps into you as an actor and a director. It changes your point of view.”