Functioning workaholic George Clooney doesn’t take it easy. For his seventh feature film, the actor-writer-producer-director took on a dystopian sci-fi adventure set in the frozen Arctic (well, Iceland) and outer space. It’s been seven years since Clooney produced Best Picture-winner “Argo” (with his partner and frequent co-writer Grant Heslov and director Ben Affleck), which followed Clooney’s double-whammy Oscar nominations for acting in “The Descendants” and adapting the script for “The Ides of March” (with Heslov and Beau Willimon). Needless to say, Clooney is not one to rest on his laurels.
He had nothing to prove after his 2006 Supporting Actor win for “Syriana.” (He was also nominated for his performances in “Up in the Air” and “Michael Clayton,” and scored writing and directing nods for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which was also nominated for Best Picture.) And with $1 billion socked away from selling his share of tequila company Casamigo, Clooney could just relax and play with his twins.
But when Netflix approached Clooney to tackle his most ambitious directing assignment to date with a $100-million budget, myriad VFX, and an almost-silent starring role, he took it on. Clooney set out to deliver a quality movie that was also a commercial feature for a wide audience. In the end, despite having to complete post-production during a pandemic, “Midnight Sky” proved to be Netflix’s best-performing movie of the year in theaters (such as they were), playing in more than 800 locations in sixteen countries. A confirmed 72 million households streamed the movie in the first 28 days, as it reached the #1 spot in 77 countries. And the movie’s bells and whistles could impress Oscar voters (especially those in the crafts departments) in a year lacking pictures of scale and scope.
As Clooney and Heslov developed the script by Mark L. Smith (an adaptation of “Good Morning, Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton), they not only revisited Ridley Scott’s space opera “Alien” and A.G. Inarritu’s frozen actioner “The Revenant,” but two movies Clooney had experienced first-hand, Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris” and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.”
Clooney could not have predicted that space drama “Midnight Sky,” a meditation on life and loss without much dialogue (punctuated with four intense action sequences) would play out during a global pandemic, with so many people isolated and alone. “We wrapped February 15,” he said in our Zoom interview (above). “Suddenly as everything shut down and we edited from home, this inability to connect and communication became the theme.”
For his role as a gaunt, dying scientist who is waiting out his days alone in an Arctic lab after a global nuclear disaster, Clooney, 59, grew a long beard and lost 25 pounds. Suddenly, a silent girl shows up (seven-year-old discovery Caoilinn Springall) as he tries to contact a spaceship led by a husband-and-wife team (David Oyelowo and Felicity Jones). To get to another station with a more powerful signal, the scientist and the girl head out into the snow on a snowmobile.
Perched at the top of an Iceland glacier at 40 below zero, Clooney’s skeleton crew waited for wind storms to materialize, then tried to capture the 50-mile-per-hour winds with heavy 65mm cameras, with no visibility. “When it comes you can’t see your hand in front of your face,” said Clooney. “You had to shoot really fast. It lasts for ten-fifteen minutes.”
Felicity Jones’ pregnancy came as a shock three weeks into filming. “What do you want to do?” Clooney asked her. “I can do everything,” Jones said. At first the filmmakers tried to use head replacement, but the director woke up one morning and realized that they had to “stop pushing against it,” he said. “It was a valuable tool, like Fran in ‘Fargo.’ No explanation. She’s pregnant. It makes the movie more relevant.”
Iceland was a cakewalk compared to learning the latest tech, from LED ILM screens, VR goggles, and CGI to pre-visualizations. “We built the space ship digitally,” said Clooney. “We’d walk around with the camera and point it in a giant empty gym with guys behind me with a monitor. It took a long time to design.” Filming the space sequences, Clooney strived to keep the intimacy, “telling it in small, personal pieces.”
During the spacewalk, the astronauts had to exit a zero-gravity escape hatch attached to both wires and puppeteers. When meteors ram the spaceship, one of the walkers is injured; blood floats inside her space helmet, and later, inside the hatch, flowing out into globules of blood. Inspired by Space Station astronaut Mark Kelly drinking floating water, Clooney directed his frequent collaborator, French composer Alexandre Desplat, to compose a “blood ballet” for the scene.
During pandemic post-production, Desplat had to conduct the 150-person orchestra in batches of ten people at a time at London’s Abbey Road from Paris, with Clooney and Heslov watching and listening on Zoom from early morning Los Angeles.
“When I first read the script,” said Clooney, “it seemed like a modern version of ‘On the Beach,’ coming to terms with the inevitable and how you do it. That movie was more dystopian and darker than our version. I like the idea of leaving things out there to figure out. Your imagination is a more powerful tool than film.”