During a virtual screen talk today at the 64th BFI London Film Festival, George Clooney discussed the importance of journalistic integrity, the COVID-19 pandemic, his upcoming Netflix film, The Midnight Sky, and the highlights of his illustrious career.
Throughout the hour-long conversation with Scottish broadcaster Edith Bowman, which centered on a selection of his iconic films—including Out of Sight, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Good Night, and Good Luck—a prevailing theme was the importance of kindness, and of speaking truth to power, in today’s world.
Speaking to the directors who have most affected him and shaped his career, while taking a break from post-production on his sci-fi pic, Clooney referenced the COVID-19 pandemic, and what it has revealed to him. “We’re sitting in this completely changed world, [where] we find it’s not just about coronavirus, about all the anger and hatred and stuff. You find that you’re really looking for kindness and support around the rest of your life,” said the two-time Oscar winner. “The directors that I’ve enjoyed working with always have had that as a quality.”
Later on, the conversation turned to Good Night, and Good Luck, and Clooney recalled the impetus for making the film—that being the time in the early 2000s when he drew controversy for openly protesting the war in Iraq. “In 2003 and 2004, there were like five or six of us saying this is a terrible idea, and everyone else who thought [that] was keeping quiet,” the actor said. “I just remember that feeling, the idea that the most patriotic thing you can do in the world is to question your government.
“I believe that, and will always believe it,” Clooney added. “I was raised the son of a newsman.”
Referencing the pivotal presidential election in the US that is now just a couple of weeks away, Clooney stressed the importance at this point in time of credible journalism, noting a key difference between the America of today and that of 1953, when the events of Good Night, and Good Luck took place. “It’s an interesting thing because at that time, we had three channels for television news, and they all started with the same set of facts. Now, that’s completely different,” the actor said. “We have the President of the United States trying to say that our mail-in ballots could be fraudulent, which of course, is a felony. And there’s been something like nine [cases of fraud] of a mail-in ballot over the last 40 years. We’re just working with different sets of facts, and I worry about that, because it makes people very sure of themselves.”
In conversation with Bowman, Clooney also went in deep on The Midnight Sky, a film which he had hoped to show on the biggest of screens, prior to the onset of the pandemic. “We shot it on 65[mm] so that we could take it to IMAX,” he told Bowman with regret. “And you got to watch it on a screen about [the size of an iPad].”
Based on a novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton, The Midnight Sky is directed by Clooney, from a script by Mark L. Smith. The post-apocalyptic tale centers on Augustine (Clooney), a lonesome scientist in the Arctic, who races to stop a group of astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.
Noting that he misses the theatrical viewing experience that has been lost throughout much of this year, Clooney said that the novel initially came to him via the team at Netflix. “The guys at Netflix sent it over to me to act in it. I read it and loved it, and thought I’d actually rather take a swing at directing it,” he explained. “I’d done a couple of space movies, so I knew how complicated the space stuff was going to be, but this one felt like a really intimate story about what mankind is capable of doing to mankind. I also liked the idea of a story of redemption, and this was kind of the ultimate story of redemption.”
The first part of the shoot took place in Iceland, and posed a test of physical endurance, with 70 mph winds, at 40 degrees below zero. An added challenge came when Clooney learned that his co-star Felicity Jones, who was set to portray an astronaut, was pregnant. “I was in the middle of Iceland, really miserable, and she goes ‘So, there’s news. I’m pregnant.’ I’m like ‘Great.’ And then I go, ‘Okay, that complicates things,’” the director shared. “She was so gung-ho. She wanted to do all the wirework. But I was like ‘No, we’re not putting anyone pregnant on a wire.’”
When Clooney learned of Jones’s pregnancy, he initially considered VFX head replacement for some of the actress’s more physically demanding scenes. Ultimately, though, he leaned in and adapted, revising the narrative so that Jones’s Sully had gotten pregnant while in space. “And it changed everything for us,” he said. “It gave us something to lean into for the end of the movie, which I think ends up being a big bonus for us, along the way.”
Noting Clooney’s repeated comments about the importance of having a voice, and not being scared to confront different kinds of material—as he did, once again, with The Midnight Sky—Bowman suggested that his courage and versatility were perhaps the keys to his success, as a director. Clooney agreed. “By the time I got to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which was the first thing I directed, I knew specifically what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it,” the actor-turned-director said. “And what I never wanted to do was be caught playing things safe.”
Among the choice career anecdotes Clooney shared from his 42-year screen career was a story about his friendship with actor Paul Newman, toward the end of his life. “We were going to do The Notebook together,” Clooney revealed. “Basically, I was going to play him as a young man, and it was funny. We met and said, ‘This is it. It’s going to be great.’”
Subsequently, the actor went home, watched a number of Newman’s iconic films and got intimidated. “He’s one of the handsomest guys you’ve ever seen. We met up [again] and I said, ‘I can’t play you. I don’t look anything like you. This is insane,’” Clooney recalled. ‘We just wanted to do it because we wanted to work together, [but] it ended up being not the right thing for us to do.”
Like Gregory Peck, Newman was an actor Clooney admired for his character, his dignity, as well as his sense of humor. “We had a very funny relationship, late in life for him. I directed a movie that just completely bombed called Leatherheads. [Newman] was still racing at the time, and raced a car, and crashed it,” Clooney said. “So, he took a photo of Leatherheads and superimposed it on the crashed car, and said, ‘I was driving your car in the race.’”
Prior to today’s screen talk, Clooney appeared at the BFI London Film Festival on numerous occasions, with films including The Descendants, The Ides of March, and Up in the Air. His animated Wes Anderson pic Fantastic Mr. Fox opened the fest in 2009, while Good Night, and Good Luck closed it out in 2005.
Produced by Anonymous Content, Clooney and Grant Heslov’s Smokehouse Pictures and Syndicate Entertainment, The Midnight Sky also stars Kyle Chandler, David Oyelowo, Miriam Shor, Demián Bichir and Tiffany Boone. It is set to debut on Netflix this December.
Up next for Clooney is a feature adaptation of Calico Joe, the 2012 baseball novel written by John Grisham, which he is reportedly looking at as a directing vehicle. The multi-hyphenate will also produce, alongside Heslov and Bob Dylan’s Grey Water Park Productions.