George Clooney learned a lot about stories set in outer space with Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. Now, with Netflix’s The Midnight Sky, he directs and stars in the post-apocalyptic story based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight, that plays out on both Earth – in the Arctic — and in space.
As the story opens, there has been an unrevealed accident on Earth which has caused a global catastrophe and made the planet uninhabitable for all living creatures.
But there is still hope for mankind if lone scientist Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) can reach the crew of the spaceship Aether, which has been exploring one of Jupiter’s previously undiscovered moons, and gets them to turn around and return to Jupiter’s moon to make a new home as there is no home waiting for them on Earth.
“When we first started, I talked to Netflix and I said, ‘Look, I think we have to talk about the idea that in the world, as we see this anger and hatred, not just in the United States, but this divisiveness all around the world, if you play this out, it’s not inconceivable,” Clooney said. “It’s not science fiction that we can destroy ourselves by 2049. That’s not an inconceivable thing at all.”
And, then, the pandemic hit just after the film wrapped and made the events even more believable.
“Then it became much more about our inability to communicate, our inability to touch and to be near one another, and that loss,” Clooney continued. “It’s funny how real that became and how we suddenly understand this lack of being near one another, and our need to do that.”
Clooney also describes how the story reminds him of the 1959 film On the Beach, casting Caoilinn Springall as the young girl in the film who keeps him company on his journey, working in Iceland in October, how music is such a big part of the storytelling, and more.
Describe Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist at the end of the world, who is terminally ill with cancer and a bit of a curmudgeon.
When I did ER, I played the pediatrician on the show and so I worked with just hundreds of kid actors, so I had some understanding of it, but on the show, I was like a womanizer and a drunk. I could do all of those things and I didn’t have to wink that I was a good guy because I would always, at the end of the day, save the kid, and people would go, “Oh, he’s a good guy.” So, you could get away with kind of anything.
So, when I read this script, I thought, “The fun part about this part is that you don’t have to make him in any way likable necessarily. You can be really ticked off about the situation, or lost, without having to bring in any of that energy, because all along, you’re also protecting this young girl Iris.
Did the script come to you or did you option the book?
Mark L. Smith wrote the screenplay for Netflix and they sent it to me to act in it and I loved the part. I thought, “This is a really good part.” And they didn’t have a director attached and I said, “Look, I think I have a take on this. I’ve done a couple of space films with a couple of maestros, with Alfonso Cuarón and Steven Soderbergh. I think I know what this story is.”
There was a movie long ago and we put a little clip of it in our movie, with Gregory Peck called On the Beach, and I thought that this was a modern telling of On the Beach. There’d been a nuclear exchange, because at that time we were all only dealing with the idea of the end of mankind from a nuclear exchange. Everyone had died except Australia, so everybody ends up in Australia, and the nuclear cloud is coming, so they’re going to die.
And so, it was coming to terms with the end of the world and your own death. That is pretty nihilistic and everybody dies at the end. And so, it doesn’t have the same ability for some hope, but it had a lot of those elements of coming to terms with what we’ve done, what we’re capable of doing, and finding kindness and compassion and love in acts of kindness.
Felicity Jones’ astronaut character’s pregnancy wasn’t in the book. How did that happen?
It wasn’t in the script. It wasn’t in the shoot. I was in Iceland shooting and Felicity called me and said, “I have some news.” She didn’t say good news or bad news. She just had news. And she said, “I’m pregnant.” And there was not even a pause, because I’m not dumb. I immediately said, “Congratulations. That is so exciting for you. We’re all very excited for you.”
And then there was a long pause and I was like, “So, what do you want to do?” And she says, “I can do it. I can go on the wires. I’ve talked to stunt guy, I’m ready to do it.” And I’m like, “We’re not going to put you on wires. We’re not going to do that. Let’s figure it out.”
So, our first step, we tried to shoot it without acknowledging it. We tried to do head replacements and shoot around it. We did that for a couple of days. Those kinds of shoots really do take the energy out of the room and take the energy out of the actors, you know? She was trying desperately not to look pregnant, but she was visibly pregnant. I woke up in the middle of the night and I just said, “You know what? They go away for two years. People have sex, so she got pregnant.”
And once we decided that she was pregnant and leaned into it and said, “Okay, well, if she’s pregnant, then we can have the guys trying to build this contraption.” We built this ultrasound machine in a day. I went to Jim Bissell, the production designer, and I said, “I need something that we could fake as an ultrasound machine and quickly put together a scene for Felicity and Tiffany Boone to do where they hold hands.
The reason we love that scene was because they’re listening for any sign of life. That’s all they’re waiting for is any sign of life. And, finally, the only sign of life they have is from Felicity. It just felt beautiful. And it led to the ending, which now feels like it should have always been there, which is okay.
Iceland gets really cold. Did you film this in summer or winter?
We scouted it in the summer and it was beautiful. We took the snowmobiles out onto the glacier and it was stunning. But then we got there mid-October and it’ll wake you up a little bit. We’d have gusts of about 70 miles an hour, which would get to 40 degrees below zero.
It was properly cold, which, as an actor is helpful. As a director, it’s a mother to do because we had a pretty reduced crew. It’d be completely clear. You could see a thousand miles and it’s gorgeous and we’d wait for the wind gusts to come and you could see these walls of snow coming in and we’d go, “Everybody get ready.”
And we were all tied to each other; we had strings because you could get lost. You can’t see your hand in front of your face. And the camera guy’s holding the camera, and you’re just trying to get a minute — or good luck — 30 seconds of a shot. Then 45 seconds or so, my eyelids would freeze shut and we’d have to go in with a blow dryer and blow my eyelashes apart so I could go back out and shoot.
There is so little dialogue in this that a lot of story is told with music.
From the very beginning, I talked with the composer Alexandre Desplat, a dear friend, and I said, “You’re going to write more music than you’ve ever written for a movie.” And he’s like, “I am?”
And I was like, “You are. We’ve taken out a lot of dialogue, because the truth is, for my character, if the little girl isn’t going to talk, what am I going to say? There isn’t going to be as much dialogue, so we’re going to have to tell the story with music, which makes it feel more dreamlike.” So, I relied a lot on the music taking over on the storytelling on this one.
What was it like filming in Iceland on the glacier?
The first thing you have to do when you’re going to go out there, we have a couple of things working against us besides the weather that you’re just at the mercy of. But one is that we’re shooting in late October. So, light comes up 11:30, and it goes down about 3:30, and you also have a little girl who’s seven, Caoilinn, who has a particular amount of time that she can shoot in.
And so, I boarded everything. I was really ready for it. And we had a really small crew and we’d grab camera boxes and run out into the spot, but there’s a lot of other tricks to it. You can’t just run and do something, because it’s got this covering of snow over what could be a 200-foot drop in the middle.
There’s very specific places you can go and we’d go, “I’d like to shoot up there because the light is great.” And we see that and we walk over and the guys that know, go, “Don’t go through that,” and then show you that that could drop. So, it really had to be planned out.
And then we relied on the wind, because the wind did everything for us. The wind gave us the snow, because it really wasn’t a snow storm. It’s just wind blowing the snow that blocked out everything and made it all white. And so, you were waiting for it.
We ended up having to fill in about six or seven shots on a stage, and digitally fill in a couple of shots we didn’t get, but you can’t tell which ones they are. There were a couple of shots we couldn’t get. We ran out of time and ran out of wind.
Where did you find Caoilinn Springall, whose extraordinarily good?
I literally read a couple hundred girls and they were all great. They all had something really unique. But Caoilinn showed up. First of all, she has these extraordinary eyes. That’s just magical. So, I would say, “Okay, you’re running away from me as the ice is breaking, you turn around and give me your scared face.”
And she would do this thing, which is hard to do for any actor, and she would nail it. I’m not kidding at all when I tell you that probably everything I did with Caoilinn was one take. She probably saved us five days of shooting on the schedule because there’d be tricks with having to use someone younger. We would look over at her at times, and say, “She’s putting us to shame.” She really did. It all just came so naturally.
In the scene where we’re just sitting in the chairs looking up at Polaris, it’s just supposed to be a really quiet moment, and quiet moments are hard to fill with a kid, because they’re trying to fill it. She just sat there and I said, “Look, that’s Polaris. Do you see it?” She looks up. And then she looks over and she nods her head. And you think, “Man, that’s great acting.” We were really lucky that we found her.
I left the shallow beard question for last.
I got it from David Letterman and I had to give it back (jokes). That was a whole summer growing that thing. And my kids loved it because whenever they wanted my attention, they would literally grab it and yank my head around. It took a little while to grow it out. It took four months.
The funniest thing. I shot everything and I was editing while I would shoot. This is pre pandemic, but I was fairly sure we weren’t going to get a chance to come back and reshoot stuff.
So, I wanted to make sure I had everything all along. So, the day I finished, which was for the Christmas vacation, we started in October. We shot all my stuff first, so the day we finished, I went and shaved the whole thing off. No chance of a reshoot. I was like, “Get this thing off.” It had begun to have a life of its own.
I gave it to the makeup and hair department. I shaved it off so that it all stayed in one piece, and I put it on some Stick-Um, so it would stay there in case there was a reason to go back. I didn’t want to have to do one of those bad fake pirate beards. I kept the one from Syriana in a thing for a while, and it literally becomes one of the funkiest things your housekeeper could ever find.
The Midnight Sky begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 23.