Why George Clooney wanted his apocalyptic drama 'The Midnight Sky' to end with a sense of hope
George Clooney plays Augustine Lofthouse in his new dystopian science fiction film "The Midnight Sky". (Philippe Antonello / Netflix)
George Clooney was long one of the world's greatest stars in Hollywood, but these days he sits with his wife, Amal, and their two young children in their Studio City, California, home. When Clooney bought this house in 1995, he saved lives every Thursday night on NBC as Dr. Doug Ross on "ER". Now that a deadly pandemic is raging, all he can do is try to take care of those who matter most to him.
He is concerned about his elderly parents who live in Kentucky. He and his wife have regular FaceTime and Zoom dinners with them and friends to keep in touch and avoid feelings of isolation. He's grateful that his 3-year-old twins, Alexander and Ella, are too young to understand what's going on.
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"Everything is still playing time for them," said the 59-year-old actor-director on the phone one afternoon. "If all of that has an advantage, then I wake her every morning and put her in bed overnight, my wife and I. I probably wouldn't have done that if we'd been out or working or something. So there at least is that . "
When the pandemic hit in March, Clooney had just shot his seventh and most ambitious directorial effort, the post-apocalyptic science fiction film "The Midnight Sky". The film is set 30 years in the future and revolves around a lonely man at the end of the world. He deals with issues like isolation and connection, hope and despair. Before 2020 came along, it all felt a bit more like a fantasy to Clooney. Reality is now a completely different ball game.
Now on Netflix and starring Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo, The Midnight Sky stars Clooney as Augustine Lofthouse, an aging cancer scientist who lives alone in the Arctic after an unexplained global catastrophe that has devastated the planet uninhabitable. Along with a silent young girl who mysteriously appears in his remote station, Lofthouse makes desperate efforts to communicate with the crew of a spacecraft that is on a mission to Jupiter, warning them not to return to Earth.
The script for "The Midnight Sky" was adapted from Lily Brooks-Dalton's debut novel "Good Morning, Midnight" by screenwriter Mark L. Smith ("The Revenant") and first came to Clooney as a potential actor. With a budget of $ 100 million and two storylines set in space and the frozen Arctic, the project was essentially two films in one - an arctic survival thriller and a science fiction adventure in space - with a scope and scope that Previous films directed by Clooney transcend all borders including "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", "Good Night and Good Luck" and "The Ides of March". But fascinated by the themes of the story, he decided to take up the challenge.
Caoilinn Springall and George Clooney star in "The Midnight Sky". (Philippe Antonello / Netflix)
It was nothing new to Clooney to think about the end of the world. "I grew up doing duck-and-cover exercises in the 60s," says the actor, who lost 25 pounds and grew a bushy beard to play the gaunt and grizzled scientist. "We always lived under the idea that at some point we would have a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. Then as time went by and the Berlin Wall fell, other things came up: will it be India?" and Pakistan blowing up all of us? Then climate change became a political hot potato. There were so many different ways we could blow him up if we weren't careful. "
In "The Midnight Sky," Clooney saw echoes of the 1959 film "On the Beach," based on Nevil Shute's post-apocalyptic novel in which a submarine commander (Gregory Peck) crosses the seas after a nuclear war. But while this film - the clip of which is shown on "Midnight Sky" - ends in utter doom, Clooney wanted to leave the audience at least a glimpse of optimism by highlighting the resilience and love of humanity.
"For me there is always hope, as long as you can say, 'We can fix this, it doesn't have to end like this," he says. "For this story in particular, there is real hope in the end. It's not 'On the Beach': kiss Gregory Peck goodbye and that's the end. "
"Obviously, we had no idea we were going to be in the middle of a global pandemic when this thing came out," says Grant Heslov, Clooney's longtime production partner. "But at the end of the day, we both think the movie is half-hopeful. It's this huge screen: We're in space, we're in the Arctic. But it's really this story of connection and redemption."
Clooney filmed the arctic scenes in Iceland last fall and didn't have to look far to get a feel for the existential threat of climate change. When the Midnight Sky team arrived to shoot on a glacier, they found that the rain had melted all of the snow, forcing them to move production further outside in search of a suitably icy landscape and daily an additional 45 minutes drive there and back to drive the set.
"In a place like this, there is no argument for science because they live it," says Clooney. "You are on the front lines. You are the canary in the coal mine. The first thing you take with you when you come to Iceland is that there is not a single person who does not know exactly what global warming means. It would be a good lesson for all of us to take this seriously. "
Just as Clooney was getting to grips with the film's complex production challenges, circumstances forced him to turn. While filming in Iceland, just weeks before production of the space portion of the film was due to begin, he received a call from Jones to play a member of the spacecraft crew who we learn is Augustine's long-lost daughter. "Felicity said," I have some interesting news: I'm pregnant, "says Clooney." First you say, 'Awesome!' And then reality sets in. "
Felicity Jones as Sully and David Oyelowo as Commander Tom Adewole on "The Midnight Sky". (Philippe Antonello / Netflix)
First, Clooney set out to shoot around Jones' pregnancy, using a body double and digital effects to hide her growing bump. But after wrestling with it for about a week, he decided to embrace the situation and just get her character pregnant. "My pitch to Felicity was, 'Let's do it like Frances McDormand on' Fargo ': She's pregnant and she's still doing whatever she's got to do.' She was relieved. "
Getting the character pregnant immediately brought a measure of hope to a story that otherwise could have felt irrevocably gritty. "It adds so much complexity between the relationships and even just the meaning of the film," says Heslov. "Here's a father trying to save his daughter who he's never been there for, and he gets a chance to save her and his grandchild."
When the pandemic hit and Clooney and his team had to fight their way through post-production from a distance, his sense of the movie he was making changed again. While "Midnight Sky" originally focused primarily on fears of the apocalypse, social distancing increasingly brought other elements to the fore.
"As we started editing, it became increasingly clear that the bigger issue was how harmful it was to not be able to communicate and be around the people you love," says Clooney. "I didn't understand how important the lack of communication was until I lived it. I don't think either of us did."
For Brooks-Dalton, seeing how life during the pandemic meshed with the themes of isolation and existential fear in her book was a surreal, but not entirely daunting, experience.
"Writing a book is a lonely experience in and of itself," she says. "To look up from the making of these isolated characters and the world they are in and realize that the rest of the world has joined me in that imagination - and that we are actually not introducing ourselves, but we are here together in the The present - is wildly unsettling. But that was an element of comfort to me. The alignment of our collective consciousness is very powerful, and if there's one silver lining here that I think is hard to find, it is it. "
Felicity Jones goes on a space walk in "The Midnight Sky". (Netflix)
After Clooney shot the film in 65 millimeter format for IMAX playback, he had hoped that large numbers of viewers would be able to record this doomsday story in their local multiplexes. Moving into the most dangerous phase of the pandemic, the planned rollout of Netflix on big screens has been reduced to a handful of independent theaters and drive-ins. "The [movie experience] was an exciting part of it," says Clooney. "But there are far bigger problems in the world than not being able to show your film in theaters. So you just suck it up and record it."
It remains to be seen whether moviegoers who have already been cast down by months of relentless news are in the mood for Clooney to hit the end of the world. To some, "The Midnight Sky," which has received mixed reviews from critics, seems to be perfectly tuned. For others, it might just be the wrong movie for this already dystopian and lonely moment.
As we approach a dark winter and vaccines come, even though the hospitals are overwhelmed, Clooney - similar to the characters in "The Midnight Sky" - finds himself between the poles of hope and despair. "At the end of this tunnel there is really light and there is a way out," he says. "But boy, it'll do a lot of damage before we get there."
In the long run, however, he hopes our species still has a long way to go before the last bell before midnight.
"I'm a realist - I can look at the world and see exactly what it is. Every great love story ends in tragedy: you die," says Clooney. “But I'm always optimistic that sooner or later we'll get these things right. It's going to take a lot of effort and we won't see everything in our lives. But that's part of our job to keep the ball rolling up the hill. "
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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