Based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s acclaimed novel Good Morning, Midnight, The Midnight Sky is an upcoming Netflix film directed by and starring George Clooney. The adaptation follows Augustine (George Clooney), an aging loner scientist in the Arctic who discovers a child left on her own; and Sully (Felicity Jones), an astronaut who is trying to return home to earth with her fellow astronauts aboard the Aether.
The Midnight Sky is the first Smokehouse Pictures film to debut on Netflix. Smokehouse is co-founded by Clooney and fellow producer Grant Heslov. It’s the same company who produced Academy Award winning Argo and The Ides of March.
We catch up with The Midnight Sky’s director, co-producer and star,
George Clooney, over Zoom to talk about his new Netflix film and the many roles he play in this project:
First off, congratulations for being in 2020 People of the Year.
George Clooney: You notice the don’t make me sexiest man alive anymore! You notice? [laughs]
You said in an interview that this movie is a story about communicating and trying to be in touch with one another. When took on this project, there wasn’t any pandemic yet. How do you feel that the movie’s theme has become relevant now more than ever?
Well, it is relevant now. That’s unfortunate. You don’t relish the idea that the story becomes more relevant in the middle of a pandemic. That’s an unfortunate side effect. But those themes were always right. We’re always seeking a way to communicate and seeking a way to be home and be near the people we love. And we’re always questioning our actions and whether or not we’re doing enough. And all of those things sort of play out in this. It is unfortunate that it’s timely. It shouldn’t be, and with any luck in a few months, we were seeing some light at the end of the tunnel with these, it looks like four now, vaccine possibilities. We’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m very hopeful that certainly by late spring or something, we might all be able to do this in a room together and not have to do it via — I’d like to never hear the word ‘Zoom’ again.
How hopeful are you about our abilities as a species to avoid an apocalyptic situation like the one we see in the film? And has the year we’ve had changed your thinking at all on that front?
George Clooney: No. I’m always an optimist. I’m pretty much a realist. I do believe in looking at things head on. But I also believe in our better angels eventually. We’ve had much, much worse — not worse than, but in addition to, a pandemic. We’ve had four years of just mismanagement where the leader of the free world is calling the press the enemy of the people. And it has decided that, as a policy to people who are seeking asylum, take their kids away and put them in cages. And I look at that and I think, this is insane and this isn’t who we are. And that comes to an end on January 20th.
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I believe that we will and do constantly, the Martin Luther King line, about the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. I do believe in that. I do believe it’s long and it takes a long time to get there. And I believe the same thing about our ignoring science, which is just a temporary thing because, you know, people are trying to make money. We didn’t use to do that, and I think we’ll get back to that again. So I think I do believe we’re going to head in the right direction. We have a few pit stops along the way where we do idiotic things, but I think the world in general is going to figure it out. I’m always optimistic about that.
It’s a beautiful film whose release couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. It’s very inspiring. Your character, Augustine, attempts to deal with an unfinished business. How did you relate to him? Do you think that you have some unfinished business that needs to be dealt with?
Well, not the kind that Augustine has. It’s funny, I know people in my life or close to me who were older than me, who live with regret. And regret is a cancer. Regret is a terrible thing. It really eats you alive. And as you get older, it really cripples you. And Augustine is a guy who’s seeking redemption for his regret, and gets it, thank God, at the end. But that’s his journey is trying in some way to find redemption. I don’t have that journey. I feel as if my life, I have plenty of things I wish I didn’t do or say over time, but none of the major things that you regret. It’s about family, it’s about career. It’s about the people that you love and the people you take care of and all of those things, I feel fairly comfortable with. So I don’t have to deal with those same kinds of issues that Augustine does, which made it easier for me to play by.
In the movie, once Iris the little girl actually enters the picture and ends Augustine’s isolation, we see a different side of him. We discover something new about him. To draw parallel to your own life what was the best and worst part about being in lockdown with toddlers? And what did you discover about yourself as a father and as a person during that period?
Look, it’s been great because we get to spend time together. I get to wake them up in the morning and put them in bed at night. But for me, I’m very lucky in that sense. I’m not in a position that many people in the world are in. For that part, I feel very lucky. Now, would I like to get out of the house every once in a while? Yeah! They turned my office into a nursery and so I have to hide like a bottle of tequila and a stuffed bear somewhere so that I can get through it. You know, Augustine doesn’t want this interruption. This is just a disaster for him. And I welcomed the interruption. It’s fun when the kids come in and interrupt the Zoom, like they’ve done many times while I’m here. I’m in the theater where I edit, because this is all I have left. They’ve taken over. They’ve taken over my life, these kids. It’s fun.
But did you discover anything new about yourself during that period?
You mean during lockdown? I don’t know. I suppose I discovered that nothing really can get to you. I always thought that I’d be overwhelmed by certain things. If a kid falls down, you know. All of my pretending to be a pediatrician on ER, has come in very helpful as I pretend to be a doctor when my kid splits his lip when he falls down, and things like that. You’re kind of learning stuff as you go, no matter what. I hope in life, I’m learning stuff as I go. And locked down, the only thing that does is it just puts it all on steroids.
How were you able to pull off being both the director and the star of The Midnight Sky? What is it about the material that really made you want to deliver this film in both capacities?
Well, first I read the script and I wanted to play the part, they offered me the part. That was a great part, you know, you can’t go wrong with a role like this. And then I called up Netflix and I said, I think I have an idea about the movie and what it should be, which is much more, it’s not an action film. It’s much more of a meditation. It’s a meditation on life. It’s a meditation on what we are capable of doing to one another, if we’re not careful. And so I wanted to tell that story. And luckily, Netflix said, okay, cause they could have said no. They said, okay and they gave me the opportunity to shoot this film and make it the way I wanted to make it. Listen, directing is fun. And it’s one of the fun things to do.
What made you decide to go with Ethan Peck playing a younger Augustine instead of digitally de-aging? And how did the two of you prep to play a younger you?
First of all, I don’t think the digitally de-aging thing particularly worked. When I saw it in The Irishman, I love the film. I love The Irishman. It’s a very tricky thing because all of a sudden, all you’re doing is watching that, and it becomes sort of a story on its own and it’s all you can think of. So I knew I wasn’t going to play the part, but my voice is pretty recognizable and it’s hard to just play it. But you also knew what I looked like when I was 35 years old. So I knew I had to get somebody with some eyebrows, and a lot of guys came in and read.
And then Ethan came and he’s a wonderful actor. I’m 5’11”, he’s like six foot three. And he’s really handsome! He’s Gregory Peck grandson, for God’s sake. And he walks in and he’s got this deep voice. And I looked over Grant, my producing partner and my dear friend. And I said, that’s the guy! And Grant’s like, he’s too tall, he’s too good looking. And I was like, I’m casting it. I’m casting who I want! I want Ethan Peck!
And so then I talked to Ethan and I said, look, here’s the trick. You’re going to be acting in it, but we’re going to be blending. We’re going to be using Lucas sound. And they’re going to deconstruct your voice and deconstruct my voice into thousands and thousands of little tiny pieces, which is true. They’re going to raise the octave, raise it an octave because everybody’s voice is higher when you’re younger. And we’re going to continue and we’re going to play with blending our performances together. So after he did his performance, I had to loop his performance and try to do it the same way he did it. And I talked to him about it. I said, this is what we’re going to be doing, our voices are going to be together. And he said, great. And I have to say, that’s a brave thing for a young actor to do. And he was gung-ho for it. He’s a wonderful actor. And he’s six foot three. That’s got to stop!
One of the characters, Sully, is pregnant because Felicity Jones was at that time pregnant. Did working around this real-life pregnancy change the direction of the film for you?
Everything. It changed everything. You know, when she first called me, we were already shooting when she called me. And we shot all my stuff first. So we started in October and she’s not going to start until after the first of the year. So she called me in middle of October, I’m in Iceland, and she says, “I’m pregnant.” And you’re like, great. Oh no. And so we tried over the new year. Our first thing, we tried to do was we tried to shoot around it, cause it’s a problem, right? And it just doesn’t work that way. You can’t shoot around it and actors act differently and they’re more cautious and she’s trying to hold herself together.
I woke up in the middle of the night and I called up Netflix. I called up Felicity and I said, you’re pregnant. You know, you’ve been away for two years. You fell in love, you got pregnant, things happen. Women go to work every day pregnant and they don’t talk about it. It’s not a big deal. And she said, she’d love it. And then, the funny thing is, then we had to start writing scenes into it. The guys coming up with names for, or the sonogram, that they’re listening to her, with Maya listening to her. We had to throw these pieces of equipment together. We made up a fake machine. I think it was an old printer and we just slapped it over the top of her and lit it!
But the truth was, by the time we got to the end, the end of the film, when she stands up and she’s pregnant. I think now, you couldn’t imagine the film without it, because there’s a continuum to it. And it feels as if that’s life. When they’re listening for a heartbeat, they’ve been listening the whole film for any sign of life from earth, from any sign of life at all. And finally, they find that life is inside her? And that to me was a beautiful thing. And so we all became very defensive. Her son’s actual name is Wilber. He is born now, and little Wilber was a big part of that crew, that cast and the crew, everybody got together to protect him. So it really drew everyone in. If you look at things as they’re not a problem, but they a different direction, and then how do we lean into that? Then it works.
I read in the press notes that filming in Iceland actually helped you look more like Augustine’s age in the book, which was 70. So clearly it must have been very challenging. But I wanted to ask about what it was like filming there with Caoilinn [Springall, the child playing Iris]?
Well, the thing with Caoilinn is, she’s seven, but she’s Irish. So she’s tough, tough little girl. I’m not kidding. So I’d be like freezing and standing there and she’s just there, like that. When the winds would come in, you know, it’s not a snow storm that you see here. It’s a wind storm. It’s not snowing, it’s perfectly blue skies. And we would stand there. we’d all be strung together by strings so that we can’t get lost because once it comes in, you can’t see anything. And the camera guys have three guys holding the camera guy. And it’s a 65 millimeter lens on the camera, so it’s heavy! You’re standing there like this, and you can see this wall coming towards you, and you know, it’s about to hit. And the minute you get into this hurricane for five minutes or whatever it takes, it’s really, really amazing and challenging. Great for an actor, hard for a director, but it was really challenging! And Caoilinn, we’re constantly picking her up and carrying her and running her into the van, and she’d come running right back out. She was tougher than all of us! The Irish in her.
You were the eternal bachelor for the longest time. Did you ever see Augustine as an ex future you, if you hadn’t met Amal?
Could have been, you never know! Probably living with regret that I didn’t even know I was going to have, until I met Amal. If I had met her and she was married to someone else, I would’ve had a lot of regret. Maybe. I feel that we met at the exact right time for both of us and luckily enough in time to be able to have these two knuckleheads that are running around. They may run in here, you never know. They it’s know their bedtime so they can come in and they make some loud noises. So you’ll know if they do. So maybe. You’re probably right. They probably could’ve ended up with all that regret and all of that anger and bitterness, that sort of harboring. Probably.
You’ve starred in two movies set in space before, Solaris and Gravity. And one part in The Midnight Sky, you took a good time looking at Polaris with little Iris beside you. And then you direct all these fantastic scenes out there in outer space. Whether as a child or the accomplished grown man that you are today, what is it that fascinates you about outer space?
Well, I think outer space is a pretty fascinating thing, if you think about it. All of us humans, we only deal in finite things. Our lives are finite. Everything we know is finite. If you go to the end of the end of your country borders, or the end of earth, it’s all finite. So we can’t really comprehend infinity. You know, we go, well, it’s up is up. And you go, well, how far is up? They go, it’s up is forever. And you go, okay. But when it ends? And then you go, well, what’s on the other side of that? Well, it’s a figure eight. What’s the figure eight? What’s on the other side of the figure eight?
We’re not able to comprehend eternity and infinity and because of it, I think it makes it constantly, the idea that there couldn’t be life out there and we’re the only planet and all of this… Is kind of silly, I think, to think. So to me it’s open with so many possibilities. We’re fascinated with the ocean because we can’t see it, but we could eventually go through all of the ocean if we had to, we could send submarines through all of the ocean, but we can’t do that in space. It’s forever. It’s one, on top of the other, on top of the other. And for that, I think it is infinitely fascinating and leaves for us infinite possibilities. And so I think that that’s a good reason to be fascinated with it.
[David] Oyelowo said he really liked your approach to the film because you were very restrained and it was nothing hysterical. You kept it somewhere in the middle. And I felt exactly the same way after watching, I felt trapped between feeling sad and feeling hopeful. How would you like people to leave the movie feeling?
Hopeful. It should be a warning shot. It should be a warning shot about what we’re capable of doing to one another if we don’t pay attention. It should be a warning shot about denying signs or creating divisiveness and hatred and being unkind to one another. It should be a warning shot of all those things, but it should also be hopeful with the idea of saying that this whole experiment of mankind or humankind, it’s worth it. It’s worth the effort. And I think that’s what we try to say in the film, which is it’s worth fighting as hard as they fight to live. We’re looking at a pandemic right now and it’s causing a lot of panic and it’s causing a lot of heartbreak and it’s causing a lot of angst and, and it’s scaring people. And I think we have to remember that everything that we’re facing right now is, is man-made and that if man made it, man can unmake it. And that’s hopeful to me.