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In Features, Issues

PRIME TIME
With Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana, George Clooney continues to defy the expectations of Hollywood stardom.

BY MATTHEW ROSS

George Clooney, co-writer and director of Good Night, and Good Luck. PHOTO: MIGUEL VILLALOBOS.

Along with almost single-handedly returning a modicum of glamour to the Hollywood set since crossing over from TV-hunk status to feature-film stardom (he was People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” in 1997), 44-year-old George Clooney has leveraged his cache as a mega-celebrity to aggressively and cleverly get personal projects up and running within the studio system. In 2000, after collaborating on Out of Sight, he and Steven Soderbergh formed Section Eight, a Warner Bros.–based production company. Along with the box office smashes Ocean’s Eleven and Twelve and a number of genre films, the company has produced its share of idiosyncratic works that were done outside the confines of the studio vetting system, including the cerebral sci-fi film Solaris (a remake of the Tarkovsky film, starring Clooney and directed by Soderbergh), Todd Haynes’s Sirkian period melodrama Far From Heaven and Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which was based on a Charlie Kaufman—penned adaptation of Gong Show host Chuck Barris’s wacky, paranoid memoir.

Clooney’s second film as director, Good Night, and Good Luck, tells the story of Edward R. Murrow and his team at CBS News who took on Senator Joe McCarthy and his Communist scaremongering. It’s an intelligent, politically relevant and extremely assured work of filmmaking. Starring David Strathairn as Murrow and with a supporting cast that includes Frank Langella, Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels and Robert Downey Jr., Good Night is very much an ensemble piece. At the same time, Clooney, who co-wrote, co-produced and co-starred (as Murrow’s producing partner Fred Friendly), allows Murrow’s lengthy speeches to go on uninterrupted, without any sensationalism or stylistic cues. In other words, Clooney makes demands of his audience rather than pandering to flash, bombast or an obvious political agenda. Clooney may be a committed liberal, but in Good Night he makes sure the facts speak for themselves. The film premiered at Venice, where it won two prizes, and went on to open the 2005 New York Film Festival before its release on Oct. 7.

Section Eight’s next film, Syriana, should prove to be one of the year’s most divisive films. Directed by Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan and starring Clooney as real-life CIA agent Robert Baer, the film is a multinational thriller about the complex network that connects the oil industry to Middle Eastern terrorism. Filmmaker sat down with Clooney in New York, the day before his NYFF premiere.

David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck. PHOTO: MELINDA SUE GORDON.

FILMMAKER: The parallels between McCarthyism as portrayed in your film and what is happening in the current administration are, in my opinion, quite clear. Was that the reason that you decided to make this specific film at this specific moment in time?

CLOONEY: I’m the son of a newsman. This history was a big part of my father’s life and a big inspiration — [it was] the high-water mark of broadcast journalism. And when you go back and listen to [Murrow’s speeches today], he’s talking about problems that [still] exist. The problems my father fought in 1973 — not letting entertainment push news off the air — are the same problems that broadcast journalists [today] are fighting. So I thought it was a good time to talk again about the dangers of allowing governments to use fear to erode civil liberties and about the responsibility of the fourth estate not to take a pass, ever, at anyone, no matter who’s in charge, a Democrat or a Republican. Power or government unchecked over the history of time will corrupt — that’s why Thomas Jefferson insisted on freedom of press over free government.

FILMMAKER: The decision that Murrow and his team make to cross the line and take an actual political position against McCarthy — in retrospect, that was a dangerous thing to do. Look at the way television journalism has become so extremely politicized today, particularly on the cable channels.

HOW THEY DID IT
Production Format
35mm.
Camera
Two Panavision Millenniums with 11:1 zoom lenses.
Film Stock
Kodak Vision2 500T 5218.
Editing System
Avid Media Composer Version 11.
Color Correction
Autodesk Fire system to conform the entire movie, including the archival clips; density grade performed with da Vinci 2K Plus technology; film-out via ARRI laser recorders onto Kodak 2302, polyester-based, B&W release stock.
CLOONEY: George Seldes, a beautiful writer, wrote a book about that. He basically allied himself politically with Murrow but disagreed with [Murrow’s] taking a side. He thought it opened the door for biased journalism, for editorializing, and it probably did open the door to some bad stuff. In her new book Ann Coulter says McCarthy was right and Murrow was a traitor and that he got the Annie Lee Moss [a Pentagon worker who was a suspected Communist] thing wrong. Coulter’s an idiot; she couldn’t be more wrong with her facts. Murrow never said that Annie Lee Moss was or wasn’t a Communist. He in fact said, “You’ll note that I don’t know, but she has a right to face her accuser.”

FILMMAKER: You wear so many hats on this project. How did it come together?

CLOONEY: I started working on it about three years ago with friend of mine, Walon Green, who wrote The Wild Bunch. We wrote a movie-of-the-week for CBS, fictionalizing a couple of characters, but [our approach] was all wrong. Thank God they didn’t make it. Then, about two and a half years ago I sat down and started with a specific moment in time — basically five episodes of television. I brought Grant [Heslov] in. He’s one of my closest friends and runs our TV company. He said, “Listen, let’s you and I sit at a desk for a few months and start going through the archives.” We watched the 36 days of the McCarthy hearings, and then we started putting the screenplay together.

FILMMAKER: It was financed by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 [Entertainment], right?

CLOONEY: 2929 was one of the [financiers], and Participant was the other. Basically they both put up a couple of million dollars and then presold the rest overseas for about $3.5 million, so we had just under $8 million. And we got everybody to work for free, which is always the way to do it. It’s the same crew I worked with on Confessions. So it was fun and easy.

FILMMAKER: Speaking of Confessions, your style in this movie couldn’t be more different. Is that because you’re developing more of your own voice as a director, or is the difference between the films more of your response to the material?

CLOONEY: With the first film I thought that the camera would be a character in the piece. With this one I felt that the words were so important that the camera couldn’t be part of the film at all. I started looking at D.A. Pennebaker documentaries, movies like Crisis and Primary, and I decided that that would be a great way to shoot it. We focused on the feeling of making you feel like a fly on the wall. I wanted to get the camera out of the way, and to shoot with long lenses. I had two cameras going the whole time so that the dialogue could overlap. I wanted the dialogue to constantly be people talking over the top of one another, because that was what it was like when I was a kid watching my dad put together the news for the night — the way he would go to these different reporters and say, “What’s our lead” or “What’s your story?”

FILMMAKER: It’s interesting that you mentioned Crisis, because in that film the tension comes simply from the action and not from dramatic editing or music. That’s the same sense I got while watching your movie.

GO BACK AND WATCH...
POINT OF ORDER: Emile de Antonio’s remarkable 1964 documentary cut together 188 hours of television coverage of Senator McCarthy’s 1954 Senate hearings to reveal a government willing to let a monster run loose.
CITIZEN COHN: Frank Pierson’s 1992 HBO portrait of the lawyer everyone loves to hate highlights McCarthy’s right-hand (homosexual) man.
THE FRONT: Martin Ritt’s 1976 look at McCarthy-era blacklisting of television writers casts Woody Allen as a lead and many actually blacklisted entertainers in supporting roles.
CLOONEY: Silence, actually, is the secret. The funny thing with the MTV generation, which I guess I am part of since I was 18 or 19 when it first was broadcast, is that there’s this thought of having to constantly fill the screen with everything because we don’t have the ability to just focus — we need our brain to constantly be moving. And the truth is, stillness and silence are actually very seductive and can build a lot of tension. I think the 10 seconds before Murrow goes on the air when you see him just looking at the camera and clearing his throat are as tense as any action scene.

FILMMAKER: The response in Venice was obviously—

CLOONEY: Amazing. It was a lot of fun.

FILMMAKER: Are you concerned at all that Americans aren’t going to respond as well as the Europeans?

CLOONEY: Ninety minutes. Hey, c’mon, how long does it take? You know, Berlusconi is the head of Italy; it’s not as if there is no right-wing contingency in Italy, and we just opened there No. 2 to Fantastic Four this weekend. But obviously you don’t do this kind of film because you think it’s going to be a blockbuster; you do it because you actually want to participate in issues. You want to be able to be 70 years old and say, At this moment in time when it was difficult, this is where I stood. And you know what? If one kid from Northern Kentucky University sees this film and because of seeing what Murrow says and the way he says it and the stands he takes, and decides that that’s the standard that he wants to reach and goes into journalism, then we win. I never thought of this as a great moneymaker, but I didn’t think Solaris would be and I didn’t think Confessions was. Most of the films that I’ve done recently aren’t really designed to make a lot of money. But they’re fun to do, and I’m glad I got to do them.

FILMMAKER: I’d like to talk about Section Eight. How did the company get off the ground?

CLOONEY: It was on Out of Sight. Steven and I started working together, and we got along really well.

FILMMAKER: And then you decided to start right after that?

CLOONEY: Yeah, I had a company before, and we made all those mistakes that actors make when a studio gives you a deal. You hire one of those producer-development guys, and all of a sudden you have 30 projects in development that you’ve never even heard of and this huge overhead, and you have all these problems. And it was exactly what I didn’t want to do. We thought it was better to have five or six projects and actually try to get them all made. Steven and I have a very similar taste in a lot of things, and we get along well. We both believe in the “life is too short” theory. You have to love what you do, and you have to make sure that sets are great places to be because both of us spend most of our time on sets. And because we like each other’s company, it’s fun. But it’s not going to last much longer.

FILMMAKER: Why is that?

CLOONEY: Because from very early on we were aware of the one thing that always happens as time goes on, which is that you get further and further away from being a director or a writer and become more and more of an administrator, which I don’t want to be and he doesn’t want to be. So we made a pact early on that we would do it for a select period of time. I think we’ve got about another year, and then we’re going to probably call it quits. It’s not because we’re not getting along but because we think in general we can’t sustain what we’re trying to do. We have a few films coming out that are real Section Eight films, like Syriana, which was developed by us. Syriana is a polarizing, brutal and I think a fantastically well-made film. It’s about everything truly being connected. It’s about the deconstruction of the CIA after the Cold War, [based] on the theory that surveillance will take care of everything and that you don’t need to have people who speak Arabic in the CIA anymore. It’s about how a sale of weapons can eventually end up in the hands of a couple of Pakistani kids who’ve lost their jobs because the Chinese have bought the oil well that they were working on and they have nowhere to go and they’re slowly inducted into an Islamic fundamentalist camp. You like them because they’re nice young men who are lost and hungry, and slowly, gently, they are massaged into [becoming] what becomes the evilest thing of all: suicide bombers. It’s also about corruption in the oil industry, and it’s got one of those endings where you just go, “Uh-oh, we’re in trouble.” Which is good.

FILMMAKER: Have you seen the film Why We Fight yet?

CLOONEY: I heard it’s fantastic.

FILMMAKER: In many ways it approaches its subject matter similar to the way you do with Good Night, and Good Luck, in that the director, Eugene Jarecki, lets the facts speak for themselves and lets you make up your own opinion. It’s not a Michael Moore film at all.

CLOONEY: I think that that’s important. Michael is a friend of mine, I know him, and I happen to sort of agree with his politics, but we’ve always felt that you have to be careful about polarizing people, because then you just preach to the converted.

FILMMAKER: You seem to be walking this very fine line between leveraging your celebrity status to get these riskier personal projects made while at the same time needing to maintain that status so that you can continue making them.

CLOONEY: I’ve had this strange career. I’ve had maybe five or six hits in my career, and the rest have been misses. But the misses in general were the works that I’m the most proud of career-wise. Ocean’s Twelve bought Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck. Ocean’s Eleven bought Solaris and Confessions. So I don’t mind those things if the sellouts are like Ocean’s Eleven, which is actually a good film. Contrary to what the press lead people to believe, I was actually doing a lot of work during that period of time trying to get these other two films prepped and ready to go. But that’s okay — there is an image that you walk a fine line with, you know? Here’s sort of the same example: I’m opening a casino in Vegas, something that I have wanted to do for a long time, where you have to put on a suit if you want to come. Make it like the old days; make it romantic. A big band will be there, they’ll play, you push the tables back and you dance, like the way I remember my Aunt Rosemary doing it. And it’s a $3 billion project. At the same time, I’m at the G8 Summit with Bono and Bob Geldof and Paul Wolfowitz in the back room trying to get the [developing-world-nation debt relief] up to $50 billion, which it didn’t look like we were going to get to at the time. And you realize that it’s an interesting dilemma of being in one world saying, “Hey, let’s make a place that’s really exclusive and fun,” and in another one you sit there and say, “Let’s talk about people dying because for $1 a day they can’t eat.” But I won’t apologize for trying to be successful or to make a living. I actually just want to participate in issues that matter without having to give up everything else. I’m not Mother Teresa; I actually enjoy some of the finer things in life.

FILMMAKER: In many ways, what you and Soderbergh are doing reminds me of what Warren Beatty was doing in the ’70s as an actor-producer.

CLOONEY: Our reasoning was that independent films in general are studio films now. You still have to have stars — you just don’t pay them. But the independent world has its own difficulties. So Steven and I talked about learning from what foreign films and independent films in the ’90s were doing and bringing that aesthetic into the studio world, which has better resources. Out of Sight is more like an independent film, but it’s done at the studio. So were Solaris and Three Kings. But also we’re very interested in this digital age. Steven just did this really wonderful film called Bubble.

FILMMAKER: I saw it in Toronto. I loved it.

CLOONEY: I want to kill him, you know, because now he’s proven that you don’t even need actors! That’s why I’m directing now, because we’re all going to be out of work. The golden age is going to come with the next generation. We’re going to have some kids saying, “Here’s a completely different way to think about a movie” in the same way that the inmates were running the asylum at the studios between ’69 and ’76, which are the years that I adore, films like Network and All the President’s Men and [directors like] Alan Pakula, Sidney Lumet and Hal Ashby.

FILMMAKER: I know that Section Eight has supported independent films and helped get them made, like Far From Heaven. Is that something you want to continue to do if you have the time?

CLOONEY: Yeah, we’ll continue to do it. I’m going to do a film right after The Good German that Tony Gilroy wrote and is directing. It’s a really interesting lawyer film and it’s based on a true story. We can’t say who it is because we’ll get sued, but it’s fun and it’s really well written. And it’s a $12 million film. It’s not expensive. Our job is to do that. Our main job on Far From Heaven was to protect the film. We didn’t have that much to do with the making of the film at all; we had much to do with getting it going. Then when they tested it, it did 17, which is the lowest number any studio has ever seen in a test screening — I mean, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer did bigger numbers than that! We watched the studio panic and then said, “We think the movie is right, and we’re going to fight for it — don’t change it.” Our job is to protect the film and the filmmaker, and we try to do that very carefully. That’s important to us.

FILMMAKER: Do you have another film you’re going to direct?

CLOONEY: Well, I have a film that Joel and Ethan [Coen] wrote. Great script, really funny. They’re going to do a rewrite on it. They were going to direct it a few years ago and they asked me to play a funny, funny part. But they wrote it at Warner Bros., and I think they want to stay away from doing a studio picture for a bit. They want to do some interesting smaller films right now. So I’m thinking about taking a crack at that next. And there are a couple of projects out there that belong to other people that I have a real interest in. I’d rather [my next film] be sort of a straight-up comedy or something very different than what I’ve done before. I’m anxious to do what Steven has been able to do, which is completely and constantly change genre.

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