HOLLYWOOD - George Clooney didn't take the easy way out when it came to directing his second film, Good Night, and Good Luck, the Oscar-nominated follow-up to his well-received 2002 effort Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. A literate, politically-conscious film with a low budget - and shot in B&W - it examines in depth a particularly critical period during the early days of broadcast journalism in 1950's America when famed television newsman Edward R. Murrow and other members of the CBS newsroom decided to stand up to the bullying tactics of the feared Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee in their single-minded hunt for communists and their sympathizers.
Clooney, who stars as Murrow's producer Fred Friendly and who also wrote the script with producer Grant Heslov (who plays a young Don Hewitt), used a large ensemble cast to play the real-life characters. But he made a noticeable exception - and a key decision in terms of production and post production choices - when it came to McCarthy himself. "As the son of a newsman, I decided early on that the best possible way to deal with him was in the exact same way as Murrow did - to have McCarthy's own words and images," Clooney explains.
He adds, only half-jokingly, "We had the idea of taking out an Oscar ad for McCarthy saying 'For your consideration, Best Supporting Actor - Joe McCarthy.'"
Early on, Clooney and DP Robert Elswit, whose extensive credits include Syriana, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, decided to shoot the film in B&W. "It's far more expensive than color, but once I'd committed to using the original McCarthy B&W footage, we couldn't really go back and forth to color," he notes. "The other issue was, you only remember that McCarthy footage in B&W, so I think color would have thrown people off."
To get a feel for B&W, Clooney watched "a lot of early films by Godard. In fact, we even tried to get the same lenses he used in Breathless, and we talked about shooting it in Super 16mm. But then I realized I didn't want it to look that cinematic. I wanted to shoot in 1:8:5, and to do that I felt the best way was to focus on all the documentaries by D. A. Pennebaker, so that I could use the camera as a voyeur in the film as opposed to a character. In Confessions I made the camera a character, and in this one I wanted it to be just catching glimpses."
The director reports that the budget for the film was, "just $7.5 million, which included all the post work, and that's not a lot when you're doing a period piece like this. But sometimes a very small budget can really help you. I wanted to focus on the feeling of claustrophobia, and as we didn't have the money to build tons of beautiful sets and shoot on location, we ended up shooting this whole movie on one set, so it actually helped create all the problems and sense of paranoia."
"I just love the whole process, especially post when you can finally start to shape the whole project with all your editing choices," adds Clooney. "Post took about 16 weeks to complete and we cut as we went along initially."
The film was edited by Stephen Mirrione who also cut Confessions for Clooney and whose credits include the Ocean's 11 and 12 films and Traffic for which he won the Academy Award for Best Editing. Mirrione worked with assistant editors Doug Crise and Matt Absher, and after the shoot was complete, it was decided to do the main edit at Clooney's villa in Italy.
"It's a bit unusual, as we had to ship over Avid systems and technicians to rewire George's house," reports Heslov. "It probably cost me more to do it that way, but that was the only time off he had, so Stephen and Matt also flew over, we set up an Avid editing suite and just did it all there."
On top of editing the film in Italy, the team faced a number of other post challenges. "We had a lot of documentary footage coming from a lot of different sources, and we had to get them looking fairly similar," notes Clooney. "And we'd do stuff like shoot a character, play that back on an old TV screen and then shoot that."
To achieve a seamless look to all this footage, the team ended up doing "a lot of digital restoration work" at Technicolor in Hollywood. "There were a lot of scratches, dirt and junk that had to be removed," reports Heslov. "And then we had to do a lot of tests as we had to figure out exactly what film stock we were actually going to print on and release on. There was a lot of debate about that, and there haven't been many B&W films released over the last few years, and there are all these issues to do with the brittleness of film."
Clooney and Heslov ultimately decided to print on B&W stock. "Many B&W films actually print on color stock, which is a better print to release on, but there's always a bias," says Heslov. "You always get a bit of green or a bit of blue - it's never a perfect B&W. So even though the B&W stock is more expensive, it was truer to the look we wanted."
Supervising sound editors Aaron Glascock and Curt Schulkey mixed the audio on the Warner Bros. lot. "George is very specific about what he wants in post, especially in the mix," adds Heslov. "He knows exactly how he wants it to sound and he never wants to loop anything if at all possible." Indeed, there was no looping done for Good Night - "which is pretty unusual," he notes, "but then as we shot on stage that made it much easier."
The color correction, done by colorist Steve Nakamura on a da Vinci system at Technicolor was even faster. "It was basically a contrast correction, and it took George and I barely two hours to do," reports Heslov. "It was that fast because once we'd set the look of the film with the DP, it was very easy to correct across the board and make it completely consistent. So it wasn't a traditional color correction."
With two highly acclaimed feature films now under his belt, Clooney says that he's eager to direct again. "I also directed five episodes of the HBO series Unscripted, and I learned so much each time," he reports. "On Confessions I had some 980 storyboards and controlled every shot, while Good Night, and Good Luck was all basically improvised. So I'd let the actors find their place and then find a place for the camera, as opposed to the other way around."
So did Clooney make the film he originally envisioned in his head? "Absolutely, and in many ways it turned out even better," he sums up. "Basically, it's a film that talks about using fear to erode civil liberties, and I feel it's very timely."