“I hate being cold more than anything in the world,” actor/director George Clooney confesses in a featurette (embedded below) on the making of his new post-apocalyptic science fiction film, The Midnight Sky. But in order to play a terminally ill astronomer in the Arctic after a cataclysmic event kills most of the people on Earth, Clooney had to endure weeks of shooting in frigid conditions in Iceland. The film is adapted from the critically acclaimed 2016 debut novel, Good Morning, Midnight, by Lily Brooks-Dalton, which has been compared to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
(Some mild spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
In the novel, a brilliant astronomer named Augustine is posted to the Arctic, scanning the night sky for clues about the birth of the universe. Then a mysterious global apocalypse occurs, prompting all his fellow scientists to evacuate. But Augustine remains behind, dedicated to continuing his research, even as the airwaves go silent. Meanwhile, a team of astronauts aboard the spaceship Aether is set to return to Earth after a mission to Jupiter. On board is Sully, who sacrificed her marriage and left her daughter behind in order to become one of the first humans to travel so far in our Solar System. The astronauts are unaware of the catastrophe that has befallen Earth, and it falls to Augustine to warn them not to return.
Clooney’s film adaptation hews pretty closely to the novel, with some minor tweaks (e.g., Sully is romantically involved with one of her crewmates and they are expecting a child, rather than sacrificing her marriage and daughter). Per the official premise: “This post-apocalyptic tale follows Augustine (Clooney, Syriana, Oceans Eleven), a lonely scientist in the Arctic, as he races to stop Sully (Felicity Jones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and her fellow astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.” The cast also includes David Oyelowo (Selma, Don’t Let Go) as Commander Tom Adewole; Ethan Peck (Star Trek: Discovery) as a young Augustine; Sophie Rundle (Peaky Blinders) as Augustine’s youthful love, Jean; Kyle Chandler (Bloodline, First Man) as Matthew, the Aether‘s pilot; Tiffany Boone (The Following) as flight engineer Maya; Demián Bichir (A Better Life) as Sanchez; and Caoilinn Springall as Iris, a mysteriously mute child that Augustine befriends in the Arctic.
During a virtual press conference with Clooney and the cast on Zoom (arranged onscreen like members of the Brady Bunch—the director called it “the weirdest possible press conference I think we’ve ever done”), Clooney talked about what he hoped to add to this particular genre with his film. The catastrophic event that leads to the devastation on Earth in the film is never explicitly described. But in development talks with Netflix, he was interested in exploring “what man is capable of doing to man and mankind,” specifically all the anger and hatred playing out all over the world.
“If you play that out for 30 years, it’s not inconceivable that we could, one way or another, blow it in a big way,” Clooney said. “So to me, the idea was to have that conversation about what we’re capable of doing. Then after we finished shooting, the pandemic came around and it became clear that what the story was enveloping was our desperate need to be home, to be close to the people we love, and how difficult that struggle is to communicate with one another Suddenly these themes are relevant.”
The two storylines—Augustine and Iris trying to find a way to warn the Aether, and the crew aboard the spaceship trying to find out why Earth has suddenly gone silent while dealing with the harsh environment of space—almost feel like two different films at times. Apparently that’s how the film was shot, with Clooney and and his young co-star, Springall, filming their scenes in Iceland and in the studio, and then Clooney shooting the segments that take place on board the spaceship once the Arctic filming wrapped. “We were shooting two different movies, if you want to know the truth,” he said. “In a way, it’s helpful if you do your homework and you’re prepared. At least you’re not bouncing back and forth between two different worlds.”
Springall described herself as a bit of a chatterbox who found it challenging to convey emotion without words, but Clooney declared her to be a consummate professional, despite her tender years, who routinely nailed her scenes in a single take. “She put all of us to shame,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Just give me your sad, scared face.’ And she’d do one take and it’s perfect, and I go, “Okay, well, now you’re making acting look really, really easy.'”
Three weeks into filming, Clooney learned that co-star Felicity Jones was pregnant. Jones admitted to being worried she might be fired, but Clooney took the news in stride, offering his congratulations and asking Jones whether she wanted to continue. She did, and Clooney decided the best course was to simply have her character, Sully, also be pregnant in space. “I have to thank him [because] initially, when I was trying not to look pregnant, I was denying myself a lot of chocolate cake,” Jones joked. “So when he said, ‘You can actually be pregnant in the film,’ I was relieved.” (Bring on the chocolate cake.)
“It really came down to the idea that the best versions of things are when you accept them and you don’t see them as problems,” he said of his approach. Jones’ baby-in-progress became a character in its own right (dubbed Wilbert on set), and in the end, her pregnancy helped reinforce the sense of the crew of the Aether as a family. He even included a scene of Sully getting an ultrasound in space.
Jones’ pregnancy did mean that she didn’t have to do quite as intensive wire work as her cast mates for the zero gravity scenes, particularly when Sully, Tom, and Maya must perform a dangerous space walk to repair the Aether‘s communications system. The actors were warned they would need to develop very strong core muscles in order to perform the scenes, which involved being suspended by wires attached to various parts of the body. Boone very nearly passed out the first day of intense training, but soon rose to the challenge.
“A lot of effort goes into looking like there is no effort,” said Oyelowo. “It was humiliating to begin with. I spent a lot of time looking very uncool upside down hanging from wires. But we got there in the end, and Tiffany [Boone] and I became wire buddies. I’m so glad I had already had my four children by the time we did this.”
One of the most visually arresting scenes aboard the Aether is when Maya is injured during the space walk, and drops of blood float out of her spacesuit and hover near her, thanks to the lack of gravity. “There was no [actual] blood there, it was all of us imagining that blood,” she recalled. “So seeing it in the final cut is like, wow. The special effects team did such a great job of putting what we saw in our heads right there.”
“Basically, I went to the effects guys, and said, ‘I want this blood to be a ballet,'” said Clooney, and gave similar guidance to the film’s soundtrack composer, Alexandre Desplat. “Everybody had to deal with that sequence blindly, including myself, in a way, because I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know if it would look right.”
As for Lily Brooks-Dalton, who wrote the novel, she appears as an extra in the film, sitting in the audience when a young Augustine (Peck) gives a lecture on the promise of other habitable worlds. Brooks-Dalton loved the film, per Clooney. “Obviously, you have to condense things and condense characters and stuff like that,’ he said. “But she was very, very proud of the film.”
One of those changes was a renaming of Oyelowo’s character, who was Commander Hopper in the book. Oyelowo loved the diversity of the Aether‘s crew, appropriate for a film set several decades in the future. So he approached Clooney about changing Tom’s last name to Adewole, a name from the Nigerian tribe Oyelowo is from. “It’s gonna sound very self-important, but the name means the king has entered the house,” he said. “I told George this and he said, ‘Well, that’s in the movie.’ So not only am I very grateful to him about that, but several millions of Africans will be very grateful to see that kind of representation in the film as well.”
Somehow, The Midnight Sky still manages to offer hope and warmth despite its bleak premise. “There was a real fight for the idea of whether or not mankind is worth the struggle,” said Clooney. “And you see that it is. In many ways, it’s a film about regret, because of the character that I play. But he gets a redemption. And I think redemption is a really big and important thing that washes over us and gives us hope. You get the sense of a continuum, that we’re gonna be okay. We may not get out of all of this alive, but we’ll get out of it intact. And I think that’s what makes it hopeful.”
The Midnight Sky is now streaming on Netflix.
Listing image by Netflix