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October 2005
GOOD NIGHT, GOOD LUCK : An Interview with George Clooney

GOOD NIGHT, GOOD LUCK : An Interview with George Clooney

By Julian Roman

George Clooney pulls double duty, acting in, and directing the confrontation between legendary television newsman Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy during ‘The Red Scare’ of the 1950’s. The film is a labor of love for Clooney and a nod to the ideals of his father, also a longtime news reporter. “Good Night, Good Luck” is the best work we’ve seen from George Clooney. It is an accomplished film, well acted and directed. Clooney discusses the political implications of “Good Night, Good Luck” and its relevance to the modern news media.

How much did you father’s career as a newsman influence this film?

George Clooney: I grew up on the newsroom floor watching my dad work with reporters. Watching them piece a news show together. Murrow was always the high watermark that everyone aims for. It was my love of that. It was certainly a tip of my hat to my dad and the sacrifices he's made over the years.


What advice did he give you?

George Clooney: He just said one thing to me constantly, which we talked about a lot. Which is double check, double source every scene, so that when the people that want to marginalize it, and they are out there, not marginalize the film at all. It's important to say that because there's sort of a revisionist history going on that McCarthy was right and Murrow was a traitor. Page Six actually wrote a nice story about that and [Ann] Coulter has a lovely book about Murrow getting the story wrong. It was important to recalibrate fact, purely fact, and that's all. So my dad said "get the facts right" and that was what was most important to us.


Why cast David Strathairn as Murrow?

George Clooney: He's the only guy we ever talked about.


What about the rest of the ensemble?

George Clooney: I knew that David is going to hold his own and is going to have the screen for so long that you needed someone that can walk in, do three scenes, and hold their own. Frank [Langella] can do that. Frank's good. He's the real deal, so that when he sits there and looks at him, it's a real clash of titans. Jeff Daniels is fantastic. Basically, we got everybody we asked for. We were really lucky that way. The guys we know a little bit, a lot of them were in “Memphis Belle” together. There's a great familiarity between them and that helps.


Talk about using the real footage of McCarthy. Why not cast an actor to play him?

George Clooney: Well there were a couple things, one is that we wanted to use McCarthy's own words much the way that Murrow did in his own show. And it was much cheaper.


Did you learn anything new while researching the footage?

George Clooney: We learned it was important for us to go back to the original material. For instance, “Point of Order”, which some of you may know is the documentary that was made about the Army-McCarthy hearings. If we just used that as our source, the problem is, and I'm an old liberal, it's really unbelievably, manipulatively bad. They have that scene where McCarthy is screaming, and they cut to this wide shot of him, and it looks like Frederick March at the end of “Inherit the Wind”. When we watched all the archival footage, Grant called me up and said, “You're not going to believe this. It was two different days”. Our job was to make sure that we went back to all of the source materials from the very beginning, so that we weren't going to compound any sort of myth that had been made in an editing room.


Did you always plan to play Fred Friendly? Why act in the film at all?

George Clooney: I didn't really want to act in the film. It isn't fun directing yourself. It's not fun, but it was a black and white movie starring David Strathairn for seven and a half million dollars. So they were going to make sure I was in it in one way or another. Fred, for those of you who knew him or know of him, he really took over a room. He was gallant, he was bombastic and I decided early on that can't be the nature of this character. This was about the story. I took it just because I thought it's a big enough part that I can help get the money and I have a sense as the director of how little of Fred I wanted it to be. As an actor, I'm most proud of the fact that I'm in those scenes and you never look at me.


Murrow thought television reporters had a responsibility to educate the public and question authority. Is this your reason for telling this story now, to remind people of this ideal?

George Clooney: It's not just the state of television today because it's been a fight that's gone on forever, but it was certainly the responsibility to constantly question power, no matter who's in power. My father went after Carter with the OPEC nations raising the price of gas and he went after Gerald Ford for pardoning Nixon. It was his job. He believed that authority or government unchallenged or unquestioned is corrupt. We've proven that over a long period of time. It's not unpatriotic to ask these questions. The other thing we thought about was the dangers of allowing fear to erode away civil liberties, because that's always a dangerous step. We do it once every thirty years, we panic. We get blown up, Pearl Harbor, they bomb us and we grab up all the Japanese-Americans and throw them in detention camps. The good news about it and why it's an optimistic film is we fix it, we're good at that. We lose our minds, we get a little scared, usually someone capitalizes on that for their own gain and then we fix it. The reason we fix it is because of newsmen. They are the ones who, without them we don't have a civil rights movement. We don't have a women's movement. We don't have a Vietnam movement. Its newsmen, so that's why we give them the support they talk about.


Who do you think is the best of the modern TV journalists?

George Clooney: I think Brian Williams is really articulate and really smart. I think he's the best of the guys I've seen so far, especially on Jon Stewart. I thought he was smart because he answered some funny questions and then he avoided answering the ones that get him in dodge. I think the difference is there's still great reporting going on by a bunch of people. The problem is that I don't think that anybody’s going to have forty million people watching them again. I think that's the difference. It may be good that there won't ever be the most trusted man in America again. I don't think they'd get that many people to watch it, to change policy. You know the two great moments is Murrow taking out McCarthy and Cronkite coming back from Vietnam saying it's a stalemate.


Is your film a political statement, especially with all the things that are going on now?

George Clooney: It isn't overtly political. It is a film by someone who happens to be political, but it's a historical piece. We were very careful with our facts to make sure of that. If that opens up a debate of any sort of political or journalistic questions then good, and if it doesn't, then that's okay, we did our job.


Would you ever consider running for office?

George Clooney: That's a ridiculous idea. I think I should run on the "yes, I did it" ticket.


You said no politics, but what about journalism? Is there any interest in going into journalism?

George Clooney: No, I don't have the talent for it. I tried it when I was young. My dad's one of the best I've ever seen. There are people who ask the right questions and are fearless.


Would you consider this a “buddy” movie? Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly really weathered the storm together.

George Clooney: I like ensembles, not just buddy movies. “ER” was an ensemble. I've had all my successes out of ensembles. And quite honestly, I like working with people that are friends. It's fun. I have fun sets with fun places to be. I think it's healthy and good work comes out of it.


How was the film received at the Venice Film Festival, where it premiered?

George Clooney: One of the best nights of our lives, we won the International Critics Award and the Italian Critics award for best picture.


Why don’t we see more famous actors direct? Is it a pay issue?

George Clooney: I made so much money on that last one. (laughs) Actually, I direct one when I can. We did this T.V. show, Unscripted. I directed five of those. They're really fun to do too and we couldn't have done this film had we not done that show. It's about finding the script or writing the script. This is a subject matter I know pretty well. It's a big part of my life, Grant [Heslov] and I researched the hell out of it too. So far I've done two films that have basically been about television, because I know that world.


You seem to jump between very commercial films, like “Ocean’s Twelve”, to more serious fare like this. Do you make the popcorn films just to afford the opportunity to pursue other projects?

George Clooney: I like frothy things. I think if my sell-out, like Murrow had to do “Person to Person”, if my sell-out is “Ocean's Eleven” then I'm doing okay. If it's “Batman and Robin”, I'm in a little trouble.


Your personal life gets a lot of media coverage. Are you frustrated by the concentration on celebrities when there’s so much real news happening?

George Clooney: That would be my own sort of personal issues. In a way, you have to think on a much grander scale. For instance, I'll give you the best way of understanding that. It's a real pain in the ass to have a bunch of photographers hanging outside your house. I'm not complaining. I'm just saying it's a rotten thing. If you did it for a day you'd go, "this isn't very fun". But I must forever defend their right to be there, because the idea of stopping them is so much more dangerous in that first step towards censorship. It's like burning the first book, even if it's “Mein Kamf”. Those are the things we have to eat up if we're public figures.


Do you and your producing partner, Grant Heslov, have anything else coming up?


George Clooney: We have another HBO show. Grant runs the head of the television department for Steven [Soderbergh] and I. He also produces films for it. So we have a lot of projects that are sort of down the pipe and coming out.


 




 

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