Midnight Sky

February 13, 2021

George Clooney’s Netflix film, The Midnight Sky, is a haunting post-apocalyptic tale of the last man on Earth retreating toward the North Pole as a mysterious catastrophe spreads around the globe rendering the air unbreathable. Augustine (played by Clooney) is determined to get to a remote arctic radio antenna in order to warn a team of astronauts (including Sully, played by Felicity Jones) aboard the Aether spacecraft, so they can divert course and settle on a newly discovered habitable moon orbiting Jupiter.
 
Along the way he is accompanied by a mysterious young girl (Caoilinn Springall), who has seemingly been left behind at an arctic research station. The director tapped long-time collaborator Stephen Mirrione, ACE, to cut the film. Mirrione has worked with Clooney on all of his feature films, including Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Leatherheads (2008), The Ides of March (2011), The Monuments Men (2014) and Suburbicon (2017). He won an Oscar for 2000’s Traffic and was nominated two additional times, for Babel (2006) and The Revenant (2015).  CinemaEditor recently caught up with Mirrione to discuss his work on the film.
 
CinemaEditor: How did you get involved in this project and when did you start working on it?
Stephen Mirrione, ACE: George sent me the script and mentioned it to me a good six months or so before they figured out the start date. As is normal, I started on the movie when principal photography started, somewhere around September of 2019, and we just hit the ground running. In the majority of the scenes George was either all by himself or with the young actress playing Iris. And the idea was he would shoot all of his scenes before we got to the Christmas break so that he could put all that aside. Then when we came back, they would do the scenes aboard the Aether spacecraft.
CE: Where was it shot?
SM: They started with a few weeks shooting in Iceland. And during that period, they shot all the exterior stuff when they’re journeying through the snow, and the stuff having to do with the pod breaking through the ice and any exteriors of the facility.
After that, they headed back to Shepperton Studios near London. I had a cutting room there at the studio, so we were right next to each other every day. It was really convenient in that sense – just trying to get as much as much done as quickly as possible. When we came back, Felicity Jones let everybody know that she was pregnant.
At first, the decision was made to try to work around her pregnancy – to essentially shoot all of her scenes with a double and possibly do a head replacement. We would have to jump over a lot of obstacles to try to not have her be pregnant in the movie. And we talked about it and decided: Why can’t she be pregnant in the movie? And at lunchtime, George went off and essentially rewrote a handful of scenes to accommodate that (Sully is revealed to have had a relationship with the mission’s captain played by David Oyelowo) and made the call to Netflix. Netflix was on board. Felicity was very happy to do it this way. And now I watch the movie and I can’t imagine the movie without that element. I think it added a lot.
CE: I would have thought that was fundamental from day one – that Adam-and-Eve angle, going off to settle a new world.
SM: Exactly. In another situation, if he wasn’t thinking about editorial at the same time he was shooting, he might have just kept going with that process, and not really had time to evaluate the fact that that he was missing a big opportunity in switching gears. But that’s one of the great things in terms of working with him. He’s so confident and sure-footed, and he’s just always got a very positive, let’s-make-it-work attitude.
CE: Where were you in the process when COVID-19 hit?
SM: We finished up at Shepperton and there were a couple of scenes that they had to shoot in the Canary Islands. While they were in the Canary Islands my team transitioned back to L.A. and had our editing rooms set up here. And it was right around the time that they got back. We had about, I’d say, a week or so in early March and we were getting ready to settle in.
We had our system for VFX reviews all set up, and how we were going to work with Skywalker Sound. Basically, we were already set up to do a lot of things remotely. We already had been using Evercast to begin with. So, once the decision was made to shut everything down, it took us a couple of days.
We were really lucky because we were already way ahead in terms of the actual cut itself. And we just started working remotely from that point forward with all the different departments and doing our reviews online and that continued through the summer until the point where we did our online preview screening.
CE: Did you learn anything from the first screening?
SM: One of the things that I thought was really interesting, was that in the feedback from the screening, it was clear that people felt that it had a very heavy, negative kind of ending. And it was a bit mysterious to us. We couldn’t quite figure out why, because again, we weren’t in a screening room, so it was hard to gauge. So, going back over and over it, I started to realize that in the visual effects process we had been manipulating the sky in a lot of shots and the sky kept getting more and more threatening. We realized that that was breaking the feeling of hopefulness and the beauty of what’s being described at the end. So, by reverting back to a color palette that matched closer to what was originally shot, we were able to actually get back that feeling. It made a huge difference.
CE: Perhaps you could describe for me your day-today workflow.
SM: By the time I got in in the morning usually everything was set up and ready to go, and I could start screening the dailies and doing my notes. And then by the time lunch rolled around, I would have already started cutting, putting some scenes together. And then after lunch, we try to finish up.
On Saturday, Patrick Smith, my first assistant editor, and I would drive out to George’s house, which was a little further out in the country, and we would work together there so that George could be home with his family. We would just start going through the scenes of that week, and if George had notes for me, I would get those done. Essentially, we’d be all caught up to camera at the end of every week.
CE: What is it like working with George Clooney? How hands-on is he in the editorial process?
SM: As a director, he’s whatever the opposite of a procrastinator is. He was very proactive in wanting to just move things forward. He’s just very generous, appreciative, and he’s so protective of his team. Not a lot of people get to see that side of him – how everybody working with him just becomes a part of his extended family. And it’s something I really appreciate when working with him. He and I have worked together so long. We have a really great shorthand now, so that I can usually anticipate what he wants and when it’s something different; it’s just a very straightforward working dynamic.
CE: Tell me about what role your assistants played.
SM: Patrick has been on my team for years. More than anybody, he facilitated getting everybody set up to being able to work from home, including the effects editors and the music editor. He is with me all the time. When we would go to work on the weekends, he’d be there. And he’s the person who I would always lean on in terms of talking about cuts and discussing things even before I’d show them George. And he does it all. I can’t even imagine having done this project without him, and I’m really excited because he’s now gotten an opportunity to cut. And then Debs Richardson was the assistant editor in the U.K. with us.
She essentially went through all the dailies, did all the notes and got everything ready for us. Anytime we’re doing a project in Europe, we always hope that she’s available. It makes a huge difference to have a crew where everybody knows everybody. Then of course the VFX editors Michael Struk and Paul Parsons were on towards the end of production.
Once we got back to L.A., we brought on a new member of the team, Carmen Hu. And she was actually brought to my attention through a fellowship program at ACE. They reached out to me to see if I could mentor her and then this opportunity came up, so I brought her on. Our PA Nadia Mendieta and post supervisor Patsy Bouge came on board just as we got back.
CE: What do you hope people take away from the movie?
SM: My feeling is that climate change is a very serious issue, and that by ignoring it and putting it off and not being willing to take any kind of responsibility or sacrifice, we’re going down a path. And I think that for me, the movie is about this person who has sacrificed a lot in his life in order to help protect the planet. But there is a consequence to what we do, and nature is going to do what nature is going to do, and it’s not something that we can just ignore

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