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Fade to Black: George Clooney, Director

“I thought, when we got into it, that your black-and-white pictures were always these beautiful, Greta Garbo shots,” says actor/writer/director George Clooney, with a chuckle. “And the truth is, we weren’t using those kinds of lenses, and we certainly weren’t using that kind of light.”

Clooney is referring to Good Night, and Good Luck, his cinematic ode to Edward R. Murrow and the CBS news staff during television’s first golden age (albeit black and white) in the 1950s. Murrow was already a journalistic hero for his shortwave radio reports from London leading up to the War. However, it was still a risky move when he and producer Fred Friendly decided to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Red-baiting with See It Now, their investigative show produced under the watchful eye of CBS boss, William Paley. As Clooney notes, it was one of those times when broadcast journalism changed the world and people’s minds.

“I knew I didn’t want to shoot it anamorphic because I didn’t want it to be cinematic in that sense. I wanted it to feel smaller than that,” says Clooney. “We watched a lot of [Jean-Luc] Godard films, and we even tried to get the lenses that he used in Breathless and shoot in Super 16.” But Clooney and DP Robert Elswit figured out they were really after a cinéma vérité style, and they turned to Leacock/Drew/Pennebaker/Maysles films, like Primary and Crises, for inspiration.

It was understood the film would be in black and white and they would be using a lot of archival footage. In fact, the decision was made not to cast McCarthy at all, but to let his dark, unctuous visage appear only from found footage. (For more on how this was done, go to In the film, as in history, Clooney and Murrow let the junior senator from Wisconsin speak for himself. Many of the surviving kinescopes of the live broadcasts were in bad shape, so the decision was made not to try to match format.

“We shot tons of tests in black and white. Our problem was black-and-white footage is so much more about lighting. The lighting package alone is literally double — not just the cost, but [the time]. We really wanted to pre-light as much as we could so that we could just run into a room and shoot, and you can do that on color stock. You couldn’t do that on black and white; you really needed to light the hell out of it.”

Clooney shot everything on long lenses with two cameras rolling at the same time. “The secret for us was that we wanted to be able to always overlap the dialogue. I don’t have a single looped line in the film, and it was important to us because I hate loops. I think they look like shit.” The film was then printed on black-and-white stock, which was more expensive, but as Clooney says, “It gives it a hell of a look.”

But the black-and-white print stock was unforgiving, as well. The lines on everyone’s face looked like the Grand Canyon, according to Clooney, and a zit on an actor’s forehead completely dominated a scene and had to be digitally erased. They pulled a trick often used in music videos: They took out all red channels in the color negative, which removes the lines without looking like a soft lens. On the upside, the DI took no time at all. Clooney notes, “Since color wasn’t an issue, the only thing we had to do was sometimes use it to lighten one corner of an area and darken another. We did the color correction (if that’s the word you want to use) in about a day and a half.”

Good Night, and Good Luck opened the New York Film Festival last month in luscious black and white. “We didn’t know how it would play at the screening. And you’re sitting up there in the booth, and at the end they put a floodlight on you, and it was one of those great moments in your life where you get this spontaneous standing ovation which lasts a long time, and you sit there looking at your friends going, ‘Enjoy this moment because you won’t have another one of them in your lifetime.’”

For more on Good Night, and Good Luck, click here.