Sunday, May 27, 2007

Good Afternoon, and Good Luck: Making a DVD with George Clooney, Part One

{Ed. note: Please, if you have not done so, begin with the introduction to this post here. Thank you.}

The parking lot at New Wave Entertainment, housed in a nondescript mustard-colored one-story in Burbank, California, is nearly empty on a hot October Saturday afternoon. Drip by drop, some very important people show up: the head of Warner Independent Pictures, his chief publicist, New Wave’s head of DVD production. They’re all here because of the man who arrives in a black Jaguar sedan, right on time at 2:00: George Clooney has arrived to record the DVD commentary track for his new movie, Good Night and Good Luck, to be released to theaters the following week. The handful of technicians and studio executives have to give up some weekend time because Clooney has been at his day job – acting in Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German – all week. This is his nominal day off. Acting in and directing movies, is, for Clooney, the easy part: “I’m more comfortable with making them than I am with talking about them,” he says.

After reviewing some TV spots for Good Night, the black-and-white story of newsman Edward R. Murrow and his crusade against red-baiting senator Joe McCarthy, Clooney and his producer/co-writer Grant Heslov settle into a tiny windowless studio with a couple of publicists and producer Jeffrey Lerner. There is a round table with four flat-screen monitors arrayed in the center, with headphones and microphones splayed around. The only other furniture in the room is a low-slung green couch in one corner and a table full of water bottles, soft drinks, fruit and cheese in another. It looks more like a radio studio than anything vaguely cinematic.

Lerner asks if Clooney would like the lights cranked low. “Yeah,” he cracks. “It makes me look younger.”

Commentary tracks have become not just a key marketing point but another chance for directors, screenwriters, and actors to explain their work. Just about every DVD released these days has some sort of commentary, although there are a handful of meganames that won’t record them, with Steven Spielberg being the biggest. “I'm not interested in taking a needle and popping every balloon and exposing every mystery of my technique, my craft, my intentions in every scene,” Spielberg has said. “I have never listened to another director’s commentary.”

Although some directors come into these things with sheafs of notes under their arms, Clooney freely admits he has not prepared for this session at all. He’s been living this movie for months now, including a screening the night before. Just in case, Lerner has provided two pages of talking points on the movie and the real history behind it, but Clooney and Heslov toss them aside as they prepare to record their track. They’re already heavy into their banter before the movie even starts; when Angie the engineer’s voice pipes into the studio, interrupting Clooney, he quickly shoots back, “She’s so fired – oops, she could hear me.” A grainy image, itself suggestive of the early days of TV, starts rolling, and peering into the monitors, Clooney and Heslov are off.

Clooney is a veteran at this. He recorded a commentary track for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the first movie he directed, as well as for Unscripted, a series he produced for HBO. Although Lerner feeds him questions, Clooney has no trouble finding his own points to make. He describes the mechanics of making an elevator look like it's stopping on three different floors on a single-story soundstage and recalls memories of watching his father, a Cincinnati anchorman, from the floor of the news studio. Heslov is more tentative, and for a while doesn’t intrude on Clooney’s monologue, but Clooney is as natural a leader of men as Danny Ocean. He treats Heslov more like a friend and sidekick than a producer – after all, they’ve known each other more than twenty years and arrived together in Clooney’s Jaguar. “You gonna talk,” Clooney asks at one point, “or are you just gonna watch the movie?”

Twenty minutes in, as David Strathairn turns to face the camera, carrying all of Murrow’s gravitas on his lined face, an urgent voice comes in through the headphones. “I’m very sorry to interrupt,” says Angie the engineer from the sound room. The picture on the monitors freezes, with Strathairn looking even more pensive than usual. “But you guys’ food is here.”

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