How George Clooney and Alexandre Desplat Created the Sound of 'The Midnight Sky'

The Midnight Sky
Courtesy of Netflix

In their fourth film together, Clooney and the Oscar-winning French composer scaled back the score to give the epic sci-fi feature a human heart.

Alexandre Desplat, the Oscar-winning composer of The Shape of Water and The Grand Budapest Hotel (and 11-time nominee, for everything from The Queen to Little Women) is George Clooney's go-to music guy.

The pair have collaborated on four of Clooney's films as a director, starting with Ides of March (2011), through The Monuments Men (2014), Suburbicon (2017), and now, The Midnight Sky

Desplat's score for the film, which premieres on Netflix Dec. 23, is as central a character in the science-fiction drama as Clooney's protagonist Augustine, the lonely scientist who, together with a young, mute girl, races across the barren Arctic tundra to try and reach a relay station from where he can warn returning astronauts of a mysterious catastrophe that has wiped out life on earth.

Clooney stripped back screenwriter Mark L. Smith's dialogue for The Midnight Sky, based on Lily Brooks-Dalton's book Good Morning Midnight, to give Desplat's music more space.

The result is a sparse, but powerful score that echoes with an audience long after the final reel.

As part of Netflix's week-long Playlist series, Clooney and Desplat sat down, via video link, with The Hollywood Reporter's European bureau chief Scott Roxborough to talk about the challenges of scoring a film during COVID, finding the right tone to evoke a dying planet, and how they avoided the space film cliches.

Maybe start with George: Music seems to be central to the whole story of the film. What role did you want the music to play?

George Clooney: Well, you know, I play a character with this little girl [played by Caoilinn Springall] who doesn't speak. So I knew I was going to take out a lot of the dialogue. I think, Alexandre, when I sent you the first script there was a lot more dialogue in it and I knew that I was going to have to take out the dialogue. Because if she's not going to speak, then what are you going to be saying? It would end up just being exposition and things like that. It doesn't really work. So when I called Alexandre early on, I said, you know, my intent for this film is to be a meditation. And I said you're probably gonna end up having to write more music than you had to write for any other film.

Remember, these are also about people who can't communicate, they can't talk to one another and can't hear from one another. And so music has to be our language. Alexandre and I have done, you know, eight or nine, I don't know how many films together. We're great friends. But he also happens to be my favorite composer in the world, and I think he's just brilliant. I thought this was an opportunity for us to do something where the music is a character, a central character in the film, not just highlighting moments of sadness or terror, but also carrying the emotion all the way through from the very beginning. I just thought that music was going to be as big a character as any of us as actors in the film.

Alexandre, what was the biggest challenge in doing the sound for this film? I think George called it a sort of a combination of Gravity and The Revenant because it is a space movie. You have scenes in space, very science fiction elements. But then it's also a story of survival.

Alexandre Desplat: Yeah. As George pointed out, the challenge is mostly that we are in two different spaces: in space and what's happening on Earth between this old man and this girl. So how do you create a flow that keeps the emotion and the storyline going? We really tried hard to have the audience feel that we were taken on an emotional ride wherever we were spending the time on screen in the spaceship and on Earth.

George and I like actors. I respect the dialogue of the scenes and I like to bring to the characters an even stronger power of emotion than what they can deliver to the camera. It's like one very long emotional ball that's rolling, rolling, rolling.

I believe all the music, all the scoring for this film was done while you were under lockdown. How did that change the way you two worked together on this project?

Clooney: Well, it didn't change too much, except that we didn't get to work together in person. When Alexandre writes the music on the computer it basically sounds orchestrated. It's a beautiful sound. Ordinarily, he'd be in his home here in the hills in L.A. and I would drive up to his home and he would play the music for me. And we listen to it and talk about the scene and talk about the music. And then I'd go home and a couple of days later he'd come back up and say: I've got this sequence. We'd do that over a period of three or four weeks. 

This time it's just sending over a file and making comments. And because there's a nine-hour time difference [between L.A. and Paris], sometimes he would send me something and then he would go: 'what, nothing? No response?' And I'm like: 'I'm asleep, you know?' So there was that part of it.

But in general, it wasn't that different. The actual process of listening at the beginning, of shaping the score wasn't that different. Later, which we'll talk about in a bit, the actual recording of it, was very different. That was the most insane thing I've ever seen. 

There are composers who are really wonderful composers and not great technicians. But Alexandre is also a great technician. He understood we had to break this thing into pieces. And he understands how all these pieces were going to somehow fit back together.

So how did the score get put together? It was performed in London, right?

Desplat: Yes, it was performed at Abbey Road. We set up a very sophisticated audio system and video system that allowed me to listen live sitting here in our studio. Producing from afar. It was a very, very difficult situation because I think only once or twice in my life have I not conducted the orchestra that I record with.

It was very frustrating not to be able to be with the musicians and for them to hear what I hear. It takes a bit more time. It took a while for everyone to find the sound, to find the subtleties of the score that George needed. The nuances, the emotion which sometimes can be too much or not enough. All these things, when I'm there as a conductor, I can easily do with my hands. Just bring an orchestra in, bring an orchestra up or a single instrument, with precision. But from a distance, it's very difficult.

Clooney: Remember, he couldn't get into England. So he's in France. He's in Paris. We're here in Los Angeles. It's 6:00 in the morning our time or 5:00 in the morning, our time. But also the musicians themselves were broken into smaller groups because you can't have that many people in the room [because of COVID restrictions] so we're doing this in much smaller pieces. So you're just hearing the violins or the horn section, you're not getting the full sense of the score. I'm not Alexandre. He knows exactly how it's all going to fit together. I'm listening to it and he's saying, 'George, do you like that?' And I'm like, 'I think I do...'

It's a much more tedious and painstaking process, but it really helps to have Alexandre who understands how it will sound when it is done and pieced together. 

Let me explain it to you this way: When I go to Abbey Road, it's one of the most fun things in the world. Especially when you're with one of the great composers in the game. Ever. And he and the orchestra, they have a language that actors and directors — and most human beings — don't understand. It's the language of written music. They are all sitting there and they're reading it. It's like: 'three bars here. We're going to do this and raise an octave there.' And then, suddenly, it's the score of a movie.

I think all of us, Alexandre and I both really missed that part because it's really fun to be in that room and to be there. And so what this required was Alexandre, everybody, to really be concentrating in a very different way about some of the technical aspects of putting this same sort of gorgeous score together.

Desplat: Yeah. There's this moment that you mentioned, George, the moment I love the most when for the first time, you hear the score. The orchestra playing together. For the first time. It's like opening a new book. Even though I heard about the book, I know the story of the book. Still, I opened it for the first time. And when I've been recording piece by piece the string sections or horn sections it's very frustrating because you don't have this moment of pleasure that comes from an orchestra. When you bring everybody together.

One thing that surprised me is there have been so many space movies and there've been so many incredibly-scored films set in space, including Gravity of course, or 2001, or Solaris, and so forth. But this doesn't sound really like any space movie I've ever heard.

Clooney: You know, we didn't look at it as a space movie. We looked at it as a very intimate, small story that happened to be in space. Knowing that there are a couple of big set pieces that need to be brought up and to raise the adrenalin. But I think from the very beginning I said: 'this is a really personal, small story. That required telling it in a very different way. I mean, Alexandre's first conversation was: 'should we talk about it as a synthesizer score?' But we sort of closed that off. We closed off that approach to the score. Because we have giant visuals. But when we have sequences where we're going over the top of the spaceship, the music is so held back and restrained and beautiful. I just I think it's just a really elegantly-done, elegantly-scored film.

The film is about the characters. It's about a planet dying and a bunch of characters, a bunch of crew members in a spaceship, and the man and the little girl. So the music has to convey the intimacy. You have to convey that and not be big just for the sake of it. We have to go inside the heart of each character.

What choices did you make in terms of instrumentation, in terms of the kind of instruments you used, and how you placed them on specific scenes?

Desplat: Well, it looks like George and I are big strong men but we are actually very, very sensitive. With the instrumentation, we started by getting rid of most of the woodwinds, except for three flutes. Nor huge string section or brass horns. There's a lot of electronics that links all the sounds together, almost creating some kind of vapor around it. The great thing about having a large section of instruments is that it allows you to play very small and then expand the dynamic and it sounds big without sounding loud, which we didn't want. We wanted the score to be human-sized.

So when we have all these big action sequences or dramatic sequences, we have the power of the orchestra and the electronics mixed together. But the second we need to to bring that into a very small focus, it is easy to just get rid of it — to bring the orchestra down and become an intimate object again.

I was very lucky because there are many scenes in that film where the music is leading, as George explained, where the music takes over and says what has to be said to the audience without explaining, without words. The music will bring you to the level of emotion that you need and the comprehension that you need. It's not very often in movies that the composer gets that territory to explore.

Music in cinema has this great power that goes horizontally. It takes the audience from the beginning of a scene, or the beginning of the film, to the end. Just with the music you can design the emotion and take the audience to a different spot. That's the incredible thing that I experience every day when I work on films, all the options that are opened to me and how, with the director, we try and choose the best option and follow this horizontal line. We want to follow the emotions of the characters and their journey through life, through the life of the film.

This is the fourth film you've worked on with George, with him as a director. How do you feel he's evolved with Midnight Sky?

Desplat: Well, to me, this film is the most masterfully directed film that George directed. I mean, you never see the camera. You never see anything. You just feel emotions all the time. You feel what's happening. And that's the most difficult thing to do. This is the most controlled film that George has directed so far. Every aspect, every little rhythm: the actors, the set design, the way music plays without being obvious or being on the nose. It's all right. And it's very difficult to do that movie all right.