4 creative lessons from the set of ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’
by Kevin K. Shah
I’ve been producing behind the scenes (aka “EPK”) on studio films for the better part of 10 years. I’ve watched dozens of directors closely, and studied how they worked with their creative team and their actors. Besides my own films at The Sabi Company, my first on-set behind the scenes producing gig was for Warner Bros. on a film called Good Night, and Good Luck. It was directed by George Clooney, co-written and produced with Grant Heslov, and stars David Strathairn at the legendary CBS anchorman. My job was to tell the story of how the artists, creatives, talent and craftsmen made the film. I would roll long before ‘Action‘ and keep shooting after ‘Cut’. Here are some things I learned on that set which I’ve applied to my own work over the years:
Create an inspiring atmosphere.
The tone and the mood is dictated from the top-down and George was the kind of person that would say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Thank you’ on that set everyday. Everyone went above and beyond with their roles, and when asked why – their reasons always cite the stimulating creative experience they were having on set. No one wants to be yelled at and no one wants to be on a set with egos and endless tension. You strive to design a safe and fun environment, so that you can make good on the promise of a creatively fulfilling enterprise for all involved. Virtually everyone on the project was working for scale, from actors to the production designer, and it’s because being on a set like this makes everyone love their job (again).
Enrich the creative experience with empowerment – not money.
George and Grant had the actors read period newspapers from the era so they could improvise relevant news as needed for certain scenes. Everyone preferred the look and smell of pipe tobacco, so the props department happily hand rolled hundreds of cigarettes each day using antique rollers. Wherever they could, the production worked in harmony to shoot in small, practical locations from the period. Robert Elswit shot a number of scenes beautifully in black and white with only a few Chimeras. It felt like we were making something special because everyone had been empowered and felt that what they were doing was what they are meant to do. (I’ve been on too many sets where that is not the case. Waiting 12 hours for a ship to explode, where most of the cast and crew are tired and frustrated, doesn’t feel like making a movie.) The art of cinema was alive in the making of Good Night, and Good Luck. Even with lesser resources at their disposal, everyone still felt creatively empowered – as well as deeply and personally invested. This kind of energy has a snowball effect and can result in something amazing, if it works. And on this film, it happily did!
Treat everyone with respect.
On one occasion, some teenage visitors stood quietly next to video village. The first occasion possible, Clooney walked over and shook all of their hands, welcomed them to the set and repeated their names back to them. You don’t have to be George Clooney, but you do need to treat every member of the production with courtesy and respect – down to even the set visitors. Though it’s rare to see in our business, all directors can and should be that kind of individual – it involves humility and gratitude.
Create an environment where surprises happen.
For the climactic “Lights and Wires in a Box” speech by Murrow, the team spent all morning preparing a Technocrane master shot that pushes into a CU on David Strathairn as he gave the speech. After much anticipation, George and Robert decided to just go ahead and shoot the first rehearsal/run-through and see how long they could go before they’d have to cut. David emerged quietly onto the stage and upon ‘Action’, he proceeded to nail the entire speech with deep and honest emotion, in one gorgeous camera move. It was a surprise to all and truly astonishing to watch everyone work with such perfection. George called ‘Cut’ and everyone stood by quietly, as they watched the playback. The atmosphere on set was electric. When the take finished playing, George turned to Grant and said, “Well now what do we do for the next two days?”Tags: Behind the scenes, Creative environment, Creative experience, David Strathairn, EPK Producer, Filmmaking, George Clooney, Good Night and Good Luck (film), Grant Heslov, Hollywood, Kevin K. Shah, The Sabi Company