Jim Bissell interview: ‘The Midnight Sky’ production designer
“The Midnight Sky” takes place (partially) in space, but it’s not that type of space film, so it couldn’t really look like a typical one either. “It’s not really an action movie, it’s not really a formally structured adventure story. It’s really a meditation. And in that sense, the look is much different,” Jim Bissell tells Gold Derby during our Meet the Experts: Film Production Design panel (watch above).
Directed by and starring George Clooney, and based on the Lily Brooks-Dalton novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” “The Midnight Sky” takes place in 2049, three weeks after an unnamed “event” has decimated Earth. Clooney’s Augustine Lofthouse, a scientist, stays behind in the Arctic to try to warn a spaceship, which has been on a two-year mission, not to return home.
Though the film is set in the future, Bissell — who has now made six films with Clooney, earning an Oscar bid for “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005) — and Clooney wanted it to look like a “relatable future.” “This is something that could actually happen, which I think was something important in the design of both the observatory and the design of the spaceship,” Bissell states. “[Clooney] wanted a unique look to the spaceship. We tried to veer away from the kind of language that’s evolved over the last 30 years that sort of started with ‘2001’ and continued through ‘Alien’ — that very industrial look to spaceships.”
Taking into account gravity as well, Bissell came up with a spaceship design using current expandable habitats and lightweight material with an exoskeleton framework. “Just basically to have a baton-like design that spins around to create centrifugal force, which is really the only way you can imitate gravity and keep people’s hearts pumping and muscles developing,” he explains. Inside the spaceship, the walls are lined with an endoskeleton. “All of these skeletons are lightweight in design, using the topological optimization technology,” he says. “That stuff is really organic-looking and interesting-looking.”
The endoskeleton design — large, zigzaggy branches crossing one another — also speaks to the themes of loneliness and human connection, or lack thereof, in the film, something no one involved could’ve foreseen how timely they’d be during production a year ago.
“It’s extraordinary and really sort of depressing. I spent nine months working on a movie about the end of the world and you’re thinking about it all the time. “I look at it from a designer’s point of view: How do you be non-specific but still show the world was at its end?” Bissell says. “Who knows what blew the whole world up? But it’s a dogpile of not paying attention. And that’s what we were trying to convey.”