Grant Heslov interview
By Harlan Jacobson
Harlan Jacobson talks to Grant Heslov, screenwriter of Good Night, And Good Luck
Tell us about your transition from actor to writer.
I grew up in Palos Verdes, a suburb of L.A. I was always interested in acting. When I was in high school, I started studying with real acting teachers, and when I graduated, I went to USC to study theater. I met George in an acting class and we became friends and have remained close ever since.
While I was in school I got a sitcom, Spencer, and then just pursued acting for a long time. At some point I just decided I wanted to direct, and produce and write and do all that other stuff, so I made the switch. About four to five years ago, I started working with George and Steven [Soderbergh].
How did Fail Safe and George Clooney’s interest in live TV affect the Good Night’s inception?
Fail Safe was in a kind of odd way the genesis of this project. We wanted to do another live gig. We loved it, thought it was great. The thing we learned the most from it was if you're going to do something live there has to be an innate reason to do it—a ticking clock, some sort of event that moves it along. Or it can be like watching paint dry.
About seven or eight years ago, George wrote a TV movie about Murrow, one much different than what we did. The story was seen through the eyes of a page working his way up at CBS. Murrow was idealized, it was a completely different take. It was for CBS and didn’t go anywhere. They never made it.
And then as we were thinking about what live TV we could do, a book was sent to us, To Strike at a King. It was about Milo Radulovich and that little piece of that story…
When we looked at the book, we thought that going back to Murrow and that one-year period when he goes against McCarthy would be really interesting to do live, and we decided to try it. So we originally wrote it as a live piece and took it to CBS, because that’s the only place to do it. It only made sense to do it here. But they weren’t up for it.
Why? Too embarrassing?
No, not too embarrassing at all. You’ve seen the film. CBS are heroes in my opinion. They allowed these guys to do what they did…
It is double-edged, but at the end of the day the stuff got on the air. But CBS was going through their own crap at that time. The thing about the Reagan miniseries was happening, when they decided not to show it and gave it to Showtime. They were not looking to do anything controversial. Also there was the Janet Jackson thing and the boob. I think they were just gun shy. We never had that specific conversation, this is just me speculating. They could have just thought the script sucked, for all I know.
At that point, however, we said, Fuck it, let’s rewrite it and do it as a feature. And we’ll do it exactly as we want to—film in black-and-white, cast whoever we want — just do it.
How did K-Street color what you thought was possible to do?
K-Street was born another way. Some guys came to us who wanted to do a political show. What was interesting about the show was a) it was about politics, which George, Steven, and I are all interested in, and b) James Carville and Mary Matalin were attached. Actually it was just James at the time, Mary wasn’t in yet. They’re fascinating guys, but we didn’t know them at that point.
They had an idea for the show that was much different than what we ended up doing. We talked to Steven about it and he had his own ideas—doing it unscripted and using James and Mary as themselves. HBO said yes, and we went off and did it. Steven directed that show.
Unscripted was more George and me. We learned a lot about how to work with actors in a different way, how to get the most natural performances. And when George went on to make this film, he used a lot of it. We saw the film for the first time last night, contrast corrected and everything, and it looks beautiful.
With Unscripted we took K Street and applied it to actors and a version of Hollywood that’s never been seen before. We wanted to make a show about what it was like when we were young actors, and what 99.9% of young actors go through. Even in George’s success he never lived it the way Entourage shows it. I only wish we had 20 women on rafts floating around the pool at four in the morning.
What was your agenda? The media, right wing demagoguery…
George and I had tons of discussions. We wanted to illuminate a moment of history. We weren’t doing a biopic. This isn’t about the life of Edward R. Murrow. This really was about a specific period of time and a guy who was a hero. George’s father was a newsman, has been one for 30 or 40 years, mostly in Cincinnati, and still writes a column. Murrow was a hero in George’s household growing up, and was referred to all the time. He was probably a pretty flawed guy, but as a journalist, he was amazing.
We spent a bunch of time with his son, Casey. And Milo Radulovich, who lives in Lodi, California and is a fantastic older guy. He’s retired and is very politically active. Before we started shooting, we did a table read and we brought everybody in—Casey, Milo, etc., we wanted them all there. We wanted to make sure it was as accurate as possible.
As we got working, the parallels became so obvious. [We said] “Let’s be simple in this.” We didn’t want to hit anything over the head. So there was a lot of pulling back as well.
The model for us was The Crucible, which 50 years ago was a not-so-thinly veiled stab at what was going on politically. This is our Crucible. That’s how we thought about it. It’s a brilliant play, but I certainly didn’t “get it” in high school. The more you research about that period of time, the more interesting it is. It’s different today but certain things are equally scary. It now has to do with civil liberties and the media.
The real McCarthyism is now abetted by the right wing talk shows… Did you mean to talk about those people by showing the contrasting world of Murrow?
Not overtly. The Ann Coulters of the world are an extension of the political tone that starts at the top. I’ve been speaking to a lot of journalists, and the one thing that everybody says is that it’s amazing how little access they have. This Administration has done an amazing job of controlling the media. That’s all wrapped up in what was going on with this film.
Why did you opt for no music? Perhaps this is Hollywood’s first Dogme 95 film…
Except for the stuff Diane Reeves sings. Our intention all along was to score it with a live band. George really wanted to play a lot of the silences in this piece. A lot of power would come out of the silences. We’re in the middle of mixing right now and there’s a tendency for people to fill it all up with [sounds from] a busy newsroom in the background. We wanted to be selective about that sort of stuff. The band and the singing is all live. It all had to be timed out, no lip-synching at all.
Why did you choose to have Joe McCarthy play himself?
That was an easy decision for us. That was something we decided a long, long time ago. We felt if we had an actor playing that role everybody would say it was way over the top. And that was it. We just couldn’t think of a person who could do it better than McCarthy did and said, Let’s just use the real footage.
What clear statement did you want to make about the present moment?
The political aspect of the film was secondary to us. We knew that there would be a lot of political hay out of this. That really wasn't our goal. For us it was strictly about the state of journalism.
That’s why I ask, since it seems quite clearly directed at the journalism community…
It wasn’t to say, “You suck,” it was to hold up a hero, a gold standard. Look at what happened at CBS…
We’ve been talking to CBS about doing something on 60 Minutes about Murrow and the state of journalism, which I think would be smart for them, personally. To address what’s going on at CBS News. They were known for their news division, now they’re talking about revamping the division to hip it up.
There was a time when the news wasn’t about making money. The networks got their license based on doing so many hours of news, public affairs programming, children’s programming, etc. Since deciding they could make money off the news, we’ve suffered for it. That’s really what we were addressing. We wanted to hold something up and say “Here is where it started . . . Here's something that was powerful.” And now we literally have a journalist locked up in jail for not revealing her sources. Pretty amazing.