"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Who would have expected the most compelling argument for a smarter, more aggressive news media to come from one of our few true movie stars, a man who could stay secluded from the press — the world really — in his Italian villa for as long as he liked, only to reappear for the occasional prestige project or “Ocean’s Eleven” sequel?
But George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a stirring examination of CBS News legend Edward R. Murrow’s historic showdown with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, is a passionate argument for a revitalized press, one that’s willing to operate in pursuit of larger truths, and not just larger profits. Clooney’s second turn as a director (after the underrated “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”) is a tribute to Murrow (played by a pitch-perfect David Strathairn), a man of moral certitude and great elegance. But it also memorializes a time when the media kept a higher purpose, and maintained a higher tone. Who won’t rue the whiplash crudeness of TV news when watching Murrow, during the scathing report on McCarthy that helped finally make him vulnerable to public opinion, turn a clumsy Shakespearean allusion by the Wisconsin Republican against him with agility:
Earlier, the senator asked, “Upon what meat does this, our Caesar, feed?” Had he looked three lines earlier in Shakespeare’s ‘Caesar,’ he would have found this line, which is not altogether inappropriate: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
While an audience used to the Fox News/”Fahrenheit 9/11″ decibel level of political debate might not immediately grasp the political subtext of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Clooney (who appears in a decidedly unglamorous supporting role as Murrow’s producer and CBS legend Fred Friendly) has made no secret that the movie was inspired by current events — “We use fear to attack civil liberties,” he has said — and his intentions are likely to be discussed and debated by the pundits in the evenings to come. Clooney is himself a student of journalism; his father was a TV anchor who frequently ran up against management (he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2004), and the younger Clooney studied the profession at Northern Kentucky University before turning his attention to acting. He co-wrote the script for “Good Night” with Grant Heslov, and approached it “as a reporter would,” with his own reporting and research. He also splices actual footage into the film — McCarthy’s rebuttal to Murrow’s report on his “See It Now,” as well as fluff interviews (with Liberace, among others) that Murrow performed on his “Person to Person” show, which was meant to keep him in good standing with CBS.
Clooney, though, discusses “Good Night, and Good Luck” and another upcoming film — “Syriana,” a film based on Robert Baer’s memoir as a CIA agent battling terrorists in the Middle East after the end of the Cold War — like a man on a mission, determined to make the movies he thinks are important while he can, given the fleeting influence of even Hollywood’s biggest stars. “You only get it for a little bit,” he says.
Clooney spoke to Salon recently from his home in Lake Como, Italy, shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, and after “Good Night, and Good Luck” premiered at the Venice Film Festival to raves, and a best-actor award for Strathairn. He discussed his general optimism about media — despite Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and a handcuffed White House press corps.
I don’t know how much of the American media you’ve been able to catch …
Oh, you see it all the time. And you know, I’m looking at one dot-org, dot-com, another one on United Way, for places to focus money. You know, I’m the most computer-illiterate human being of the 21st century, so it’s me typing one finger at a time on my computer, but …
I’ve actually been thinking about the movie because there have been moments [since Hurricane Katrina hit] where TV anchors, who are usually so timid …
… have actually stepped up.
Yeah, have you noticed that?
I’ve really noticed it in places, even Fox, actually. I saw Shepard Smith out there sort of chastising Bill O’Reilly — “You’re not here! You don’t see this” —
— and I thought that that was sort of astonishing, really, to break ranks like that. I’ve seen it happening in the Senate as well, and I think that that’s an interesting thing, you know. We’re [hearing] “Don’t politicize this.” And you go, no, but by politicizing things you’re holding people responsible.
In “Good Night” one of the things I think you capture really well is this sort of timidity, the unwillingness to break ranks in any way.
It’s a funny thing. I mean, look, I grew up with it. My father was an anchorman, though he wrote his own news; he was the news director. So his fights were with the general management always, and news always lost money then. You were supposed to lose money. You were a loss leader but, you know, you owed the citizenry information and that’s why you got your [Federal Communications Commission] license. So it was a constant battle for my dad about just getting any story out, because they’d want him to do a [segment on ] “Thursday’s Child,” and he said, “Well, there’s a story about this and there’s a story …”
So it was always a battle between entertainment pushing the news off the air — and, by the way, when you see Murrow talking about it, you’re reminded that it has constantly been a fight. It’s more complicated than bad guys just trying to make money. You know, you watch [CBS President] Bill Paley — I hope we treated him fairly.
I went back through, like, a bunch of journalism professors’ notes and I went through George Seldes’ books about McCarthy, because he wasn’t very complimentary about the Murrow moments. I was trying to find the arguments against Murrow because that seems to be the right way to do it, to treat it as a reporter would. I wanted to be able to graze those arguments along the way, just so that it couldn’t be marginalized and somebody would say, “Well this is just a slanted piece,” you know?
Aren’t you worried about that, though?
Because everything is politicized today, and there’s a lot that people can read into your movie.
Sure — and I love it when they do. But I would also say that, first of all, it is a historical event and we treated it as such. You know, every scene in that movie we double- and triple-sourced; either it was [CBS news employees] Joe and Shirley Wershba or it was [David] Halberstam’s book or it was [Fred] Friendly’s book or it was [Michael Ranville's] “To Strike at a King.” We really talked to everybody. We went through the videotape of Milo Radulovich [a reserve lieutenant the Air Force discharged because his father and sister were accused of being Communists, whose case Murrow took up], and Joe and Shirley, because I wanted to make sure that it couldn’t be marginalized. Because there is a rather interesting sort of phenomenon going on out there where people are trying to now convince themselves that McCarthy … Well, they go, “Since the Freedom of Information Act, we find out that Alger Hiss really was a spy!” And you go, “Whoops, that’s one.”
And, of course, the bigger argument is, forgetting if you got one of them right, that’s not the important part. The question was never whether or not these people were spies; the question was whether they were allowed to face their accuser or not. And I find those to be extraordinarily relevant today, those issues. It wasn’t just about broadcast journalism — which I’m actually, obviously, having grown up in it, a huge fan of.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about the McCarthy revisionism because you were already working on this movie when it began; the Ann Coulter book came out …
Sure, Page Six did a story, just before we started, saying that I was about to start shooting a liberal piece about McCarthy, you know, when we really realized that he wasn’t such a bad guy after all! And we’ve found out since then that a lot these people were spies! There’s a lot of that. There were actors on the set who said, “But Annie Lee Moss was a spy. Did you read Ann Coulter’s book?” And, of course, the dumb-ass thing that she does — and, you know, if she was a good journalist she would understand this — is that if you watch the whole [episode of Murrow's "See It Now," when Murrow questioned McCarthy's persecution of Moss], at the end of the show he says, “You will note that neither this reporter nor the senator knows whether or not Annie Lee Moss is or is not a Communist.” They simply demand that she has a right to face her accuser, which is what we based our Constitution on, you know.
That’s the point of it: that once we get to that place where we start, you know, putting people in Guantánamo Bay — now they very well may be terrorists, and if they are they should be tried. But either you are a prisoner of war and you have Geneva Convention rights or you are a criminal and you have habeas corpus and you have the right to an attorney and a speedy trial. Giving away those things damages our fiber, all the things that we have fought so long for.
We do this every 30 or 40 years; we just sort of, you know, go crazy. Something scares us: The Russians test a bomb and all of sudden we start rounding up anybody we think is un-American. Or, you know, Pearl Harbor gets bombed and we pick up every Japanese-American and stick them in a camp. And we come to our senses and we figure it out, and it gets better every time; we’re not burning witches at the stake anymore. At least we’re improving, we are evolving. And that’s why I think the movie’s optimistic, actually.
You also, though, focus pretty critical attention on the role of the media, and not just Murrow, the hero here, but also the eager lapdogs of power, the characters like Jack O’Brian, the Hearst columnist who was a friend of Walter Winchell’s and a huge redbaiter.
A real McCarthyian. Hearst wasn’t allowing us to use it.
They weren’t going to grant you rights to quote from his column?
They weren’t going to grant us rights. And then I pulled out — you know he wrote for the [New York] Journal-American — I pulled up other papers; the front page of the New York Post says “Don Hollenbeck kills himself,” and just inside it says, “Jack O’Brian blamed for his death,” which makes [O'Brian] a news story. His articles were now newsworthy because they were part of a story. So as far as I was concerned, I was welcoming a suit from the Hearst Corp. They backed down eventually.
So his columns were fair game because of the role they played in Hollenbeck’s suicide — interesting. I found out that O’Brian is dead, which is too bad, because I was curious whether he’d ever regretted those columns, if he’d ever recanted.
All I know is that you don’t hear anywhere near the worst of what he said about Hollenbeck, because I felt people wouldn’t believe it. The reason I [showed actual footage] of McCarthy in the film is because I felt people wouldn’t believe us if we had an actor play him. And I thought it was best, in the same way that Murrow did, to have McCarthy, to have him in his own words.
But, you know, the O’Brian stuff was insane. He was, like, “Good riddance” — I mean literally the day after he died. And the lead-ups to it, it was just, it was a barrage, it was a nonstop barrage. And, you know, Don wasn’t strong enough. He was a local anchor. Nobody really went at Murrow because Murrow was tough and was trusted and well liked.
And do you see O’Brian-like tactics today?
Sure. Well, yeah, there are some interesting similarities. I’ve certainly been a — I won’t say victim because I don’t feel victimized — but I’ve certainly been a target of specific ones myself. They haven’t damaged me because the media’s so fractured now, especially broadcasting. There were always a lot of different newspapers, but [back then] in broadcasting there were three networks. And now there’s, you know, 5,000. So getting beaten up by one guy who gets a million viewers …
Your career was once pronounced over, if I recall.
Oh yeah, Bill O’Reilly did a whole show about why my career was over because of my political stance. He brought some guy on I’d never heard of. But you know, the bottom line of that is, fine. At least it’s not the government bringing me in and questioning me. So we’ve evolved one step further ahead. And there isn’t a kind of power that television media — although it has a lot of power, it isn’t concentrated in one specific area, because if you’re a conservative person you turn on Fox News, and if you’re a liberal you listen to National Public Radio; you find yourself going to the place that plays to what your political and social agenda or beliefs are.
The unfortunate thing with that is that it means that people are starting with completely different facts. You know, if you watch Fox News — my aunt and uncle are conservative, and if you had a conversation with them before the war, Saddam Hussein was the reason for 9/11, was attached to al-Qaida, all of those kinds of things. So it’s just an interesting development in a confusing time in media. It’s also about 24-hour news. I actually thought it was interesting to watch these guys this week, from here at least, mad, you know; they seem to really have taken up going at people.
You know where else they did it, in a way, was during the Terri Schiavo thing. That’s when I thought we had finally lost our minds. All through the Terri Schiavo thing I thought, Well, this is it, this is … we’ve really finally snapped. And then they started doing polls, and you found out that 80 percent of the country, including the Bible Belt, thought the government should stay out of our hospital rooms. And then I went, “Oh, we’re still here. Our country’s still alive.”
Well, particularly cable news can create an illusion that the whole country’s feeling one way when in fact they’re not.
And that was the interesting thing with Murrow in a way. He was very cautious about what he was doing, but the minute that he came out and called bullshit on this guy, they realized that calls were coming in 13 to 1 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and in Lexington, Ky., in favor of [Murrow], and not in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, not in the metropolitan cities that you always expect to be liberal. All of a sudden you realized that most of the country said, “Wait a minute, man.” They all had their own personal beliefs and they kept them quiet, but when Murrow stood up and said, “Shut up,” everybody stuck their head out and said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, me too.”
McCarthy’s actual response to Murrow was fascinating to see; it surprised me how modern it was. He talked about how he would “not be deterred by … the Murrows … the Daily Worker, or the Communist Party itself” — that sort of blurring with a broad brush.
Saddam Hussein with 9/11.
When you first saw that footage, were you surprised that it wasn’t more successful at the time than it was?
Have you seen the whole show?
That’s the thing to see, because the problem is we pulled the best McCarthy stuff. McCarthy is clearly pretty drunk when he’s doing it. I mean, he runs out of ways to attack, so then he starts to slur, and he gets slower and slower and slower and slower, and he then he just starts pointing at … he pulls out charts of China and shows how they’ve turned into Communists. Murrow was a master of looking in the camera and telling you the truth. McCarthy had met his match …
It’s an inspiring portrait, but, you know, Murrow did pay a price. You never romanticize Paley too much, which seems key, because while he granted him a lot of freedom, there were still consequences for Murrow in going after McCarthy, which are, of course, very real today.
There were consequences while he was doing it too. He was going to do the Liberace interviews. When he first started doing “Person to Person” he thought he was going to be interviewing Oppenheimer and Eisenhower and Einstein, which he did, but he also ended up doing, you know, “At home with …” And he was friends with the people, so they’d all like to do it. But, you know, I watched ones with Dean Martin … and you watch them and they’re fine, they’re great. But he hated them, hated them, but that paid him money. And he liked that, and it gave him the ability to keep “See It Now” on the air.
Still, you know, everybody understands that today. I’ll do a commercial film so I can do two or three “Syrianas” and “Good Night, and Good Lucks.” It’s part of the tradeoff. And the idea that reporters are not doing their job is not necessarily the truth. The truth is, every one of those guys, for the most, during a presidential press conference, wants to say, “Hold on a minute, let me ask you this.” But if they do, they get put in the back of the room and they don’t get access anymore, or you’re Maureen Dowd and you get your credentials pulled. Then you lose access. And they don’t want to lose access — and not the reporters as much as the companies they work for, the magazines and the television shows they work for. So there’s complications, you know, to all of this. I am completely optimistic, but it certainly is a cautionary tale of all of our history, all of it, as we know, and you and I have heard this a thousand times, but it’s true, we’re doomed to repeat it if we don’t constantly and diligently go back and sort of recalibrate and start over and go, “Let’s get back to the basics again.”
Looking through your credits, you’ve written a little before, but this was your first, really big-time writing job. And you had to do serious research. Did you enjoy that?
I really loved it because I’d written a really bad movie of the week with a friend of mine. He did a great job and I just kept screwing it up, because I was trying to make a movie of the week out of it, basically about some of the same stuff; it was Murrow and McCarthy, but it was Murrow mostly, and I fictionalized characters and …
This was never made?
No, it was never made. We wrote it for CBS, though. And then I went away and it didn’t get made, and about three years later, in the middle of all this stuff going on in the world, all of a sudden I had a long talk with my dad about it and I said, You know, I think I have to do this like a reporter, like a reporter would, like you would. And he said, Well, you’ve got to have two reliable sources for everything, you know. And I said, Fair enough. And then we just started double-sourcing everything, and it was interesting. So when you see Joe Wershba get caught by [McCarthy aide] Don Surine and handing him a HUAC [a House Un-American Activities Committee folder with intelligence on Murrow] and telling him what’s in it, that happened. All of those scenes happened. So to us it was a fun thing to watch Joe Wershba on the set with us going, “That would never happen” and, 83 years old, standing around going, “Don’t do that; they would never do that.”
I would also think doing your own research would give you so much more confidence as the director and also now, while you’re promoting the film.
There’s a funny thing that happens when actors go to promote a film. Basically, you’re just answering questions about what you were doing in the role. No one questions your intelligence. As an actor for many years, believe me, no one questions your intelligence. But when you direct a film, it’s always, What were you trying to say and what do you mean and what were you saying about that — which suddenly makes sense. You have to explain to them what you were thinking and what was going through your head. Which is a very different experience. It happened with “Confessions” as well. I enjoy it because it’s fun, but it was certainly a … it does help to be well informed on the subject matter.
I know that Participant Productions is putting together a Web site for the film [full disclosure: Salon.com will be contributing its content to the site] to build a certain kind of media awareness. What are you hoping it will achieve?
I tell you the truth, we stood at the Venice Film Festival at the end of [the screening] and, you know, the place just stood up and we got this beautiful, long standing ovation. And every single time I was asked a question — you do a junket, you know how there’s 40 people a day for three days, and usually it’s “Do you work out?” and “Who are you dating?” — but there wasn’t a single one. It was all questions about the [movie], and I felt … Well, look, if this sort of brings about a debate or people appreciate it for what it is, that’s all you’re doing it for. That’s the only reason you’re doing it.
I went to the Golden Globes when I was nominated. I’ve never been to the Oscars. I remember when I won the Golden Globe a few years ago [for best leading actor in a comedy for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"] and I got up and I was, like, “Yeah!” I was really excited about the whole thing and took about 15 minutes to call all my friends, and then you sort of set it up on a mantle. It sits there and you forget about it in about 10 seconds. What you realize is that the work is what you love and what’s fun and what’s exciting, and all the other stuff that you get caught up in sometimes is not nearly as fun as doing the job. And that’s where I’m really lucky. Most people don’t get to do what I do, and they certainly don’t get movies that I’m trying to get made made. And you know, they’ll take that away from me pretty soon. You only get it for a little bit. So when you do it, you might as well do it and get in some trouble.
I’ve read that you talked about being disappointed about the results of other artistically ambitious projects, like “Solaris” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.”
It wasn’t so much the financial result. I was sort of disappointed at the marketing on both of those because “Solaris” was being sold as a sci-fi movie, which it wasn’t. It was an independent art film, basically, shot at a studio. And I thought “Confessions” in a way didn’t get a real fair crack at it. But at the end of the day, you know, I got to make both of those films, and they will sit on that shelf right next to “Batman and Robin” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And it will be an element of a career and I’m proud of them.
But I’m wondering, with a movie like “Good Night, and Good Luck,” what your standard of success will be, because it’s important; it could be influential, but not necessarily embraced by a mass public in the way that an “Ocean’s Eleven” would be.
I tell you, the funniest thing is, this one might be surprising. This one actually has sort of a different vibe to it. You know, they’re preselling tickets like crazy in Italy, based on reviews, and not based on me, because obviously they’re not selling it based on me. I’m not the lead in the film.
And you look like hell!
I look like shit, man. But, you know, the whole thing is an interesting one because it sort of strikes a chord with people on both sides of the aisle, and I find that to be interesting. And maybe it’s not such a polarizing film — I don’t think a conservative can argue with the facts. You might be surprised on this one, you know; it doesn’t have to make a whole lot to make money. I think we might do OK here.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)