For 'Good Night' Art Director, The Challenge Was Black-and-White
Sunday, February 26, 2006
Desperate for that cigarette-befouled, claustrophobic look but decorating on a shoestring? Fade in on the wizard of Murrowland, production designer Jim Bissell, whose budget for the buttoned-down CBS beehive that is "Good Night, and Good Luck" might have shocked Murrow himself.
Dissolve to an exterior scene some 30 years earlier. Bissell, a North Carolina native, has just hit Hollywood, landing a job on the old David O. Selznick lot, where he's transfixed by stacks and stacks of ancient set pieces. They are "painted the weirdest colors you can imagine," Bissell remembers. Later he will discover that these garish remnants of bad taste past are actually flats for TV shows from the black-and-white 1950s, a period in which tone values -- not color -- were king.
Interior, daytime, early 2005: George Clooney hires Bissell to help create a monochromatic paean to the early days of broadcast journalism. Clooney wants documentary-level accuracy in the scenes of CBS's New York headquarters, some of which will be interspersed with actual footage of Sen. Joe McCarthy's reign of terror. The budget precludes things like reupholstering furniture, so Bissell is forced to "wander around with a contrast filter," a small gel on a monocle, "and evaluate tonality as best I could." The result is eerily reminiscent of the Selznick sets -- period sofas and chairs upholstered in very non-period pinks and greens. They are, in Bissell's opinion, "pretty ugly" -- but look fabulous in black-and-white.
Cut to actors arriving for the first day of "Good Night" shooting in what Bissell calls "the rabbit warren" and Clooney dubs "Das Studio," after the German submarine flick "Das Boot." Looking at the furniture, cast and crew become somewhat alarmed. "There was a little bit of head-scratching as people walked onto the set," admits Bissell. He immediately reminds everyone that this will be a black-and-white film. And he asks Clooney to ensure that no one takes a color photograph of the set. Bissell has a reputation to protect; a casual viewer of the offending photo might reasonably conclude "that Jim Bissell can't design worth a damn." (Oh, and about those reports of non-period set issues? Not so. The bottled spring water was only in the publicity still, not the film; the Helvetica on the CBS News logo on the film's set was actually the pre-Helvetica font Akzidenz-Grotesk.) A montage of thrift: Clooney and Bissell, for reasons both thematic and cost-cutting, decide that all of "Good Night's" CBS locations will be imagined as having been under one roof. (In reality, corporate headquarters were several blocks uptown of the CBS studios near Grand Central Station.) "We introduce the idea that this is a newsroom that functions within the larger context of the corporation," says Bissell. "I'm so surprised nobody nailed me on this . . . mythological space."
Next we enter an elevator whose doors close and then appear to open on another floor. Actually, the elevator rotates 90 degrees and opens onto a different set on the same floor. Another money-saving tactic: The long corridor that leads to CBS Chairman William S. Paley's office is re-dressed as the lobby of the CBS building, and then re-re-dressed as the employee cafeteria. The film is shot in six weeks and keeps to its wee $8 million budget.
When "Good Night, and Good Luck" is released, cast and crew, Bissell reports, are "pretty much resigned to the fact that no one would watch it and it would sort of go instantly into obscurity." Instead it becomes a critical success and a modest hit, and Bissell, whose 30-year career includes work on such art-elaborate projects as "E.T." and "Jumanji," is rewarded at age 54 with his first Oscar nomination. Noting that such prizes are ordinarily reserved for fantasy epics and period pictures, Bissell expresses genuine surprise at having been recognized for, among other things, his eye for pink and green furniture.
And yes, he will wear black and white to the Oscars.