Two years ago, the name of an already successful Hollywood screenwriter was suddenly on everyone’s lips as Tony Gilroy‘s corporate thriller Michael Clayton, starring a certain George Clooney, unexpectedly broke into the Oscar race with seven nominations.
Of course, Gilroy had already found a great deal of success with his writing on Universal’s “Bourne” trilogy which solidified his status as one of Hollywood’s most respected experts on the spy and espionage genre, but with his directorial debut getting so much acclaim, he was finally being taken seriously as a filmmaker.
Gilroy’s second movie Duplicity is an even more ambitious film, this one being a romantic comedy (of sorts) set within the world of “competitive intelligence,” which is essentially what the big corporations do to find out what their competition is doing and try to beat them to the punch. Caught up in the game between two warring cosmetic companies are Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as Claire Stenwick and Ray Koval, former government intelligent agents who are trying to one-up each other in an expensive bit of espionage between the two high-powered companies.
It’s the kind of thinking person’s movie that’s so rare these days, one that can be enjoyed for the playful relationship between the two lead actors, as much as for the clever non-linear way that Gilroy tells this intricate tale of espionage. (The movie also opens with one of the funniest on-screen fights maybe ever, as the heads of the two corporations, played by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, go at it on an airport tarmac as their respective entourages look on aghast.)
Gilroy hinted about but hesitated to elaborate about the project when ComingSoon.net spoke with him a few years ago at the Toronto Film Festival (here), so it was great to sit down with him once again to talk about it. Quite frankly, it’s sometimes hard not to hate the guy for being so smart that he always makes us feel somewhat dumb.
ComingSoon.net: I’m really interested in this idea of “competitive intelligence” in that it’s similar to “Clayton” where it’s something that’s going on but for some reason, unless you work in that world or look into it, we don’t really know about it. I was curious how you first found out about it? Tony Gilroy: Over the years, from the different spy movies–and a couple movies that weren’t produced–and working on all kinds of things (like) “Enemy of the State,” I met people for research. “Here’s a guy I know in the intelligence community or here’s a guy who does that” and I build up a little Rolodex of people to talk to and every single one of them was working privately. All the guys that we worked with on “Proof of Life,” all the guys who’d worked in SAS, who’d gone through British Intelligence were pretty much all setting up shop privately. Also, on “Proof of Life” we came in contact with all the companies that did the kidnap and ransom insurance and then there’s all the subsidiary companies inside that who run security and then you realize that there’s a whole vast community that goes all the way up to the Dynecorps and the Blackhawks and all these different Blackwaters and all these different places. Somebody I knew went to work for an unnamed really large corporation and I said, “Well what are you doing there?” They said, “I’m mostly defense. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on, a lot of product protection. It can be anything from a tampering case to something we’re really interested in.” I began to look into it and seriously, if you just google (“competitive intelligence”) you’ll be shocked.
There was an article that came out, Condé Nast Portfolio. As we started shooting, like the week we started shooting, there was an article in Portfolio, it’s almost as if they read the script.
CS: It’s amazing though that if you watch the news, you don’t really see this stuff reported, because it’s happening and lawsuits must be involved. Gilroy: No, because they don’t want to talk about it.
CS: So they really just deal with this stuff internally as much as possible? Gilroy: Really the only case I can think of that came up to the surface, that it got legal, was this Unilever-Proctor & Gambel case, because there was some criminal aspect of it. I don’t want to get caught up in the legal part of it, but that’s the only thing I know of that really rose to the level of… most of it is really not talked about.
CS: It’s interesting that you met these people who were consulting on other spy movies and found out they went onto do this. You see people who work for the CIA, FBI and other government agencies and you sometimes wonder what they do when their professional career is over. Gilroy: Well, it’s the same thing with pilots. Let’s say you’re a quote-unquote “spy”–that means so many different things–but let’s say you’re an operations person and you’ve gone out and you’ve gone to the farm and been posted someplace and you’ve worked and you’ve put your time in. Let’s say your 15 years in and you’ve got great language skills, you know all kinds of operation things, up and down intelligence, how to run people, all the things you need to know and you’re making, what? What are you making? All your percs, everything? You’re making $175 thousand a year, okay? You can turn around tomorrow–and you’re not even making $175 thousand a year–and someone’s willing to pay you $400 thousand to run intelligence, and all of a sudden, you’re not working 18 hours a day and it’s not about life and death. It’s about water bottles or newsprint or some new version of how to make brownies…
CS: Or frozen pizza. Gilroy: Yeah, or frozen pizza!
CS: I wondered why you chose to have this particular story set in the world of cosmetics. Gilroy: I wanted companies that are so huge that they’re into everything. I wanted a broad and gigantic, make the companies as large as possible. It was really to have companies that are really… you say “home care products,” you can be talking about these companies who are into everything and anything.
CS: Like Proctor and Gamble Gilroy: Yeah, gigantic.
CS: You already knew people who were doing this, so how open were they to talk about it once you decided you wanted to write a script based in that world? Gilroy: I didn’t really have to go back that deep. A lot of the stuff I did, I’d say a certain percentage, was done either (at the) library or (on the) internet, and another percentage was done from everything I knew about… because part of this is a traditional spy movie between two countries. This could be a Cold War movie. You could absolutely take this story, put it in 1972, and have it be the United States vs. Russia, and they’re trying to destroy each other and you can sort of make the parallels all the way through it. A lot of what I knew about espionage and trade crafts and storytelling went into that. It was more lighting the fuse, watching where all these people were going, rather than calling up and saying, “How did you steal the new paper clip design?” It wasn’t like that.
CS: Did you always know you wanted to tell this story in a non-linear way and in pieces? Gilroy: The romance part kind of fit in that light. It kind of came up pretty quick that way.
CS: I was especially curious about the boxes and split-screen motif you were using and why you wanted to use that. Gilroy: That came up as we were shooting. We were trying a bunch of different things. We were trying to have the movie, in its own way, feel or smell like a game, a little bit heightened in that sense, in different ways that we could do that with how it looked. And then, we really needed to create a really strong grammar for the passage of time. We needed a really strong way to orient the audience to where you are in the story. My brother John, who’s the editor, really started experimenting with all these various techniques to make sure some of them are subliminal, some of them are overt, some of them are very obvious about how to let the audience know exactly where they are at this given moment. Most things in movies, you’re doing everything for the first time and last time. We learned how to do this while we were doing it. We were learning and testing and said “God, that’s a better way of doing that.” We learned a lot about how to do that by doing it, and we sort of over time, honed (it) and the split screens really helped us make the movie kind of META. It did a lot of really cool things for us.
CS: Did you plan that very early on? You had a lot of great shots of the locations as part of those split-screen montages. Gilroy: It was about half-way through shooting. There were some things we shot already that lent themselves to it, and then there was other stuff we shot very consciously for it. Some of the good ones were done pre-consciously and then one or two of the really great ones – there’s a shot of Clive getting out of the cab in London, that’s one that was really well-designed for that.
CS: There’s something about the movie that, despite you writing it years ago, feels very modern and current but then the split screens and the distinctive pace of the dialogue, gives it the feel of an old ’40s movie like “The Maltese Falcon.” Was that something very conscious while making the movie? Gilroy: But a good thing though?
CS: Yeah, absolutely in a good way. Gilroy: Then the answer is “yes.”
CS: Clive and Julia were raving about you earlier. Did you feel that you brought a lot of good will to this from “Clayton” where you could go to them and get them to pay attention? Gilroy: Yeah, George Clooney was my job reference.
CS: But it took you two years to get him to even read “Clayton.” Gilroy: Yeah, you know, but I had a bunch of job references and I hadn’t done it before. He could call up and say, if nothing else, “Look, this guy will protect you.” I think that’s probably what people need to hear more than anything else, if nothing else. “He’s not a screamer, and it will be run smooth, and he’ll care more about the movie than you will and he’ll kill himself to do it, and he’ll protect you.” I think that’s what actors need to know more than anything else is that someone’s going to protect them.
CS: It’s great. At this point, you have George Clooney in your first movie, Julia Roberts in your second movie. Where do you go from there? Gilroy: I don’t know. It’s over for me.
CS: Jack Nicholson? Gilroy: There you go. I tried that before… but anyway.
CS: I appreciate you doing the junket here in New York because I find that so many filmmakers shoot movies here then go to L.A. and hide and do the junket out there. Gilroy: But I live here!
CS: I know, but I’m so used to that happening. Was it just as easy this time to get the locations? You did a lot of location shooting the first movie but you had George there who helped. Gilroy: The city really helped us out, and the tax thing really helped us out.
CS: Did you have the tax incentive the first time? Gilroy: Yeah, both movies were made in New York. I mean, “Clayton” doesn’t exist at all without the tax break. It would never have gotten financed. It’s 30%. So when we came back for this, we not only were getting a lot more money back. It’s huge! 30% of the below-the-line on this movie is a really big number, plus then we had… here’s the benefits. You get the money, you get the fact that everyone’s been shooting like crazy in the city so everybody’s tuned up. That means everybody, not just the crews, but the police department, the mayor’s office, the permits. Everybody’s tuned up, and then we had good credibility off “Clayton.” We did everything we said we would. We left everything clean, we picked up after ourselves. We didn’t abuse anything. So they know who the good citizens are and we got treated (well). If we really needed something and said, “Sorry we got to go back there tomorrow. We didn’t get it all, you gotta let us come back.” They could have just as easily have said “no” but they said “yes.”
CS: Is there a danger of a movie like this being too smart for the room? And I guess in this case, the “room” would be America. This one requires even more intelligence and attention in some ways. Gilroy: Yeah, but it’s also much more fun. God, we did the previews for “Clayton” and in the test screenings, we’d have people walking out in the first 45 minutes, but that never happened to us here. The hopeful thing you’re trying to do is make people feel comfortable at the beginning of the movie so they really feel like these people know what they’re doing. All of this is going to work itself out by the time I get to the end. If you go see a movie where you really feel the people are not in control of their own movie and you feel shaky about the moviemaking, that’s when you get nervous. I don’t know the answer to that question. Are we too smart for the room? I don’t know. We’ll find out.
CS: We talked earlier about directing other projects, so are there any particular genres you’re looking to get into? You’ve been doing so much with spies at this point… Gilroy: I don’t think I’ll be doing a spy picture.
CS: So are there any genres you’d want to explore that we might never imagine from the films you’ve done so far? Gilroy: I wrote a horror movie last year or two years ago. If you look at the credits, I haven’t done a Western. I’m trying to think what else I haven’t done. I haven’t done a straight-out sci-fi movie.
CS: But is that stuff you’d be interested in doing? Gilroy: Yeah, sure. If I can find a way in character-wise or find something thematic that interests me, yeah. I have an idea for a science fiction movie.
Here’s more with Tony Gilroy from a roundtable done earlier in the day:
CS: Where did this project originate? Gilroy: The base line for this was meeting with Steven Soderbergh about eight years ago and Steven saying that my introduction to him was that he wanted to do a movie about spies and he said he’d done all these spy movies and all this spy stuff, “I want to do a movie about spies.” I said, “Well, I’m getting kinda tired of that.” But, corporate espionage is really fresh and no one’s done that yet and a lot of people are leaving government service to go private. I thought, “This looked kinda cool.” We started having conversations and so it sorta came outta that. Those were the very first conversations with him.
CS: Did you really have access to that much high tech equipment? Do they really develop new technologies just to spy on other corporations? Gilroy: You’re all online journalists, right? Just go Google, “Competitive intelligence,” is what they call they like to call themselves. That’s what the industry describes itself as, “Competitive intelligence.” That’s a euphemism. It is massive. It is so huge. Many multiples of billions of dollars all over the place. It’s a huge, huge industry and for a logical reason. It’s like what he says in the movie: if you can invest $60 million in making something and I can buy a lot of intelligence for $2 million, I mean, a lot of intelligence for $2 million. For $2 million, if I can have your $60 million investment, either steal it outright or know how to defend against it or come up with something that’s just like it, this is happening all the time everywhere. There isn’t anything in the movie that hasn’t happened.
CS: To what extent is it illegal? Obviously, if you steal from an employer and give it to somebody, that’s illegal, but if I steal from company X and give it to company Y… Gilroy: That’s called theft. The reason this goes so unreported is winners don’t want to talk about it and losers don’t want to talk about it. So nobody wants to talk about it.
CS: When you write a script like this and have to shop it around and get people involved, do you give them a preface by saying, “This is about corporate intelligence” or do you want them to uncover it for themselves? Gilroy: It was only pitched once. We pitched it to Universal. We went in and it was a pretty elaborate pitch at that point. It was a pretty clearly elaborate pitch and it was a business that Universal wanted to be in. I mean, at that point Steven was gonna be in it. So it was a pretty easy pitch.
CS: What about when you’re sending the script around to actors? Gilroy: The actors involved I gave them the script. I’m just giving them the script. But this was written what, seven years ago, so it had a long life and when I wrote it I wasn’t a director. About halfway through shooting “Clayton” I was like, “Wow I would really like to do this again and maybe they’ll let me do it again and what would I do?” I knew that “Duplicity” was sitting there and it was kinda cold at the moment and I was really hoping that it was not gonna get picked up by anybody or that someone else was gonna do a corporate espionage film. That was my bigger fear.
CS: Would that be ironic? If somebody took your idea and got it out before you did? Gilroy: Exactly, if they had the right equipment.
CS: Was it important for Clive’s character to not to be American? Gilroy: No, the part was originally written American, but that was a big bump. That was a big upside when Clive came in with a picture. I think it’s better. I think it was a big improvement to have him do that and to have him play himself. I changed a lot of characters over the years for things like that and sometimes you’re like, “Oh, okay, I’ll hold my nose and I’ll do it.”
CS: So you did tailor the script towards Clive and Julia when they came on board? Gilroy: A little bit, yeah, a little bit. More for his side than hers, but we tweak all the way up, I mean, that’s the luxury I have. I can do anything I need to do on the day, the night before, the week before if I see how things are going. It’s the one big advantage. I don’t have to ask anybody or get anybody else. It just means I have to stay awake longer.
CS: Do you ever throw out lines while you’re shooting? Gilroy: Sure, oh yeah, definitely. I’m always looking for… if someone has a better way to go. You want everything to fit in everybody’s mouth and come out. I mean, sometimes you come up with something and it reads very well and you can say it in your room, but it just doesn’t hit for somebody else.
Duplicity opens nationwide on Friday, March 20. You can read our interviews with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen here.