In the past year, many respected screenwriters have made the jump to directing–John August, Scott Frank and Mark Fergus are three who’ve made some of the more interesting transitions–but none of them can claim they got superstar actor George Clooney to star in their first feature. Maybe that’s because they don’t have the background and success that Tony Gilroy has had with the intelligent thrillers he’s penned in the last decade including The Devil’s Advocate, Proof of Live and all three of the “Bourne” movies.
Gilroy’s directorial debut Michael Clayton continues the tradition with a corporate thriller starring Clooney as the “fixer” of a large New York law firm who gets caught up in the cover-up plot for a billion dollar class action suit that’s already left one of his colleagues dead. It’s part Erin Brockovich, part The Firm and an amazing look into the world of corporate law that hasn’t been seen on film quite like this.
While up at the Toronto Film Festival, Tony Gilroy took part in an insanely mobbed press conference with Clooney and his co-star Tilda Swinton, but later on, ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the New York native in a quieter setting.
ComingSoon.net: When did you first start writing this movie or decide that you wanted to do a movie about this aspect of corporate law? Tony Gilroy: “The Devil’s Advocate” was when we did sort of the origin of it. We were going around doing research with Taylor Hackford in pre-production looking at all these law firms in New York City. They gave me all these guided tours, sort of wandering into the back rooms, and I realized there was this really huge, vast backstage, and that the movies have only been shot about the front of restaurants that never go in the kitchen. This is really a fascinating place to put into a movie. Filing that away, that environment, was really the first germ behind this.
CS: When you started to work on this story, did you already know that you wanted to direct it as well? Gilroy: I did write this one to direct. I did go in and set this up when I went to Castle Rock and gave them a very sketchy pitch. I went in and said, “Look I want to do a movie about a guy who’s a fixer at a big law firm in New York. It’s going to be a movie about lawyers, but it’s never going to go into a courtroom. It’ll have a movie star part. Someone will die, and I want to direct it.” That was pretty much the pitch.
CS: Why did you want to direct this one in particular and was directing something you’ve always wanted to do but never had the chance? Gilroy: I’d been trying before that. There was another project that I’d been trying to get off the ground to direct and I’ve been going at it for a little while, I’ve been trying, but I really wanted to construct this one for myself and do it that way. It took me longer to write than I thought it was going to. I got involved in “Bourne,” got deeply involved in “Bourne,” and that turned in to a consuming thing for a long time, so it took longer to write and then it took much longer to get made.
CS: Once you started shooting, did you have turn down other writing gigs or were you able to do this in between the “Bourne” movies? Gilroy: You mean economically? No, I wrote “Bourne Ultimatum,” and it was actually one of the rare times that my scheduling plan worked out. I have a lot of plans that don’t always work out. My plan was to do all the research for “Ultimatum”–did all the traveling in the Spring, than I was going to write the film over the summer. Came up with the story, then I turned it into Universal literally the week before we started pre-production on “Michael Clayton.” Then I didn’t do any writing during “Michael Clayton” for 18 months, I didn’t do a writing job. So, “Ultimatum” paid for “Michael Clayton.”
CS: But you didn’t have to go on the set to do any rewriting on the “Bourne” stuff? Gilroy: No, the first one I was involved everyday all the way through. The last two, I haven’t had much to do with the physical production of the films.
CS: I’ve heard stories about that first movie from various actors. Gilroy: There’s a lot of stories. I wish I kept a journal of the last 8 years of the whole damn thing. The whole thing has been a saga.
CS: At what point did George sign on for the title role and did a lot of things change once he did? Gilroy: Sydney Pollack came on early and wanted to direct the movie, and I said, “No, I’m not doing that. I’m hanging on to it.” He said, “Let me help you get it made.” Then along the way, Steven Soderbergh, who I was working with, read it and said, “Man, this is great! George should do this movie. I’m going to get him on the phone right away, and we should do it for no money and do it right away.” We sent it to George, and George came back and said, “I really love the script. I think I might want to direct it, but I don’t want to meet this guy, and I don’t want to work with a first time director.” It was two years later before I got a meeting with him. I went through a whole bunch of stuff and then two years later I actually had money and I was about to make another push. I had tried to make the movie in a variety of different ways and then two years later, I actually had enough money to the movie and I was about to go out to some different actors and before I went out, I went back to Soderbergh and said, “Look, before I go out and get real about this movie and make it with someone who’s my second choice, I don’t want to meet George six months from now and find out we get along. I’m begging you, get me a meeting, I don’t care if he passes or not. I don’t want to regret this.” I begged and I badgered my way into a meeting with him.
CS: How long ago was that would you say? Gilroy: That was oh God that was. We shot it the winter before last, so that was a year before that. He was going to shoot “Good Night, And Good Luck” and “The Good German” before that, so I had to wait for those two. Yeah, so it was the winter before this, so it’s been a while now.
CS: Did he like the script as it was or did you have to do any changes for him to agree to play the part? Gilroy: Yeah, we didn’t change anything significant. No, nothing significant changed.
CS: What about on your own end, knowing that George was going to do it. Did you want to change anything with that in mind? Gilroy: Yeah, I mean microscopically, but no, nothing significant.
CS: George gave a great performance, in my opinion even better than the one he got the Oscar for in “Syriana.” What was the working relationship like in terms of rehearsing to figure things out? Gilroy: We did no rehearsal whatsoever. No, we had no rehearsal, but that was not just because of George and his schedule or anything. I had worked on a bunch of films that had been heavily rehearsed and I’d been through a lot of rehearsals. I never was big on the rehearsal process. I think it is very good for the writer. I was never necessarily sure that it was good for the actors. This movie was the kind of movie that lent itself to not rehearsing in a way. Everyone is very uncomfortable and anxious with one another. There’s not a lot of comfort in this movie. I think if you’re doing a movie where people need to be really comfortable with one another, I think then it can have great value. This was a movie about people that are uncomfortable with one another and in exile with one another. I thought, “What’s the point of rehearsing Tilda and Mr. Verne?” I mean, you don’t want them to be comfortable with each other. What’s the point of rehearsing George with ? So I didn’t rehearse very consciously on the picture at all. The working relationship with George was really making sure he was comfortable with the script. You want actors to really know what’s going on in every scene. “Do you understand what’s happening here? Do you have any questions about what’s going on?” Then you want to build a stage for thema stage in the movie sense–you want to make up a room for them and a space for them that’s really under control, that’s really organized, that’s really ready to go, so when they come in you can spend all your time on the day that day getting what you need. If you’re scrambling from the moment you start, you’re taking time away from the actors. You really want to create a comfort zone, but no, I was very interested in having everyone be uncomfortable and on edge.
CS: You shot on location in New York which must have been tough. I remember seeing all the streets you’d closed down for the movie. Gilroy: Oh my God, it was so cold. We had a snowstorm, and it was so freezing that winter, so cold.
CS: That’s a whole other element, besides directing your first movie. You have George Clooney, this cast, and then you have New York, which is completely uncontrollable Gilroy: Yeah, but I was at home too, so I had the advantage of really knowing I lived in New York for nearly 25 years, so I was at home and I did have home court advantage.
CS: And you also had George as an Executive Producer, so that must have helped to get things you needed. Gilroy: So helpful in getting locations. It’s so hard to make a movie with this little money in New York and get all these locations and there were so many times where it was crucial to say, “George, could you come out and say hello, or could you have your picture taken with this person?” And all of a sudden, we’re hanging on to the location. It’s like HUGE, beyond money.
CS: As far as dealing with this subject matter, this type of corporate insider stuff we don’t normally see, were you at all nervous about exposing some of these things that corporations or law firms might not want people to know about? Gilroy: No, never, not at all. I was never afraid in doing the movie. Also, what interests me it’s the same thing when we were talking about “Bourne” and people say, “Oh, there’s all this paranoia and there’s all this government conspiracy and there’s all this external force” and it’s the same thing in “Clayton.” There’s paranoia and there’s corporate but to me, that’s really not what there is to be frightened at in these movies. I mean the villain in these movies is what’s inside. It’s the interior villain. The villain is really inside Jason Bourne, the villain really inside Michael Clayton, the villain is inside. It’s the decisions. My motivation is to put that villain down inside. Same thing with “The Devil’s Advocate,” same thing, put it inside.
CS: Were there any incidents like the one in this movie that someone could draw parallels to? Was it all fictionalized or was there some basis in reality? Gilroy: If you Google “Anderson vs. GM”, you’ll see a case that has some similarities to this. If you Google that case, there’s a lot of stuff online about that particular case which has a lot of parallels to this. It’s a huge class action lawsuit that hinged on a memo that was kept out of discovery. It was an interesting legal path on that, same scale of economy, same consequences.
CS: And that also went on over a long period of time? Gilroy: Yeah, oh God. All these cases go on forever.
CS: Have you held any screenings for anyone in the industry such as lawyers or anyone you spoke to while doing research? Gilroy: A lot of attorneys have seen the film now, and people outside the law are “Oh my God! Is it anti-lawyer?” It’s not really. Attorneys recognize that I’m most pleased to have attorneys see the movie and say, “God, that looks familiar, you got it right. That feels like a world that I understand.”
CS: Do you know what you’re doing next and do you feel you’re at a point where you will continue directing? Gilroy: Yeah, I have a movie that I’m just on the verge.. I mean I can’t announce it. I’m just finalizing the deals on it to get it off before the strike.
CS: In general, are you now only writing stuff for yourself to direct? Gilroy: You know, I’ve had this one done for a while. I’ve been sitting on it for the last 6 to 8 months, so I’ve done two writing jobs. I did one studio writing job, I did one job for a director and I wrote something for myself, so I’ve been writing. I think I’m going to be writing for myself. I mean if I can pull it off, it’s a pretty groovy gig. At that point, if you can be a writer-director, quite honestly you’re removing a whole level of I mean, what do you need to get a movie made? If you’re a writer-director, pretty much all you need is one actor to get a movie made. You don’t even need a studio anymore. There’s so much private money and interesting ways to put things together, so if I have me, and if I have George Clooney, or if I have Brad Pitt, or if I have Matt Damon, then I have a movie. I don’t need anybody else at that point. You’re always looking to cut out as many decisions as possible to get a green light.
CS: But do you have the tenacity and focus to develop everything you write for years, as opposed to writing for months and then letting someone else bring their vision to it? Gilroy: I really enjoyed directing tremendously. You know, I’ve gotten to the point where the most heartbreaking thing is the scripts that don’t get made. I really don’t want to write scripts that don’t get made anymore. To me, the act of writing. I used to be really proud of a lot of scripts that never got made, but in the end, it’s sort of planned like how a great architect plans for buildings that never got made. I’m less enamored at the value of that at this point.
CS: Do you have any thoughts on the success of the “Bourne” series? It’s pretty amazing for a movie franchise to not only get better and better with each movie but also for each chapter to be more successful. Gilroy: I’m very happy that they’ve done well. My wife is very happy, too.
CS: Would you consider writing another movie if you can come up with another idea that the others are into doing? Gilroy: I don’t think anyone wants to do that.
CS: So you can’t see it ever becoming like James Bond where they just get another person to continue the franchise? Gilroy: I don’t think it really works for that, it’s too intimate. It’s a different model. It’s not about wardrobe and clothes, it’s not about “shaken not stirred.” It’s not about the Walter PPK or about the equipment. You can’t strap it on somebody else. It’s really about this guy. It’s very intimate, that’s its value. That’s why it’s so popular.
CS: It’s actually funny that the Bond franchise went back and looked at the “Bourne” movies when they relaunched it, since everyone compared the first “Bourne” movie to the early Bonds. Gilroy: Well, they just hired Dan Bradley to be the stunt coordinator for “Bond 22”! Unbelievable. That’s the biggest tell of all, because that guy had as much to do with it as anybody.
Michael Clayton opens in New York, L.A. and Toronto on October 5 and then expands nationwide on October 12.