Michael Clayton Director Tony Gilroy
As a Hollywood screenwriter, Tony Gilroy has brought an insistent energy and intelligence to the projects he has worked on, so it was a totally logical step that he should progress to becoming a director. New York native Gilroy grew up with writing and the movies in his veins, as he is the son of Frank D. Gilroy, the Pulitzer prize-winning writer and filmmaker, possibly best known for writing The Only Game in Town (1970), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty. Gilroy Jr. debuted with the superior ice-skating romcom The Cutting Edge (1992) before embarking on a creative collaboration with director Taylor Hackford which produced Dolores Claiborne (1995), The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and Proof of Life (2000). Gilroy is most famous as the architect of the Bourne trilogy, the superlative spy thrillers starring Matt Damon, which are ostensibly based on novels by the late Robert Ludlum, but are in fact almost entirely Gilroy’s own creation.
Compared to the Bourne movies, Gilroy’s debut film as director is a distinct change of pace: Michael Clayton is that most rare of movies, a smart, thoughtful thriller that takes its time. The film revolves around the eponymous main character (George Clooney), a “fixer” at a big New York law firm who is forced to question the path he has taken in life when his company’s most brilliant lawyer (Tom Wilkinson) goes insane while defending a large and unscrupulous multinational peddling fatal pesticides to farmers. Beautifully written and directed with deft confidence, Michael Clayton is compelling not only because of its tight plotting but because Gilroy fully acquaints us with his characters so that, unlike in a conventional thriller, their problems, tribulations and mistakes are utterly affecting.
Filmmaker spoke to Gilroy about working as a writer for hire, the unexpected success of the Bourne movies, and the night he spent choosing machine guns with Russell Crowe.
Filmmaker: The Cutting Edge was a movie I saw and really enjoyed when it came out, but it seems the odd movie out on your resumé.
Gilroy: I’d begun to be paid [to write] a couple years earlier, and I was really desperate to get a film made. I had a script that was very much like a Preston Sturges [movie], about a bickering couple that had invited the president to their wedding. Robert Cort, who was running Interscope at that point, had read it. He came to New York and said, “I want to do a movie about figure skating,” and I said, “Man, I don’t really [want to do it], but if I nail it will you make it?” And he said, “Yeah, if you nail it I’m going to make it.” Even now, it’s still constantly reissued on DVD.
Filmmaker: And there was a sequel to it made just last year.
Gilroy: That was a trip. You want to know the truth? It’s amazing, [but] I never knew about that. I was literally going out to dinner when someone called me up and said, “Hey, what’s this thing that’s on TV tonight?” “What are you talking about?” We turn on the TV, and I was like, “What the fuck is this?!” I called my agent, [and he told me that] from an original script, $1500 was all I got paid for the character rights for that sequel. I saw five minutes before we went to dinner, and I was like, “This is appalling!” I wanted to do a really tragic sequel where he’s an alcoholic and she’s gotten fat and they’re in the Ice Capades. I wanted to do Who’s Afraid of the Cutting Edge?, but I couldn’t get anybody interested in that. I wanted Soderbergh to do it.
Filmmaker: Starting with Dolores Claiborne, you developed a creative partnership with Taylor Hackford.
Gilroy: That was huge, that was everything for me. Taylor came on [when] the script was already written, and that was a blessed project all the way from the very beginning. It was a great experience. Taylor [and I] hit it off instantly — we’re both the same kind of asshole [laughs], and we have the same pain threshold and I think we’re both secure enough… Of all the writer-director collaborations that I know about, it’s really one of the best. Not at all without conflict, but really one of the best. And he’s a dear friend still.
Filmmaker: You worked on Armageddon, where there are six credited writers, and you’ve written scripts entirely on your own. What’s the ideal set-up for you as a writer?
Gilroy: I didn’t actually work with anybody on Armageddon, but at this point it seems I’ve done every conceivable kind of writing job you can do: I’ve come in for two days, I’ve come in for a week, I’ve come in just to talk, I’ve come in from the very beginning to the very end. I’ve worked on movies where I’ve never seen the movie I’ve been so pissed off, I’ve worked on movies where the director wasn’t allowed to talk to me. [Michael Clayton] was the best experience, to be able to be in complete control, to say, “This is mine.” But the great perk of the whole gig is to be able to go and pick up weekly work, to pick up the phone and say, “I’ve got some bills to pay. I need a month’s work right now — who needs something?” I worked for [Jerry] Bruckheimer for a year and a half — it wasn’t just Armageddon, it was a bunch of films. Not only was it good economically, but fun. It was very un-neurotic work. You know what the target is, you know what you’re supposed to do, and there’s something very satisfying [about that]. It’s extremely debilitating way to live if you stay, if you don’t have a deadline to it, but as a temporary thing it’s a good way.
Filmmaker: How did you approach the process of adaptation in the Bourne movies?
Gilroy: We didn’t use the books. The first ten minutes of the first film is out of the book, but after that it’s mine. I invented an entire different cosmology, naively and innocently, as is reflected in the fact that I am not the owner of any of this. Doug [Liman] had a script by someone who’d tried to do the book, but no one was going to make the movie. I said, “I have no interest in [rewriting] that, but if you want to do a teardown, [I can do one]. What happens if you have somebody who has amnesia who keeps finding out that the things they know how to do are bad? That’s kind of interesting.” It was so low pressure and the script came out of it very quickly, it was very interesting material. That turned into a two-year saga. No one ever thought there would be a sequel of that first movie. I’m not going to get into all the production insanity and everything else but, believe me, I never would have killed Clive Owen or Chris Cooper if I thought there was going to be a sequel. The minute there was a sequel, I went back and put the tape in to see if there was any way that Clive could have crawled out of that field. We never, ever thought there would be a sequel, so once we had to go on we couldn’t use the books. There was nothing.
Filmmaker: I believe the idea for Michael Clayton came out of experiences you had while researching The Devil’s Advocate.
Gilroy: Exactly. Wandering off the recce tour at the law firms, I was really struck by how unrepresented an actual law firm was on film. It’s either like L.A. Law, or it’s like The Firm, or it’s like Devil’s Advocate. They have that wood paneled room, it’s just that no one ever goes in there and the real work is taking place in these huge backstage industrial areas with documents and people working. When you go to a law firm to shoot location at 3 o’clock in the morning, it’s shocking: there’s three or four lights on on every floor and some poor person buried under paper. It’s not pretty people and it’s not a pretty atmosphere, it’s really a grind. That’s fertile territory for a film.
Filmmaker: This is a real change of pace and seems like a very conscious attempt to step away from the Bourne style of filmmaking.
Gilroy: This was the temperature that this movie wanted to be at. If I was doing something else, I’d want to reserve the right to be as kinetic as I possibly could be. I’ve written a lot of thrillers and a lot of uncredited stuff, and this was a real opportunity, not as an intellectual exercise but just as an instinctive thing, to write the moments that normally get left out. The traditionally Hollywood storytelling technique, even in a great film, is that the villain is presented fully formed, and at the end has a series of scenes or speeches that really underline a cogent villain’s worldview. But I’m much more concerned in this movie with the creation of the villain, and the moment when people decide to do what they do. There’s a whole bunch of moments and ideas that had got thrown off the truck over the years in these other films that were really interesting to me to find a place where they worked. And they worked on this film.
Filmmaker: Was it easy to convince people to let you direct?
Gilroy: Oh, it would have been much easier to go do an action picture. It would have been vastly easier to get four times as much money, $80m, and do an action picture, bizarre as that sounds. If you’re cheap and confident and know what you’re doing and you understand production, you’re a real good value for them. The dirty secret on the big action pictures is there’s a lot less personal direction than there is in any other thing. It’s a whole community of people that make the picture, it’s a much more communal filmmaking style.
Filmmaker: Were you nervous on your first day?
Gilroy: Oh yeah, but nervous in a good way. It’s really silly, the weekend before you actually start you realize you’re going to have to say “Action!” and “Cut!”
Filmmaker: Did you rehearse in front of a mirror?
Gilroy: [I rehearsed] with my family. I got merciless shit from my family for weeks: “I wanna hear you say it again! How’re you gonna say it?” It was the source of much amusement in my household. I got no shortage of grief.
Filmmaker: Michael Clayton is reminiscent of movies from the 1970s, when thrillers could be thoughtful and slow-burning.
Gilroy: 70s movies are the heart of where my moviegoing obsession really began, and they’re still the films I go back and look at the most. It was a combination of muscular filmmaking with great subject matter. And ambiguity. Muscle and ambiguity and complexity and loose ends. That’s been ghetto-ized off to the side now to the Sundance film or the super-indie film, where people are really hanging on for dear life [because] they don’t have enough money to make their movies. They have the twentieth choice of actor, and their crew’s doing everything for the first time. But that era of balls-out, tough, full-stop, pro moviemaking that didn’t have the chaos beaten out of it, there are so many movies that fall into that category: the [Alan J.] Pakula films, Klute was a big influence, Point Blank was a huge influence, all the Gordon Willis films, Sidney Lumet, Hal Ashby, Frank Perry – and Sydney [Pollack].
Filmmaker: Do you see yourself directing more movies after this? Is the success of Michael Clayton integral to that question?
Gilroy: I’d love to keep doing this. I can’t stop writing, but I have something I’m trying to get off right before the strike. I’m working very aggressively right now to get something off in March. Michael Clayton‘s already satisfied what it needs to satisfy. I’ve had great success from showing it to other actors and saying, “Trust me,” and that’s the coin of the realm.
Filmmaker: What were your major cinematic influences growing up?
Gilroy: Growing up, it was all the films of the 60s. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was a huge influence on me. But when it came to going to movies in the 70s, that’s really when everything [came together]. I moved to Boston when I was 17 years old as a musician, and there was the Orson Welles, the Harvard Square, the Brattle Theater, the Central Square Theater — within 15 blocks, there were five or six amazing rep houses that were changing movies every day. Imagine if there were 18 Film Forums. I used to see everything, and then I started working back and seeing all the Billy Wilder films, the old [Ernst] Lubitsch films. So those were the years that I really fell in love with movies.
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest thing you’ve experienced in the film industry?
Gilroy: [laughs] Oh my God, that’s a long list! I’ll just have to pick something at random… Picking weapons with Russell Crowe and Taylor [Hackford] in the penthouse room in the Argyle Hotel from ten o’clock at night until six in the morning. [We were] picking weapons with an armorer for Proof of Life with I don’t know how many weapons in that room. Unbelievable. SAS guns and an armory in the penthouse apartment on Sunset Boulevard.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s the best advice you could give to a young filmmaker?
Gilroy: Have fun, but be cruel. You really have to be cruel to yourself, don’t fool yourself. It’s that fine balance between being really enthusiastic and free and loose and imaginative, and being really tough on yourself. Be tough on yourself before somebody else is.