Tony Gilroy Interview

It's that time of the year again: The leaves are falling, the wind is cold, and George Clooney is in a serious Oscar-baiting movie. It must be fall. "Michael Clayton" is that film and it marks accomplished screenwriter Tony Gilroy's first effort as a director. His previous cinematic endeavors as a screenwriter include "The Devil's Advocate," "Proof of Life," and the Bourne trilogy.

On Wednesday we got a chance to speak with Mr. Gilroy himself at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco about his new role as a director, his new movie "Michael Clayton" and his views on the looming Writer's Guild of America strike.

How did you originally get into screenwriting?

Tony Gilroy: I grew up around it; my dad was a screenwriter, director and playwright. I was a musician for a long time. I left home early and went to Boston and came to New York City. I had a band and I was getting more involved in writing lyrics and writing music. I started writing some short stories and I got really involved in serious fiction - mock serious fiction. I wrote a lot of bad, very serious short stories for a while, trying to get them published and then worked on a novel. And at a certain point I thought, "Well this is ridiculous, I'm going to write a screenplay and make a bunch of dough and I'll go back and finish this novel properly." And I spent the next five years tending bar while I learned how to write screenplays. I didn't sell anything until I was 30.

Was it really exciting when you got that done?

Gilroy: Oh man, yeah, I quit tending bar. You're way too young to remember. There was a company called Cannon, Golan and Globus. They were two Israeli brothers. I think they were brothers - yeah, and they were hugely powerful in the 1980s. They took out all these full-page ads in Variety and made all these schlocky pictures. The job I quit tending bar on was for a movie for Chuck Norris that never got made, who was a young action guy at that point. I quit tending bar off that job right before my son was born, so yes, that was exciting.

How big a step is it to jump from writing to directing?

Gilroy: It's pretty big, it's pretty fundamental. Everyone treats you differently. The life is different. It's about as fundamental as you would think. It's kind of surprising having been around it for as long as I've been around it. It's actually a little more surprising than I thought.

Is directing something you've been working toward or did it just kind of fall into your lap?

Gilroy: I was planning on being a screenwriter. I was very proud of trying to be an A-list screenwriter and do what I wanted to do. I think if you talk to any screenwriter, after a while there's a certain frustration that is built into the job, and that frustration began to mount so I just finally went, "Wow I'd like to see what would happen if I do one myself."

How did you prepare for it? Did you take classes or did you already know what was involved?

Gilroy: I've been watching people direct movies for 20 years so I've been on set. I made three movies with Taylor Hackford; we made "Dolores Claiborne," "Devil's Advocate," and "Proof of Life" and I had access to all areas all the way through the entire production. So it wasn't a mystery to me how film sets worked or what the politics of them were or how the days ran. It wasn't any mystery to me of the things that could go wrong. So I was probably better prepared than most people are at least in knowing what it looked like when I was done writing.

When you write a screenplay are you able to be on set or do some directors not like you to be there because you could disrupt their vision?

Gilroy: I've had every conceivable variation. I've had the movies that I made with Taylor where I can be there whenever I want, (I've been) demanded to be there, casting, publicity, editing room, everything. I've had movies that I've never even seen because I've been so pissed off or there's been so little (collaboration). I've come in on movies that I don't have credit on, and I've come in to fix things when they're shooting. I mean every single possible variety of that - there's no rule. Every single one of them is different.

So it's nice to be able to direct what you wrote instead of watching someone else do it?

Gilroy: Yeah, I'm very proud of my movie, I like my movie so yeah. It's been a very profoundly satisfying last two years.

When you were writing "Michael Clayton" did you intend to direct it as well?

Gilroy: I did. When I sold it to Castle Rock in the pitch that was one of the things. I sort of said, "Look, it's time for me to do this; this is one I'm going to want to direct." That was part of the set up of selling it.

Where did you initially get the idea for writing "Michael Clayton"?

Gilroy: When we were doing "The Devil's Advocate" we were looking at a lot of law firms on location. Scouting, looking for places to shoot, looking at all these huge New York law firms. Normally what you see are those really fancy wood-paneled rooms, you know how law firms typically look, and they have that room it's just nobody goes in there. I was really struck by the fact that all these law firms are so very different than what I thought. They're very unglamorous; just super grinding hard work, huge back of the house, messengers, word processing, documents, security. I thought, "Wow no one ever does the kitchen side of the law firm." I thought that's a really interesting place to put a movie. I sort of filed that away and then the character came and I put the character down inside that world and that was the genesis of it.

How involved were you in the casting process?

Gilroy: Totally. The director makes every decision about the cast.

Who were you excited to get?

Gilroy: Once I had George we could get whoever we wanted for the other parts. Tom Wilkinson was our first choice in the first conversation I had with George. He said "Go get him" and I offered Tom the part 10 days later. Same thing with Tilda (Swinton). I had seen "The Deep End" and I thought she was really fascinating. (Her) character had to do so many things by herself in the film. I met her; I offered her the part over lunch. Sydney (Pollack) I wanted. The rest of the cast, Ellen Chenoweth who was the casting director, is a brilliant casting director and does all the Coen brothers films. So Ellen started auditioning people for all these parts. People kept coming in and it's in New York so there's a lot of extremely exciting actors. So Denis O'Hare comes in and Merrit Wever comes in and Robert Prescott comes in and we have all these people. Sean Cullen plays his (Michael Clayton's) brother. All these amazing actors that are fresh that people haven't really seen that are theater actors. So it's a really exciting process.

As directors themselves, did you have George Clooney and Sydney Pollack telling you what to do or did they try to help?

Gilroy: Their help came way before. The help came in protecting me, and making sure that I had final cut, and making sure that I had all the things I needed. But when it came time to do the thing they both showed up as actors. I think if anything had been wrong they might have picked their heads up, but they really were very greedy to be actors in this and not have to do anything like that.

There's a great line in the movie, "I am Shiva the god of death!" Where did you get that from?

Gilroy: There's a famous line that Oppenheimer, who ran the Manhattan project, who built the atomic bomb. Apparently when they blew up the first atomic bomb, I don't have the direct quote, but Oppenheimer had said something very similar, "I have seen the future and I am the" or "we are the," I've heard the quote before. I don't really know, it just sort of came out of his mouth as he was.

In that crazy moment?

Gilroy: Yeah in the crazy moment.

How do you feel about the looming WGA strike, how it could be moving up to Nov. 1 instead of the summer?

Gilroy: I voted to give the strike authorization. I believe we have really good leadership right now. I think it's a crucial strike. I hope people can understand how important it is. It's sort of the most important last negotiation it'll almost ever be. I think for once the writers are all unified because it's an issue that really unifies everybody. The thing that people need to remember is it's not just a labor union - it's the raw material that the product is made from. We're not just air traffic controllers, we're not just carpenters, we're the wood that the thing is made out of. So it could get really ugly. I hope it doesn't but it might.

Are there any projects you have that you're trying to push into production before the strikes?

Gilroy: I'm trying to direct a movie that if it goes it has to start shooting in March so that's what we're gearing around. But my script is tight, I'm still trying to find out what the rules are if the writers go out, (like) am I allowed to change anything in the script when we go to make it.

So when the strike happens, even if you're at home you can't just go and write something?

Gilroy: No you can write. They can't stop you from writing.

You just can't sell it to people?

Gilroy: And you can't work on projects that you've sold. You have to cut off all your (business). That's what happened in '87 and '88. You have to stop working; no one's telling anyone you can't work for yourself. You can write anything you want.

How do you feel about the 3D technology that James Cameron and others are developing?

Gilroy: I think for certain movies it's inevitable. I don't think you're going to be watching everything in 2D flat on a screen. Everything changes; the delivery system of telling stories has always changed. I don't see why it wouldn't change now.

Would you want to be involved with something 3D?

Gilroy: I don't know if I'm nimble enough at this point to change. You want to do whatever you want to do. You're in the business of selling your imagination and telling stories. I think those are just delivery systems and stuff will change over time. I'm not sure whether it'll be advanced enough in the next 10 years to really be significant - whether people will be doing anything really, really interesting with stories on it but we'll see. I'm wide open for it. I'm not against it.

If there were to be a fourth Bourne movie would you be involved?

Gilroy: They don't need me. The only person they need for the Bourne movie is Matt. If Matt says he wants to do it then they'll do it. If Matt doesn't want to do it then they won't do it. That's the only piece of the puzzle that they really need.

So if Paul Greengrass didn't return you wouldn't want to direct it?

Gilroy: I have no plans to do anything like that.

"Michael Clayton" expands from a limited to a wide release today.

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