Capone With Writer/Director Tony Gilroy About MICHAEL CLAYTON, And AICN!!
Published at: Oct. 15, 2007, 9:16 a.m. CST by merrick
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Opening wide this week is MICHAEL CLAYTON, a film I'm convinced will at least make my Top 5 of 2007; as of right now, it might even be my Number One, but the fall is young.
Anyway, long-time writer, first-time director Tony Gilroy was in Chicago recently for a special, sold-out screening of his film during the Chicago Film Festival, and the next afternoon, I had a chance to sit down with him about his great new film, plus those little movies he wrote that had something to do with an assassin named Jason Bourne who lost his memory.
Gilroy had a hand in writing all three Bourne movies as well as screenplays for DOLORES CLAIBORNE, THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, ARMAGEDDON, PROOF OF LIFE, and perhaps his finest work, the ice skating epic THE CUTTING EDGE. More importantly, he has made one of the most thought-provoking film of the year. Enjoy…
Tony Gilroy: You guys have been really good to me the last week.
CAPONE: I put my review on Friday; I think that's what you're referring to.
TG: What’s your handle, then? Who are you?
TG: Oh, you’re Capone! Nice to meet you. My son was the first one. He’s in London, and he saw the review first thing, and he woke me up at 3:00 in the morning. He had no idea what time it was in Los Angeles. I’m, like, “What are you doing?” [Imitates his son] “I just wanted to tell you, the film is working out with the fan boys. This is hot. Keep the fan boys.” Anyway, really nice to meet you.
TG: So, how does it work? How often do you file?
C: Whenever I feel like it, I mean, as often as I can. At the very least, every Friday, just with whatever is coming out that week, and then I'm doing interviews all the time, especially during the Festival. I wanted to begin our discussion talking about the very last shot of MICHAEL CLAYTON. And, this is an interesting film, because you can talk about some very key moments without ruining anything…
C: But, that final shot of Clooney in the back of the cab…I don’t know why, but as I was watching that film the first time, I just thought, That is the ballsiest shot I have seen all year. The credits are rolling, it’s just a shot of him. I think sometimes an actor pretending to be doing nothing is the most unnatural thing I’ve ever seen, but in that scene, it’s almost like…He’s not having a break down, he’s just sitting there, and you sense there’s some sort of decompression going on.
I felt like there must have been other ways you thought to end the film. That’s one of the reasons I went from loving the film to just praising it to no end--that final shot. Can you talk about that? Why was that the last image you wanted to leave with us?
TG: I didn’t have the final shot. I’ve worked on movies where there’s just such a huge vacuum, where every day is chaos, and so everybody gets used to that. But, everything was so organized for us, and we were so precise, and we had to be, to have that ending hanging out there was creating this…you know, there’s a certain requisite amount of anxiety that people have to fill up.
So, we were pretty deep in the shooting, and I tried a couple things that I didn’t like. There was a shot of George walking on the street. It was a very cliché, but it ended up as a transitional shot. So, I couldn’t find what I wanted. We were shooting with George while we were at the Hilton. We were going to run out of Midtown, we were going to leave Midtown, we were going to be there a couple more days. And, we had a break, and I was not in the habit of watching films while we were shooting. You don’t want to see anything else. It’s like trying to read books while you’re in the middle of the script. It’s really hard to do. But for some reason, I had a pile of Academy screeners downstairs. For some reason, I put in THE PIANO TEACHER, like, watched a couple minutes of it, I don’t even know why. I got sucked into that movie. Have you ever seen that movie?
C: With Isabelle Huppert? Oh, sure.
TG: And, I was watching it, and I got sucked into it. It’s just this harrowing film. And, the final shot of that film--I don’t know if you remember it--but, she stabs herself. The lover comes in, and she’s gets up and she’s alone. Everybody goes into the concert, and she [he mimics stabbing]…she stabs…And, there’s this final shot. It’s very different than what’s out there… but it’s so intimate. It’s so private, it’s so powerful. I was, like, man, We have to have something that is that…I don’t want to give the energy away. I don’t want to have him on the streets surrounded by people. I don’t want to have him alone in the big world. I think I want to try to be right on him and see what happens. And, I live in taxicabs.
There’s also…[executive producer Steven] Soderbergh set up a luncheon for me with Mike Nichols while we were editing, because he was editing upstairs, up from us in the building. And, he said, “Do you want to have lunch with Mike?” And, I go, “Omigod…NO. Of course, I do.” So, I go to lunch with him, and they’re about to edit films, one of which I’ll mention, and so we’re sitting at lunch, and I say, “Look, I just have to let you know… I sort of completely ripped you off at the end of the film.” I said, “I ripped off the end of THE GRADUATE. And, he says, “Don’t even think about it, because I totally ripped off QUEEN CHRISTINA from reading the movie. That’s the one that’s the real rip off landmark” So, I went back, it’s the final shot of Garbo. But, there’s also THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY. It has a different tension. There’s a lot of drama, too. You know he’s going to be taken out and shot. I guess you could do a festival of ‘private final shot’ films.
C: Really, in the back of a cab and, maybe, in an elevator by yourself-those are these moments where you think, ‘I’m alone, and no one’s looking at me’. Even though there’s a driver right there or a camera in the elevator, you feel like you’re isolated. It’s very private, and it’s so vulnerable.
TG: When we tried it, we tried it as an experiment. We tried it, and it didn’t work the first time technically. But, once we tried it, [film editor] Johnny [Gilroy] and I looked at it. We were, like, Aww-w-w. It was really complicated, it really stretched the production to be able to do it the right way.
C: This would be a really easy movie for me just to go scene by scene through it, because every scene seems like it has either some really great dialog or a great, singular performance by somebody. But, the only specific scene I wanted to talk about, again near the end--and I mentioned it in my review: it’s a crucial scene, but it doesn’t give anything away talking about it--is that confrontation between Clooney and Tilda Swinton, where he says, “You’re fucked.”
Again, that’s something I’ve never seen done before. We’ve certainly seen someone get their comeuppance in a way, but usually that "You're fucked" thought is what's going through the audience’s head, not through a character’s mouth. You never hear a character just say “I got you.” It’s almost like a pat on the back, like, “I’ve still got it. I’m falling apart, but I can still get you.” It’s such a great [scene].
TG: It was really shocking, because you write a reversal, and you just never know when you write a reversal if it’s going to go over until you see it with an audience.
C: Both times I've seen the film, people laugh when he says that. The tension is broken.
TG: The first time we showed the picture in Pasadena…I don’t want to give this away, but I mean, the audience…they really think he’s going to take the dough. A lot of people really think he’s going to go for it. So, even though they’ve had this enjoyment, they’re tense about it. They’re, like, that’s the final confirmation that it’s okay. The world is going to be right.
C: Certainly, at that moment, he could go either way. And, it wouldn’t compromise the character in anyway, because he’s already compromised himself so much up to that point.
C: It’s fascinating to watch Michael Clayton’s character as he’s in decline, or maybe he’s already as low as he’s going to get, I don’t know. But, that’s an interesting spot to drop us into his story. We hear about all these incredible things that he did in his heyday. But, to introduce us to him when he’s at his lowest is an interesting choice. Did you ever think, Well, maybe I should show at least one spectacular deed that he performed for the firm before we show his collapse.
TG: One of the hardest things about doing this was trying to rein the story in, because once I started with him, there were so many things for him to fix. And, then the sketching…this sort of infinite sketching process that went on before this--that’s the way I kind of work, trying everything. There were so many things to do. I really thought about it; I even thought, You should do this in a television series, or as a series of novels or something. There were so many things for him to fix.
There were two little fixes. There’s one description of a fix that was in a scene that got cut out, which was the hardest thing to cut out of the film. There was another phone call in that series of phone calls that he made. It was a really, really cool one where he’s killing a story with a journalist and doing it in a really cool way. That had to go just because the way the rhythm of it worked. And, the other scene had to go, another scene in the film that got cut out, and there was a description of a fix that he had done years earlier for somebody that was sort of…
C: We do see him start to take care of that drunk driving thing, but you get a sense that that’s below him.
TG: It’s not like his ‘A’ game. Also, in the end…a lot of people realize in the end, that’s the last fix he’s ever going to do. I almost wonder if it was five years earlier if he wouldn’t have completely taken care of it. The sort of navigating rule on this was to make everything real, and not try to do those backfilling kind of stories, not try to do all the explanation that you normally do. Nobody knows what ‘drop the needle’ means anymore. "You’re dating yourself.”
But, it’s like, if everything on this table is real and it’s spinning, I should be able to make 15 different movies just by putting dropping the needle on everything that’s real. There should be some value in that. So, if you carry that forward, rather than constantly sort of being, Oh, we’re going to buttress this story and keep squeezing it in here. We’re going to backfill…There’s a different way, so I was more trying to do that. And, trying to be brave…about making sure that wherever I did a core sample in this story that it was real. Then, maybe, you feel everything else around it.
C: I think it goes without saying that between this film and the Jason Bourne films that you’re one of the top guys in really capturing the modern-day conspiracy paranoia. It used to be an art form in the '70s, but not a lot of people are doing it particularly well right now. So, I guess, the obvious question is, Why do you hate the government and big corporations so much? Why do you distrust them?
TG: [laughs] If we look for a unifying…I didn’t realize this until you go out talking…I’ve been out talking for five weeks, and you end up talking about your work. You end up finding out…because you don’t think about it that way yourself…I think the unifying principle of all these films--coming back to DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, all the way through BOURNE to this film--I think it’s very easy to look at them and sort of say, “Oh, there’s this external danger and paranoia, whether it’s theological or whether it’s the pits of the government or, in this case, if it’s corporate, the unifying spinal fluid of all those films is the fact that the villain is inside. I mean, it’s the villain inside all the heroes that’s the real problem. And, that’s way more interesting to me. Anybody knows, it’s sort of old, and it’s a tired notion: corporations are evil, governments are evil.
Anybody who had any glimpse of the Kennedy assassination and the war in Vietnam--an entire generation has grown up--I mean, what’s new about that? You might as well be doing SWORDFISH or something, do you know what I mean?
What’s interesting about it is the fact that it’s human behavior that bleeds through all these things and ruins all these things. There was an article on the front page of The New York Times yesterday about this spray grout that they sold at Home Depot that poisoned all these people. The guys, the people who made [the grout] know it, and some guy goes down [to a loading dock], and they restock 50,000 units--even though they know. Now, that isn’t some ‘Star Chamber Omega Squad’. That’s a guy on a loading dock, writing a memo saying, “Shoot, man, what am I going to do with 50,000 units I have here? We better get ’em out there.” And, that’s…that’swhat’s interesting to me. That’s what’s interesting. That guy…the moment, how he got there, and what he’s going to do in the two hours after that…on the weekend…Put that in a thriller.
The rest of it, it’s not window dressing, but it’s the excuse, it’s the scenery to put that problem in. And, Jason Bourne needs to be afraid of himself. Michael Clayton is his own villain. And, in DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, that was the most naked instance…my contribution to that script was to say… I said to [director] Taylor [Hackford], “What if we make it…What if it’s the father? What if we make it the father? What if I make it metabolic, so it’s actually inside him?” Does that make sense to you?
C: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
TG: I mean, writing paranoia is writing paranoia.
C: In this film, not taking anything away from this very intricate plot, but the plot’s almost an excuse to get to know these incredible characters.
C: I mean, really get into them. And, I’m not just talking about Michael Clayton, but Tilda Swinton’s character is almost more fascinating, because we know less about her. Again, you show her in those private moments that are very uncomfortable to watch.
TG: It’s almost sad, because you realize that maybe there’s not that much more to know.
C: Well, that’s true. Again, another choice that you made to show, to really spend time just watching her alone. You learn so much more from that than having someone talk about her. And, just looking at the sweat sticking to her blouse and things like that…Watching her is breathtaking. I will admit, she’s always an actress that kind of frightens me a little bit. So, can you talk about her a little bit and working with her?
TG: I knew that it was a private performance. I mean, all that stuff was scripted, all those rehearsing to be herself, and all that stuff was really in the script. I mean, Johnny cut it in a different way that’s actually much more energetic than it was in the [film].
But, I knew I needed someone who was really going to be alone all the time. And, you know, it’s a kind of…that list, that actress list--30 to 50 years old--is the best list in the world, I mean, there are just so many great actresses, and they all want to work, and there’s not enough work for them. It’s a great list. I said, Wow. You look at the list and go ‘Wow’. But, I needed somebody who’s going to be by themselves all the time who is sort of fascinating.
And then, THE DEEP END was such a…I watched THE DEEP END. Or, [Casting director] Ellen [Chenoweth] said, “Really think about Tilda.” And, I watched THE DEEP END again, I’d seen it the first time, and she is so alone in that movie.
C: That’s my favorite movie of hers.
TG: She’s surrounded by all these people, but she’s really the only who knows what’s going on, and she’s just… it’s private hell. It’s a movie about private hell. And, I thought, Wow, that’s just really strong. And, she certainly is fascinating to watch, and she’s certainly very brave, if you look at YOUNG ADAM. There’s no vanity at all. I’m trying to make a movie that doesn’t have any vanity in it. And, I went and had lunch with her, and I got about 20 minutes into it before…She’s just…Have you ever interviewed her?
TG: Oh, she’s just the coolest…She did the coolest hang of all times. We were just about 20 minutes in, and I go, “Look, do you want to go make the movie with me? Let’s go do this. Let’s go.” She makes you very brave. She made me braver along the way.
It’s not, like, some cheesy cliché either, There were so many people on this movie who were…I think a lot of people in a lot of films are always wanting to do this, but the environment isn’t there. But, I was sort of welcoming it. There were so many people that were filmmakers on this movie.
C: Other than…
TG: [Cinematographer] Bob Elswit is a filmmaker. John Gilroy is a filmmaker. Tilda Swinton is a filmmaker. George Clooney is a filmmaker.
C: Not to mention your executive producer list [which includes Anthony Minghella, Soderbergh, and Sydney Pollack, who also acts in the film].
TG: No, I know, but I mean people that are there every day doing stuff. That’s easy to see, it’s easy to see. I’m talking about people that are… I mean, it’s not a collective, but if you open the door and you have those people pulling for you, there’s this momentum that goes up where everybody’s…People want to be inspired. And, Tilda is a filmmaker. She will direct a film someday, and it will be amazing. She’s all singing, all dancing, I’ll tell ya’, man. She’s really remarkable.
C: You’ve kind of filled your main cast with actors that are not only always interesting, but really, in any film that they’re in, they always tend to…and I’m not just saying this because you’re here…like Tom Wilkinson, and even [Sydney] Pollack as an actor, these are always people that elevate a film somehow. I’m talking about the supporting people and the lead.
TG: Well, Denis O’Hare and Merritt Wever…I mean, we’re up and down the line, but…Sean Cullen, who plays Michael's brother. But see, once I had George…Once George came in, and George was going to work for free, I don’t have to cast around a budget number…I mean, you can’t sit at the table and talk to too many people who don’t have to cast their movie around a number, you know?
Most of the people who are going to sit and do this interview, unless it’s some gigantic…you know, any movie that’s down a certain number, they’re casting around foreign sales. You have to. You’re chasing things. Oh, I gotta have this, I gotta have that. Once I had George, we could do whatever we want. I go back to the casting director and say, “Let’s just get every great New York actor in here we possibly can.”
I’ve got two other directors in the movie: Brian Koppelman played the asshole plumber in the beginning at the card room; then, Doug McGrath is in two of those scenes. He had one scene with another character that got cut out, so his real reason for being there has sort of been eliminated. But yeah, we could do whatever we needed.
C: This is a very minimalist film. How do you, as a first-time filmmaker…I mean, there are not a lot of…other than a couple of explosions…it’s a fairly…
C: Yeah, and how do you as a first-time director, how do resist the temptation to just throw all your energy into…
TG: Throwing the camera around?
C: Yeah, exactly.
TG: If I gotten this six years ago, if I had been given the green light right away, I probably would have made a much more kinetic, a much more…you know, a much more jazzy, jacked up, ‘let me show you everything I think I always wanted to do’ kind of film. The time it took to get the film made, while it was a pain in the ass…the benefit of it was I think over time that my sense of the film changed.
If I told you that you were going to direct a film two years from now, and you’ve seen--I know how many films you’ve seen, and I know what a geek you are about it--but I’m promising you, if I told you that two years from now you’re going to do that, you would start watching films in a different way. I promise you. I mean, you see films, there are films I won’t even mention, films I didn’t like that I went back and looked at again, I thought, Wow, I don’t like this film, but, man, these guys laid a shot.
I thought, Well, this film really wants to be anamorphic, wants to be like negative space. And, Robert Elswit, when he came in, I was enough of a camera geek and enough of a closet cinematographer freak--that was sort of a secret weapon that I had--but I knew enough that I could start a conversation with him on a sort of gradual level. And, I knew enough that I could interest him, to keep him interested, to come and work with him. When he and I started watching films, and we spent a month sort of getting to know each other and watching films…Over that period of time, both of us began to strip away the things that we would be allowed to do on the film. Stuff kept getting pulled off the table. And, we kept getting less and less…more and more about framing, all about letting the action move through the environment, all about creating negative space, all about making sure that the temperature of the film was about, you know, at 15 degrees.
And, there were times, not many times, there were times where we’d be on set, we’d think of a shot, we had the equipment on the truck to do it, we had the stuff do it, we had enough time to do it, and, we’d sort of get, like, 45 seconds, and we’re going, “You know what, we could bring the camera over the toilet…and we could do this, yeah, yeah” and then we go, “Wow, that’s not our vocabulary.” So, we were very, very disciplined. There’s only one or two, you know, sort of subjective kind of shots in the whole film. The rest of the time, we’re trying to cast a spell. It’s very considered, it’s very deliberate.
C: Speaking of casting a spell, there’s one scene that you actually show twice--the scene in the woods with the horses. As soon as I saw that, I thought, People are going to ask him about that scene more than anything else, because they’re going to want to know about those horses. They’re going to want to know what that means, or does it mean anything? I certainly have my own theories about it, whether it’s what you intended or not, but it just feels like a moment where Michael puts everything in perspective.
TG: Yeah, I think it’s as simple as that.
C: It has taken him out of his environment, and he's looking around just going, What am I doing here?
TG: It’s amazing that you do something that’s so simple, and…I mean, I’ve heard the most remarkable interpretations.
And someone said to me, “Oh, it’s a copout to say everybody’s interpretations are right.” But, I can’t tell you, I’ve heard the most elegant, beautiful, some truly eccentric and odd interpretations of what’s going on there. And, you don’t want to get in the way of any of it.
But, for me, it very much…it’s as simple as having been on a three-day binge and leaving…it’s almost like…he needs something natural. He needs to put his feet down, He needs a moment to…and within it, it must have…it has enough elements and it’s simple enough that people can find many of the things that they need to find in there. Some of the things I’ve heard, I want to go, Yesss, that is exactly what I intended, because some of them are incredible. Some are mind-blowing. There’s a whole crystal interpretation…
C: You just say ‘yes’ to every interpretation, yeah?
TG: Exactly. But, someone called me out the other day, “That’s a copout.” Really? I don’t know. We don’t think about that.
C: So, the film is out there. People are receiving it very well. Where do you go from here? Do you retreat back into the writing? Or, do you look for something else to direct?
TG: No, I think I’ve got a movie I’m going to direct before the strike. We’re just closing right now, so things haven’t exactly closed. I would talk about it. But, we’re very close, and I think it’ll happen.
C: Something you’ve written?
TG: Yeah, I wrote it about five, six years ago, yeah. So, we’ll see. If we go, though, we have to go in March before the deadline. But, I think we have a good shot at doing it. But, I’ve written for…since we finished the film, we finished it quite a while ago, we had to sort of sit and wait our turn, so I’ve written for…I’ve done a production that’s a studio rewrite, I’ve done a rewrite for a director, and I’ve finished something for myself, so I’m back to my day job in between.
C: Well, congratulations on this, really, because it’s tremendous.
TG: Has Harry seen it?
C: If he has, he hasn’t said anything to me, but I don't keep close tabs on what he's seen.
TG: I’m really kind of curious about how…about what they do print…Do they run everything that you file? Or, does he throw stuff out?
C: I don’t think anything I’ve ever written has never gone up.
TG: Right. Very cool, very, very cool. Has it changed a lot? It’s changed a lot hasn’t it?
C: That's a loaded question. I guess it depends on whether you liked us when we were shunned by the industry rather than embraced.
TG: Yeah, the whole scoopiness of it was the hook for so long. It sort of seems like you’ve moved past that now.
C: Don't tell the people making the new INDIANA JONES that.
TG: [laughs] But, it’s not…you don’t hear people…I remember working at Bruckheimer early on and there was, like, when Ain't It Cool first came in, when it first started bubbling up, and it was, like, "Omigod, use it, or try to warp or co-opt it or do anything."
Not being used or co-opted is always the challenge.
TG: It’s easier being based here, yeah?
C: It depends. I don't get flown to L.A. or New York to do junkets. And I don’t get flown out anywhere to a set, or anything like that. But being in Chicago definitely has its advantages.
TG: So, it’s all in that loop. Well, great meeting you.