With the release of "MICHAEL CLAYTON," writer Tony Gilroy has become that rare commodity in Hollywood, a writer/director. Few directorial debuts have been this impressive. Sure, Kevin Costner's debut with "DANCES WITH WOLVES" was decent and that one took home awards, but "MICHAEL CLAYTON" is a much better film, and made with a more steady hand, with every scene, every frame, and every word. "MICHAEL CLAYTON" is a masterpiece! It's certain to be considered a classic, right up there with the best of Lumet's films from the '70s. In fact, "MICHAEL CLAYTON" feels like a great Lumet film, only with better pacing.(It also helps considerably that he had the taste, not to hire Vin Diesel for a part, let alone, a lead, as Lumet did with his last film!)
The following interview took place via phone with Jon Katze of dvd-lasercritique.com and Tony Gilroy on Thursday, September 27, 2007.
JK: I absolutely loved Michael Clayton, really blown away by it. One of the truly great writer/directorial debuts.
TG: Thank you.
JK: How did "MICHAEL CLAYTON" come into being?
TG: The first seeds for it were laid when we were doing the film "DEVIL'S ADVOCATE" and director Taylor Hackford and I were scouting locations in New York for law firms, and taking tours of all these places and I was completely struck by the fact there's this whole other side of these firms that I hadn't known existed before. You sort of think of law firms with their all wood panel and courtrooms, and lawyers and fancy offices, and it's really nothing like that. They'll have a wood panel room somewhere to bring clients into, but by and large, these places are factories and there's a huge back of the house aspect to it, and I thought that this is a really unexplored territory. So I sort of filed that away for a while.
The idea of the fixer, I'm not exactly sure where that came from, but the combination of those two things started a big exploration for me. I sort of played around with it for quite a while. It was very fertile material, and it was very hard to reign it in.
JK: I really liked the idea of the narrative going back in time, with the film starting with a great scene and then cutting back to two days earlier
TG: FOUR days earlier.
JK: When did that idea come to you? In the midst of the writing, or did you know that up front?
TG: The kind of way that I write in the beginning is that I sort of just make a huge mess and I write lots and lots of stuff. And, I sketch scenes and I try things and I sort of really make a big compost heap and I do that until I probably feel sometimes it's past the point where I feel I should be writing. This film had a huge amount of stuff, and it was just way too easy to write some of it. There was a scene I had written very early on where Michael Clayton goes up to Westchester. There's a client of the firm that's been involved in a hit and run accident, and he's been called up at 3:00 in the morning. I had that scene written in its entirety very early on. I really wanted to see and for my audience to see what Michael Clayton does at the beginning of the film, and it's a great way to do it. And, as I got into writing more and more, I realized it wasn't such a great idea. As much as I wanted to have that scene in the beginning, that scene actually wanted to be following later in the script. So, I thought I'll just go back and I'll see how that works.
You try things. You try things all the time. I've done some other films where I really played with time and played with structure. And, I've found more freedom over the years in thinking about how stories can be told. And, I put it together and it worked. It works on a bunch of different levels, and actually as helpful as it was and as satisfying as it was to do in the script. There were things that when you actually went to make the film and got the camera out, and the camera starts to do its thing , and it really seemed great, it still almost seemed inevitable in the end I had to do it that way.
JK:There are so many great scenes in the film, but when I was watching that scene with discussion of the jaguar hit and run, I thought "wow, this film's really on another level!"
TG: Well, it has a brilliant actor, Denis O' Hare, a Tony winner and a great New York theater actor. Just a brilliant actor. When I watch the film, that's the moment when I'm watching with an audience where I can completely relax. As soon as that scene arrives, I settle in and relax from that moment on. It's that kind of scene for me.
JK: What was the reason for Clayton' attitude with that client at that time? Was it a moral compass dilemma?
TG: Someone said to me the other night, "I went to the film, and when I got out and the film was over, I started thinking about it, I realized that George Clooney's been telling everybody the truth, and he hasn't been gambling..." But, you start off seeing him gambling. And, when you think about it, and this is sort of "spoiler" material here...when you think about it, after the film's over, that scene with the hit and run, is pretty much the last "fix" that Michael Clayton's ever gonna do.
JK: But, he doesn't do it?
TG: Yeah, but you wonder. I had this conversation with George. Probably, three weeks before this movie starts, if he got that call, he might have had a different strategy about how to approach or take care of the problem.
JK: In the scene where he's driving back from the client in the early morning, with the sun coming up, seeing those horses, getting out of the car and walking up them, it just seemed so natural for him to do those things or the audience wanting to, even though it's not 'til later in the script, that we understand the metaphor of the horses.
TG: Well, what I'm really asking you. I've been writing movies for 20 years, and I've written all kinds of film and a lot of thrillers. I'm really well trained in electrifying stories. I know how to move really quickly. I've worked on a lot of films that don't have an ending where you're coming in and trying to fix the film and trying to make sure that people don't look down and trying to keep things moving as quickly as possible. There's really a high price for that kind of writing. There's a real limitation on emotional payoff, and the substance you can have at the end of the film. I'm really making some real demands on the audience the first half-hour or 45 minutes or so. I'm really saying "lean forward here," you may not always have your feet on firm ground, as we move through here. But, you always have to give people the good sense that they're in good hands and that someone's at the helm, and they're actually gonna figure it out by the end. I think and I'm satisfied that whatever's ambiguous along the way is pretty well explained by the time we get to the end, and we also have a really good ending.
JK: In some ways, it seemed to me like a smarter Sidney Lumet film with better pacing. And, I like Sidney Lumet, but it really felt like one, but more gripping and just really kept you going, going, going. Do you like Lumet's films?
TG: Oh my god! Yeah! What a body of work! My son and I were watching "12 Angry Men" the other night, and I was thinking what it must've been like to watch daily's of that film. When I was trying to set this movie up for 5 years, I spent a lot of time talking about "THE VERDICT."When I was trying to get people to get behind the movie, It was one of the real half-a-dozen films I would talk about. I'm a huge fan. I haven't seen his new film, but I'm so gratified that he's got this new movie that everyone's responding to. It's just so cool.
JK: Well, I loved "THE VERDICT," but I enjoyed "Michael Clayton" more.
MORE OF THIS INTERVIEW TO BE ADDED