By Jack Egan
Tony Gilroy is a veteran screenwriter whose credits include the three Bourne film thrillers. In Michael Clayton he demonstrates a sure hand and a flair for moviemaking as a first-time director
The twisty suspense film, carefully paced and deliberately framed, stars George Clooney as the increasingly alienated title character. He plays a “fixer” at a powerful New York legal establishment. His job is to take care of the dirty laundry of the law firm and its clients. Other seasoned actors in the cast include Tilda Swinton as the inhouse counsel of a corporation that’s been involved in unethical behavior, Tom Wilkinson as the hired lawyer on the case who discovers the skullduggery and flips out, and Sydney Pollack as the senior partner of the big law firm whose inner workings are depicted with verisimilitude.
Gilroy also scripted Michael Clayton, which is no surprise given the number of scribes in his family. His brother Dan is also a screenwriter. His father Frank Gilroy won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for The Subject Was Roses and subsequently wrote the screen adaptation of the Broadway play. The senior Gilroy was also an occasional film director.
Having grown up around moviemaking, Tony Gilroy says he was unfazed by the challenge of having to assemble a top team of production keys for the first time. Robert Elswit, nominated for an Oscar in 2006 for his elegant black-and-white cinematography on Good Night and Good Luck, is the film’s director of photography. The production designer is Kevin Thompson who last year did Stranger Than Fiction for director Marc Forster.
The film’s editor is John Gilroy, another brother of the director. It’s the first time the two have worked together on a film. Responsible for dressing the corpocracy of characters is costume designer Sarah Edwards. She first worked with Gilroy a decade ago on The Devil’s Advocate, which he scripted.
While promoting the film, Tony Gilroy recently talked to Below the Line about the challenges of directing Michael Clayton, which was filmed mainly on location in New York City in the dead of winter.
Below the Line: How long have you been involved with Michael Clayton as a project?
Tony Gilroy: I was thinking of trying to do it for 10 years, and actively working on this film for around six.
BTL: What made you decide to direct the film after years of being just a screenwriter?
Gilroy: When I wrote the script, that was part of the pitch — I wanted to be able to direct.
BTL: This was the first time you had to assemble a crew. How did that go?
Gilroy: I’ve been around moviemaking, in some respects, for my whole life, and as a direct participant for the last 20 years. So going in I had a clear understanding of how valuable it was to surround myself with the absolute best. I knew all the people I wanted to get. I also had colleagues I could call in order to cross reference people, and find out who was on other people’s wish list. So for what was a quality film shot in New York on a relatively low budget, I put together a kind of a dream team of production keys.
BTL: Was there anyone you went to first?
Gilroy: Jennifer Fox from Section Eight Entertainment (George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh’s former production company) became the point person on the ambassadorial level for making the film. Over the years, we had a variety of budgets. One of our producers, Kerry Orent, has become the go-to guy in New York for making films at a set price, and he got involved with us early on. Kerry had this whole production infrastructure built around this firefighter television drama, Rescue Me, which he’s been doing since 2002. So we had the advantage of not starting from scratch all the time. He was constantly hiring and keeping people in the flow, and really up on who was available and who was great.
BTL: Your director of photography, Robert Elswit, has done several George Clooney films including Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. How did you latch on to him?
Gilroy: I had a very short list of top cinematographers that I wanted to choose from. Robert was on that list. But I didn’t go to him right away precisely because of his relationship with George. I’m not sure I wanted a cinematographer who had a tighter relationship with my main star than I did. But when I finally met him, those trepidations disappeared in about five minutes.
I cannot say enough about Robert. He is the consummate Hollywood professional in the best sense of the word. He has a great sense of tradition, a huge reservoir of experience and skill. He knows the full canon of the cinema experience. You meet people who are historians, and others that are film geeks and people who are enthusiasts. Robert is all of those. He did Punch Drunk Love for Paul Thomas Anderson and a Bond picture. Talk about range. Beyond that he’s exploring and having fun while always challenging himself. The best part of getting paid to make stuff is to keep playing. And he wants to keep playing.
He’s also in effect another filmmaker on a movie. What I tried to do is surround myself with as many people as I could find who also see themselves as filmmakers, all up and down the line, so that everybody is pulling for the same project.
BTL: What was the specific look you were going for with Elswit?
Gilroy: I’ve been transfixed with the way films look and with cinematography for years. So the look to me was more important than almost anything else. I knew I wanted to shoot anamorphic, and I knew that I wanted a raw look to the film, and I wanted a lot of empty space. I told Robert that I didn’t want it to be pretty at all, but I wanted it to be beautiful.
BTL: Michael Clayton is handsome looking in a way reminiscent of many of the great films from the 1970s.
Gilroy: Exactly. That’s what Robert and I began talking about from the start. Our focus was on films with directors of photography like Owen Roizman and Gordon Willis. The way the schedule shook out, we had a chance to spend a month together before preproduction even started. We spent that time discussing and going over films we liked.
It wasn’t just the look and the color palette that we came up with. We became increasingly disciplined about the vocabulary of what we were going to allow ourselves to do. A lot of it was about framing. We were going to go “old school” and really find our frames, and let the actors live inside of them and really be daring about it. At times we’d come up with a shot that we thought would be really cool, using a crane in one instance, but we quickly decided that that was not in our rulebook. We hewed to a disciplined approach. I’m so proud of the way the movie looks. It was a perfect collaboration.
BTL: The opening is striking, with the shots of the building interiors, the lobby, the elevator banks — all without people — while you’re hearing the voice over of one of your main characters.
Gilroy: I needed to cast a spell very early on. I wouldn’t have a place where I could show you that law firm again. You need to know where you are — the size and the scope of it — and I wanted to tell a little bit of a story about it as well. It was a visual challenge. Because there’s a four-page, very complicated monologue by Tom Wilkinson that you hear as well.
It’s not critical that the viewer hang on every word. But it’s important not to confuse people or give them permission to let this whole monologue just wash over them. It was very complicated to figure out what kind of images you could put underneath a voice over like that. It took six to eight weeks of messing around and playing with little video cameras and going back to the Avid and throwing stuff up. We found you couldn’t put a face against that because it ruined everything, so the empty interiors served that purpose. It was very finely calibrated.
BTL: You shot most of the movie on location?
Gilroy: Almost entirely.
BTL: So instead of h
aving your production designer recreate the look of a law firm, you filmed in a real one?
Gilroy: Several law firms. We pieced together the premises of three to make the one in the film. We had one old-line law firm, Dewey Ballantine, that really opened the door for us and which we used extensively. But we grabbed the best shots we could from two other locations as well.
BTL: What was the mission for Kevin Thompson, your production designer?
Gilroy: There are two kinds of production design, and he knows how to do them both well. There’s designing and there’s journalism. The bulk of the work, in many respects, was trying to give us a really, really accurate representation of these environments. The design part came in working with Robert in understanding how much negative space we were going to use, and how to deliver that sense of isolation I wanted. We also wanted to make sure that the production design explored and exploited that wide anamorphic frame.
BTL: How long was the shoot?
Gilroy: It was a 40-day shoot, with some 70 locations in New York City in the winter. Those were some of the obstacles we faced. Kevin pulled some real rabbits out of his hat. But the trials of trying to create Arthur’s loft, where the Tom Wilkinson character lives, drove me almost to quitting on that location. It was very expensive and I lost faith. I had lowered my expectations which is a dangerous thing for a director to do. Kevin insisted he wanted to go ahead. Arthur’s loft which turned out to be amazing is pretty much his design.
There were so many subtle things along the way. It’s knowing what all the real stuff is like, without having to explain it to anybody. Kevin and I would look at something, and we’d both say that’s not it, it’s not the clutter, it’s not the curtain. Also, his crew kills for him. And, again, he had to work in a very under-budgeted department.
BTL: What was the film’s budget?
Gilroy: Let’s say somewhere between $20 million and $30 million. I’m not supposed to say exactly, but it was small for the kind of movie we were making. Given the budget constraints, we didn’t shoot very much. And there were only one or two scenes that were filmed and eventually were left on the cutting room floor. We knew in advance what our frames were. In order to prepare the scene of George’s character and the horses in the field just before his car explodes, my DP and I had videotaped all of the coverage several times and broke it down to the editing room. And Johnny Gilroy edited in raw video form. We had a very well organized clear-headed team.
BTL: Do you do a lot of takes?
Gilroy: I get a lot of questions like that. People ask me to describe my style. This is the first time I’ve done this. But, for starters, I didn’t allow any of my actors to rehearse. There’s an interesting byproduct to no rehearsals — everyone is a little bit uncomfortable. It was very good to have George uncomfortable. Day after day, we threw another great New York actor at him and he was great. I’m not doctrinaire about takes. My feeling is if you get what you want you quickly move on. If you’re not getting it, you’ve got to stick around because you’re never coming back.
BTL: Your brother was your editor?
Gilroy: Yes, John Gilroy was my secret weapon. There’s not a director who has worked with him who isn’t fighting to get him to repeat as editor. I had to fend off a bunch of other guys who were coming ready at the same time and wanted him. Johnny is always full stop. He’s an amazing storyteller. He’s got an incredible sense of rhythm. He’s always full-service. Our sub mixes and temp mixes were blowing people away. The stuff we were able to do along the way, just in our suite, was just so ambitious and so great. It gave us a powerful sense of the film while we were still shooting.
The editing Johnny did in the film kept up the tension without resorting to tricks. That was difficult to do. You’ve got to be braver and hang with it when you’re doing dramatic editing. The margin of error is very small. Everything has to be right on the money. If you’re creating a rhythm like that, every flaw is exposed, everything that doesn’t work is just right out there. The quiet work required to cut a film that really casts a spell and has a low temperature is harder than doing something flashy.
BTL: How did you know the costume designer, Sarah Edwards?
Gilroy: She came in so heavily recommended by Sydney Pollack, who brought her in and said, “she’s what you want.” He had worked with her once — and he was right. George was fairly easy. But look at what she did with Tilda — her wardrobe was perfect for her role — and the stuff Sarah used for Tom Wilkinson’s offbeat role of Arthur. Every character is distinct and has a storyline. That’s what you want from the costume designer and she delivered.
Written by Jack Egan