Manhattan-born Tony Gilroy comes from a movie family. His father is Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Frank D. Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses), who also worked on numerous movies and TV shows. His brother is screenwriter Dan Gilroy (Two for the Money), who happens to be married to Rene Russo. His other brother John is a film editor. Additionally, Tony Gilroy found himself lucky enough to be aligned with Taylor Hackford, writing three films in a row: Dolores Claiborne (1995), The Devil's Advocate (1997) and Proof of Life (2000). When that partnership ended, he wound up with another steady job on the three Bourne films: The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). He also wrote The Cutting Edge (1992), a cult classic among ice skating buffs, and co-wrote the blockbuster Armageddon (1998).
Lately, he's joined that enviable club of friendship with director Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. Soderbergh produced and Clooney stars in Gilroy's exceptional directorial debut, Michael Clayton, about a law firm "fixer," who gets in over his head. Gilroy recently sat down with Cinematical to discus his new movie. And like a New Yorker who feels safe in his work, he was delightfully honest.
Cinematical: The thing I like best about Michael Clayton is the fact that it's filled with expositional dialogue, but it sounds like actual dialogue. It sounds like characters speaking with one another rather than just imparting information.
Tony Gilroy: No one ever talks about that. You could teach a fifteen-part course on that. It's such a huge part of what I do. I never realized until doing the second Bourne picture what it must be like to work on a TV series where you don't have to introduce people. All the time that you spend working so hard to try to bury that information was just there. What a relief! I don't have to set anybody up. Everybody knows who this guy is. No, I hate it, when you see something that's really bad. Or there are those first four pages of all the Chekhov plays, and you sit there for the first four minutes and you go: OK, tell me who you are. Tell me how you're related. And you just sort of... I'll sit back and relax after four minutes.
Cinematical: Or, there's The Godfather, where you get a newcomer at a wedding who's introduced to every major character.
TG: There are so many tricks. I don't even know all the ways I know how to do that, or how you learn how to do that. But it never gets talked about.
Cinematical: The Bourne movies have their share of complex dialogue. Did that sort of train you, in a way, to deal with imparting all that information?
TG: What I really learned from the Bourne pictures was something I've been trying to do for a long time, to scale down action to an intimate place. Try to get things down so they're on a ... my contention had been for a long time that you didn't have to have 14,000 Howitzers come over the hill for it to be exciting. If it's someone you care about in a Mini Cooper, or in a field full of birds and only two shotgun shells; if the audience knows there are only two shotgun shells and it's someone they really care about, it can be really exciting. It was more a confirmation. I think every script you do confirms the idea that you need to know what the movie's about. 'Cause we never thought there'd be a sequel, ever, ever, ever. So when we had to come out with one, we had nothing to use. The books were useless. We never used the books at all. So when it came time for the second one, we had to explore to try to figure out something thematically worthwhile. The idea of doing an action picture with an established character that was about apology and atonement. That was sort of 'wow.'
Cinematical: Working with Taylor three times in a row and then doing the three Bourne pictures, did you feel like you had a secure job?
TG: As a writer? Oh yeah, I felt that way for a long time. Completely. I've been able to pick and choose what I want to work on for quite a while. There are people that have that that don't -- in their mind -- don't exercise that information. I figured out a long time ago that I was only good working on one thing at a time. Everything sort of took off for me about the time that I decided only to work on one project at a time. Never back a job up. I never take anything after that. I finish what I'm working on and I pick my head up and decide what I want to work on next. Then you at least have the confidence that you are going to get a gig. That made life much easier. There are people who like to work on more than one thing at a time, but that's not me. I like to be obsessed.
Cinematical: So, if you only work on one thing at a time, when did you work on Michael Clayton? Was it between Bourne pictures?
TG: No, I pitched it as we were finishing Proof of Life, and after I pitched it, we were just getting ready to go down to South America, and I called back Martin Shafer at Castle Rock and said, 'there's a six-week gig to tear the story apart and write a new story for this Bourne movie for Doug Liman. Do you mind if I pick up that check before I start on our thing? And that turned into two years of... a madcap two years. I finished the script about six years ago. I had the script pretty much as it ended up about six years ago.
Cinematical: And, so you didn't touch Michael Clayton during that whole time?
TG: No. I did different... the Bourne pictures weren't the only thing I was doing during that time. I was doing re-writing gigs. That's a long time. Seven years. You can do a lot of scripts in seven years.
Cinematical: Can you talk a little about the first time you decided you wanted to direct a film? What was the turning point?
TG: It was about ten years ago. Taylor Hackford and I made three films together and Taylor took the pressure off that tension because our relationship was so great, and I was so fundamentally involved with him all along the line. He was a great collaborator. He's like a brother. I'd be on the set: I had access to all areas, completely, up and down from editing and publicity and everything. But when we finished Proof of Life, we'd struggled along the way, and there were things about the film that neither one of us were happy with, and that sort of marked: I can't sit second chair anymore. I don't want to be so completely invested in every frame of the film and not have it be mine. I'm either gonna completely write for dough and just be that guy, or do the other thing. About ten years ago I picked my head up and got aggressive about this. When I started this script, I didn't think it would be seven years to get to this conversation. I might have done something else. And this was not the easiest one to pick to do first. It would have been a lot easier to ask for five times the money and do an action picture.
Cinematical: I was curious about Michael Clayton's backstory. In the foreground, he's this great, mysterious fixer character. On the back end, he's riddled with debt, he's got this gambling addiction and this failed bar. How did these two sides come together? Did they happen at once?
TG: The way I evolved into doing research over time -- and this was easy to research because it's New York and I know a lot of attorneys -- so what I do is I build the character up. If I was doing a character about a journalist, I would come to you and say, 'here's the guy I'm building. Do you believe him?' So I'd come to these attorneys and say, 'OK. Here's this guy. His father's a cop, his brother's a cop, he goes to Fordham, he goes to the Queens DA's office, he comes over and gets an internship, he gets an associate's post, he's in a meeting at some point: somebody's daughter is shacked up with a bike gang, they need a contact. He makes a phone call. All of a sudden he's recognized for having some value. He starts being rewarded that way. Over 15 years he evolves into this position. He makes about $300,000 a year, and this is what his budget is, he contributes to these various organizations, etc. Do you believe in that guy? And they say, 'oh yeah. I totally believe that guy.' You keep refining the character and pitching it to people and see if they believe it. So it's a very real career path.
Cinematical: And I bet that helps George Clooney when he's looking at the script.
TG: Oh yeah. It smells real. He knows. He's very, very world-wise. He's very switched on.
Cinematical: This doesn't seem like a debut film at all. It looks great, very polished. Where did all that skill come from?
TG: My closet secret in all this is that I'm a total camera geek for all these years. I always took a lot of pictures. I've taken thousands and thousands of pictures over the years, but always with range finder cameras. It's all about framing. I've never zoomed in on anything, ever. So I was enough of a geek and enough of an aficionado that it was actually more important to me how the movie looked than how it played. If you want to know the truth. If I have a movie that looks really great and it sucks, I'll be at least vaguely satisfied. If I make a movie that plays and looks like shit, I'm going to be so bummed out. I was obsessed with it. I chased Robert Elswit, and I knew enough, I was geeked out enough, that I could interest him in having a conversation. And also geeked out enough that we could start at least on a graduate level. We put together an amazing camera crew and some amazing camera equipment. We made the film with Gordon Willis's lenses and the lens that was built for John Boorman for Point Blank. It was a real camera show. We were very disciplined. We really stuck to what we were going to do all the way through. I'm super proud at how it looks.
Cinematical: How carefully did you plan those two car bomb sequences?
Cinematical: How carefully did you plan those two car bomb sequences?
TG: Oh my God. We could only shoot that sequence five minutes in the morning and five minutes at night. It took five days to do it. Don't ever write "just before dawn" in a script. It's a nightmare. So we literally went to that field, Robert and I, five or six times. We videotaped it three times. I videotaped every single piece of coverage. We put cardboard horses up on the hill, the AD running down, and mock explosions. Every single piece of coverage was planned months in advance. There was no other way to do it. There was no time.
Cinematical: Can you go back and look at your old work? Can you go back and look at The Cutting Edge?
TG: It's hard to go back, but every so often I'll be doing the dishes and something will come on and I'll get sucked in. There's movies of mine I've never seen, which shall remain nameless.
Cinematical: I've never seen Armageddon.
TG: My son calls it "Ar-MEG-a-don." I've watched... Bourne Identity came on. They had a whole blitz of things when they were doing the promotions in August. I got sucked into watching Identity. I watched most of it. Devil's Advocate I can get sucked into watching from time to time. I don't go out of my way, but it's great when you can check back into a movie. And there's times when you're in the mood and times when you're not. And then there's things that come along you just want to blow your brains out. 'I can't believe this! I never should have done it this way!'