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Talking With Tony Gilroy

Writer-director Tony Gilroy.
Writer-director Tony Gilroy. (Mike Cassese - Reuters)

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Thursday, September 27, 2007; 12:00 PM

In "Michael Clayton," George Clooney stars as a "fixer" at a New York law firm who faces a major challenge when a multi-million dollar suit starts to unravel. Tony Gilroy makes his directorial debut with the film, which he also wrote. The drama is slated to open in select cities Oct. 5 and nationwide on Oct. 12.

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Gilroy was online Thursday, Sept. 27 at noon ET to discuss the movie and his career. The filmmaker has spent more than a decade working as a screenwriter; his credits include all three of the "Bourne" movies as well as "Dolores Claiborne," "Proof of Life" and "Armageddon."

A transcript follows..

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Bethesda, Md.: Was it a daunting process to go from screenwriting to directing your first feature? You were working with some first-rate actors -- Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson. Did that make the transition easier?

Tony Gilroy: I've been around filmmakimng and production on films for 20 years. Like most screenwriters, I'd had some great experiences and a lot of disappointments along the way. And I wanted to do something that was really my own.

There wasn't too much about the process I hadn't seen, but there is a limitation between what you see and what you do. Sydney Pollack came on early on as a producer. he read the script and wanted to direct it himself, and I told him I was saving it for me. And he came on to help me. He was there as a backstop and adviser all the way through the whole process.

It took a long time to get to George Clooney. Steven Soderbergh read the script and got involved in trying to help me make the film. And when George finally came on, it took a couple of years to get George involved. When George finally came on, he became the protector of the film. He became the bodyguard of the whole process. With those three guys and George having been a director and being in a position of that much power, it was really about providing me with what he would want himself: Autonomy, control, and when it finally came to go to work, both Sydney and George wanted to be actors. They're both amazing actors and they wanted to come in and act. When it came down to makingthe movie, there wasn't too much talk of directing when they were on set.

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St. Louis, Miss.: For a directorial debut, how is it easier or more challenging to work with an enormous player like Clooney who's experienced in all aspects of filmmaking?

Tony Gilroy: He was like a bulletproof vest. He got me final cut. The moment that George agreed to be in the film, everything changes. I can cast whoever I want for the rest of the roles, there's no economic pressure to go in any direction. And that freedom works its way all the way down the line to the point where you're trying to get New York City cops to run a red light in a taxi cab. Well, it's George Clooney. They're going to help you out. His influence is molecular.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What screenplays have you written that have not been produced, and perhaps still might someday be produced? What is your advice to getting screenplays to gain attention and support so they do become made into movies?

Tony Gilroy: I have written a bunch of scripts that have not gotten produced, much more so early in my career than later. I think that 10 or 12 years ago I decided to try to make that happen, that I wrote fewer scripts that didn't get made. I do some very conscious things to make that happen.

They are not the thing a first-time screenwriter would be able to do. I only do one project at a time. When I start something, I know people I am working with, it's a project they're interested in. It also means I can be working for a studio or the executives who will still have their jobs when it's time to make the film. Developing films with directors, developing films with actors, is a poor percentage play for a screenwriter. If that person happens to not be ready, changes their mind, lost attention, whatever, your script sits there. So I don't take those jobs anymore.

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Washington, D.C.: Much of your work has focused on adapting screenplays. Can you talk about the differences in terms of how you approach original work versus adaptations? Do you prefer one over the other?

Tony Gilroy: I prefer writing originals. I've never been given a book that was good to go. "Dolores Claiborne" had a character that was completely fully drawn and completely Steven King. But my track record of adaptations are pretty much all tear-downs. There have been a couple of projects along the years I have tried to get, that were books I love that I probably wouldn't have changed much at all. But I haven't had that experience.

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Munich, Germany: According to the Toledo Blade, "'Michael Clayton', opening in early October, is a great example of the spirit of social relevance that seems to be sweeping the movie business."

Were you intending to focus on ideals of morality and social justice, or did this concept just appear from deep within a good script?

How was your film received at the Toronto Film Festival?

Tony Gilroy: The keyword there is moral. It's interesting this question comes from Germany. We started showing the film in Europe and there is a great appetite in the rest of the world right now to look at anything cultural that's American and try to figure out who we are and what we have become. One of my fears with the film is that it was going to be viewed in a political context, particularly with George's involvement and the perception of the work he's doing. I don't see this film as a political film at all, in that it's not blue state or red state. But to me it is about morality. It's about the way that work and the demands of work can bend people's personal morality.

That is not where I start the process. I start always very very small, with a character. That happens to emerge later on as a byproduct. Toronto was a huge success for us. It was a once in a lifetime thrill to sit in the Roy Thompson Hall and watch the film with 2,000 people. It was a profound experience, the whole thing.

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Washington, D.C.: In comic books, many writers try to write to their artist's strengths, so that the end product looks seamless. Do you try to write for your directors? Were the latter two "Bourne" films written with Paul Greengrass's documentary style in mind? Did you write "Michael Clayton" with the intention of yourself directing it?

Tony Gilroy: I did write "Michael Clayton" for me to direct. "The Bourne Supremacy" was written before Paul was involved. But yeah, I think if you're coming on a project and there is a director involved, it's inevitable that you would want to find something that works for them. I have come on films that were uncredited films where a director is unable to climb into the script. You're almost there in a way to be a seeing eye dog and help them climb in and make the film their own. That's sometimes part of the rewriting process.

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Los Angeles, Ca.: Most impressed with your directorial debut, sir. I was quite taken with a number of deft choices you made including pulling the camera back when Tilda falls to the floor in the climactic scene -- rather than moving in towards her as 99 directors out of 100 would have done. I also applaud your use of Sydney Pollack -- who by law should be cast in every serious American film that's ever made, and the last scene between Clooney and Tom Wilkinson. There's a hint Wilkinson might not be quite as completely round the bend as we might have believed. How would you describe the evolution of his character's state of mind?

Tony Gilroy: Tom Wilkinson is playing a senior partner in the law firm where Michael Clayton works. The law firm has 600 attorneys, it's a major, major law firm. He's been on the case that's at the center of this film for six years, exclusively. It's a $3 billion class action lawsuit and the firm is defending the plaintiff, an agribusiness corporation alleged to have poisoned 450 people with a pesticide.

The film doesn't meet him, you do not meet him as that person. You meet him several hours after, as a manic depressive. He's gone off his medication. he's had a psychoreligious conversion and decided he's on the wrong side of everything. It's a complicated part to play because we're seeing the after first. And Tom Wilkinson, we have to give you glimpses of the before along the way. If you met Tom Wilkinson's character or Michael Clayton two years before this film starts, they'd both be the villains.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Have you heard from George Clooney since his accident? If so, or if you have heard indirectly, how is he doing?

Tony Gilroy: We had our premiere in New York on Monday night. In fact, we did press on Monday together in New York. I have seen him. He's got some band-aids on and he's got broken ribs. Not much you can do about broken ribs. I'm sure he's sore, but he was at work and smiling.

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Boston, Mass.: I've heard that you wrote the screenplay for "Devil's Advocate" after reading "The Screwtape Letters" by C.S. Lewis. I was wondering what it was about Lewis's work that attracted you and whether there are any similarities between that earlier interest and this new legal movie, "Michael Clayton."

Tony Gilroy: "The Devil's Advocate" script had been around Hollywood for a very long time. Taylor Hackford, who I'd worked with and who is a dear friend, wanted to rewrite it and do it as a film. I could not have had any less interest in that. We argued about it for a couple weeks and I went out to work with him for one week for free, for the sake of our friendship. Along the way someone gave me a copy of "The Screwtape Letters," that's true. The seductive problem of free will was one of the breakthrough insights into getting a foothold on how to fix that script. The relationship to "Michael Clayton" would be that the other large contribution that I made to "Devil's Advocate" was to take all the evil that had been external in the film and make it internal. By making the Al Pacino character his father, putting it right inside Keanu Reeves. I think that unconsciously I have done this with pretty much all I have worked on, I am finding out now as I am talking about it.

As much paranoia and danger as there is in "Michael Clayton," the biggest danger to him is the villain that's inside him.

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Tony Gilroy: Thanks for the questions. This is the first time I've ever done this, so this is another thing for the first time. It's been a year of first things.

I hope you enjoy "Michael Clayton." Feel free to see it as many times as you like.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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