the devil's advocate, the bourne ultimatum, 
dolores claiborne, armaggedon,
among others
photo of Michael Clayton,  Tony Gilroy   
Tony Gilroy, director and screenwriter of "Michael Clayton".  Based on his research of the legal profession for his film, Gilroy says, that "it's a rough life."  (Photo: WireImage)

By Omar P.L. Moore 
The Popcorn Reel

October 11, 2007


Tony Gilroy is not an attorney, but he directs one on the silver screen in actor George Clooney, who plays the title role in the new legal thriller "Michael Clayton", Mr. Gilroy's debut as a film director.  (The film has already opened in many U.S. cities and can be seen during the Mill Valley Film Festival, which concludes on October 14.)  While a seat in the big chair might be novel in some ways, Gilroy, the 50-something filmmaker born in Manhattan and raised in upstate New York, says he's been directing for many years.  "I've directed every movie -- at least every first draft of a version that I've ever turned in -- is a version of it that's in my head.  So [for "Michael Clayton] the script we ended up with was structurally very close to what we started out with."  The director has made his name in Hollywood as a screenwriter, notably with the trilogy of "Bourne" films that includes the recent smash-hit "The Bourne Ultimatum", and memorably with "The Devil's Advocate", (which Gilroy calls "an opera" during this interview with three online journalists.) 

Taylor Hackford has directed two of the films that Gilroy has written for the big screen ("Advocate", "Dolores Claiborne") and during the DVD audio commentary for "Advocate" highly commends the director's written work.  If memory serves correctly, Hackford, the director of the Academy Award-winning "Ray" (2004) says words to the effect of, "someday Tony Gilroy will be a great director."  The newly-minted director Gilroy makes an effective and memorable debut with "Michael Clayton", a film that boasts an impressive cast (Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and Sydney Pollack) and is a remarkably subtle film, with interpretive imagery -- a scene featuring three horses -- that has spilled more ink than the fountain pens used to draft the United States Declaration Of Independence in the late 1700's. 

It is quite a scene now witnessing Gilroy in this moment as he answers a query about the imagery, and he is both beguiled and fascinated by the volume of reaction to this particular scene in the countryside involving the trio of horses.  "I don't wanna cop out on this, honest to God," responds Gilroy, "....I've heard so many really . . . extraordinary explanations and interpretations of what's happening in that scene, I can't even tell you.  Christian interpretations . . . I had a woman come up to me and talk about the Furies, and classic Greek . . . and that's just the tip of the iceberg, I've heard more -- my son, sent me a link off some website and said, 'man you've got to check this out!'  People were arguing . . . ", Gilroy says in amazement.

For those who have seen the film (and for those who have not) and are searching for the meaning of the three horses, Gilroy explains that the need to belong to the natural order of things fuels his lead character's decision to stop in the countryside for a breath of fresh air.  The screenwriter in Gilroy makes it clear that he likes making his writing simple in the sense that he is never trying to be deeply interpretive.  What one sees is what one gets.  As far as anything he can further elucidate from the horses scene for curious viewers with an insatiable appetite for solving a visual riddle, the director adds perhaps modestly, "[w]ithin that, many other interpretations seem to be available and viable, and I am so leery of getting in the way of anything that disrupts that."

Nothing gets in the way of one reality: Tony Gilroy's film is tense, gripping and at times riveting to watch.  The film came in under budget, and George Clooney declined a salary for the film, which for Gilroy was the big key to making "Michael Clayton" happen in the first place.  "If George Clooney doesn't cut his fee and work for free, this movie doesn't get made," the director says.  The Oscar-winning actor Clooney (whose second directing effort "Leatherheads" arrives next spring on the big screen in the U.S.) also brought his good friend Steven Soderbergh on board as one of "Clayton's" executive producers.  Warner Brothers, the studio that distributed the film in the United States and Canada, never ran a shred of interference on Gilroy or his crew, allowing complete freedom for the filmmaker to do what he wished to cultivate his vision.

Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder in Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton".  Of the Scottish actor Mr. Gilroy jokes, "I got her [in the film] for her elbows and legs and ankles," in response to one journalist's recounting of Bela Tarr reportedly saying during an interview that he recruited Ms. Swinton for his film "The Man From London" for her bone structure and her eyes and face.  (Photo: Warner Brothers)

"Michael Clayton" is more about the politics and machinations behind the ethics of law than about the law itself.  Gilroy's film is also about tradition, both in law firms and in family.  Clooney plays a fixer of the big messes that high-profile clients of the fictional firm of Kenner, Bach and Ledeen, a reputable white-shoe law firm that may resemble real-life big Manhattan firms like White & Case or Sullivan & Cromwell, to name just a few of the major Big Apple law firms that have been institutions for at least a century.  Tom Wilkinson plays brilliant legal mind Arthur Edens, a veteran attorney shattered by dementia and bipolar mental illness, which affects his handling of his defense of an agrochemical multi-trillion dollar behemoth corporation named UNorth, whose lead in-house counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) has much riding on a settlement of a billion-dollar class action lawsuit, a settlement very much in jeopardy.  Sydney Pollack, who was also one of the film's producers, is the firm's principal partner Marty Bach, under siege not only as a partner, but also as the firm's patriarchal face. 

A question is posed to Gilroy about lawyers and the profession and practice of law, which one of the journalists happens to have experience in.  "I feel sympathy for lawyers," Gilroy says.  "I think that one of the real eye-openers about even doing the research for this film, even shooting the film, shooting these firms -- I mean -- man, oh man, what a rugged life!  It's not glamorous in any way, shape or form.  We're shooting these law firms at night.  You're in, three o'clock in the morning . . . we shot in a bunch of them (the law firms) to make a composite that we have at the beginning and there's just three or four lights on, on every floor.  There's someone buried under paper.  And it's not pretty.  And [the lawyers] they've been there, and they're going to be there and they're not seeing their kids, and they're billing by the hour."  The tone of Gilroy's voice becomes quiet, more somber as he reaches the end of this sentence, almost trailing off.  It is the one of the few moments during the interview where he hasn't had his three questioners either smiling or laughing. 

Gilroy, who says he is a "decisive" person, finds himself by his own admission being "wishy-washy" at several moments during his responses to some of the questions about his film.  Despite this acknowledgement, Gilroy is measured in his next response about lawyers as he contemplates a hypothetical scenario.  "Now if you're saying, 'do I think I could personally spend my life making a product that was protecting -- if my product was protecting somebody who was doing something that I knew was really horrible?'  I don't think I could do that."  Gilroy quickly adds, "I don't think that's indicting the entire profession."

"Michael Clayton" doesn't indict the profession of law, and doesn't exhibit the cliches that could so easily be pinpointed in numerous television legal dramas, including the good ones ("The Practice", "Boston Legal", "Judging Amy", "Philly", or "L.A. Law".)  The reality is of course that in the world over, there are good lawyers and there are bad lawyers, just as there are good and bad in any profession and every walk of life.  Still, lawyers do get that added scrutiny, with William Shakespeare's line in King Lear as a starting point.  And on the big screen in one film Robin Williams repeats a joking variation on the Shakespeare quip.  Says Christopher Plummer as CBS's "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace during the film "The Insider" to Gina Gershon's CBS corporate lawyer character: "what are you gonna do, you gonna stand there and finesse me?  Lawyer me to death?"  There have been a panoply of legal thrillers and courtroom dramas that have graced the big screen in the U.S. over the decades, including such films as "A Civil Action", "The Firm" (which "Clayton" co-star Sydney Pollack directed), "The Verdict", "To Kill A Mockingbird", "The Pelican Brief", "Jagged Edge", "The Rainmaker", "A Few Good Men", "Fracture" and "The Juror", among many, many others.

photo of Michael Clayton,  George Clooney, Tony Gilroy, Tilda Swinton
Tony Gilroy, with his "Michael Clayton" stars Tilda Swinton and George Clooney at the recent Venice International Film Festival in Italy in August.  (Photo: WireImage)

The threads of the story Gilroy writes engulfs the characters, transforming the drama that is "Michael Clayton" into a thriller, and a mystery into a memory -- the memory of the tortured journey of a man in Clayton who must straddle the fence between ethical and egregious, even as the world around him is decaying much faster than the good intent within him can be maintained.  Wilkinson's performance in particular will have Academy voters talking, as will the work that Clooney does.  Swinton and Pollack are always better than just interesting in big screen acting roles, and their work here is no exception.  John Gilroy edits the film, and yes, he is related to the director -- as the younger brother of Tony -- and John's fraternal twin Dan Gilroy is a screenwriter (of films like "Two For The Money" and "Freejack".)  Dan and Tony have both written scripts that starred Al Pacino.

Overall, Tony Gilroy laments the filmmaking changes, or more specifically, the filmmaking culture that has changed in America over the last generation or so, and he speaks about it with a degree of sadness as he remembers some of the noted American classic films of the 1970's.  He mentions films like "Five Easy Pieces" and "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest", seminal American films from the seventies that he believes would be playing at Sundance right now, but without half of the fanfare that those films got with the stars that adorned them.  He added that those films would probably not look as good as they did 30 years ago, and would, if they indeed existed today, be swept under the rug.  "You'd never make "The Conversation".  You'd never make "Klute", he says.  ("Good luck getting "Klute" off the ground right now!", Gilroy adds.)  "I mean, how long did it take for "Three Days Of The Condor" to get back to "Bourne"?  I mean, that is . . . one of the sort of things [in writing the screenplays for the "Bourne" trilogy] I was trying to do.  And it's economics.  It's just economics." 

Gilroy then talks about actors doing what Clooney does by forgoing salary -- Bruce Willis is among several big name actors who has done the same on occasion for a smaller film to get made -- and stops himself abruptly in mid-sentence.  "This" -- meaning his film -- "shouldn't be that fresh a movie.  You know what I mean?  This shouldn't be this . . . It should be like part of a continuum."

So says Tony Gilroy, screenwriter and director, of law ("Michael Clayton") -- and in time, perhaps via Taylor Hackford's sentiments -- director of lore.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2007.  All Rights Reserved.



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