Interview: Michael Clayton Director Tony Gilroy

The screenwriter discusses his directorial debut.

by | October 12, 2007 | Comments

After beginning with
The Cutting Edge

in 1992, Tony
Gilroy
has built a career on writing dramas (Extreme Measures), thrillers (Dolores Claiborne), blockbusters (Armageddon), and some films that combine all of the above into one (the
Bourne

trilogy). Gilroy makes his directorial debut with
Michael Clayton
,
starring
Sydney Pollack
,
Tom Wilkinson,
and George
Clooney
as the titular character, a washed-up legal consultant embroiled in
murder, cover-ups, and deadly intrigue. Michael Clayton
had its North American debut to a receptive audience during the Toronto Film
Fest, and has since attained Certified Fresh status in limited release. It
expands to theaters everywhere today. Rotten Tomatoes caught up with Gilroy in
San Francisco at the tail end of his promotional tour to discuss final cut, film
criticism, and his role on a certain Michael Bay production.

Rotten Tomatoes: George Clooney’s clout got you final
cut on Michael Clayton. How often does that happen?

Tony Gilroy: Very
difficult, almost impossible. For me to get final cut on the first
picture is unheard of.  I doubt I’ll get it again for the next picture.

RT: Who came aboard first during Michael Clayton‘s
casting process?

TG: George. I needed to have that piece first. Once
I had George though, I could cast whoever I want. I didn’t have to cast for part
sales; I didn’t have to cast for studio. I always knew that I needed a movie
star to work for free. That was the only way this movie was going to get made.
Once I had George, I was totally protected.

RT: Sydney Pollack had expressed interest in directing
Michael Clayton. Did it take convincing that this was going to be your
project?

TG: It wasn’t like
Rocky
where
someone’s floating four million dollars in the back of your house going, "Take
the money!" I had to go to my wife, saying, "Oh, my God, what should I do?"
Everyone pretty much understood. Sydney and [his production company] Mirage has
such a great track record of working with first-time directors with the movies
that they produce. He got it right away. 

RT: Was your plan always to write screenplays and then
get into directing?

TG: No. I prided myself [on screenwriting] sort of
foolishly for a while. Like, "I’m going to be a writer, I’m going to be an
A-list screenwriter, I’m going to be pure and that’s going to be my gig."

RT: When did the shift in attitude happen?

TG: About 10 years ago, the frustration really
started to kick in.  No one should feel sorry for a successful screenwriter. 
[But] I don’t know any screenwriter — anywhere, at any level — who hasn’t been
frustrated.

RT: Was there a particular movie where, at that moment,
you felt you had observed enough and were ready to direct?

TG: God, if I were smart, I probably would’ve done
it a long time ago.  What you can know, what you need to know to direct a movie
is [of] such great variety.  I’ve worked with people who were maestros, who know
everything.  I’ve worked with people who were empty and lost, who had no clue
what they were doing.  You wouldn’t hire them to paint your apartment. And then
there’s everything in-between. There’s no list of skills you have to have to sit in that chair.

RT:
Your father
was also a screenwriter and director. Was there encouragement from him to get
into movies?

TG: He moved us away from Hollywood when I was in
kindergarten.  So when I was five we moved out of California to upstate New York. 
One of his primary reasons was that he was coming back to work on the theater,
but, really, he didn’t want us to grow up out there. It wasn’t like he put up a
barb wire, but he really didn’t want us to be involved in that. So we were not
encouraged.  We weren’t discouraged.  It was like living over the factory: it
was around us all the time, but it wasn’t something we were ever encouraged to
do.

RT: Was he helpful when you did express interest in
becoming a screenwriter?

TG: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been listening to him talk about stories my whole
life. [But] no one can help you write. No one can teach you how to write. We
talk about all this stuff as if it’s a mechanical thing.  Really, what this is
all about is making s— up. It’s all about imagination. You can’t teach someone
to be imaginative. That’s one of the things that bothers me the most if you’re
talking about screenwriting: the "craft" of screening and the "mechanics" of
screenwriting. In the end, it’s about making things up. You cannot invest [for
someone else to have] imagination.

The big advantage of having a father who’s a writer is
[that] you learn what a writer’s life looks like. You learn what a director’s
life looks like. How the days run.  The trials, the disappointments. How you get
paid. How you don’t get paid. How people screw you, how you get over it. That’s
the really valuable part you have a leg up on. When you start to live the
life, you go, "This feels familiar."

RT: Your brothers have also gone into film in various
capacities.  How did that come about?

TG: I don’t know. Is there a genetic
component? Is it being around [my father]? I’m raising two children now [and]
you sort of watch them. [So] I don’t have an answer to that.  But it is.  That’s
what it is.

RT: This being your first directed film, are you
following criticism of Michael Clayton more closely than you normally
would? Do you usually read reviews?

TG: Yeah. Hell, yeah. I remember getting reviews for
The Cutting Edge. First time I ever got them they sent me several
clips…they sent me a box of stuff.  You know, every paper [out there].  There
were a lot more reviewers than there are now.  Every local paper had their own
[reviewer], there was much less wire. Everyone still had their jobs. I remember
going though and it was one terrible review after another. And I’m like, "Oh, my
God." This huge stack of bad, bad, bad. A fifth of the way through the stack and
they were all bad and I was like, "I can’t go on." So I flipped to the end and
it was a great one. I realized they had put the bad ones on top. [laughs]

RT: The Cutting Edge is one of those movies that
keeps on attracting a strong cult audience.

TG: You know, I keep getting checks. They keep re-issuing it.

RT: Do you plan on directing exclusively from now on?

TG: I wouldn’t say that. I’m trying to direct again.
It would be from a script of mime. I’ve written for other people since we
finished the film. We finished the film a while ago, waiting for a release. We
had to wait after The
Good German
, and we had to wait after
Ocean’s [Thirteen]. I’ve
done a studio rewrite, I’ve written for a director, and I’ve written for myself
since then. I can’t imagine directing from someone else’s script. That’s the
only sort of equation that’s the hardest for me to imagine.

RT: Why’s that?

TG: I don’t know if I want to live in someone else’s head for two years.
If I was going to go through the trouble of [directing a script], I’d want to do
my own. I think. I reserve the right to change my mind.

RT: What studio rewrites have you done since Michael
Clayton
?

TG: You know, they’re production work, so I don’t
really want to talk about it. I finally got IMDb to pull down [some of] that
stuff. That kind of work shouldn’t be public. You’re coming in to fix some
stuff. I never really like it when other writers talk about coming in behind
people and rewriting.  [The credits that appear in the movie] are the credits
and you live by them. That’s fair play.

RT:
Armageddon
is an
odd credit to have on your resume.

TG: [laughs] Yeah. There were so many people working
on that. I don’t know what number writer I was. I worked on it for a couple
months. I did exactly what I wanted to do. I got in, I did what I had to do,
made some people happy, I got out. Let’s just leave it at that.

Michael Clayton expands into theaters everywhere today.

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