Interview: Michael Clayton Director Tony Gilroy

The screenwriter discusses his directorial debut.

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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