The ''Michael Clayton'' director talks about how he went from writing a cult ice-skating drama to being one of the top players in Hollywood. Just ask George Clooney

October 08, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

The George Clooney legal drama Michael Clayton (expanding to more cities this week) heralds the debut of a new directing talent. Tony Gilroy is a longtime Hollywood screenwriter who cut his teeth penning 1992’s ice-skating cult classic, The Cutting Edge; several films for director Taylor Hackford (Dolores Claiborne, The Devil’s Advocate, Proof of Life); and all three Bourne movies.

Now, with Michael Clayton, Gilroy directs a script he conceived more than 10 years ago. Clooney plays a conflicted ”fixer” at a corporate New York law firm forced to dig through a dangerous conspiracy after a star litigator (Tom Wilkinson) goes bananas. (Check out Owen Gleiberman’s rave review.) sat down with Gilroy — a lean and gracious guy who looks like he could pass for David Strathairn’s handsome grey-haired brother — to talk about wooing Clooney, how to make a ’70s movie in 2007, and Chuck Norris.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did Michael Clayton come about?
The idea came during [1997’s] The Devil’s Advocate. We were tailing all these law firms in New York, and I was really kind of shocked and fascinated by all this stuff that was going on behind the scenes — that there was this whole back of the house, the kitchen area of the restaurant. And I thought, God, that’s really untouched. Nobody’s done a movie about that. And I started talking to people, and soon I said to myself that this is a whole ecosystem that hasn’t been tapped in the movies.

What took so long to make it, then?
A bunch of times, it seemed like it was going to happen. I knew I needed a movie star. That was the plan, to get a movie star to sign on and cut their fee. And that’s a very, very time-consuming process, even just to get [a big-name actor to] pass.

You don’t even want [stars] to say yes after a while — you want them to say no quickly, so you can move on. To wait four months to get a pass is really debilitating. Along the way Sydney Pollack came on as a producer, and I was working with Steven Soderbergh, and he wanted to do it very quickly and wanted George to do it. George wanted to direct it, but wouldn’t meet with me. Sydney wanted to direct, George wanted to direct… George said he loved it and he didn’t want to work with a first-time director. And two years later, I got the meeting. It was two years to get the meeting. All I wanted to do was have the meeting so [George] could pass. Just get me the meeting so he could pass.

What happened when you did meet him?
It was a one-day meeting. A nine-hour, one-day meeting. And we came out with a movie.

How’d you get him? What happened in the nine hours?
We loved all the same movies. It was all the movies that we loved in the ’70s, that we loved growing up. It was a really a conversation about these movies that we loved that people weren’t doing anymore, and what an ordinary movie this would be in 1976, or 1975, and how unusual it is to see something like that now. We talked about all the Alan Pakula films, and Hal Ashby movies, and why isn’t anybody doing stuff like that anymore.

Filmmakers love the ’70s.
There’s a level of ambiguity that you’re allowed. You’re allowed to have things not round off. Once a film costs a certain amount of money, things have to round off.

Was it a trick to get the ambiguous stuff into this movie?
That’s an interesting question. You wanna know the trick? The trick was to hang tough with it and not bring to bear all the things that you’re trained to do in [regular studio rewrite/script work]. I’m trained to button scenes and round things off, and I get rewarded for doing that. And you have to keep navigating and be brave.

So Michael Clayton is entirely different kind of writing for you than studio work?
I’ve never turned in [a script] I didn’t like. I’ve never taken a job on anything I didn’t want to do. The Bourne movies were a real vindication of something that I was trying to do for a long time, which is bring intimacy to action. I keep trying to get people to do it and no one would do it — you know, to make a chamber action piece instead of an orchestral action piece. So Bourne was a real vindication. The gravitational pull of a $70 million movie is to button everything up.

Clooney is so low key in this movie — it feels like a ’70s movie in that it’s so controlled.
That’s the one thing we talked about with pretty much all the actors along the way: keeping the temperature down, keeping it contained. I like emotions, but I really don’t like sentimentality, and I don’t like when things break their spell. When you cast a spell on something like Devil’s Advocate, you do an opera. And you have a much larger color palette. Here, it was really was just a matter of saying to the actors: Stay here.

NEXT PAGE: ”I thought… I’ll write a screenplay really quick and get rich. And I spent five years tending bar trying to figure it out.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How’d your career get started in the first place?
I grew up, and my dad [Frank D. Gilroy, a writer and director who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, The Subject Was Roses] was my dad.

When did you start writing?
I left home really early. I was a musician in Boston from the time I was 17 until probably around the time I was 22 and 23. I started writing songs and lyrics, then I decided I was going to write serious fiction. I wrote a bunch of stories and started a novel, and I came down to New York still playing music, doing both. And then I thought, Well this is ridiculous. I’m going to get out of this, and I’ll write a screenplay really quick and get rich. And I spent five years tending bar trying to figure it out.

How old were you then?
I think after the first sale I had of anything, I quit tending bar when I was 30. I got my first gig writing a movie that never got made for Chuck Norris. So I quit tending bar, and I was a screenwriter.

Was the Chuck Norris premise good?
Oh dude, please! [Laughs]

Your first credit is The Cutting Edge. How long was the trek from Norris to Cutting Edge?
A couple of years. I had a script that was a great writing sample. It was called RSVP, and it was a bickering Preston Sturges ’80s romantic comedy. And Robert Cort at Interscope read it and said, ”I want to do a movie about figure skating.” Figure skating! I was like, Oh no. [Laughs] But he could greenlight a movie, and I really liked him, and I said, ”If I really [nail] it, are you going to make it?” Because you get burned all the time. And we did it.

That movie was your first big break?
Oh, totally. Definitely.

How did you come to working on The Bourne Identity and its sequels?
I gotta be careful here. I got sent a very, very — what’s a polite way to put it? Something got sent to me that was a really, really poor script, and [The Bourne Identity director Doug Liman] had passed on another film of mine six months earlier. I only went to meet him because I was curious why he was doing this and not my movie. And in the course of that conversation — explaining why I didn’t like it — there were enough ideas that people got excited about, and it started a whole [thing]… but it was really under false pretenses.

I always wonder: How do writers like you get your arms around the international-espionage stuff in scripts like Bourne?
I’ve been a freak for all that stuff for 30 years. I have a huge library of stuff that always interested me. And for those kinds of movies, it’d be hard to write them if you didn’t have a sense of their physical world. There are a lot of great writers who have difficulty with that because they’re not mechanical. You need a physical understanding of the world you’re writing about.

For a screenwriter as successful as you’ve been, how hard is it still? Is it still really easy to lose control of your own scripts?
The truth is, you wake up every morning with infinite creative rights. You trade them away as the day goes on. You cash a check; you trade ’em. It is shocking sometimes how important you are until the moment you deliver. Even with A-plus writers, that’s still a shock. You’re important, and extremely well paid, and pampered and catered to, until the moment you deliver. But I can do whatever I want.

Was that true on Michael Clayton?
I had final cut. That entire movie is what I wanted to make. I didn’t get burned.

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