By Michael Guillén
On the last day of his six-week press junket for Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy was feeling good about being cut loose soon. "Congratulations," I grinned, "you made it!" Premiering at the Venice Film Festival and then moving on to Toronto, the film was poised to open wide on the crest of a massive wave of critical praise. So much has been written about this story of an upscale law firm "fixer" brought in to rein a senior defense attorney on a multimillion dollar class action suit who has hazardously imploded during a crisis of conscience. With all that's been written, it's always a treat to go straight to the horse's mouth, even if a car bomb explodes behind you.
Do you find people want to talk to you more now that you're a director and not just a screenwriter?
Nobody wants to talk to you when you're a writer. Your wife doesn't even want to talk to you! [Laughter.] Seriously. Nobody's interested. The only people who want to talk to you all day long are all your friends who are other writers and they want to talk to you because they want you to call them so that they're distracted as well. There's a whole series of phone calls, a whole bunch of people that I know that I can call; but no, nobody wants to talk to you when you're a writer.
When you look at this canvas of the Michael Clayton character and how the other characters play off him, how many times did you have to go through it - writing and directing it - to get the sense that you had it?
You mean the world of it?
Yes, as a director, how long did it take you until you felt comfortable with the subject matter? As a writer, you've been putting it out there for a number of years, but how does it feel for you to be directing your own script?
People have asked me if I write differently because I directed it; but every script I've ever written, I've directed. Anybody who's a good screenwriter is directing the movie. There's two parts to it. The biggest part is imagination. That's the thing that gets constantly lost in all these conversations about craft and mechanics. It's very easy for people to talk about screenwriting like it's taking a car apart; but basically, ultimately, it's imagination. A huge part of it is making shit up.
After that, there's a big part of it that's journalism. You have to really describe what it is; the movie that you're seeing. I've directed at least every first draft of everything that I've ever turned in. There's a version of it that's in my head. The script that we ended up with is structurally very close to what we started with so it was a world that was real to me. The hard part is when you're setting things aside. We set it aside so many times. It took about six years from the moment the script was written. If you set it aside and you're doing other things and it lies fallow and you're waiting to hear from somebody, the down time is refreshing yourself, climbing back in - that's the most difficult part.
So much has been written about Michael Clayton in the wake of its Venice and Toronto film festival screenings, but I wanted to focus on just a beautiful bit from the film that I'd like to tease out and hopefully amplify, if you'll indulge me?
I've seen the film twice now. The first time I watched it, I was intrigued by the scene where Clayton (George Clooney) pulls his Mercedes over to the side of a country road and walks up the hill to get close to the three horses. There was such a confused look on his face, almost a befuddlement, an anguish, and I didn't quite understand it, couldn't quite read it. The second time I watched the film, I understood it in the sense that it had something to do with his son Henry (Austin Williams). Earlier in the sequence, when he goes into Arthur Edens's (Tom Wilkinson) apartment, his attention is captured by a copy of Realm and Conquest, the book his son has been encouraging him to read, within which he finds a valuable piece of evidence - the photocopy receipt - inserted at a page where there is an illustration of a horse on a hill. Is there a connection between his finding this illustration of a horse on a hill in his son's favorite book and his spotting the horses on the hill that made him pull over to take a look at them? Which, in essence, saved his life?
I don't want to cop out on this, but I've heard so many honest-to-God extraordinary explanations and interpretations of what's happening in that scene. I've heard Christian interpretations. I had a woman come up to me and talk about The Furies and classic Greek. I've had someone come up and tell me the horses have their bridles on because they're still contained. And that's not even the tip of the iceberg. My son sent me a link where people were arguing about it online.
Here's what I know: I never write from a place of trying to write about an issue. I try to write intuitively. It was very simple for me why he pulls over. It was simply because he was so absolutely soul sick that he needed to see something that was natural and real. He needed to put his feet in wet ground. He needed some reminder that he was a biological being on the planet. It was almost like going to church in a way; the church of nature. Now within that, many other interpretations seem to be available and viable. I am so leery of getting in the way of anything that disrupts that.
Because as I've ruminated on this story, it's the role of his son that keeps underscoring the events; the impact he had on Arthur Edens and, indirectly, on Michael Clayton himself; their relationship seems crucial to everything that happens in the film. Christian-wise, yeah, it's like the young Christ among the elders. It's like the remembrance of innocence being an instruction.
At the end of the movie, when you think of Michael Clayton in the cab, one of the things I was trying to do at the end was - you know, you had this sort of feel-good moment when he confronts Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), which feels really good and really satisfying - but I wanted to reset the vibe of the movie. That's not really where I'm at. I wanted to reset the vibe of the movie but also, for anybody who's paying attention, I wanted to posit: What's going to happen in the next hour? What's going to happen in the next week to all the people in this film? And the one thing, I think, the only upside to this whole movie, is he's going to be able to face his son in some sort of honest, fundamental way. I do think you're right. I think that's the sole achievement at the end for him. I do think you're right in suggesting that it's my intention that that's a fundamental, underwritten part of the story. But I'm leery about going farther than that. I don't want to get in the way of anything.
I respect that.
It's not like I have a complicated version of it that I'm hiding. My version of it is the most simple version of it, but it's available for all these other interpretations. That's my safety.
I guess that speaks to the truth of images being polyvalent and capable of containing many values and meanings.
Images are pure. They're very simple. Three is a powerful number. The boy. Anyway...
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