Festival runs put 'Clayton' on awards voters' radar

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"Clayton" contender: With the awards season under way, films that spent the early fall premiering or playing on the festival circuit are opening now and hoping for that magical combination of boxoffice and critical success that can generate Oscar and Golden Globes consideration.

One potential contender is the thriller "Michael Clayton," written and directed by Tony Gilroy -- who wrote the three "Bourne" franchise thrillers -- opening Friday in New York, L.A. and Toronto and going wide Oct. 12. A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation in association with Samuels Media and Castle Rock Entertainment, the Mirage Enterprises/Section Eight production stars George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack. It was produced by Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox, Steven Samuels and Kerry Orent and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, James Holt and Anthony Minghella.

"Clayton" premiered at the 33rd annual Deauville Film Festival in early September and played at the 64th annual Venice Film Festival and the 32nd annual Toronto International Film Festival. It's been attracting the kind of global media attention and favorable festival buzz that creates the preawareness to put it on awards voters' radar as a film they'll make time to see.

Needless to say, having Clooney in the film's title role is a great advantage for "Clayton" on the awards front, particularly since he delivers a killer performance as the in-house fixer for a prominent New York law firm. With solid performances by Wilkinson as a top attorney at the firm who suffers a major breakdown, by Swinton as the chief counsel for the company the firm's battling in a multimillion dollar class action suit and by Pollack as the firm's distinguished co-founder, "Clayton" could land some prime acting nominations.

The fact that "Clayton" got a very fresh 80% rating on RottenTomatoes.com's Tomatometer suggests the film could do well with critics groups and end of the year top 10 lists. Those critics groups' votes across the country starting in early December play a key role in driving other nominations because they help focus awards voters' attention on which films they should pay attention to.

Having enjoyed "Clayton" very much at an early screening, I was glad to have an opportunity to catch up last Saturday morning with Tony Gilroy. While this marks his feature film directorial debut, Gilroy's writing credits include such hits as "The Bourne Identity," "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," all starring Matt Damon; "The Devil's Advocate," starring Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino and Charlize Theron; and "Proof of Life," starring Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan; "Armageddon," starring Bruce Willis; and "Extreme Measures," starring Gene Hackman, Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker.

"I started having the itch to do this about 10 years ago," Gilroy told me. "If you wait a long time you're kind of fishing around for what the right thing is to do. I didn't want to have waited so long and just sort of dash one off. It would have been a lot easier to probably set up a different kind of movie. I stumbled across the beginnings of this idea when we were working on 'Devil's Advocate.' It really stuck with me and I sort of messed around with the character. It was kind of a real embarrassment of riches. This character was really hard to reign in. I played with the script for a long time and when I finally got it done I said, 'I'm going to stake my claim here' and fortunately it took a long time to get the movie made after that.

"I pitched it to Castle Rock. My carbon 14 dating is I know that I pitched (when) we were just about to go down to Ecuador on 'Proof of Life' (2000). I pitched it and about a week later after I pitched it and (Castle Rock co-founder) Martin Shafer said, 'Let's do this.' I think I called him back and said, 'Hey, they want to have six to eight weeks to redo the story on this 'Bourne Identity' thing. Do you mind if I pick up a check?' That was about eight years ago! It got totally pushed aside for 'Bourne' for a while. It turned out to be more than six weeks!"

Did he write "Clayton" knowing he was going to direct it? "That was part of the pitch," he replied. "I had a smell of the kind of movie it was and it was a very sketchy pitch. I really just said to Martin, 'Look, I want to do a movie about lawyers that doesn't go anywhere near a courtroom. I want to stay in the back of the house. I'll write a movie star part, but it won't be that expensive a film. And I want to direct it. And someone will die. That was it."

Asked if he writes differently when he knows he's going to be directing than when someone else is going to direct, Gilroy said, "Honest to God, no. I've sort of directed (in my head) every film that I've started and written through. I mean, I've seen all those films (while writing). When you're writing well you're pretty much trying to act as a journalist for the movie you're seeing in your head in a way and trying to refine that. So it wasn't so very different. I think, perhaps, I steered it in ways (that were helpful). I probably had a pretty firm grip on the budget of the film as I went along. There were probably things that I didn't do. I mean, sometimes if you're writing and there's sort of a blank check (you write differently). I knew there was no blank check in my imagination as I was writing here. I've always written like I was making the movie.

"It's sort of a filter that you put on in the very beginning and the sort of smell of it is in the room with the project that you're working on. It's almost self-governing in a way. I don't know if it's very much a conscious decision every day, but you sort of know the kind of movie that you're obsessing over when you're working. I work on only one thing at a time and so you get so deeply involved in the weave of what you're working on. I was never tempted to have 40,000 Roman chariots come over the horizon."

The time it took for him to write "Clayton," he said, "wasn't typical. First of all, it was completely interrupted by 'Bourne' (which) ended up stopping and starting and the first one taking the better part of two and a half years. So it really got pushed aside way too many times. It had an unnatural fertilization. And then the material was so rich. There were so many ways to go with this character. There were periods of time when I thought, 'I should do this as a television series and not do it as a (film).' There was so much narrative possibility here. How long (did it take to write)? Too long. A year and a half, on and off. Way too long. The average for a script is about four, five or six months, something like that."

It's always interesting to ask writers how and when they actually do their writing. "When I was much younger I was very much an every day, regular (writer)," he explained. "Over time, I've come to trust momentum and the binge of it. It's very hard for me to start writing and once I get going and once I get the bit in my mouth and once it starts to run, there's a period of time when I really can't stop. I stop sleeping almost at the end. It's a real slow burn all the way through.

"I'm a computer writer. Sometimes in the very beginning when I'm accumulating stuff I'll draw a lot of diagrams and keep notes in longhand, but I haven't touched a typewriter in a very long time. I was a huge, huge disciple of Word Perfect. I loved Word Perfect and then it disappeared. It was machined out. I use Final Draft now, which is really good. I've been using Final Draft for, I don't know, about five or six years."

Does he create note cards to outline scenes and post them on a bulletin board? "What I really do is I make a huge mess in the beginning," he said. "I have a huge sort of gathering phase on every picture I'm on -- even if it's on a rewriting job. I like to have at least some period of time where I really, really sketch and where I'm really free and make a lot of mess and make too many files and lose my way and have way too many pages lying around and lots of dialogue. I'm always looking to stay loose and sketch and not pin myself down and (I want) to keep it very free. I do an incredible amount of plotting through dialogue.

"I know some writers who are very successful and very good at what they do and they plot sort of omnisciently. I cannot plot without having characters talk. I've had so many thousands of plot turns and good things that happened in scripts because the character's been able to say something that's gotten to the next scene. I don't know how to plot without sort of sketching dialogue. So I'm writing lots and lots and lots of sketchy dialogue scenes looking for anchor scenes. I can go through every script of mine and go, 'Here's one, two or three scenes that I had early that let me know there was a movie there that I hung on to and that was the sort of navigational North Star to keep me going.'"

As for who's going to play the roles, while he's writing Gilroy said he has people in mind, but "Sometimes it's fantasy casting. I mean, you can cast living or dead, if you want to. You can have Spencer Tracy, if you want. I think it if you go along (having people in mind) it's really helpful. I do do that."

On the other hand, while he was writing "Clayton," Gilroy had no idea that Clooney would wind up starring in the film. "I didn't, but he was the pot of gold. I didn't know him at that time," he pointed out. "I wrote the script for Castle Rock and it took so long for the script to come in. When I started it, Castle Rock was a studio and by the time the script came in they were producers at Warner Bros.

"They really were into the script, but it had come out a little more complicated. It was a much more difficult project than anybody had been led to believe. They gave me this incredibly benevolent turnaround to try to keep them involved, too. I worked for those guys for years. Martin Shafer's just been the ultimate stand-up guy for me for the last 15 years."

When the script was finished, he continued, "I went out and I started shopping around. Sydney Pollack read it and Sydney called me up and said, 'Hey, man, I want to direct your movie' and I said, 'I'm not letting it go, not this one.' He said, 'All right. I'll help you get it made.' So he came on and we tweaked the script. That's got to be about six years ago. In that period of time, I was working for Steven Soderbergh, who's a friend. I thought Steven had read it earlier and he hadn't read it. He read it and he goes, 'We should do this with George and we should do a digital video and we should do it right away and this is just terrific. George needs to see this.' And so we sent it to him and he responded really favorably that he would be interested possibly in directing it and doing it, but he didn't want to work with a first-time director at all. It would be another two or two and a half years later before I would actually meet him again.

"I tried every kind of way to get the movie made. We chased a lot of different actors and we chased a lot of different financing, but I always knew that the best formula was to have a movie star who would waive their fee. That was the only real formula (for how) the movie was going to get made. But we tried some other ways to do it. I changed agencies and came at it with renewed vigor. I went over to CAA sort of on a binary pass-fail contract with them. I said, 'Look, I'm coming over here to get my movie made.' I mean, I didn't need any help getting writing work and I was very happy with my actual agent. She was great. But I needed that extra muscle and some enthusiasm from the agency and they sure had it in spades (at CAA). They found me some financing with Steve Samuels (who heads Samuels Media) up in Boston."

Gilroy went to meet with Samuels, he said, "almost immediately -- like several days after I switched over there -- and he was great. He said, 'Look, I'll give you just enough money to make the movie.' There was a list of actors that were gettable. It was a realistic list and certainly with CAA's momentum and imprimatur we were on the path and it looked like all of a sudden we were going to get the movie made. I called Steven (Soderbergh) back and said, 'I feel really great about this, but I don't want to meet George Clooney at a dinner party six months from now and find out how great we get along. I've got to have a meeting with him before I go down this other road.' Seven said, 'I hear you' and Jen Fox, who was involved in the project at that point from Section Eight (Soderbergh and Clooney's production company where she was president from 2001-07), started helping me.

"I just bothered George for a month. I just kept bothering him to the point where I said, 'He can pass before we have the meeting. I don't care. He could pass right now. Just let me have the meeting after he passes. That's all.' I didn't want that horrible, 'I missed my shot' last minute kind of feeling.' Then we had a very, very, very solid meeting. He came on board. We had to wait at that point. We were in a holding pattern. He was just about to start shooting 'Good Night, and Good Luck' and then he was going to go into 'The Good German' and then he was going to come to us. So it gave me plenty of time to get ready."

In particular, Sydney Pollack is outstanding as the law firm's co-founder, a role that could put him in key best supporting actor races. Did Pollack tell Gilroy he wanted to play the part? "No, it was the opposite," Gilroy confided. "It was a complete pain in the ass to get him to do the part. He said, 'Everyone's going to think I'm doing this because I'm a producer' and 'There's many other people you can get.' No. He was a real pain to get to show up to act in the movie. I think he just didn't want to have it look as if (he'd gotten the part by virtue of being a producer on the film). The truth is, if he hadn't been a producer and I'd never met him, I would have still been going after him. He was the perfect person for the part, which I kept trying to tell him over and over again. Once he showed up, he was brilliant and he had a great time."

How does a first-time director direct Sydney Pollack, who won the best directing Oscar in 1986 for "Out of Africa" and was Oscar nominated in 1983 for directing "Tootsie" and in 1970 for directing "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" Was it in any way intimidating? "The whole thing is intimidating," Gilroy observed. "You know, you try not to look down. It doesn't do any good to look down. I mean, I'm a kid. I've been around a lot of people (for years) and I sort of grew up in this business (as the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker Frank D. Gilroy). So the intimidation factor is (not important). Sydney was a friend and a colleague at that point.

"How did I direct him? I cast him and we agreed about what he'd wear and we made sure that he had plenty of time to do what he was going to do. And I hired the best people around him. I mean, 99.9% of it is having a script that works and casting right and getting out of the way and picking the right take."

Asked how he worked as a director, Gilroy told me, "We didn't rehearse. After one film, I don't know if it's a style or not. If I did another film, I'm not sure I'd do everything exactly the same -- not because it didn't work, but just because every film, I think, is sort of like every script (where) you sort of have your rhythm and your pain threshold and your taste, but you sort of change things. With this film, I very consciously did not want to rehearse at all. Really for a bunch of reasons. One would be historical. I've worked on a lot of films that did a lot of rehearsing and I think a lot of times it's for the benefit of the director to climb into the material in a way and to claim the material, in a positive way, and to really understand it. I didn't have that (need). I understood the material fundamentally on a really microscopic level.

"There's some advantage to being the person who does know that and there's some advantage to being the person who knows what's going on more than anybody else. So I liked that idea. For any of the characters in this film, there's very, very few comfortable scenes for anyone. So the idea of actors getting together and becoming comfortable with one another was not something that had any value for me on the screen. And the sort of extension of that was that Michael Clayton, the character that George plays, is someone who's really in distress and really off balance."

Reflecting on that point, he added, "I loved the idea that George was going to come to us very, very tired, which he did, and really burned out from this really extreme sort of triathlon that he'd been on before that and come to us really tired, really open, really played out and that every single day we were going to throw another amazing actor up in front of him to keep him on his ass all the way through this movie and keep him off balance. His first day of shooting was with Tom in a jail cell where Tom gives the monologue that starts the film. We shot for three weeks before Sydney or George came in so we had a nice little machine that was rolling and he just came in and it was like BAM."

As for the challenges of shooting the film, he told me, "The one thing I really didn't anticipate and you couldn't anticipate how much time it was going to take was finding and holding locations in New York. We didn't have very much money at all to do this movie. We couldn't throw money at everything here at all and the locations that we needed were very rich. I mean, law firms and offices in a very specific part of midtown. Windows had to match and views had to match and I really needed to manufacture a very serious, large, believable New York City law firm. Finding locations, hanging on to them, losing them and begging to get them back (was very difficult). I had no idea it was going to occupy so much of my time. It took an incredibly disproportionate amount of my time to do that preproduction."

When I asked what his budget to make the film was, Gilroy replied, "I'm not supposed to say, but, you know what, pretty much what George's full freight would be in a movie star part. That's about what we made this movie for." That would put it somewhere in the $20 million to $25 million range, which is certainly not a lot of money to make a movie anymore, especially one that looks as good as "Clayton" looks on the screen.

"You asked my style of filmmaking," he said. "I mean, there's different kinds of films. There's films where directors go in and they shoot a lot and they try to find the film in the editing room. There's no shortage of great films that have been made that way. This was not that. I can't see myself doing that. Maybe if I get the chance, five pictures down the line I'll want to do that, but this was very much about making sure that as much as we could possibly shoot that would end up on the screen ended up on the screen."

Does he want to direct again? "Yeah. I'm very actively trying to set something up right now," Gilroy replied, "before the (potential writers') strike. I think I'm close."

Lee's "Lust:" Focus Features' "Lust, Caution" from Oscar winning director Ang Lee played very well Wednesday night when it premiered at the Academy and is clearly a major contender for awards consideration. Lee, who won best director for "Brokeback Mountain" in the 2006 Oscar, Golden Globes, BAFTA and Directors Guild of America votes, is likely to be back again this year as a directing nominee. The film also stands to be a nominee in such other prime categories as Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus' screenplay adapted from the short story by Eileen Chang, the lead performances by Tony Leung and Tang Wei, Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography and Alexandre Desplat's score.

Although "Lust" runs approximately 157 minutes and is in Chinese with English subtitles, I found that the time flew by and after a few minutes of reading those subtitles I was completely oblivious to the fact that the movie's not in English. Nonetheless, these are challenges the film will have to overcome in its awards marketing in order to get enough Academy members to make the time commitment to see it. Word of mouth, however, should definitely help Focus on this front because the picture is so impressive that after seeing it you want to make a point of telling friends it's something they shouldn't miss -- hence today's quick report from the awards frontlines.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 3, 1990's column: "Looking back at the soft business that some of the holiday season films arrived to, the question that comes to mind is 'How do moviegoers know before some pictures open that they don't want to see them?'

"Ten or 15 years ago, for instance, it was possible to get a good first weekend of business out of films that might not be audience pleasers but that arrived with big-star names on the marquee and lots of advertising support. Why is Hollywood now finding it increasingly more difficult to achieve the same opening weekend success with its less-than-great movies?

"The answer can be found if you think back 10 or 15 years and realize how much less media coverage of new movies there was then compared to today. There was, for example, no syndicated 'Entertainment Tonight' focusing every night on upcoming films. Three was no Cable News Network covering new films twice each day on 'Showbiz Today' and throughout the week with feature reports on CNN and its sister cable network Headline News.

"There was much less attention paid to movies and interviews with filmmakers and stars on network morning shows like NBC's 'Today' and ABC's 'Good Morning America.' As for CBS, its early morning program in those days was the serious newscast 'The CBS Morning News.'

"There weren't any syndicated movie reviews shows hosted by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert or Rex Reed and Dixie Whatley or Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved. There wasn't a Movietime cable network focusing on films around the clock. And there wasn't a Financial News Network covering motion pictures as a business.

"There also was much less attention paid to movies on local television stations. It was the rise of electronic broadcast kits -- or EBKs, for short -- in the '80s that made it possible for stations everywhere to get the film clips and behind-the-scenes footage they needed to assemble their own in-depth features about new movies...

"With so many media outlets telecasting bits and pieces of the half-dozen approved film clips from every upcoming release, audiences get to sample more of today's new product than was ever possible before. You no longer have to be in a movie theater to see a trailer. Anyone who watches even a little television can't help but get a pretty good sense of whether a given film is something he or she would be willing to pay money to see before it's released to home video...

"Nothing arrives in today's marketplace without first having had its moment in the media spotlight. And that is proving to be a double-edged sword. While it's quite helpful to good films, it appears to work against the boxoffice prospects of lesser movies."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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