Movies

Director Dan Gilroy takes on social justice in ‘Roman J. Israel’

Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Columbia Pictures
Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.

TORONTO — If screenwriter and director Frank D. Gilroy (“From Noon Till Three,” “The Gig”) had his way, his sons never would have gone into the film business. But Tony Gilroy wrote and directed “The Bourne Legacy” and “Michael Clayton,” John Gilroy edited “Rogue One” and “Suicide Squad,” and Dan Gilroy (John’s fraternal twin) wrote and directed “Nightcrawler” and the new courtroom drama “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” in which Denzel Washington plays a contemporary social justice lawyer whose mind-set and idealistic pursuits are stuck in the 1970s. It opens on Wednesday.

Dan Gilroy, 58, got into the game at a relatively late age; he was 29 when he was hired to fix up the script of the Mick Jagger film “Freejack,” which turned out to be more than just a lucky career break. The original female lead, Linda Fiorentino, didn’t work out, and shortly after filming began, she was replaced by then up-and-comer Rene Russo, who later married Gilroy and starred alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler.” Gilroy was at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival to chat up “Roman Israel” and to explain how, despite his dad’s wishes, it was some of his advice that helped him open doors.

Q. You dad was quite successful, mostly as a screenwriter for film and TV. Why didn’t he want you or your brothers following in his footsteps?

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A. I really don’t know. Johnny and Tony and I were born in Santa Monica, and he moved the family to upstate New York [in 1962]. I mean, we couldn’t be more removed from the movie business. Yet every night at dinner, because he was a writer, he was talking about new stories. Ultimately he became very proud of what we did.

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Q. How did you actually do it?

A. We did it on our own. My dad was not a believer in extending a hand and helping us. He said, “If you want to write, write, and send it out to people.” I worked at Variety for four years as a reporter and reviewer, and I was writing spec scripts.

Q. What led up to you getting the “Freejack” job?

A. The production company Morgan Creek had read a spec script of mine that [director] John McTiernan was going to do right after he made “Die Hard.” That film didn’t happen, but in Hollywood, you can send out a spec script and sort of become the flavor of the month, and if you become the flavor of the month, suddenly people say, “Oh, let’s bring him in for this one.” So, with “Freejack,” the producers let go of the first two writers, and I came in as the third writer.

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Q. You wrote a number of scripts after that. But you decided to direct as well as write “Nightcrawler” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” What were the seeds of those two films?

A. The genesis of “Nightcrawler” came from me hearing about the world of people like the photographer Weegee, who put cop radios in cars and drove around getting news stories. But the big thing for me was coming up with the idea of an antihero. I had four drafts of the script. I tried it with a hero but it did not work. The antihero opened it up because it allowed me to have some level of social commentary. I am at a point now where I want my voice added to the commentary of what’s going on in the world, hopefully for the better. Roman is the polar opposite of the sociopath Lou Bloom in “Nightcrawler.” Roman is the guy who believes too deeply. He’s utterly uncompromising; it’s his strength and his weakness. The genesis of that idea was remembering the ’60s, and all the people saying we’re gonna change the world. But over the decades, everybody left, everybody sort of frittered away. I became interested in the people who never left the field, the idealism. I became interested in that spirit of believing in something larger than yourself.

Q. Who is Roman J. Israel?

A. Roman is somebody who believes in what the world could be, and not what it is. In the film he says, “I never left the front lines.” So, he sees the world as a war zone and because he never left the front lines, he’s utterly out of step with his time. He believes in the power of the individual; he believes in the human spirit and in human dignity.

Q. How did Denzel come into the picture?

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A. Denzel is a man who believes in the human spirit, in human dignity. He’s a man who collects wisdom like people collect art. He carries around collections of sayings and he’ll quote them to you, endlessly. These are important things to him, so when I started coming up with the idea of a character who has this unalloyed belief in something, I’m looking for an actor who, like Denzel, in real life, has his hand on the tiller. Nothing is going to sway Denzel. People always talk about George Harrison being on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. Denzel is on that quest.

Q. Did you write this with Denzel in mind?

A. I’d never met him, but I’ve followed his career very closely, and I did have him in mind. After I wrote it I sent it to him through his agent. It took him a little time to read it, then I flew to New York and we sat down for lunch and we started having this conversation about faith and about believing, because that’s what he saw in the script. About an hour into it, he said “I want to do this movie with you.” So we shook hands, and then it became this journey of us talking about ourselves, about our views of the world, and about the script, and winnowing down the character. A month before shooting, Denzel and I would sit and listen to music and talk, and that’s when he started to go deeper with the character, adding nuances. He was giving me ideas while he was tailoring the character to himself. Once we starting shooting, my job was to create a space that was comfortable for him.

Q. So, now that you’re wearing both hats, is cinema a writer’s medium or a director’s medium?

A. Everything starts with the story. I do believe that writers are the cornerstone building block of the process. That said, once it starts shooting it becomes a director’s medium. But the writer is the engine of the car.

Interview was edited and condensed. Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.