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'Clayton' on a roll

Tony Gilroy's long struggle to make the legal thriller is paying off in Oscar nods.

January 23, 2008|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

It took eight years and a marathon schmooze with George Clooney to get "Michael Clayton" made, but on Tuesday, writer-director Tony Gilroy was so overwhelmed by his good fortune -- seven Oscar nominations in major categories for his legal thriller, including best picture, director, original screenplay, lead actor and supporting actor -- that his long struggle hardly merited mention.

Gilroy, who'd just gotten his daughter off to school when he caught the nominations on TV, said he'd never anticipated this much recognition from academy voters for the Warner Bros. film.

"We kind of felt we were in a good place for actors and screenplay," he said, calling from his New York home. "The rest of it was very surprising."

The film can be seen as a kind of homage to the corruption dramas of the 1970s that Gilroy was drawn to in college, such as "The Parallax View" and "Network." Gilroy, best known for his writing on the "Bourne" franchise, had crafted the "Clayton" script to make his directorial debut. But it wasn't easy to find a leading man willing to give him a chance. Denzel Washington turned him down. And so did Clooney, even though he loved the script.

"Before their first meeting, Clooney didn't want to work with a first-time director," said Jennifer Fox, one of the producers.

Clooney went off and made "Syriana," and Gilroy tried Clooney again when he'd finished it.

"Tony said, 'Get me in the room with him,' " said Fox. "We set it as a coffee. I remember calling Tony and him, saying it went on for eight hours. They were talking about the movies of the '70s. It's not a surprise or a coincidence that ['Clayton'] has that cadence."

The film earned best picture nominations for producers Fox, Sydney Pollack and Kerry Orent, director and original screenplay for Gilroy, lead actor for Clooney, supporting actor for Tom Wilkinson, supporting actress for Tilda Swinton and original score for James Newton Howard.

The movie takes place during four life-altering days for Michael Clayton (Clooney), a legal "fixer" for a high-profile Manhattan law firm, after his mentor, the brilliant litigator Arthur Edens (Wilkinson), has a nervous breakdown while settling a $3-billion class-action suit for his client, a mega agro-chemical company accused of marketing a carcinogenic weed killer. Swinton is the company's fragile chief counsel, Karen Crowder, keen on self-preservation at all costs, a performance she said was inspired by Condoleezza Rice.

After Gilroy finished the movie -- which was filmed in just 40 days with a modest $20-million budget -- he had to wait behind the openings of Clooney's other pictures "The Good German" and "Ocean's Thirteen."

"Michael Clayton" was critically revered for its moral ambiguity and refreshing lack of sentimentality. But it never quite took hold at the box office -- so far it's grossed about $39 million domestically -- and some insiders blamed Warner Bros.' marketing.

Still, it's been an amazing ride for Gilroy, with the end not yet in sight. "So many things happen, and you have so many great moments and disappointments. Leaving George's house that night after convincing him to come on board is as important as how I feel right now."


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