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A Leap Of Faith, A Solid Landing

First-time director? George Clooney balked. Tony Gilroy persisted. Now 'Michael Clayton' is up for seven Oscars.

January 30, 2008|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

TONY GILROY is an industry veteran, until recently best known for scripting all three "Bourne" films and co-writing "Armageddon." But in the award-season crush, he's a rookie, especially as a director with his debut, "Michael Clayton," earning honors from all sides. Luckily, he has war horse George Clooney to show him the (velvet) ropes.

"George has been through this before, but for me . . . just this lunch today, I was sort of looking at it from the outside," said the writer-director immediately following an AFI luncheon at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills at which "Michael Clayton" was named one of the "Movies of the Year." "You look and your film is up there with these other films, and you think, 'These are great films.' . . . You feel really good to be part of something."

Clooney and Gilroy wax enthusiastic about the other honorees, including "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," the true story of a stroke victim left only the use of one eyelid, yet who managed to write his autobiography. "I told my wife, if this ever happens to me, put a . . . bullet in my head, I am not blinking out a book," says Gilroy. "She waits about 10 seconds, she goes, 'Would you blink out "Bourne 4"?' "

The joke is funnier, the laugh one of relief, when one considers the unlikelihood of an action-movie writer being greenlighted to direct the complex, adult-oriented film about lawyers -- one with no courtroom scenes, no car chases, not-quite-polarized heroes and villains, and a literate script that uses words like "patina" in its opening voice-over. Now it all looks like a stroke of genius, with its seven Oscar nominations -- including best picture, director, original screenplay and acting -- and DGA and WGA nods.

"Everybody's in conflict with themselves, everybody's unsure of what they should do," says Gilroy of his unapologetically complex characters. "You know, that's what falls off the truck along with the word 'patina' as the budget goes up. People get more and more defined: This is a good character, this is a bad character; let's get rid of the vocabulary; let's get rid of the voice-over."

IT helped, of course, that Clooney is one of the suavest 800-pound gorillas in the Hollywood jungle, one whose presence gets projects made. Because of his involvement, Gilroy was able to make the film he wanted. Still, the constraints of a $20-million budget occasionally gave the production a guerrilla feel, as when they shot a long, continuous take of the actor riding in a New York City cab without getting a police escort.

"So we've got all these lights, and all these things around the car," says Clooney with a mischievous grin, "and everybody can see it's me. So the whole time we're riding through New York, if we get caught at a light, we don't have anybody who can get us through it, and you hear like, [goombah accent] 'Hey, George Clooney!' "

Gilroy is clearly grateful for his star's "let's put on a show" attitude, acknowledging the project wouldn't have happened without his participation at a bargain-basement price.

"Almost in writing the script, it was like, 'This is how this movie will get made. Someone will think this is a strong enough part to come work at a lemonade stand for six weeks and hope we get lucky.' "

"I like those lemonade stands; they've served me real well. You just have to find the right one," says the actor, whose portrayal of a morally smudged "fixer" at a high-powered law firm earned a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and now an Oscar nomination.

Still, following what he diplomatically called the "interesting time" he had with a relatively inexperienced director on "Syriana," Clooney was wary of working with another rookie. At good friend Steven Soderbergh's insistence, he met Gilroy, and after an eight-plus-hour introduction, he joined up.

"It's like the Army, it's like a basketball coach, it's like anything that actually requires leadership," he says. "You want to know that the guy who's in the lead, you're willing to jump up and follow, period. And that's a really rare quality in filmmakers, actually."

Gilroy found himself coaching the coaches, with several established directors on the team as actors besides Clooney -- Sydney Pollack, Tom McCarthy, Brian Koppelman -- and Anthony Minghella and Soderbergh as executive producers.

Was that a strain to have so many practiced hands around?

"I never had anyone say, 'I wouldn't put the camera there,' " Gilroy says. "But there were many conversations -- conversations with George beforehand about casting, conversations with Sydney about should we rehearse or not? . . . Conversations with Steven Soderbergh about 'How'd you do this?' and 'What went wrong with that?' "

The success of Gilroy's debut has earned him another season in the bigs. He's about to start filming "Duplicity" with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, a story he describes as "a romantic comedy set in the world of corporate espionage."

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