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Dan Gilroy on Roughing Up His Heroes and How Denzel Washington Helped to Craft ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’

Written by on March 26, 2018 

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While his first feature set in the city of angels showed what sort of animals lurk around at night, writer-director Dan Gilroy’s sophomore effort Roman J. Israel, Esq. shows a hero who works in the day. The titular lawyer and civil rights activist played by Denzel Washington is the type of well-intentioned and, with the exception of one major mistake, selfless and righteous protagonist perhaps we don’t see enough in dramas.

Like Nightcrawler, Gilroy puts more emphasis on character than plot. Roman J. Israel, Esq., is an old-school, thoughtful studio drama with completely engrossing performances. The spectacle doesn’t involve car chases, corporate espionage, or Roman taking on the big evildoers of LA. The spectacle of Gilroy’s second feature is Denzel Washington, who gives a deeply sympathetic and hypnotic performance as the titular character. Watching him deliver Gilroy’s dialogue along with Carmen Ejogo and Colin Farrell is all the fireworks a drama needs.

The Film Stage: Lou Bloom and Roman J. Israel couldn’t be more different, but they do both share many contradictions. 

Dan Gilroy: Yeah, that’s true. They’re very… they are complicated characters. But I think that’s a reflection of how I see people in general and think we’re all complicated. I think we all have these contradictions that if we dug down a little bit we’d find. They’re extreme to a degree, and you could certainly make that case, but I like to think that they’re representative in some way of the rest of us.

Just because of how authentic the depiction of L.A. is in both movies, I like to imagine them running into each other at some point in their lives.

Isn’t that funny? Wouldn’t that be funny if they ran into each other or got stuck in an elevator together? Who would be the one to get out? Don’t underestimate Roman with that briefcase. Who knows what he’s carrying around in there? You never know.

[Laughs] Was this always an L.A. story?

It was always an L.A. story for me because the idea really came from remembering the ’60s and the nationwide spirit of activism. I became really interested in what would happen if somebody had never really left that time because so many people did leave. As I started to look at the research, the people who didn’t leave went into civil rights law with criminal law on the side. The L.A. criminal court system and judicial system is such a massive, out of whack system that I thought it’d be an interesting backdrop, so L.A. became the natural choice.

You took a year off after Nightcrawler to write Roman J. Israel, Esq. What was the timeline? How much time did you spend researching, outlining, writing, and rewriting in that year? 

So, and this is true of most of the time I write, if you give me 11 months to write a script, I probably spend six to seven months researching it, five days a week. That’s learning about law, learning about civil rights law, researching activism, researching the roots of activism, researching the roots of racial inequality going back to the Civil War, and really trying to understand all the players and all the pieces of it. Then collating it into a usable outline, and then spending eight weeks writing. For me, it’s all preparation. By the time I start writing, I’m sort of pulling pieces of my various outline in place. I know very much what I’m going to do by the time I start to write.

It’s refreshing to hear your approach. Some writers say write every day, and it seems like some who don’t do that can feel guilty but your attitude, waiting until it feels right, sounds much healthier. 

The biggest thing is that people rush. Ideas are everything. You can take a great idea and write it in fingerpaint, and you might be able to sell it. But if you take a marginal idea, you can polish it for five years and get the same sort of glazed over, “Well, it’s got some good stuff in it…” Everything is the idea or the ideas, something that intrigues you, feels fresh, and something you feel passionate about, something you wake up in the morning and go, “Oh my God, I gotta work on this.” Don’t feel bad for not writing every day. Thinking about ideas is writing. I think writer’s block, in many ways, is trying to write a script before the idea is ready because I can get blocked doing that. I don’t try that, that’d be too demoralizing. I don’t sit down to write until I really love the idea, then I don’t feel guilty about it.

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You said you felt you found your voice on Nightcrawler. How did that effect Roman J. Israel, Esq, and your writing and directing?

It made me want to recreate what happened on Nightcrawler in terms of the process and the effect. Nightcrawler was so exciting to me because there are so many themes and ideas in that movie that I believe in. I believe that we’re in a world of hyper-capitalization, and I believe that the Lous of the world are winning. I made an entertaining film that I liked, but I loved having people come up to me afterward saying it really made them think and they felt that.

I’m old enough to remember the ’70s, and in the ’70s, if you didn’t make a movie that had thoughts and ideas behind, people would ask, “Then why’d you make the movie?” Now it’s a rare thing. I know with anything I do now it’s going to have some personal point-of-view in it, and that excites me. It’s a tremendous medium you can entertain and divert, yes, but you have an inclination to–not make a message movie–say something that makes people think, and it’s this amazing value added. I love being able to talk about a film and hear what others were thinking rather than, “That was a great ride.” That’s fun, but I’m sort of right now into other things.

That was something I enjoyed about mother! recently. Love it or hate it, everyone had something to say about it. Those sort of long conversations after a movie sometimes feel rare.

Don’t you love that? I know, man. Anyone with a voice of any kind out there, right away I’m already 90% your fan. You’re trying to do something that’s relevant to you, I love you for that, whatever it is. It can be a horror movie or anything. If it’s unique and people are trying to get their voice out there, I love.

Horror, absolutely. Get Out is a horror movie and it’s probably one of the most talked about movies of the last few years.

Look at that, I know. It’s a horror movie but so much more; it sparked so many great conversations, and it’s utterly thrilling.

What else did you learn from Nightcrawler as a filmmaker?

I learned that people look at a page as a minute, but I think it’s much more than a minute. It’s funny, Nightcrawler was 104 pages, and we probably cut seven pages out of what we actually shot, and it was still a two-hour movie. This movie was a 108-page script, and I think I probably had to cut, in addition to 12 minutes, like 15-20 minutes. If you write a 120-page script, you’re probably going to have a two and a half-hour movie, that’s one thing I learned.

The other thing is just my style. I’m underwriting now. I’m not putting in as much description. I’m sort of giving the barest bone description of what people need to know because I realized I like having department heads and actors come in and fill in the blanks. I’m very much into having very talented people come in and telling me what they think should go there. I like that collaboration, particularly with the actors. I mean, Denzel really created this character in every way.

What were your earliest conversations with him about when it came to how to play Roman?

Denzel’s process, as I understand, is a very private process. He has to start from the inside and have to build out, so it wasn’t about him asking questions or talking about what he’s thinking. It was generally more talking about the script, like a scene, what’s going on in a scene, or what’s happening in the whole movie.

Sometimes it was putting on music and talking about baseball and life and building trust. A lot of it was about building trust that I was going to do a good job directing, and I could trust that he’s going to do what he’s going to do without a tremendous amount of input from me. I wanted that. I did that with Jake, too. I very much encourage an actor to come in, fill in these blanks, and create something from the inside out. When you have actors of this caliber, it’s just a tremendous plus.

Towards the end the process became Denzel coming in and going, “These are the clothes I’m thinking of wearing, this is the look of the hair, and these are the glasses.” One day he came in and said, “My character only eats peanut butter sandwiches over the sink.” I’m like, “I’m down with that, man. Do you want creamy or chunky? Which one?” He knows which one. There you go, man. These are great things, that he’s suddenly thinking about things like that.

Those small touches, like the sandwiches, tell you a lot about him. Even his apartment gives you a better sense of who he is. 

I know. Denzel would go into that apartment for hours, and nobody else could go in. He’d go for hours, and hours, and hours. He just made the place his own, moving things around and saying, “I want to get this here, I want to get this here.” He really made that space his place, and it was cool to watch.

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I think how much he listens to music is another subtle and telling touch: he wants to help people, and yet he’s usually disconnected from them. Was Denzel Washington generally listening to music on the iPod? What was he usually listening to?

All the time. He’s an enormous music fan. He has several iPods, and on his bigger one, he has 28,000 songs on it. He listens to all kinds of music. As an example, after he got mugged and comes back and puts the earphones on, when we were shooting that scene, I couldn’t hear what he was listening to in the earphones, but you could hear it playing loud. After two hours I asked him what he was listening to, and he goes, “Cosmic Slop.” I thought what a perfect song for this scene. He picked the Pharaoh Saunders’ song “Elevation” you hear in his apartment. He was like, “In the ’70s, this was a song I listened to for like a year, repeatedly.”

When he walks up to the metal detector, and he goes the bass range is gone on Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America,” that’s him, that’s Denzel. He said, “Is that too far?” I went, “No man, I now hope a million people download ‘Winter in America,'” one of my favorite Gil Scott-Heron songs. God, I wish that was being played everywhere. Musically, he was involved in all of it. It was great to have him because his musical instincts are so strong.

How early on did you know you wanted to use The Spinners “I’ll Be Around” for the final shot? It fits perfectly.

I picked that song. It was literally “I’ll be around,” “I’ll always be around.” I’m trying to go out on a bit of an upbeat note. Plus, I love that song. Such a beautiful, unique song.

I want to ask about Colin Farrell. He does really strong, unshowy supporting work here while still leaving an impression after scenes with Denzel Washington. 

Tough role. I mean, he’s Denzel’s boss in the movie, and you buy it. How many actors can stand up to Denzel? You believe he’s the boss over Denzel. Right away, there’s this tremendous power. Something Colin and I talked about a lot was how real that character is. He’s not all bad; he’s like most of us. He had instincts in the past to want to do well and good for people, but he’s been diverted by success and money. Through the course of the film, it was something that never quite left him and is coming back to life. I love watching that in him.

You can really see this progression of, “Oh wow, the money is great, and the success is great, but what you’re doing to me is so incredible. This is a better feeling.” It’s funny, a year ago I read about a guy giving away his 18 or 20 billion dollars. Basically, he wrote this article like, “Of all the highs I’ve ever had, nothing beats helping other people.” It feels good to do it, and I think Colin’s character feeling good is the progression.

In any other movie, though, with his slick car and suit, you’d expect him to be the villain or some sort of antagonist when he shows up.

My rule of thumb is, if I have to write a villain, I don’t think of them as a villain, and I try to think of everything I can to make them human. If I’m writing somebody as a hero, I try to do everything I can to rough them up. That just feels more real. I don’t know if I’ve ever met any villains. I’ve met people who I really despise what they do, but sometimes even when you find out about their upbringing or life, you go, “I kind of understand a little.” Villains are mostly a story construct that I don’t abide by too much. I’m glad you said that because that was definitely the idea.

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In Nightcrawler and in this film, you don’t have any central antagonist. Are you also just more interested in sticking to your protagonist’s point-of-view?

The world is sort of the antagonist. The world is what we’re fighting against in Nightcrawler. Is Lou the problem, or is the problem we’re addicted to the stuff he shoots? What part do we play in it? I like to involve the whole audience in a conflict, that we’re a part of it as well. It’s not like the viewers are separate from the world we’re hopefully showing on screen. So yeah, I’m not interested in having people playing the villains, not in these films. I just don’t look at people that way. I’ll think, “I don’t like what you’ve done, but I’ll take time to figure out why you did it.”

For Nightcrawler, you said you wanted to treat downtown Los Angeles as Emerald City, a place in the distance. With Roman J. Israel, Esq. a lot of the story is set downtown. How was shooting downtown? 

Much more difficult to shoot in downtown. It is not easy getting around downtown. You know what worked really well for us? Roman is a character in transition in a world that’s changing, and there’s more construction going on in downtown right now than any other place in the country. It was great while we were shooting to have this sense that the city was changing around this character, with luxury apartment buildings going up beside him. Things are changing. From a symbolic standpoint, it was a great time for us to shoot down there.

I’ll tell you one thing when you shoot down there, you realize the horrendous extent of the homeless problem. It’s a massive problem not being dealt with on a meaningful level. You go down there at nighttime, anywhere a few blocks from Skid Row, and you can’t believe you’re in one the wealthiest cities in the world. It’s just outrageous what’s going on down there, and it’s not being addressed or looked at.

Yeah, at night especially, it feels like a problem almost everywhere. 

Everywhere, everywhere. It’s not just Skid Row, it probably starts half a mile out. I can’t imagine all the thousands of people down there. We saw them. Our politicians really need to address this issue, quickly. Lives are on the line.

You shot the city again with Robert Elswit. How did you two want to capture downtown?

We decided to do it all on film, and that was one of the big conversations. Film has a grain to it. With digital cameras, you can sort of put an artificial grain over it, but it doesn’t really feel the same to me. Robert is a big lover of film, so we used film and single-camera. We weren’t ever using multiple cameras. A lot of times people use multiple cameras and think here’s my A and my B, and think you’ll save time doing that, but you cost yourself something in composition and lighting because your A lighting will change if you’re trying to accommodate your B camera as well.

We went old school doing single camera film. We decided early on the film was going to have a warm look, because there’s a lot of emotion in the movie, and we wanted those emotions to live in the frame. We got very intrigued with drones. We have at least half a dozen drones shots. They have great utility. You can really go to a lot of places a crane won’t allow you to do. These shots have a real sweeping sense to them, and we used them sparingly.

When you were writing the script, were there any significant shots you already had in mind?

There were some. The one that leaps to mind, I always knew at the end when Roman says, “Of course I remember you, that’s why I gave you my card,” I knew that last shot we’d see of him in the movie, we’d look up from him below, and he was going to have a halo of light above his head. I knew that shot. I knew the end was going to have this transcendent look to it. There were many other shots, like having a deep focus sense in the old law firm, so you can sense history and going back. There were a lot of shots, but a predominant number of shots were really Robert and I found on locations.

For a movie without a lot of plot, it has an efficient pace. You cut some scenes after Toronto, right? 

In post before we went to Toronto, it was great. We both very much felt the version we took to Toronto was amazing, and I still feel it, but at the same time, it was 13 minutes longer. After Toronto and realizing it was a little slow and maybe the pace wasn’t right, Denzel came into the editing room. Not because he asked to, but because I asked him to because he’s directed three films and his instincts are brilliant. We worked for three weeks together. Actually, Denzel’s son, Malcolm, came in at times and helped us a little bit. It was accelerating things, pulling out things we loved, dropping a subplot, moving some scenes around, changing music here and there. We loved it at Toronto, but I absolutely feel this is the better version of it. This is the director’s cut. Sony was great to allow us to do it.

Denzel Washington is such a good filmmaker, so even on the set, was working with him a different experience compared to other actors? 

It’s different, and it’s brilliant. His process is supernaturally strong. I don’t fully understand his thought process. He arrives at ideas that take me a few minutes to get my head around, and then go, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.” Your first instinct is to go, “What? What are you saying?” Suddenly you realize, of course, that’s incredible. He doesn’t explain how he got there, but he does it repeatedly. It’s an absolute joy to collaborate with him, and I mean that, honestly. He’s very objective. He looks at the entire film while you’re making it.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is now on Blu-ray/DVD and Digital HD.


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