A chat with Tony Gilroy
Tony Gilroy made an appearance this week at The Picture House Film Club in Pelham, NY, where we screened “Nightcrawler,”which he produced for his brother Dan Gilroy, who wrote and directed. (Dan’s twin, John, was the editor.)
Gilroy, one of the best screenwriters and directors working (“The Devil’s Advocate,”“Michael Clayton,”“Duplicity”), ended up as the producer on this film after brother Dan showed him the script. He signed on as producer because “you need someone to protect you”as a first-time director, though, as he noted during the Q&A after the film, it’s not a role he would seek out in the future: “I’d rather be protected,”he said with a laugh. We chatted briefly before the Q&A.
Q: Is this the first film you worked on with both of your brothers?
A: We all worked on ‘The Bourne Legacy.’John has cut all three of the films that I directed. John’s the most accomplished of the three of us. He worked with our father (writer-director Frank Gilroy) and has midwifed so many films. He’s the heroic figure in this dynamic. When the three of us get together, nobody misbehaves.
Q: When you’re working on a script, how do you know when you’re done writing?
A: When you lock picture. You’re writing right up to the moment that you lock picture. There’s always that gut-punch moment when you know that the next day is your last chance to work on a scene before the actors do it. But, really, even when the film is done, there’s still so much you can do in the editing room. So yeah – not until you lock picture.
Q: Can you talk about your experience working with directors on films you’ve written?
A: I’ve had every conceivable experience. There are movies I’ve written that I’ve never seen. Well, no, I’ve caught up with most of them on DVD. But still, there are some I saw in rough cut and never saw again. On the other hand, I made three films with Taylor Hackford where we worked shoulder to shoulder. I learned so much from him. It was the complete filmmaking experience.
Q: Do you have the same sense of ownership on each script?
A: I take a rigorous sense of pride if I’m putting my name on it. Then I’ll stand my ground. But you deal with what you’re doing when you cash the check. If I’ve got an original piece and you want to buy it, then I have to decide what level of ownership I want to have before I sell it to you. It would be crazy if I didn’t have some sense of ownership.
Q: What about scripts that you come in to rewrite?
A: I’m a bit of a Bolshevik in the Writers Guild. For me, it’s about getting paid – but I’m against creative rights. In professional theater, they can’t change the playwright’s words without his permission. That’s not how this works. Theater is not an industry of multiple writers. Hollywood is a very different thing. I don’t know what proportion of guild dues have been paid by people who have rewritten me.
Q: Do you wish you’d started writing scripts earlier?
A: No, but I wish I’d started directing sooner. I was in my late 20s by the time I started writing movies. And really, the later a writer starts writing, the better he is. You need stuff to talk about – and you don’t have much when you’re young.
Q: What’s the most common mistake in the scripts of movies you see?
A: Put it this way: I have an eager enthusiasm when I go to the movies. I want it to work, when the lights go down. But I’m very cruel when I’m disappointed, because I go in wanting a lot. When I see something great, I have to get on my knees mentally, because a miracle has happened. Anyone who’s made films knows that there are so many ways scripts can fail. I will say that my expectations for big movies are dimmer.
A: We don’t get many smart big movies. I understand why movies are big, but not why they’re not smart. And by smart, I don’t mean opaque or unavailable. But, even as machines, these movies are not smart.
Q: Have you seen a comic-book movie you liked?
A: I did like that ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past,’but, really, comic-book movies have destroyed the foreign-sales market. But the people want it; it’s an efficient market. That’s why I wish something like ‘The Matrix’would come out now – that was an extraordinary film. We need something like that to remind people that they can have a big movie that’s also smart and exciting.
Nothing lagging about Lynn Shelton and ‘Laggies’
Given the organic nature of most of her work, “Laggies” should be a major departure for writer-director Lynn Shelton: the first film she directed that she didn’t generate herself.
But “Laggies,” written by Andrea Seigel, fits right in, Shelton says, sitting on a couch on a rear veranda of the Bowery Hotel, where she was briefly in New York doing press for the film’s release this week. Her early films were improvised from outlines; her last film, “Touchy Feely,” had a script but also included improvisation.
“It’s very rare, among the scripts I read, that I want to do something that isn’t self-generated,” says Shelton, 49. “I wasn’t searching for a project. But this script was the rare exception. I read it and thought I could have written it because I felt such an affinity for it. What’s important to me was important to Andrea. The characters felt fleshed out, three-dimensional.”
“Laggies” focuses on Megan (Keira Knightley), who isn’t sure what she wants to do with her adult life – and is freaked out when, at her best friend’s wedding, her long-time boyfriend (Marc Webber) proposes marriage. Feigning enrollment in a week-long personal-growth seminar, she spends the week hiding out at the home of a high-school-aged girl, Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), who she has casually befriended.
“I liked the fact that the humor is based on the characters, and that, tonally, there was a nice balance between the comedy and drama,” Shelton says. “These are flawed human beings who are allowed to make mistakes, to be imperfect and fumble their way through their journey.”
Shelton was approached by the production company that had been developing “Laggies” at a serendipitous moment: Another film she had been developing, “Touchy Feely,” had been pushed back. When she became involved with “Laggies,” Paul Rudd had just dropped out after being attached, because he wasn’t going to be able to shoot for six months. He was replaced by Sam Rockwell; Moretz was already attached.
But the central character, Megan, was cast: Anne Hathaway, who spent months working with Shelton to develop the character.
“We had these intense creative conversations – so I was bereft when she had to drop out to make ‘Interstellar,’ which she’d been committed to even longer,” Shelton recalls. “Then Keira came on soon after and slid right in.”
Shelton loved the idea of casting Knightley because she felt that the British actress brought a facet of her talent that had been unseen almost since the beginning of her career: her silly, physical side.
“What I was hoping she would bring is that part of herself we hadn’t seen since ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ and the first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’,” Shelton says. “And she did: this loose-limbed side of her that is game for pratfalls, who has an ease in her body that she’s not able to capture in period roles with period costumes. She can be so exquisitely beautiful as to be inaccessible. I wanted to humanize her, to see that goofy side, her real human side without a lot of make-up. And she did bring a lot of herself to the role.”
Shelton has three projects in development, and a long list of actors she’d like to work with. Just as she created a showcase role for one of her favorite actors, Josh Pais, in “Touchy Feely,” she’d like to do the same thing for another actor she’d like to work with: Garret Dillahunt, who was a classmate at New York University.
“He can do anything,” she gushes. “I have to work with him one day or I’ll just lose it. Sometimes I despair because there are only so many more movies I’ll be able to make. I probably won’t get to work with all the actors I want to.
“I really want to get on the set with a small, improvised movie. I’m hungry to have that experience again. It’s the most intimate kind of movie-making. I don’t know which of these three will hit first. I’m equally excited about all of them.”
Theodore Melfi and the coming of ‘St. Vincent’
Having plumbed his own life for material for his new film, “St. Vincent,” writer-director Theodore Melfi could probably do the same thing with the story of how the film got made.
Specifically, his pursuit of the elusive, peripatetic Bill Murray – who plays the title character, an alcoholic who winds up as an unwilling surrogate father to a pre-teen in deepest Brooklyn – would make a thriller. Or a comedy. Or both.
It began with the script, a dark comedy with heart about an aging, hard-drinking misanthrope in a bind for money, who agrees (for cash) to help his new neighbor, a single mother (Melissa McCarthy), who needs someone to watch her son while she works.
In part, the script was based on the fact that Melfi and his wife adopted their 11-year-old niece after Melfi’s brother, also a single parent, died at 38. Her appreciation was shown a few years later, when she honored Melfi at a school assembly in a ceremony that is mirrored in the film’s climactic scene.
The character of Vincent McKenna, which Murray plays, was inspired by Melfi’s father-in-law, “a drunk, gambling Vietnam vet who was an asshole most of his life and abandoned my wife when she was 9,” Melfi, 41, says. “Then, 25 years later, my wife wrote him a letter, saying that she’d still like the chance to get to know him. Two weeks later, he called her – and they had this father-daughter love-affair for the final 10 years of his life. He became a saint.”
So – who should play the role? The first actor who came to mind was Murray, who is notoriously hard both to track down and to pin down. Melfi had nothing other than his script, and some interest from some independent film companies, to recommend him. Though he had directed a handful of independent films, Melfi had spent the previous decade directing commercials.
How to get to Bill Murray? Let’s let Melfi tell the story.
“Bill has an 800 number – no agent, no manager, no publicist. You call and you leave a message. So I left dozens of messages, asking him to read my script, so many I can’t tell you over probably a six-week period. Finally, I called his attorney – he does have an attorney – and he said, ‘Where did you call?’ When I told him I was calling the 800 number, he said, ‘That’s the number I have.’
“A week or so later, I got a call from the attorney. Bill had said, ‘This guy is leaving me a lot of messages. Tell him to send me a letter.’ So I did – and it probably took longer to write the letter than it did the script. I mail it to him at a post office box in upstate New York and, two weeks later, I hear from the lawyer. Bill said, ‘The letter is swell. Have him send me the script.’ And he gives me a PO box in Martha’s Vineyard.
“Two weeks after that, my producer gets a call. It’s Bill, saying he didn’t get the script. Can we Fedex it again to him in South Carolina?
“A few days later, I’m driving in Los Angeles. It’s a Wednesday and I’m thinking about the commercial I would be shooting the next day. My phone rings and when I answer, I hear, ‘Hi, it’s Bill Murray – is now a good time?’ Then he says, ‘Are you driving? Don’t talk and drive.’ So I pulled over and he said, ‘I don’t know anything about you and I don’t Google. Who are you?’ So I had to explain it to him. It was an out-of-body experience.
“Then he says, ‘Well, do you want to have coffee and talk about it? How’s tomorrow?’ And he’s in New York. I told him I had to shoot the next day but that I could be there on Friday. He says, ‘Great – Friday I’ll be in Cannes.’ And I told him that, to get there by Friday, I’d have to leave right now. So he says, ‘OK, well, we’ll talk.’ I said, ‘How do I get a hold of you?’ And he says, ‘You’ve got the number.’
“I panicked. I was miserable. Two weeks later, I’m in bed because I was so stressed I threw my back out. It’s Memorial Day weekend and I get a text: ‘It’s Bill. Meet me at baggage claim at LAX in an hour.’ So I took two Vicodin and put on a back brace and go to the airport.
“I’m standing in baggage claim and here comes Bill Murray, carrying a golf bag. He says, ‘Let’s talk about the script.’ So we get in a town car and are driven for three hours while we talk about the script, from LAX to somewhere past the Pechanga Indian casino, to this little house on the back nine of a golf course.
“After I used the bathroom, he said, ‘So – you want to do it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘With me?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’
“And then I said, ‘Can you do me a favor? Can you call someone at the studio and tell them that you’re going to do this? Because people will think I’m crazy if I tell them this story.’
“He said, ‘Don’t worry. And don’t let the business get to you.’ And a year later, we were shooting.”
It was, Melfi says, well worth the headache and delays.
“He’s never the same way twice in a scene and he’s never predictable,” Melfi says. “He’s always in the moment. He brought humor to places I didn’t expect it and drama to moments I didn’t think of as dramatic. He brought everyone else’s game up to his level of spontaneity. He’s the most present, in-the-moment human being I’ve ever met.”
The Picture House Film Club got off to great start Wednesday with the first film of the fall season, “Kill the Messenger,”by director Michael Cuesta.
“Kill the Messenger,”which opens nationally on October. 10, is based on the true story of reporter Gary Webb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper journalist in the 1990s who documented CIA involvement in importing cocaine in the 1980s, to help fund the Contras in Nicaragua – and then was hounded out of journalism.
Cuesta, who started in independent film and has become one of the top directors of TV pilots (“Dexter,”“Homeland,”“Elementary”), was on hand to discuss the film with the Film Club audience after the film.
I sat down with Cuesta while the film was running to chat. Here’s a bit of the conversation:
Q: How did you get involved in ‘Kill the Messenger’?
Cuesta: The script was brought to me. Jeremy (Renner, the film’s star) was already attached. We’d worked together a few years earlier on my film “12 and Holding”and then on a pilot I did that didn’t get picked up. Now he was hot, so he was the juice who helped get the green light. It was my first time doing a true story.
Q: What was the biggest challenge of putting together such a complex story?
Cuesta: The most challenging part of that is the battle over how much to put in, what to not have in there. That was a challenge, even up through editing and post-production. I’d never made a documentary and had to figure out what I could get away with without coming off like I was telling a story to vindicate Gary. The question was: How do you tell a story about a guy who never got a chance to get it right?
Q: You’re very busy in television. Where did you find the time to make this?
Cuesta: I was with “Homeland”for two years and left at the end of the second season to make this. I actually made two other pilots after that, but neither of them got picked up. But then, half those things end up on the shelf. In fact, with the broadcast networks, I’d say it was 80 percent; with cable and premium cable, it’s probably closer to 50 percent. I’ve never understood spending all that money on what is essentially an experiment that winds up on the shelf.
Q: Did you always want to make films?
Cuesta: Actually, I wanted to be a photojournalist. Then I became a commercial photographer, because I needed to make money. I went into making commercials and, all of a sudden, I discovered the movie camera. So, while I was making commercials, I started making small films and South by Southwest took one. Then I started writing a script that turned out to be ‘L.I.E.’I wanted to get it out of my system. But after it was at Sundance, things opened up and people started sending me scripts. I got an agent. There was never a direct plan that, ‘OK, I’m going to become a filmmaker.’
Q: So you didn’t have any qualms about moving into directing for TV?
Cuesta: No. Someone from HBO saw ‘L.I.E.’at Sundance and invited me in to guest-direct an episode of ‘Six Feet Under.’Direct for TV? I didn’t know that was something you could do. Then I watched ‘Six Feet Under’and was blown away. After that, the whole pilot thing opened up for me.
Q: Is there a challenge in directing a pilot, in the sense that you are, potentially, setting up characters and plot that will resonate for seasons to come?
Cuesta: Directing a pilot is like making a mini-movie – or, really, half a movie with a story that’s not finished. I never think of it as laying pipe for what’s to come.
Q: Do you have a preference between TV and film?
Cuesta: Directing for TV is very liberating. I find it easier. Films are much harder because there’s always the challenge of how to end the story. How do you effectively tell a story that wraps up in two hours? In TV, you’re creating a world that just keeps expanding. With a pilot like ‘Dexter’or ‘Homeland,’I thought, ‘They don’t even make movies like this anymore.’It was great to explore those characters in those worlds and not have to worry about whether the ending works or not.
We had a great night this week with the preview screening of “Art and Craft”at The Picture House. The trio of filmmakers for this unique documentary – Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker – offered a behind-the-scenes look at what went into making this fascinating examination of the line between art and fakery, and one man who blurred it on purpose. You can read a review on my website here.
The lineup for this fall’s debut Picture House Film Club is starting to take shape – and there are only a handful of seats left. Don’t miss out.
August 10, 2014
It was an interestingly diverse week at The Picture House, with two screenings that moved and captivated.
Wednesday, we showed “After,” a family story of tragedy and hope in which the characters share a heart-breaking secret. Director Pieter Gaspersz and writer/actress Sabrina Gennarino were on hand to talk about the film, offering their own insights and discussing what turned out to be a more than 10-year effort to bring Gennarino’s script to the screen.
Thursday, we showed “May in the Summer,” an engaging tale of parents, children and sisters in the face of slightly crazy family dynamics. The assured film by Cherien Dabis, who also plays the lead, offered an intriguing look at a Middle Eastern-American family in Jordan, dealing with the kind of interpersonal issues that are universal, even while touching on the specifics of this particular culture.
Next up: “Art and Craft,” a fascinating and unique bit of documentary making that explores the line between art and forgery, between creativity and copying. I guarantee you’ve never seen a movie about a protagonist as unique as this one. That’s Sept. 16 at 7:30 PM, with the film’s two directors and cinematographer on hand for a post-screening Q&A.
Just a reminder: Subscriptions are going fast for the inaugural session of the Picture House Film Club, kicking off Oct. 1. Reserve your seats now; only a couple dozen left.
See you at the movies.
July 10, 2014
We had a great night this week with Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” which played to an almost-full house. We had the pleasure of hearing producer John Sloss, who was able to give us great inside stories on the 12-year process that went into this remarkable film.
We have three more special preview screenings upcoming of films that I hope you’ll come see:
JULY 23: “The Maid’s Room,” an intriguing and unsettling tale of privilege and class set in the Hamptons. Writer-director Michael Walker (“Price Check” – find it and watch it!) will be on-hand for a post-screening Q&A for this provocative film.
AUGUST 6: “After,” an involving family drama about secrets and lies, based on a true story, starring Kathleen Quinlan and Pablo Schreiber. We’ll have the husband-wife writer-director team of Pieter Gaspersz and Sabrina Gennarino there for a post-screening chat.
AUGUST 7: “May in the Summer,” a charming romantic comedy set in Jordan (but it’s in English) from writer-director Cherien Dabis (“Amreeka”). After the film, TPH film programmer Clayton Bushong and I will take the stage for the first “Ask the Critic” session, where I’ll answer his (and your) questions about this movie and anything else you might be curious about.
Before the films, you can usually find me standing in the lobby or near the back of the theater – I’m there to talk to you about the movies we’ve shown or will show and anything else you want to chat about.
We’re having a great summer at The Picture House. Come join us.
See you soon.
I’m back after a terrific long weekend at the Nantucket Film Festival, where I met a number of filmmakers, renewed acquaintances with several others – and saw a long list of films that I hope to share with the Picture House audience in the coming months.
While I was in Nantucket, I was honored to present an award at the festival’s Screenwriters Tribute, its major event. As it happens, I gave the award for documentary storytelling to Steve James, director of “Hoop Dreams,” whose new film, “Life Itself,” will have a special preview presentation at the Picture House this week, Tuesday, July 1 at 7:30 PM.
The film chronicles the life, career and battles of the late film critic Roger Ebert. I’m pleased to welcome colleagues Eric Kohn, chief film critic and senior editor at Indiewire, and Joshua Rothkopf, film editor of Time Out New York, as my guests for the discussion following the film.
Then, on Wednesday, July 9, I’m pleased to present another Westchester premiere, a preview screening of Richard Linklater’s fascinating new film, “Boyhood.” Twelve years in the making, this film, from the director of “Slackers,” “Before Sunrise” and “Dazed and Confused,” follows the story of one boy from his earliest days in elementary school to his first days of college. A fictional story, it stars Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, with a breakout performance by young Ellar Coltrane. My guest that evening for this remarkable 165-minute journey will be one of the film’s producers, John Sloss, a major figure in the independent world for more than 20 years.
And remember – tickets are now on sale for the Picture House Film Club, making its debut Oct. 1. I understand that more than half the seats are sold for our fall season – so get your subscription now so you won’t get shut out.
Great review by Marshall on Paul Haggis’ Third Person
We’re having a great summer @ the Picture House, beginning with our early June screening of “Third Person” with director Paul Haggis and continuing with this week’s showing of “Whitey” with director Joe Berlinger.
A master of the true-crime documentary, Berlinger has crafted a dramatic, compelling and densely layered look at the trial (and career) of a criminal whose activities held the city of Boston in bloody thrall for decades. As this unsettling film shows, mob boss Whitey Bulger had plenty of help – much of it, it seems, from the Boston office of the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies. Berlinger’s film touches on the years-old sense of loss and anger felt by the families of his victims, as well as capturing a sense of just how corrupt and entangled some federal officers were with Bulger and his henchmen.
There’s more to come:
We’re just confirmed a preview screening of the entertaining and moving documentary about the late film critic Roger Ebert, “Life Itself,” for Tuesday, July 1. I’ll be moderating the discussion afterward and am working on getting a special guest for that Q&A.
And, on Wednesday, July 9, I’m pleased to be able to present a Westchester premiere, a preview screening of Richard Linklater’s fascinating new film, “Boyhood.” Eleven years in the making, this film from the director of “Slackers,” “Before Sunrise” and “Dazed and Confused” follows the story of one boy from his earliest days in elementary school to his first days of college. A fictional story, it stars Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, with a breakout performance by young Ellar Coltrane. My guest that evening for this remarkable 165-minute journey will be one of the film’s producers, John Sloss, a major figure in the independent world for more than 20 years.
You won’t want to miss these films and speakers. Get your tickets now.
It was my great pleasure to play host to writer-director Paul Haggis for a special screening of his new film, “Third Person,” at the Picture House June 5.
The film itself is a kind of cinematic Mobius strip, or a puzzle with a couple of missing pieces – sort of like life. Haggis, the only person to write the best-picture Oscar winner two years in a row (“Million Dollar Baby” and “Crash”), was a self-deprecating and thoughtful guest, who opened up about the tough choice the artist must sometimes make, between his art and the rest of his life, even when it means betraying people he loves. He also talked about the fact that, while he is hard to please when it comes to his own writing, he nonetheless can’t NOT write; it’s part of who he is and what defines and satisfies him as a person.
This was the first of what I hope will become a regular occurrence at The Picture House this summer and what will form the core of what The Picture House Film Club will be this fall: screenings of new films, with the artists themselves on hand to talk about how and why they do what they do. Add an audience, eager to ask questions of their own, and you’ve got a lively evening.
Next up: Oscar-nominated documentary maker Joe Berlinger (“Brother’s Keeper,” “Paradise Lost”) will screen his gripping and revealing new film, “Whitey: The United States of America vs. James J. Bulger” at 7PM Monday June 16, then sit down for a Q&A after the screening. We had a solid turnout for “Third Person” – get your tickets now for “Whitey” so you won’t be shut out.