Movies

Director Dan Gilroy Explains The Sneaky Insanity Of ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq’


You may not be able to tell from the trailer or the commercials, but Roman J. Israel, Esq. is an extremely strange movie. A couple of weeks ago I was asked to explain the plot and, while listening to myself, I sounded insane. On paper, the fact that this movie was written and directed by Dan Gilroy (who gave us the brilliant Nightcrawler, which is also very weird) should be a clue that Roman J. Isreal, Esq. isn’t your typical legal drama. Legal Eagles this is not.

Denzel Washington plays Roman, who’s quirky and, frankly, not altogether pleasant to be around. Roman’s a legal savant who has been working behind the scenes at a law firm that has been bleeding money, too often representing clients who can’t afford to pay the bills. After the lead attorney suffers a heart attack, Roman is thrust into “dealing with the public” and it does not go well. Things start getting weird once Roman breaks attorney-client privilege and anonymously accepts reward money for the whereabouts of a suspected murderer. The movie all of a sudden becomes a hybrid of Roman becoming a rich guy spending his new money on lavish purchases, all while worried he might be arrested or murdered on the street. Then there’s a long scene of Roman going to the beach for a gourmet doughnut. (There’s so much more but that would get into serious spoiler territory.)

As we saw in Nightcrawler, Gilroy has an affinity for films with eccentric protagonists. And with Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler and now Washington, Gilroy hires the some of the best actors working to play these eccentric characters. (Though, Gilroy swears his next movie will be very different.) In fact, as Gilroy explains below, if Washington hadn’t agreed to play Roman, he would have scrapped the whole thing. Also, Gilroy gives us his best guess as to why Gyllenhaal didn’t get nominated for an Oscar for Nightcrawler.

So, this movie, and I mean this in a positive way…

Speak your mind, always. I love truth.

This movie is insane.

Good. I love that.

I was telling someone the plot and I started listening to my words and I sounded insane.

I love that.

The advertising makes it seem like maybe more of a legal thriller…

Well, it’s funny, some of our trailers are going more to the humorous. Some of the trailers are definitely trying to capture the oddity of the character. I agree with you, there’s a lot to unpack in this film, and that’s by design. But I know what you mean: if you thought it was just a purely dramatic thriller or he was like a funny guy, there is a lot more going on in there, absolutely.

Between this and Nightcrawler, you seem to really like eccentric characters.

You know, they say you put some of yourself in what you write, and maybe… You know, it’s funny, I do like people who speak the truth, like Roman does. It wasn’t by design, but I can definitely see a similarity between those two characters.

They are both eccentric and you got two of the best actors working today to play these characters. Is this going to be your calling card as a director?

It’s a great question, and it’s legitimate, and it really was by design. Having worked with Jake – who I agree with you is one of the best actors alive – and just enjoying that collaboration so much and then seeing what he brought to the screen. Then I was definitely, like, can I recreate this with another one? And Denzel was that in every way, and it was everything I could have hoped for. I can tell you, the next movie is actually more of a Robert Altman-like film with a large ensemble cast.

Really?

And everybody seems to be relatively socially adjusted. It’s funny, all of the movies that I love, they invariably have a character or characters that I just indelibly relate to, and so I do love strong characters, I really do.

Which feels like a rarity today, especially for studio movies…

I don’t pitch anymore. See, I write them on spec. So they’re done and I invite people to come in or not come in. And you’re right, it is an unusual film for a studio, and God bless Sony for coming in. It’s an unusual studio film.

You made a movie about the media underbelly, going from that to a lawyer seems unusual.

You know how that came about? That came about because I remember the ’60s and there was this spirit everywhere as a kid, like the world is going to change. And then over the last four decades, it’s just literally evaporated. And about five years ago I started becoming intrigued with what happened if somebody from the ’60s never left?

That’s interesting. Basically this is a time-traveling lawyer.

And it doesn’t work. He’s out of step with this time. He’s out of his time. Denzel and I were thinking about it at times: it was like one of the apostles after Jesus dies. Or like Sancho Panza after Don Quixote dies. Like, what do you do?

You cut 12 minutes out since this premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. That seems like a lot.

It is a lot. But we realized that pulling out this time accelerated the plot. We moved scenes around. We changed some music cues. This is the director’s cut. I wouldn’t look at the other one. This is the director’s cut.

What specifically did you cut out?

Specifically, we pulled out the subplot. There was a subplot where he says, “Roman, you’re going to be doing pro bono work with this kid, Connor.” And they sort of nod to each other. We had two scenes that really leaned into this relationship that started to form between he and this kid. The kid was a bigger subplot and that was something we stripped away. We moved the Colin Farrell scene in the Staples Center, which right now is in the middle of the film. That came at the very end of the film, and it didn’t work, it didn’t resonate. You were much more concerned about Roman being in trouble. We pulled that.

And there’s a scene where Roman really wants a doughnut. It’s a surprisingly long doughnut scene.

He wants the doughnut. He wants the maple glazed! Originally, it was a maple glazed bacon doughnut. But Denzel said, “I do not eat bacon,” so it had to become a turkey bacon doughnut. This odd thing became even odder.

I read you wrote this specifically for Denzel…

I took myself off the market for a year. I wrote it for Denzel. Had Denzel not done it, I would have put it away.

Really? It was Denzel or nothing?

Yeah, Denzel or nothing. And the reason was is because Roman’s character so deeply believes in something, and Denzel in real life is a guy who really believes in stuff. And I just knew that Denzel stepping into that character would satisfy the biggest demand of the character, which was, wow, I believe that he believes in something. Because you really get the idea very early on that Denzel believes in something in this movie. You buy it. So I would not have done it if he hadn’t have done it.

I’ve had a lot of debates about this: How did Jake Gyllenhaal not get nominated for an Oscar for Nightcrawler?

Okay, my theory is was our title. I think we came out October 31st and, look, you get a lot of screeners. You know, a lot of people get the screeners. I think a lot of people saw it come in and thought, oh, it’s a horror movie of some sort. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and go, “Wow, when I got the screener I thought it was a horror movie, I didn’t want to watch it.” But then I heard later on, like a year later, “It was good and I watched it.” I think it’s our title. And I like our title. I wouldn’t have changed the title. But I think our title was not accessible to a segment of the Academy.

And you’re not allowed to put any art on an Academy screener, so it’s just the title…

Exactly. So it’s like, Nightcrawler. Like, “Honey, do we want to watch a horror movie?”

Or they think it’s the X-Men.

Or they think it’s the X-Men, exactly. That was happening continuously. I think there’s still people who are confused when they order it on Netflix and go, like, “Wait a minute, this isn’t Nightcrawler. What the hell is this?”

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