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

Senior Entertainment Writer

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.

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