The filmmaker behind Roman J. Israel Esq. on working as a writer/director, and discovering story.
After writing films such as The Bourne Legacy and Kong: Skull Island and then making his directorial debut with the Academy Award-nominated film Nightcrawler in 2014 in addition to writing it, Dan Gilroy is no stranger to working with thrillers. His latest film, Roman J. Israel Esquire, is a thriller with a bit of a historical spin to it. Starring Denzel Washington as Roman J. Israel, a civil rights lawyer in present day who never let go of his 60s activist mindset, and Collin Farrell as George, the younger, hotshot lawyer who tries to work with Roman, the film raises questions of what it means to truly believe in something and what happens with that belief is challenged by change.
Here we spoke with Gilroy at the Austin Film Festival this past month to talk about Roman J. Israel, Esq., what it’s like to work as a writer and director on the same film, and the process of developing a single idea into a full story.
To start off, what compelled you to write this film, Roman J. Israel Esq.?
It came from coming up with the idea. I remember the 60s and I remember as a kid, millions and millions of people out fighting and advocating and protesting for things they believed in and then over the decades I saw that spirit just kind of go away. And I don’t judge it. It just happened. And I started becoming interested in somebody who would be like 60 now, who had never stopped believing in something. They never left the field and suddenly now, they’re in present day and what are they? What price did they pay for remaining committed to something on a pure level, and never backed off what they believed in? It would be difficult to live in that world now. So, the character lives in this sort of time warp to some degree. I became very interested in that concept and that world. And I try to write things that have personal value to me so that my worldview comes out. Roman’s character you know, I believe in something bigger than myself. I believe that we have a shared humanity. I believe that if we fight for others, we’re bettering ourselves. So that became important as a theme to get through the movie, and that is how it started.
So from that idea, how did you then begin to develop the character of Roman J. Israel? Was he inspired by any specific historical figure or a figure you’re familiar with, or a combination of things?
That’s where research is so good. To start with an idea like that and then go “well who didn’t leave from the 60s?” So you start researching people and it turns out that there is a group of people who stayed with progressive lawyering and civil rights law. They left the mass action of big protests, and in the 70s went to the court system, fighting for school redistricting and criminal justice reform. They became sort of individual and they became these passionate criminal defense attorneys, and they made their money doing criminal defense work but then would take on civil rights cases at the same time. So by doing research, the character started to form. I thought “this guy does criminal defense work.” And then I live in LA, so I started to go down to the LA court system a lot and characters just started to form. Somebody who makes their livelihood in criminal defense work, but then spends their nights writing their big brief and what it’s going to be. So the character forms from the research and drove that way.
What felt different to you about writing this piece versus writing something like Nightcrawler or Bourne Legacy?
None of them feel different. I try not to work on things that I don’t really like. If I love the idea, they all sort of feel the same. They’re all fun. With Nightcrawler I learned. I learned about these nightcrawlers and researched TV news. You learn about TV news and you learn about journalism and that was fun. I like research. And in Bourne, you’re researching the CSI and NSA and psychotropic drugs, and suddenly you’re learning all this stuff. So they’re similar in that your learning. With this, you’re learning about civil rights law and what happened to people. And so they all feel similar in a way to me because they’re fun.
Cool, so you always stick to something that you enjoy and go from there.
Yeah, I’m doing something I enjoy. And they’re all different, but they’re all similar in the sense that you’re sort of having fun with the character and the situation.
In addition to writing this film, you also directed it as well. You had made your directorial debut with Nightcrawler in 2014. Looking back between then and now, how do you feel that you have grown as a director while working with these pieces?
The way I think that I have grown, if I have grown and that’s not for me to say, is that I’m learning more about cinematography. That’s the thing. For writers, I feel that it’s very difficult to become directors, not that it’s impossible, but it’s just that we don’t know cinematography. We don’t usually have the language for that. And it is a visual medium. So I spent a lot of time in between films studying cinematography, watching films, reading about cinematography, learning about lenses and film stocks and digital media and everything so that you can really have the tools at hand to tell the story visually. So I’m doing more visually, and I’m using the same cinematographer, Robert Elswit, who works with Paul Thomas Anderson a lot and I feel that I have more in my toolbox of how visually to move the camera than I did on Nightcrawler. I understand it more and on the next one, I’m going even farther visually. I’m starting to really feel more comfortable with the visual aspects of the story rather than just the dialogue and all that. You can move the camera in different ways, you can do different transitions. Things that you watch but you don’t understand until you start to go “well what is that” and “how do they do that?”
So in that way, when you’re writing now, with this director’s mindset, do you sort of start with that from when you begin writing, or do you bring that perspective in more so later on with revisions?
I’m getting more specific in the script. The next movie I’m doing is for Netflix and we start in March. And that one I very much now have started to put in more of the visual things that I know I want to do. It makes it easier for the departments to understand. Before, I would have just tried to explain it, but now I can start to say what it is that we’re doing from a transition standpoint or what specifically we’re looking at. I can be more specific and clearer with a clearer sense of it. So yes, it has definitely started to come into the writing part of it more.
And so as a writer of this story, what is maybe one of the most important aspects of it that you think audiences could take away?
That a life that doesn’t care about other people and a life that doesn’t feel we have a shared humanity is a lesser life than believing that fighting for all of us and committing yourself to something that is important to you, that’s important. It enriches your life. Believing in something bigger than yourself enriches your life. That said, there is a price tag with it. Committing yourself to something and fighting for that at your own expense will take a toll. And most people have the ability to balance it and they pull back before the toll becomes too big. But people who commit themselves to activism, who commit themselves to idealism, are people to be looked up to because they’re dedicating themselves to something at great expense to themselves. And I become very interested in activism, not just in its importance in today, but just people who commit themselves. They’re a very interesting group of people. They’re smart people. They’re very committed people. They could become partners at firms. They could become CEOs. They could drive the Tesla. They could do all of this stuff, but they choose to try to make our world a better place. And in many ways they’re marginalized. And people go “why would you do that?” But these people are doing it because they’re like “It’s important to me and I can’t conceive of not doing it.” So the film is about the burden and blessing of believing in something bigger than yourself. That’s really what it’s about.
On that note, what is some advice you may have for upcoming filmmakers and screenwriters who want to break into the business or direct their own film?
If you’re a writer, I think the best thing you can do is write something that you feel passionate about. An idea. Don’t just sit down and feel that you have to write and just start writing because that’s not going to turn out well. If your job was prospecting and you had to find diamonds, you’d have to wander around for a long time and then suddenly find something that makes you go “I think that’s a diamond,” and then you go back to polish it. So make sure when you go back to polish it, make sure it’s like a diamond and that there is something there. Don’t just go “wow I’m a writer and I’ve got to start writing something.” It’s not a good way to start. Think about the idea. Think about whatever it is that makes you excited by the idea. Because you have a voice, whoever that person is. Something that makes you go “I love this idea!” Wait for that feeling. And then write it. Usually, better things will happen from that and people will read that and usually go, “wow that’s really interesting. Why did you do that? It’s so interesting you did this. It’s wild that you did this.” And then they’ll say it should get made and do something about it. That’s the best way to go up if you’re a writer. And if you’re a director, hang out with writers, because you need a script.
Roman J. Israel, Esquire releases nationwide on November 17, 2017.