In 2014, writer/director Dan Gilroy showed us a dark underbelly of Los Angeles through the lens of voyeur journalism with Nightcrawler, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Now, with Roman J. Israel, Esq, Gilroy shows us a different side of L.A., one that takes place inside the court system. A world where defendants are rubber-stamped through the meat grinder that our justice system has become, and the toll it’s taken on the titular character, a worn-down idealist played by Denzel Washington.
Roman’s ambitions become challenged when he’s offered a lucrative job with a new firm headed by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), tempting him to become a part of the system that he’s fought against his whole life.
A centerpiece selection at this year’s Austin Film Festival, we got the chance to sit down with Gilroy and talk about how the film came together, through a collaborative effort with him and Washington, and how the film could resonate in today’s activist-driven world.
I know you wrote the script on spec, what was the catalyst that inspired the idea?
The catalyst is that you can control every aspect of making the film if you don’t take anyone’s money. One of the things about screenwriting is [they] complain about being mistreated and not being treated well. Unfortunately, I think that’s a function of when you say to somebody “I’ll write something if you give me money,” you’re going to lose all control of it. So, by writing the script on spec, I could go to Denzel free and clear, I didn’t have to get anybody’s input on it, I didn’t have to make changes. I could give Denzel the script I thought he’d best respond to.
Once you got Denzel interested, how did the story and script evolve based on his input?
He came in, changed lines of dialogue, changed some situations, circumstances in the script that the character would have controlled. Denzel definitely came in and made it his own part in every way. The story, fundamentally, stayed the same, but some of the story did change based on things he suggested, and I readily took them because they were good ideas.
How was wrangling the rest of the cast once these changes were in place and you were ready to move forward with the project?
When you have Denzel doing something, right away, there are many people who want to work with [him]. I think Colin was certainly attracted to the idea of working with Denzel. The idea of doing scenes with him is a very appealing thing, so Denzel was a big calling card.
What’s it like directing these two powerhouses?
Very different. Denzel… has his own process. It works for him, and is tried and true. And, I think in many ways it’s a very internal process. It’s not something that you’re going to get endless amounts of explanations. It functions best without outside input.
Colin is somebody who very much wants to talk about the part, and very much wants to discuss things. “What do you think about this, what do you think about that?” I can operate in both realms, and I like doing both. But my job with Denzel was to create a space that he felt comfortable creating in. After months of talking about it, when he would come onto the set to do the shot, we were really trying to film in the best angles we could find what he was doing, because he was creating the character as we were going.
Colin was, “Can I try this, can I try that, let’s try this,” a lot of conversation between takes. “Let’s try this, let’s try that,” so you approach them very differently.
But that seems to have worked when they’re on screen together?
Oh, absolutely. They’re both great actors, [and] great actors can come from vastly different places. All another actor needs is, “You’re listening to me. This feels real to me. You’re playing with me right now,” and they don’t care how you go there, and then, when the scene is over, they go “Oh, that was a blast.” It’s when it just lies there and nothing happens and an actor looks at the director and goes “Why’d you cast this person?” Then you got a problem.
You know, when you first see an image of Denzel as Roman, it looks like a 60s-era period piece. Did it ever have roots as something set in the past, or was it always going to be a modern story about a man out of time, so to speak?
I always knew it would be a modern story, and that’s really the genesis of the idea. I remember the 60s, I remember millions of people out there advocating for women’s rights, racial equality, stop the war, and over time, you watched millions of people drift away from whatever they were doing to their real lives. And that’s fine, I’m not judging those people.
But the whole movie came from the idea of ‘what about the people that never left.’ What about the people who, [when] the 60s ended, and they kept going “I’m still fighting for this.” And that became this character, and civil rights became a basic law became a structure that this character is still interested in. Regardless of color, regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of gender. He wants judicial equality and parity and judicial fairness — across the board.
So, the character had to be in the present day, because the film is really about the burden and blessing of believing in something bigger than yourself. It’s great, it gets you up in the morning for 40 years, but at the end of that 40 years, what’s the price? You haven’t gone for the big job, you don’t have the big car, you don’t have the family, you don’t have all the things that most people have. So, Roman’s the guy in the present day who’s paid a great emotional and personal price for committing himself to this thing, and that price has taken a toll on him. And what happens when you can’t stay true to your vision anymore? What happens when you finally break? What happens when you finally turn your back on everything you’ve ever believed? What happens?
That’s what the movie is really about. Where do you go? And what was it all about?
Between the time you started writing the script, then making the movie, has the weight of the story changed at all, given that we’re now living an administration that seems to be making it a habit of putting civil rights on the chopping block.
When I wrote the film, it didn’t look like Donald Trump had any chance of winning, so I was not motivated in that way. It is definitely landing at a time where I think it is going to resonate for some people. I don’t think your political affiliation will have the degree on whether or not you like the film or not. I think Roman is someone who believes in something bigger than himself. The law is his religion. So, if you’re a religious person, if you’re someone who believes in god, if you’re someone who believes in an ideal, you’ll see yourself in Roman.
That said, activists who are interested in civil rights and judicial equality, are very much going to see Roman as a champion. In a way, activism is resonating now [like it was] back in the 60s. Like, there’s a fundamental problem, and we need to have mass action to correct it. That’s happening right now. It was happening when Roman’s character started off in the 60s, so Roman’s character would very much feel at home in today’s world.
Roman’s fighting for the law. He’s not fighting for left or right, he’s fighting for “let’s stick to the Constitution, let’s stick to the Amendments.” And, honestly, I think if we stuck to the Constitution and the Amendments, things would probably be pretty okay for us. I get concerned when we drift away from the Constitution and law. I get very concerned.
On that note, what kind of undertaking did you go through in researching the language of the law to help round out Roman’s character?
I spent six months researching civil rights law and criminal law, I spent weeks in the L.A. criminal court system going to trials. I had one technical adviser who’s the top capital murder case public defender in Los Angeles, I had another lawyer in New York who’s a criminal defense attorney. Really, just making it feel as realistic as possible — “What is a day like for somebody?”
Many civil rights lawyers of Roman’s era ended up doing criminal defense work to fund their lives. It’s sort of a balancing act. I spent a lot of time researching it. It really helps inform the character, inform the script, it informs the story, and it’s a film that many lawyers I’ve shown so far very much feel is accurate. Which I’m happy about.
With Nightcrawler you captured a very distinct corner of Los Angeles. It sounds like you approached the city in a similar way here, albeit a much different side of it.
I’m interested in how people live in Los Angeles. So, the Nightcrawler world, when you come upon [it], people move around at night and drive all over the city, so those characters lead you all around L.A. Roman’s character very much kept us downtown. He lives downtown, he works downtown, the L.A. criminal court system is where he works.
At a certain point in the film, when things start to change, he starts moving around Los Angeles. He goes to the beach, he goes to the desert, so the characters are taking you to different places. But L.A. is a very fragmented place, and there’s so many stories there. I plan on doing other films there. My next film will take place there.
Finally, with the way he’s portrayed, living out of his small apartment, eating peanut butter sandwiches and flanked with past images of civil rights champions…
Denzel came up with that. The peanut butter sandwiches, the apartment. He very much made that place his own.
From your perspective, does that paint Roman as a tragic character?
It’s tragic in the sense that a fulfilled life is usually looked at as commitments to friends, family, and has some sort of worldly success that satisfies their ego. Roman is somebody who’s forgone all that. It’s tragic in the sense that he’s paid a high price for committing himself to helping other people. I very much admire people who’ve dedicated themselves to bettering humanity, regardless of what it is: environmental, social justice, criminal justice, world hunger, pick your thing.
Anybody who commits to a cause, and spends time that they could be doing to better themselves, I have great respect for. But there is a price to be paid for that, and Roman has done it to a degree that he is a tragic character. And he’s waking up now at 63 or 64 years old, and he suddenly realizes “Oh my god, look at the price I paid for this.” It’s a crisis. It’s a spiritual crisis. And the trouble with a spiritual crisis is, if you decide that you’re going to walk away from the things that you held dear and that’s how you’re going to resolve it, I don’t believe that it’s going to let go of you.
Roman J. Israel, Esq is now playing in theaters everywhere.