- Director Dan Gilroy had only Denzel Washington in mind to star in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” If the actor had declined to be in it, Gilroy wouldn’t have made the movie.
- Gilroy also had an unconventional method of letting Washington be involved in every aspect of making the movie.
There’s always been an understanding on a Hollywood movie set: the director is king.
But that thinking gets a little blurred when a superstar actor is in the mix. Whether it is Tom Cruise or Meryl Streep, the director often has their job only because the star “okay’d” it.
If things go right, director and star work together, tolerate one another, and maybe even enjoy the experience enough to do it all over again on another movie. If things go wrong, a huge power struggle ensues and the studio heads pray every night the press doesn’t catch on.
Dan Gilroy has been around the business — first as a reporter for Variety, then as a screenwriter (“Reel Steel,” “The Bourne Legacy,” the scrapped Tim Burton Superman movie) — long enough to be very aware of all this. But he’s also aware of the trick to keep a project from being tainted by a power hungry star (or studio). And Gilroy pulled it off with “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (opening in theaters on Wednesday).
The trick is this: You write the script without the studio’s involvement, and you write it with only one actor in mind to do it with.
The process began when Gilroy got an idea for a movie about a lawyer who, for most of his career, has been fighting the causes of the underdog. However, when his partner (and the face of the firm) is taken ill and may not recover, the lawyer has to come out of the shadows. And then what he faces makes him question what he’s been fighting for his entire career.
So Gilroy had an idea.
But instead of pitching the idea to a studio — many of which had been knocking down Gilroy’s door to work with him after his hit directorial debut “Nightcrawler” — Gilroy took a year and a half and wrote the entire script on spec. Then he presented the completed script to the only actor he wanted for the movie: Denzel Washington.
Convinced only Washington could play the role, Gilroy promised himself that if Washington passed, he would throw the script in a drawer and move on.
Giving Washington a setting where he could comfortably create
“I’ve never written so specifically for an actor that if they passed on it I wouldn’t have done it,” Gilroy told Business Insider. “I always had a list of people I would have followed up with. This one I did not. I felt very strongly that the character is somebody who believes deeply in things, he’s someone who believes there’s something bigger than him, and Denzel is a guy who in real life believes in something bigger than himself. Him welding to that character was a quality I wouldn’t be able to find in another actor. I felt very strongly about that.”
Gilroy jumped through the usual rings: Getting the script to Washington’s reps, waiting patiently for a response, and shock when he got word several months later that Washington wanted to meet. In that meeting, Gilroy was even more shocked by the outcome.
“We sat down to have lunch and an hour into it he stuck out his hand and said, ‘Let’s do this movie together,’” Gilroy said.
Now Gilroy had a finished script and one of the greatest living actors packaged for his movie. Sony won the auction to make and release the movie.
A major reason for this entire journey to make the movie was because Gilroy wanted Washington to be a collaborator with him on “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” And not just in the creation of the title character, but in every facet of production.
The two broke down every part of the script and tweaked things to Washington’s suggestions. When the two took a break so Washington could go direct and star in “Fences,” Gilroy said Washington returned with an understanding about the character that had gone beyond his own. This included everything from the character’s look on screen to things he would say in the middle of a take.
“There’s a scene where he goes through a metal detector and before putting his iPod through it Denzel said the line, ‘I lost the bass range on Gil-Scott Heron’s ‘Winter in America’ last time I put this in there.’ That was a line Denzel came up with on the spot,” Gilroy said. “So the choice of song — that’s a very heavy song — but also apropos to what the guy is doing. He would do stuff like that in many scenes. I’m not looking for him to give that to me. There’s another scene when he’s looking for a job and he starts to cry. That wasn’t in the scene, but what he’s playing becomes real to him.”
Washington checked his ego at the door
But the collaboration didn’t end when filming stopped. Gilroy wanted Washington in the edit room with him as well.
“I couldn’t have really conceived before this of letting an actor come into the cutting room. Most actors are not objective,” Gilroy said. “But I knew I wanted him to come in and look at the character and in the process we started asking each other, do we need this scene? Should we trim this? Egos really got checked at the door.”
Gilroy believes he was so comfortable in welcoming Washington into all the phases of the movie because he’s been married to actress Rene Russo for 25 years. He said watching her prepare and craft parts for years has left him with a comfort with actors that many directors do not have.
However, another reason was he was only going to make “Roman J. Isreal, Esq.” with Washington, why wouldn’t he utilize him to the fullest?
“There are quite a few directors who would not welcome this process,” Gilroy said. “They would want to tell the actor their vision. I feel for myself, as much as I trust my instincts, you lose a tremendous asset when you’re working with a great actor and you’re not listening and rethinking or realizing this can be approved upon. I wanted to create a space that Denzel felt comfortable creating in. That was my biggest thing.”