ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- That "Bourne" guy can sure get in the way.
Tony Gilroy came up with the "Michael Clayton" idea years ago, but it took several twists and turns to get made.
Tony Gilroy had the idea for "Michael Clayton" eight years ago, but right at the time he was starting to pitch it another project intervened. " 'I know I just set this thing up,' " he recalls telling a production executive, " 'but they're offering me six to eight weeks to do a teardown of this [Robert] Ludlum story, this Bourne thing, to tear the story apart and rethink it.'
"And that turned into two years," he says in an interview at an Atlanta hotel.
That was just for the first Bourne film, "The Bourne Identity." Gilroy also wrote or co-wrote the other two, "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum." He describes the overall process as "an odyssey."
But "Michael Clayton," the story of a New York law firm fixer who rediscovers his soul, was never far from his mind. Gilroy had in mind a "parallel-universe thriller," with scenes of ethical uncertainty that are usually left out of conventional thrillers. The resulting script became a calling card.
There was a catch, however. Gilroy wanted to direct it himself, and he'd never directed a movie before. Moreover, "Michael Clayton" wasn't sure box-office gold. It's a film of rich, expressive dialogue and well-drawn characters, but in today's marketplace, that means "indie" -- unless you can get a major movie star to join the cast.
Gilroy had a few connections -- he'd been working with directors Sydney Pollack and Steven Soderbergh, who were supportive -- but even Soderbergh's producing partner, George Clooney, didn't want to sign on.
"George said, 'I love the script, and I'd really like to direct it maybe, but I don't want to work with a first-time director and I don't want to meet him.' So it was another two years before I got with him, and it was another two years of wandering in the wilderness," Gilroy recalls.
So Gilroy faced a dilemma. He couldn't get studio backing without a big-time star, and he couldn't get a big-time star if he wanted to hold on to the project himself.
Eventually, however, Clooney decided to take a chance. Like Gilroy (and Soderbergh), the actor has a passion for '70s filmmaking and saw some of that edginess in "Clayton." Which -- unlike some of the '70s films the group admires -- gives the story a happy ending.
"Michael Clayton," which came out in limited release October 5 and goes wide Friday, has earned mostly strong reviews, including kudos for Gilroy's directing. "Gilroy's touch is so subtle and glancing you might not even guess you're watching a thriller -- which is why, when the story begins to thrill, it earns every pulse pound," wrote Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman.
Gilroy would seem to be a natural at this writing business. His father is Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Frank D. Gilroy, a veteran of television's live-drama golden age and author of "The Subject Was Roses." Rod Serling was a family friend; Paddy Chayefsky visited the Gilroys' upstate New York town for weekend bowling excursions.
Tony Gilroy compares his father's influence to "living over the store," he says. "That seemed normal to me, to make money with your imagination."
But that's not what he wanted to do, he adds. First there was music, until he got burned out on the business. Then there was short fiction ("I was obsessed with Raymond Carver") and an attempt at a novel, followed by a shot at learning the screenwriting process.
All the time Gilroy was working "weird jobs," and he's thankful for the experience: "It turned out that all the things I had done ... they all seemed to be informative to this compost-y kind of [first screenwriting] job."
Gilroy had an early success with "The Cutting Edge," which gave him the opportunity to do "Dolores Claiborne," based on the Stephen King novel. He followed that with the Al Pacino film "The Devil's Advocate," with its aria-like Pacino speeches.
He participated in the free-for-all of the "Armageddon" script, which he remembers with impish fondness: "I remember being at the first story meeting, and they were bringing out the toys and we were going, 'Wow, we don't even have a script,' " he says. He helped organize the story and "got the hell out of there," he adds. (He does have kind words for oft-criticized "Armageddon" producer Jerry Bruckheimer, for whom he worked afterward: "[His production house is] very un-neurotic. To go to work there -- it's a very, very clean way to work.")
For "Clayton," part of Gilroy's problem -- outside of finding a backer -- was deciding what direction to take the idea. The research was easy, a matter of calling friends and chatting with attorneys. Indeed, one inspiration for "Clayton's" plot was a story he heard about a stray document that could have turned a major case upside-down.
"It wasn't like wandering around in Tangier on the rooftops or visiting emergency rooms in Moscow," he says, referring to the "Bourne" process.
With Pollack's backing and Clooney signing on, the rest of the cast was set: Tilda Swinton as an anxious corporate counsel, Ken Howard as a corporate chieftain, and Tom Wilkinson -- who gets some Chayefsky-esque monologues to perform -- as a high-wire litigator who suffers a breakdown.
It's the movie Gilroy wanted to make, and he doesn't plan to wait so long to do it again.
"I've been in my room for 20 years, so I'm very happy to get out," he says. E-mail to a friend
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