First-time director Tony Gilroy was more interested in a story about making peace with how you earn a buck in his legal thriller “Michael Clayton,” rather than some tale about corporate evil.
“All these corporations that you talk about, they are all inhabited by people. It is not some other occult superpower that is deciding this,” said Gilroy, who also wrote the script. “Every day, they go back and make a small paper cut on their morality.”
The film, about a New York corporate law firm’s attempts to settle a multimillion-dollar class-action suit against one of its clients, stars George Clooney, who plays a burnt-out, in-house fixer for the firm, the guy who cleans up embarrassing and damaging problems for major clients.
After 17 years on the job, he hasn’t been made partner, and he’s left with mounting debt from gambling, a divorce and a failed business venture.
Tilda Swinton co-stars as Karen Crowder, the firm’s chief counsel whose career rests on the settlement. Tom Wilkinson plays Arthur Edens, the lead trial attorney in the case whose manic episode sets off the crisis, and Sydney Pollack appears as a commanding senior partner.
Swinton, whose character takes the greatest moral dive, said she loved the way Gilroy’s script gave her character private moments when she “puts on her identity.”
In the opening sequence, Karen is pictured in a bathroom, sweating profusely and as she contemplates the enormity of her actions.
“When I read the script ... here was this bad guy, woman, and (Gilroy) did the thing I always wondered about — that is, how do they face themselves in the mirror in the bathroom in the morning?” Swinton said.
Clooney was cautious about getting involved with a first-time director, but said Gilroy immediately inspired confidence.
“Being a director is so much like being a general. Are you going to follow this guy up a hill or not,” Clooney said.
An acclaimed scriptwriter who wrote “The Bourne Identity” and its sequels, Gilroy called Clooney “the bodyguard,” whose name gave the picture clout and helped get it made.
Clooney, who didn’t get paid to make the film but will take a cut of any profits, waved off his contributions.
“You gamble on the film making money,” Clooney said. “If not, you do it for free. ‘The Good German’ didn’t make money. In that sense, I’m the bodyguard. I want to get films made.’
Toward the end of the movie, Clooney’s character speeds away from another mess he’s had to clean up, as if trying to get away from himself. But something catches his eye. He gets out of his car and climbs a hillside toward three horses, which stand still and allow him to get close. While the scene has a nearly divine quality, Gilroy said the movie provides little redemption.
“I don’t think there are happy days ahead for Michael Clayton,” Gilroy said. “The price he pays for the crippled redemption he has at the end is very, very high.”
“Michael Clayton,” which made its world premiere Friday at the Venice Film Festival, is set for worldwide release in October.