George Nolfi‘s directorial debut, The Adjustment Bureau, isn’t exactly extreme sci-fi. While that may disappoint the Phillip K. Dick faithful followers, it’ll most likely be the key element that swoons over those looking for a love story. That’s what The Adjustment Bureau is first and foremost: a love story set in the real world. Besides the main protagonists who are, of course, The Adjustment Bureau, everything is fairly rooted in reality.
The bureau represents the only true sci-fi element of the film. Like most interesting science-fiction, their presence is to raise questions about fate and free will. What they do is set up as more of a grey area plan rather than a villainous world-dominating scheme, which is something that seemed important to Nolfi. Some of the bureau members are charming and even likable, especially John Slattery‘s Richardson.
Here’s what writer-director George Nolfi had to say about reality, avoiding cheesiness, style, the charms of John Slattery and his constant use in the film of, “Son of a bitch.”
Most films with this subject matter would usually be set in a futuristic utopia, but instead you went more with modern realism. Can you talk about your decision behind that?
That’s a great question to start off with, because that was really my touchstone for the entire film, so I’m glad that came through to you [Laughs]. When I went to Matt [Damon] with a first draft I told him he was going to play a romantic lead, which he hasn’t really done much of, and it’s a completely fantastic world, which he hardly ever does, but I said I wanted to do the film in the most realistic and possible way. I told him I wanted what he’s great at, which is inhabiting and portraying characters in a totally authentic way. I wanted an actress who could do the dancing and who could do the relationship convincingly.
I wanted to film it in a really realistic way. I wanted to film it completely in the streets and buildings of New York, and do as little as possible on a stage. Every decision I made was grounded by reality, so then the characters could take the fantastical and crazy aspects of the movie seriously. That’s what, I think, allowed me to keep the tone consistent in the movie that has about four or five different genres.
The tone, especially with the fantastical aspect, I’d imagine was tricky. With some of the crazier ideas in the film, how did you go about avoiding cheesiness?
I guess I needed a cheese-monitor [Laughs]. When I go to see a movie where dialog is sappy or situations get wrapped up too easily or things seem overblown for no reason, I get pissed off. When I write things, and now direct things, I’m very conscious of that. Hopefully, we got rid of all the things that might have been cheesy. Luckily, my actors – going back to your earlier question – I cast actors who are naturalistic actors.
There’s a big difference between Matt Damon portraying a politician than Johnny Depp portraying a politician. Johnny Depp is a great actor, but he usually always does something that has a fantastical premise. Matt Damon is a great actor, and he almost always does something with a grounded and naturalistic premise. The same goes for Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, and Emily Blunt. They’re actors who naturally portray characters that are grounded in reality. When you have people like that as your collaborators, then you have actors who are great at having their own cheese-monitors. If they say they’re having trouble with a line, then that’s great. With that, we get what sounds more natural.
Knowing that you were going to direct the film before starting the script, did your writing style change at all? Were you more detailed?
Well, knowing you’re going to direct, you get to keep a side file for notes. Those notes are about how you’re going to visualize it. In a weird way, I was less explicit in the script itself than I would be for when I was writing a script for a studio. You may or may not be there when they’re having conversations about production designs and locations, and you want to give the reader as much as a feel as you can. You want the feel that comes from the detail, the costumes, and locations. You also want a record of things for the people that are going out finding locations or thinking about costumes are coming from the director, whose choices would sort of fit the overall. I’d say I’m more detailed in The Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve than I was for this script, but probably only slightly more. You write the way you write.
Would you say David is a hopeless romantic?
Well, I don’t think he starts out as a hopeless romantic. In fact, I think he starts out as the opposite. He is a politician for the wrong reasons. He is a character who’s had the people that cared about him whipped away from him at an early age, which scarred him. He’s found a way to honor his parents and his brother by being successful and by being a politician. At the same time, the response he gets from the crowds of people he’s speaking to is a form of love, but a safer love because it cant be taken away from him by death. What happens is that: he meets someone that calls all that into question. He has an electric moment that shifts his life into overdrive, so I guess he becomes a hopeless romantic. He certainly doesn’t start out that way.
Was it intentional to have sympathy for certain members of the Bureau, especially Richardson?
I definitely want you to feel for the members of the bureau, and that was one of the great challenges the script posed for me. It wasn’t as big of a challenge with the actual filming, but it was a really killer thing for tying to make the script work. In order to make three-dimensional villains it’s just hard, period. I started to think of them not as villains, but as an antagonist. You really know what their goals and desires are. They’re good people, even though they’re not “people.” [Spoiler Alert] I also wanted to get into some of the larger questions the movie gets into at the end, which is that the bureau couldn’t be bad. The chairman could be a higher power, so I really wanted to get into faith, free will and the problems of evil. To do that, the bureau has to be good. [Spoiler Alert]
Some of the bureau members actually come off charming, mainly Richardson.
Yeah, yeah. I think you like Harry because he’s a character that feels guilt like we do. [Spoiler Alert] He makes a really risky choice to help David out [Spoiler Over] I think you like Richardson because of his style and his humor. He has a charm of his own. I think they have their own great fun, and that was definitely an explicit goal. I hope I got the balance the right, which I think you can see is tricky.
I think Richardson gets a lot of extra sympathy for his great use of “son a bitch.”
Oh yeah, that was the fun thing that John [Slattery] and I talked about all the time. Initially, he just said it once in the script. One time when he was running in one of the scenes I said, “You know, why don’t you yell ‘son of a bitch’ again? That’ll just be your thing.” I think we did it six times, but I cut it down to three. I really loved that, so I’m glad you liked it [Laughs].
He could have said it 20 times, and it still would have worked.
I am with you. If I had my druthers and the audience was totally going for it, I would have added it in six or seven more times. It’s tricky, because I didn’t want the bureau to become too comical. If he looked like he was just getting beaten the whole time, then it would have been a problem for a lot of audience members. I’m kind of with you, though. I could have handled more humor. As a director, you’re trying to convey something that hits a vast majority of people in a certain way. I got enough humor in there to satisfy me and not too much to throw other people.
The style, both in costumes and in language, for the bureau is very 50s–
I don’t know if I’d say the 50s per se. The conception, architecturally, was from 1900 to about 1940. Most of the locations we picked were built between those two periods. For the clothing, my costume designer blended from about 1910 to 1950, so the suits have different elements from those periods. The idea was to find a style for the clothing and buildings to have a visual correspond to the idea, thematically, that if the bureau controlled the world, then it would be more perfect on the surface but with less freedom. Those incredibly beautiful buildings, which have stood the test of time, I tried to shoot in very beautiful ways.
I shot them in very formally composed ways and had the camera move in a precise and smooth way when the bureau was in control of the situation. We moved to a much more human, hand-held style and were much less cautious about shooting the chaos of the New York City streets when they are not in control. When Anthony Mackie chases David down the streets, it’s very chaotic and less beautiful. When Richardson walks into The Adjustment Bureau headquarters, all those shots are very precise and beautiful.
They feel like a government agency, and you even have the famous “important-running-feet” close-up shot.
Yeah, yeah. That was one of the few shots I literally took from another movie. It’s just a reverse of a shot that is from The Right Stuff. I love that shot, too.
Can you talk about the balance of nailing down that grey area for the Bureau, where you could possibly argue what they’re doing isn’t a bad thing?
Well, Thompson’s speech kind of outlines the whole motivation for the Bureau: if human beings were just left to their own devices and free will was in control, then there would be chaos and war. That lays out the broadest scale argument for the bureau. Whether it’s a sci-fi conceit doesn’t really matter. Humanity needs guidance or we’re going to destroy ourselves, that’s the argument. The speech comes late in the movie, so early on you got to give a sense that they’re well intentioned. You have to think of the characters that come before that, who is Harry.
[Spoiler Alert] Harry basically sides with David and has very human qualities. He has all these things that make you care for him. He mans up and opens up to David, because he knows how screwed in the head he is from this situation [Spoiler Over]. For Richardson, Slattery gave me variations on that performance. He gave me about three or four variations, and we went with the version of, “These things happen. It’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes, but I’m still in control.” He’s almost like an uncle [to Harry], and that’s how I told John to play it. You’re introduced to two characters [from the bureau] who are likable, so you don’t feel like they’re awful people.
My final question: Was there an alternate ending?
[Spoiler Alert] Yes, initially I was going to show the chairman. The chairman was going to be in female form, too. Ultimately, while making the movie, I realized how important it was going to be for people to put their own beliefs in the end and not forclose that. I don’t think the scene would have forclosed peoples’ beliefs, but the more I could hint at it and the less explicit I could be about it, it wasn’t enough to hint about it in the dialog and have an actual person there acting it. I just had to not show the chairman, so I ended up not going that way.
The Adjustment Bureau is now in theaters.