BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC This year at the Philadelphia Film Festival I got a few moments to pick the brain of screenwriter/director Dan Gilroy on the red carpet, who’s quickly made a name for himself crafting engrossing narratives around unlikely protagonists. The follow up to his acclaimed directorial debut Nightcrawler is Roman J. Israel, Esq. a film starring Denzel Washington as a legal savant with what appears to be Asperger’s syndrome. Roman is forced to fend for himself after the death of his legal partner who was the face of their team, the people person — while Roman was the brains behind the operation. Thrust into the world the driven, idealistic defense attorney, finds himself trapped in a tumultuous series of events after using his inside knowledge of a case to a profit.
Dan Gilroy has been a longtime screenwriter (Freejack, The Bourne Legacy) who has only just begun directing. With Roman the director once again tackles a story that sheds a light on another troubling aspect of our society, this time our overburdened and fractured legal system and how it’s sometimes failing those that get caught in its cracks. Thanks to Gilroy’s script Denzel delivers a much different character than we are use to, in a film that is thought provoking as it is moving thanks to Colin Farrell who tries to help the troubled Roman find his way.
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PHAWKER: First off what inspired the activism angle of Denzel’s character, you don’t see that in a lot of films?
DAN GILROY: I think activism is something that is very important right now, in the times we live in. I was very interested in someone who had dedicated themselves to that at an emotional cost, a financial cost. I was interested in Denzel playing that part and I wrote it for Denzel and it just was something I felt I had to do.
PHAWKER: Like Nightcrawler, Denzel’s character is not your typical protagonist. How was it for you as a writer crafting this odd and awkward character that most probably wouldn’t give the time of day?
DAN GILROY: I think right now everybody is looking for a hero and the truth is everyone has the accessibility to be a hero. Anybody we walk by on the street, that we don’t give a second glance to, could easily be someone who is very important and someone who could help the world in some way and Roman, Denzel’s character is someone you could not thing twice about. Yet he’s a man of great gifts, great energy, and great power. He really does change people’s lives. What I am really trying to say is we all have the ability to that. That we should all find the inner-activist inside of us and whatever we believe in and execute change in some way. That’s really important.
PHAWKER: Roman is a very eccentric character was that all on the page or did Denzel’s have a hand in the character’s mannerisms and quirks?
DAN GILROY: That was all Denzel! I wrote the script, but Denzel authored the character. He created every aspect of that character. Its his character and he brought it to life he was my collaborator and creative partner in every way on this film.
PHAWKER: What as a writer/director draws you to challenging protagonists? Both Louis Bloom and Roman J. Israel, Esq. are not the greatest of human beings, but you ultimately make us care and root for them.
DAN GILROY: I am very interested in people you could judge at the surface very quickly. Jake’s character in Nightcrawler you could say is a sociopath or a psychopath, there is much more going on. Roman’s character is someone you could say is a marginalized, somebody who is really isn’t that important in the scheme of things. But when you dig down deep he has so much more to give. In this day and age every one of us is important, every one of us has gifts that can change people’s lives. Even if its just in a small way and we don’t know the big scheme, and we don’t know the big plan. But I am very interested into diving into someone’s life and really finding a different part of them other than the surface.
PHAWKER: Being the film deals with the intricacies of the law and is steeped in legalese, what kind of research did you have to do; to make sure you got it right?
DAN GILROY: I spent a lot of time in the downtown LA court system. Which is incredibly overburdened. It’s a system that is utterly out of control and needs reform. I did a lot of research talking to lawyers, I had two technical advisors who were lawyers and they helped me a lot.
PHAWKER: One thing I think people might not realize is how important names are to lawyer’s names in their work. How did you come up with Roman J. Israel, Esq.?
DAN GILROY: I very much saw the character as someone who was in conflict. I think we are all in conflict inside of us. I think all of us inspire to do good things, but there is also the reality of what we need to do. Roman very much has a conflict inside, and I liked the idea of sort of Roman and Israel at conflict with one another. Esq. is something I put at the end, because I am always intrigued by people who put Esq. in their names. The J, Denzel and I never discussed what the J. meant, but it means something. Have you seen the movie?
PHAWKER: Yes I have.
DAN GILROY: Maybe it means Jif peanut butter, I don’t know. [laughter]
PHAWKER: Finally, there was one line that really struck me. Roman says “Purity can’t exist in this world.” I feel like all of us, especially artists have felt that way, where you have to compromise to be successful. What would you say to that?
DAN GILROY: I would also say he says, “Living conditions have bearing.” That line really as much as anything has a much bigger bearing on the story, because people are so quick to judge other people based on ethnicity, sex or whatever it is or where they come from. What I am trying to say is let’s not judge people till you really understand where people are coming from and that is what Roman is fighting for the entire film. Human dignity is something that is being marginalized right now, the value of human life. Every human life is important and every human spirit is important. We really need to acknowledge that.