Talking to Tony Gilroy is like an audience with an Audi. Not just the upholstery: that subdued blue suit, the burnished grey crop, the age-appropriate T-shirt. Beneath the bonnet, too, there’s an affinity. Gilroy is all about the unflappable aesthetic and the turbo engineering, the precision and the purr. Were you hiring a manager for a small chain of discreet luxury business hotels, you would want them to look like Tony Gilroy.
Writers aren’t usually this way. But then Gilroy is a choice sort of scribbler: the consummate pragmatist, with the midmarket punter in his crosshairs and the studio fatcats clapping his back. He struck gold with scripts for Dolores Claiborne and The Devil’s Advocate, got Oscar nods for his direction and screenplay on Michael Clayton. But his richest seam has been in scripting the first Jason Bourne films; after the departure of star Matt Damon, and directors Doug Liman and then Paul Greengrass (neither of whom he reportedly got along with), Universal handed Gilroy both sets of reins for the fourth instalment.
The Bourne Legacy, again baggily adapted from the Robert Ludlum novels (“There was never just one,” the tagline tells us indignantly) unfolds as a counterpoint to the most recent film. So as Damon’s Bourne goes rogue, the shadowy government department that employed him decides to bump off the dozen or so similar agents roving the globe. This includes Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who must scamper about, neurophysicist Rachel Weisz in tow, dodging termination. This is top-of-the-range template moviemaking.
No, says Gilroy, he is not dismayed by the need for brand awareness before a project sees the green light. “Ambiguity depletes as your budget rises. The whole middle of the movie business has disappeared in the last six years because TV right now is the best it’s ever been. To give people a reason to go out there has to be some level of spectacular. The movies I thought I would be making when I finished Clayton, well, that business doesn’t exist any more. You change or you hide your head in the sand.”
Gilroy is not a gabbler – he is all torque: whirring quietly, no surface sweat. Screenwriters are all about the reduction, he explains. “It’s what you don’t write. You have to do this phoney condensation. It has to sound real and feel real but be hyper.” So when screenwriters get together, they don’t waffle? No. “The screenwriters I know share a few personality traits and one of them is anxiety. You’re most plugged in when you’re able to think of all the different possibilities. You’re looking round every corner.”
This surfeit of imagination, he thinks, is what wouldn’t make him a good secret agent. “I don’t think that’s a very healthy mindset if you’re bunkered down in Kurdistan waiting for a helicopter. I don’t think I have the kind of courage that would make me a good warrior.”
If Gilroy feels an affinity in this new film, it might with Ed Norton’s character, not Renner’s. Norton plays a retired colonel, a Senate-sanctioned Blofeld, thirsty for agents’ blood, barking orders at underlings and exposition at flunkies. He gets all the best lines. “We are the sin eaters,” he tells Cross in flashback, as justification for some especially grisly mission. “Morally reprehensible and absolutely essential.” Why so biblical?
“It was important to me that the mastermind behind it all is not just a functionary. He has to have a really clear cogent righteous attitude. Fear changes everything. We’re animals, and when we get afraid we act like animals. I’m not exempt from that. I was in New York on 9/11. We live in a fearocracy now. And this guy’s a zealot, a flagellant priest. He believes he is smart and aware and strong enough to carry the bodies out in the dead of night so people can wake up in the morning and everything is nice. And that’s a viable thing to think.”
So in a way, he’s the real hero? A dry laugh. “I don’t know about that. But there’s a whole fear industry that’s been built up. We have a huge industrial, corporate, military intelligence business founded on fear. I don’t think anybody would argue it’s completely justified but at the same time no one would want to have something happen on their watch. I think that’s Obama’s great dilemma. You come in and really value all this stuff and then go and sit down with people who go: if one thing happens when you’re president you’ll be forever stained. One thing! Not a good math problem. But getting Osama immunised Obama; I don’t think I think anybody’s going to be able to criticise him as a commander-in-chief.”
Gilroy may be one of the highest-end hacks ever – he can command 0k a week for a lick-and-polish job – which allows him to indulge his own stylistic tics and thematic niggles. What links a lot of his projects is a concern with corporate responsibility and the tipping points of private conscience. Does he think people use big business as a scapegoat, to absolve them from personal responsibility?
“It’s not good for landlords to not live in the neighbourhood. That’s the problem with corporations – there’s no one home. You have this shell that is unaccountable. And yet at the same time there is somebody that sits in a dispatch office and says: I know that truckload of products is defective but I have to meet my quota.’ That’s the moment when the human leakage sets in. I’m not sure we’re evolutionarily ready to have corporations; I’m not sure they’re a weapon we deserve.”
And yet, as Bourne head honcho, Gilroy presides over a vast concern. He must make hard decisions every day. “Making movies is not life and death. We all like to think that we do the right thing. As you go on you try to be as consistent as you can.
“Yes, directing a movie on this sort of scale can feel like being the governor of Rhode Island. There are difficult things that have to happen. I try to go to bed every night with a feeling of cleanliness.”
He smiles. He looks steam-cleaned, spotless; the full valet service.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.