Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
George Nolfi began his fairly recent career in Hollywood as a writer, having a hand in the screenplays for 2003's TIMELINE, OCEAN'S TWELVE, THE SENTINEL, and most recently in 2007's THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM. Earlier this year, after being delayed several months, the Nolfi-written and -directed THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU (from the short story by Philip K. Dick).
Although the Dick story ("Adjustment Team") did not feature a love story or many of the nuances of Nolfi's fleshed-out plot, the addition of these elements made for compelling storytelling and one of the most convincing love stories ever to be placed at the heart of any science fiction story. I think the reason the romance works in THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is that it actually is integral to the ongoing story dealing with the nature of fate, destiny and how to change both.
The reason for our conversation last week was the DVD release of THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU on June 21, and I'm glad we got to talk because I finally got to unload all of those nagging questions I've had about this film. Believe me, I could have gone another 30 minutes easy with Nolfi, but I think we cover a lot of ground in the 20 minutes we did get to chat. Enjoy George Nolfi…
Capone: Hi George, how are you?
George Nolfi: Good, how are you Steve?
Capone: Excellent. I’ve got to imagine you are pretty tired of doing these interviews.
GN: Well there’s always room for Ain’t It Cool News. [laughs]
Capone: Okay, well that’s good to hear. I tried to peruse some of the interview you did when the film was first release, so I’ll try not to ask all of the same questions.
GN: No problem.
Capone: I went back last night and looked at the review that I wrote just to sort of remind myself what it was I liked about the movie so much and I kept coming back to this idea that you successfully meshed the science-fiction aspects of the plot with this love story, and that’s so rarely done well.
GN: Well, thank you.
Capone: Why do you think that is? BLADE RUNNER did a really great job of combining the two, but romance wasn’t the primary focus of that film. Why do you think that’s so tough to get right?
GN: That’s really hard to answer. I agree with you that there are almost no… I can’t really think of a straight science fiction films that have attempted it, maybe the one that Soderbergh did, SOLARIS, was pretty heavily a love story. But it’s pretty rare that what I would call a straight science fiction--with technology in a future world or a past world that’s like the future like STAR WARS--has a love story at the center. I know that it was hard for me. I think a lot of the tropes or rules of science fiction or the expectations of the genre, if nothing else, take screen time away from time that you would need to develop a relationship. So in terms of the kind of bad guy plot and “What are they doing?” and “How does that affect some kind of metaphysical question about ourselves and then the technological aspect…”
So yeah, it’s hard for me to answer why it’s so hard, but I definitely know it is hard and was hard for me. That might be in part because I didn’t ever really view the film as a sci-fi film; I viewed it as kind of sci-fi tinged or jumping off from a sci-fi premise or the fantastical. I was able to focus in on the love story. It felt to me that was the emotional core of the movie. And by the way, some reviewers who disagreed with you felt like I had somehow betrayed the sci-fi genre by putting a love story at the center, and it’s kind of like, “Well I didn’t tell you I was making a sci-fi movie. Just because it’s from Philip K. Dick doesn’t mean that it has to be like every other Philip K. Dick short story.” He’s a guy who generated an enormous amount of ideas, and the reason he’s been such fertile ground for movie making is because those ideas can be interpreted in a lot of ways, and I credit his daughter, who's in charge of his estate with encouraging that, and saying, “We still think our father’s work can be interpreted in a lot of ways.”
Capone: Yeah and I guess two arguments could be made, one is that when you really find out what the nature of The Bureau is, this is not even a science fiction film. Within the way you have very cleverly structured your plot, the science fiction gets in the way of the love story, not the other way around. And I don’t mean it actually “gets in the way,” but you know what I’m saying, the way you have devised it, you start out with this being a love story and then these other elements interfere.
GN: Yeah, I start in a real world. I start almost like a political drama and then the political drama turns into a love story, and it’s not until the end of the first act that you get the sci-fi aspect.
Capone: Part of the reason the love story works in this context is because we do, as people, subscribe a certain value to encounters like this. If you meet a woman at a party and get along but don't exchange number, then you run into her again by chance a week or two later, we assign value to that. "This is fate." And you have taken that a step further in saying, “Not only is it fate, but now we have got to disassemble your life to make it not part of your future.”
Capone: I thought that was really good.
GN: Well thank you. In the original Philip K. Dick story, he does meet a white-haired gentleman in the sky, so he did take it to that place of it being a higher power. Although in a more cynical way I think, which is also fine. I just wanted to do the love story in a genuine emotional way and to then just sort of turn it at the end and have it all be kind of a joke or something that had a much darker end didn’t feel right to me.
Capone: Yeah. The other thing I thought about the film was that there are things happening in this that I could see a Frank Capra doing something with. There’s a lot of his idealism represented in this film. Did you ever see it that way?
GN: [Laughs] Well there’s not much a higher compliment than that! First I’ll just say “Thank you.” I wasn’t explicitly trying to channel anything, although I would say I was explicitly trying to channel in the bathroom meeting scene and the bus scene screwball comedies from the '30s, '40s, and early '50s, that sort of notion of the woman being in a place that’s sort of a male bastion and kind of not being threatened by it. And it’s hard to do that any more, that’s why there are no more screwball comedies, because women are in every arena of life, except for the men’s room, you know?
Capone: That’s right!
GN: And then you make this guy a famous politician and used to being treated with some kind of deference, and she doesn’t really treat him with deference and it was an appealing dynamic that, like THE AWFUL TRUTH for example has or Hepburn and Tracy movies. So I did want to do that and I was not sort of as I said it thinking about Capra really, but one of the first people who kind of supported the film said something to me about that after she saw and early cut, and I thought “Wow, if I can do even a 10th or a 20th of what that guy did, then I’ve had a good career.”
Capone: That’s right. Now I had read that when you were writing this, you had Matt Damon in mind. Did that make it easier to write it or more difficult, because you kind of wanted to play to his strengths? Did you want to give him some new strengths maybe?
GN: I think it makes it easier on the one hand, then more difficult on the other, but over all I would say it’s easier. It makes it easier in the sense that if you know a person and you have worked with the person, then you intuitively know the things that they seem right doing, even an actor with as much range as Matt Damon has, and he does have a lot of range, you still sort of go, “This feels right. He’s just going to crush this. This is like a fastball right down the middle kind of thing.”
The part that’s a little more difficult is, most actors that I know want the challenge of doing something that they haven’t done already or at least the really good ones, and so I kind of thought that I would try to give him something that he had never done and when I got done with it I realized it was something he had never done in a couple of ways. He hadn’t really done a movie where he was completely carrying the story as a romantic lead and while he had done things that had a little bit of a fantastical elements, they were not the movies that he was most successful in. So it was like “Hey dude, do you want to try this, which is not really what you normally do?” To his credit and like I said, I think the way most great actors react, he was game. I showed him an early version, the first draft of the script basically and I said, “This is not what you normally do, but I think you’d be awesome at it. All I really want to know is am I stupid to keep pursuing you, or is it something you could see yourself doing?” And he said, “Yeah, I could see myself doing it.” We talked about the character and we ended up working together for about seven months on BOURNE ULTIMATUM, and I rewrote it during the writer’s strike and here we are.
Capone: And the element of THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU that I sometimes forget about is how believable he was as an everyman politician, and you took time to make those opening speeches and those media appearances that he makes seem really authentic, and no one ever gets that right. Can you talk about wanting making those moments authentic.
GN: Sure, and you really are asking questions that other people haven't.
Capone: Oh good.
GN: Well, politics is an area of interest of mine for a long time. I liked the character in the movie. My dad took me to the Senate gallery when I was even younger than ten, and I got a tour of the White House when I was really young, the working part of the White House--the West Wing. So it’s kind of in my blood, and I studied it in undergrad and graduate school and I do some informal consulting in political communications with various groups and try to do nonpartisan stuff mostly. So I think I have a very finely tuned bullshit detector for how politicians actually act and what they actually say and what they are like behind the scenes.
I also campaigned with a friend of mine who I can’t tell you his name, because he doesn’t want me too, but I have a friend who ran for senate, and I spent time with him about six or eight days kind of driving around with him to appearances. It’s not much in the movie now, but it was one of the things that attracted Matt to the script actually is I had him always having a Ricola cough drop, because they speak so much. They're just talking all day long and they are talking with their voice elevated, because most of the time you go to a lunch thing or a rotary club event or whatever, and a lot of times there’s no microphone or you want to walk around or it’s an informal gathering.You’ll go to some breakfast place and say, “Hey, can I talk to everybody for a minute about what’s going on with social security?” So their voices are always hoarse, so it’s little details like that that help an actor really inhabit the skin of a politician
When you go to John Stewart himself and just say “Look, there are no rules to this, here’s who the guy is.” It’s 5th Congressional District, he’s in a vague sense a Democrat, but he’s a conservative Democrat basically, because I don’t really want to make it a partisan thing, and they just ad-libbed it. Stewart is asking him questions, and Matt is answering as a politician having talked to the friend that I did the research with and several political consultants and also being a fairly avid follower of politics himself. So what you get is that sense of natural vocal patterns, but also the realism that comes with knowing how those guys actually think or at least that’s the way I tried to do it. The speech was the hardest thing of all, the speech in the hotel--his concession speech.
Capone: We realize early on that the Bureau members are subject to certain rules and even human flaws, like falling asleep on the job. It reminds me of that old George Carlin routine about God being subject to physical laws, and how everything he has ever created has died. You’ve built that into this story. Can you talk a little bit about that philosophic element of the story?
GN: Yes. It’s by far more interesting to watch a character on screen who is imperfect than perfect, so that’s one starting place. I would have not gotten the great cast of great, involved actors to do those parts if they didn’t have anything to play. If they were just doing the bidding of God or something. That’s a big part of it. I also just think it’s a much more interesting way to approach the central question of “How determined are we vs. how much free will do we have,” and I guess connected to that “Does love somehow trump the general rules of fate vs. determinism?”
It just is me as a filmmaker or artistic person and also as a person who has been interested in philosophy for a long time saying, “I don’t want to see perfection; I want to see our human flaws represented in these higher beings,” or maybe they are not even higher, maybe they are just parallel, but they certainly have powers that are beyond ours. Look at the earliest depictions of gods or demigods in Sumerian literature or Greek literature--they're anthropomorphic.
Capone: Have you sort of settled on what you are going to do next at this point? I know you hadn’t back in March.
GN: I started right when the film came out writing another script and I’m done with it and putting the finishing touches on it. Then there’s a second one that I’m not as far along on and I am just starting to put together, so I don’t want to talk about exactly what it is, but whichever of the two things I do or even if there’s something from the outside that comes to me that I really fall in love with, I think I probably want to do something that’s a little more genre focused, so I don’t have to spend all of my time explaining the multiple genres and stuff that I did in the early press stuff. [laughs]
But also just because it’s a different, new challenge. The challenge of ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, one of the challenges, was “How do you keep a consistent tone? How do you make this movie feel all of a piece when you don’t have any genre rules to order it?” The next one I think I want to say, “Okay, here’s a genre with a set of expectations, and I’m going to really nail the genre, but I want it to feel elevated.” The best most recent example I can think of with that is probably THE DARK KNIGHT, where it does everything that a comic book movie needs to do and yet somehow is just it’s own movie and rises above any standards set for that. It’s not going to be a comic book movie, obviously, but I would like to do something that zeros in on a genre and kicks it up a notch.
Capone: Yeah all right, well you did great job on this one, so don’t necessarily run away from being complicated it just because it doesn’t fit into a genre comfortably.
GN: Oh definitely not. I will always be interested in doing things that blend genre. I’m just saying the next one I think I want to do something that is a more zeroing in on a genre and then maybe a third one will be back to THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU kind of like “How do you blend stuff?”
Capone: And these would all be films that you would probably direct yourself too?
GN: Yes. That’s what I mean, directing. I wont be doing writing that I’m not either directing or producing, unless it’s a short “fix-it” thing, where I come in for a week or two weeks or something.
Capone: Sure. George, thanks so much.
GN: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. And I appreciate what you wrote about the film. Take care, bye.
-- Capone email@example.com
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