Capone dons his hat, walks through a door, and talks to THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU director George Nolfi!!!
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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June 20, 2011, 5:51 a.m. CST
June 20, 2011, 5:59 a.m. CST
I love how AICN writers ask these big long questions and then the interviewee responses something like 'Right', or "Yes." Also, I think directors and actors have figured out how to play the web/fanboy crowd. You can imagine their handlers reminding them before the interview: "be sure to mention 'The Dark Knight' at least once". "Talk about genres and comic books! Remember, you're a long time fan! Tell them you read all their stuff! These dorks are so used to being abused that they turn into lapdogs as soon as somebody cool gives them a pat the heads." Anyway... The Adjustment Bureau was a joke. Literally. By the end of the movie the audience I saw it with were breaking into uncontrolled and unintended laughter. The first 1/2 hour was interesting, but it fell apart when it became quasi-spiritual. It might have been more successful if it were sold to the evangelical community rather than more discerning sci-fi and thriller audiences.
June 20, 2011, 6:43 a.m. CST
So many prospects felt like they could have been explored in the film. Certainly feels like it would lend itself to a decent story arc structure.
June 20, 2011, 6:56 a.m. CST
No mention of why English gorgeous actress Jennifer Ehle had a small cameo as the barmaid.
June 20, 2011, 9:51 a.m. CST
I downloaded it via BitTorrent and it was watchable but barely....very unimaginative and contrived script.
June 20, 2011, 10:02 a.m. CST
Maybe that's why I liked it. I thought it was a decent enough PKD adaptation. And wasn't Jennifer Ehle supposed to be "God"? Capone, didn't you ask why?
June 20, 2011, 10:08 a.m. CST
But do the questions that AICN ask seem to be the farthest thing from hard hitting? These softball questions are boring.
June 20, 2011, 10:08 a.m. CST
June 20, 2011, 10:11 a.m. CST
by Gene Cowan
Sure, the move had some flaws, but I loved the chemistry/interaction between the two characters.
June 20, 2011, 11:21 a.m. CST
by golden tribw
'magical negro' is not a racist euphemism, it refers to a black supporting character who's just a little to happy to help out the (white) main characters despite the fact that his potential sacrifices usually offer no avenue to improve his own life or accomplish anything for himself, which is to say he's just there to make sure Mr. and Mrs. John Smith get to waltz off into the sunset. I thought Anthony Mackie the actor was pretty decent in the movie, but his character was terrible and sloppily written. What was up with the magical hats?
June 20, 2011, 11:23 a.m. CST
by golden tribw
They all felt like X-Files walk-on rejects. No air of mystery or authority whatsoever -- maybe this is equally the fault of the cinematographer/director/composer, but I can't help but feel the actors are responsible. Terence Stamp finally brought a little gravitas to the proceedings when he showed up, but that's how bad-ass every single A.B. agent should have been! These guys run the world!! It was a halfway neat idea for a movie, but it completely fell apart for me as it unfolded, and I was laughing at the screen by the end of it all. Damon and Blunt did fine, but I wanted the silly narrative to piss off and let them just have their own chemistry, it would have been a lot more interesting and a lot less contrived. Kind of like YES MAN, where jumping through the hoops of the conventional narrative arc destroyed any chance the characters had of lifting the movie into a whole other (better) level.
June 20, 2011, 12:41 p.m. CST
...Then they could have address much harder questions of fidelity and fate. The character would have been much more nuanced and less boy scout-ish. Besides, how many young single dudes have ever run for Senate? I want to here real figures. The Adjustment Bureau ultimately plays like Total Recall for simpletons. Well, PK Dick was the inspiration for both.
June 20, 2011, 12:57 p.m. CST
I was excited when I heard PKD was getting another shot at a proper movie adaptation. But then I saw the trailer. Ended up not bothering to see it in theatres. - - - As I recall, the original shrot story was about a nobody who accidentally gets a glimpse of how the world works. makes a deal with god to keep it a secret. goes home and giggles to himself at how easy it is to fool his wife. A dark joke about the modern powerless man. ... Every part of this was changed. instead of being a paranoid misogynist statement about accepting the sad state of powerlessness in a modrn world, it apparently became a powerful politician fighting back, and "doing-it-all-for-love." - - - UGH! I could love such a movie. I love matt damon. I love dudes in fedoras being sneaky. but it should never have been marketed as PhilipK.Dick related. #nerdRAGE
June 20, 2011, 1:41 p.m. CST
George Nolfi soudns lieka really smart guy, and his movie, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, was really damn good.
Sure, it doesn't have the same artificial plastic over-markting charm of a JJ Abrams movie, but more then makes up for it in the brain and heart (and talent) department. THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU: damn good movie.
June 20, 2011, 1:42 p.m. CST
How hard it is to beleive a guy found his soulmate on a girl who looks like and is as charming as Emily Blunt? Not at all!
June 20, 2011, 1:49 p.m. CST
Halfway through this movie I suddenly realized that I still enjoy watching movies. I've become real cynical, you see. Movies, in general, seem to be made for the dumbest of society. The same boring plots. The obvious formulaic twists. It's so fucking apparent that studio execs have their greasy fingers in nearly every theatrical release that giving the audience what they think we want has taken precedence over the actual process of creating art. And I get it. Really, I do. Movies cost millions of dollars. Of course, their going to stick with what they think works instead of taking a chance on something original. And then comes along THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, and I see an A-List actor in a theatrical release that doesn't play to the mouthbreathing populace. Yeah, there was a moment when I said to myself, "Really? We're doing the 'magical negro' thing?" but for the most part, this movie was something I had never seen before. But, as expected, even the geeks can't enjoy originality, so movies like THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU will remain few and far between, TRANSFORMERS 3 will make a shit-ton of money, and THE FOUNTAIN will still be far from turning a profit. Nice work, 21st century.
June 20, 2011, 3:15 p.m. CST
June 20, 2011, 4:19 p.m. CST
no doubt. It does feel a little bit like a short story with filler stuffed in to make it 90 minutes. The first 30 and last 30 minutes are the best. Damon and Blunt were great. The black guy was good. The 2 older white guy actors in the Beureau were weak.
June 20, 2011, 6:57 p.m. CST
"Eternal Sunshine" is the only one that comes to mind, TBH.
June 21, 2011, 12:03 a.m. CST
I'm sorry, but imo this movie was bad. From the unbelievable and contrived love story to the "revelation" at the end - I mean, come on. They're angels and he's... ummm, God?
June 21, 2011, 2:37 a.m. CST
I really liked this movie. It was smart, fun and I actually cared about Damon and Blunt. And Thomas Newman music was great as usual.
June 21, 2011, 2:10 p.m. CST
Jennifer Ehle was I mean, give the movie another whirl.
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