Writer-director George Nolfi has seen quite a bit of the Hollywood machine up close. He's been responsible for scripts for films like "Timeline" and "The Sentinel." His spec script "Honor Amongst Thieves" was made near-unrecognizable as it was rewritten into "Ocean's Twelve." And recently, he showed up as an on-set writer for the tumultuous "The Bourne Ultimatum" shoot, working on crafting a storyline for a megabudgeted action film that didn't yet have one.
Nolfi's moved on to directing, working with his own script for "The Adjustment Bureau," a loose adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story "Adjustment Team." Re-teaming with "Bourne" star Matt Damon, Nolfi's film deals with the puppet masters beyond what we consider fate, as Damon's David Norris has to choose between a prosperous political career or defying those really in charge to pursue the love of his life (Emily Blunt).
We sat down with Mr. Nolfi recently to discuss working on a limited budget, shooting in New York City, and the truth behind the aborted fourth film in the "Bourne Identity" series.
How did you become involved with “The Adjustment Bureau”? I optioned the story with my own money. My producing partner told me, this is a Philip K. Dick story, and it’s got a really cool idea, that fate is a group of people and they come around and change things when you go off your track. It’s one of those few moments in my career when I said, I wanna do that, I know how to do it. The story took me years to crack, but the tone, the feel, the idea of mixing genres, came to me easily. Especially the big theme, that everybody faces tons of obstacles towards your hopes and goals in your life. I think we often feel that there’s something out there thwarting me. Like, why me? I think that’s so universal. The theme that there’s a reason behind that, and that you’re grasping for your free will, that was what came first. A feeling, a theme, doing something that wasn’t genre-bound.
What were the challenges of being a first-time director on a big studio film with an A-List star? The main challenge was working with a limited budget. This isn’t a very big budgeted movie, even though it looks it. I was thinking like a writer, so I didn’t really realize this, but the concept of the “doors” [which transport characters from one place to another] means that every time I have anything to do with them, I have to have two locations. They have to be wildly disparate places. There are about 20-25 doors in the movie. That’s forty locations right there. So we ended up with 85 or 90 locations, and we started out with 65 days. We ended up saving money, so that gave us a little more time, but you do the math. We had to move the crew 20 plus times, in that kind of traffic. It just means you have less time. It means your twelve hour day suddenly becomes eight hours because you had four hours to pack, move the crew through traffic, and set up again.
Was there any pressure from the studio given the tricky subject matter and your first-timer status? I had almost no interference at all. I had zero interference during the shooting. Universal let me get the movie edited, and let me utilize a temp track before they even looked at it. Partly that was because I wrote a script, I got a star, and I went to an outside company, MRC. The way they work is they get talent to do movies with them and give them more creative freedom, and then they greenlight the film themselves. So I then walked into Universal and other studios, and it was a competitive situation with Matt Damon, a script, a budget and a contract that said I had creative freedom. So I was able to get some contractual leeway that I wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise. MRC took a huge chance on me.
Was there any other filmmaker whom you went to for advice, or anyone who assisted in the making of the film? Lots of people. I won’t be able to name them all, because there would be too many. I am lucky enough that every movie I’ve been credited on as a writer, I was there, watching it get made. And you talk to directors who are doing it, and you watch what they do, and you think, that’s very smart, I didn’t think of that. Or, I wouldn’t have done that, but I get it. I was able to be in the flow of production a lot. I got wonderful advice from Richard Donner, Michael Douglas, I learned a ton from Steven Soderbergh. Asked him all kinds of questions as to why the visualizations were what they were, because, you know, I was trying to make a visual statement, not just a screenwriter’s statement put on film. And Paul Greengrass, of course. And David Fincher met with me, because we needed to do some face-replacement, and he’s the master of that.
The film was completed a while ago, but it switched multiple release dates and kept getting postponed. What were the reasons for the delays?
It’s simple. The first date they gave us, I couldn’t hit. Matt was doing “True Grit.” And I had saved about 10% of my production budget so that I could add to the film, with additional reshoots. For example, we shot the Statue of Liberty sequence originally in green-screen, and it worked. But it’s a LOT better just simply going there. I got to go back and do several scenes the way they were meant to be done. And, y’know, go back and do little fixes, little adds, this banter here could be better, et cetera. But we couldn’t hit the July date, because of “True Grit” and Matt’s availability. So they briefly toyed with a date that would have been in conflict with “True Grit” and the Clint [Eastwood] movie, and we just thought, why do that? Why have Matt in three of these over the course of a month?
It’s a very New York-centric shoot, but were there any locations you wanted to fit into the film but weren’t able to?
A lot of the locations were written into the script. Where Matt’s character lives, that’s by Madison Square Park. I’ve walked through a bunch of times and thought, this is so beautiful and no one has ever put it on film. And it has some of the most beautiful architecture of the period that I wanted the adjustment bureau to be in, this 1900-1940-type architecture. The “proctor bullpen” we call it, the NY Public Library Reading Room, I knew I wanted to shoot there. I found, just walking around one day, the lobby for the adjustment bureau, that’s 11 Madison. I wanted to have a hall or stadium. I considered the Opera House, but Yankee Stadium was perfect. All the stuff in Yankee Stadium is just literally us moving a camera around, totally practical.
You were hired to write a fourth film in the “Bourne Identity” series, but the idea died on the vine with Universal opting to do “The Bourne Legacy” instead. What happened during that process?
It was not a surprise because I know Paul Greengrass well, I know Matt well, I know Universal well at this point, I know the producer well at this point. [The message was always] sort of like, Matt and Paul may be willing to do it for us, they may not, and there are all kinds of reasons completely dependent on the script and story for why that would be, which I’ll let them speak about. Not the least of which, they had just shot “The Bourne Ultimatum” and it was an incredibly hard shoot, and they had just done “Green Zone,” and to go and do a fourth one right away, it’s like, they wanted to do other things with their life.
If you were asked, would you return to direct a future installment in the “Bourne” series?
Probably not because I feel like it’s Paul and Matt’s thing. It totally makes sense that if they do one that doesn’t have Matt and it goes off into another direction that it be Tony [Gilroy], because Tony really cracked the book, and he was the first writer in on all three of the Bourne scripts. He’s sort of the keeper of the initial flame, even before Matt Damon got onto it. It’s not really my thing, and there are plenty of other things I want to direct.
Is it possible we could see your script resurrected, or perhaps see certain elements of your work surface in a future “Bourne” film?
I would say ‘never say never’ just because they don’t want to do it now. The movie that the studio is making, that Tony Gilroy is making, doesn’t preclude another Matt Damon—Greengrass "Bourne.”
Do you intend to direct again?
I loved directing. I found it, oddly enough, to be less painful, less stressful than writing. I want to write things to direct, so I am working on a couple of things myself that I should have ready long after the movie opens. I’ll probably lean towards those, but we’ll see. If the movie does well, and people come to me with interesting jobs where I have some creative control, then I’d love to do it.