Things are looking up for Michael Clayton, which opened to rave reviews (a terrific 88% fresh on rotten tomatoes) and boffo initial box office in limited release.
Michael Clayton will be an interesting test of George Clooney's star power, as unlike the FX-heavy Perfect Storm or the Oceans flicks, the movie rests on his shoulders. Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck were both boosted by Oscar campaigns, a fate that may also meet this film. I've seen the movie twice; it's a smart-movie pleasure which sprang full-blown from the head of Tony Gilroy, who wrote all three of the Bourne pictures. He waited some five years to be able to direct Clayton himself, and managed to land Clooney, who initially resisted meeting him. "When asking someone to direct, your level of trust has to be so high," Gilroy told me over coffee at the Four Seasons bar.
Typically, it was only when CAA's Rick Hess raised some indie equity coin for the picture (from Steve Samuels) that Gilroy was able to say to one of Michael Clayton's director godfathers, Steven Soderbergh, "OK, I'm making this, may I please meet George to see if we get along?" They did, and talked for eight hours straight. (The other mentor was Sydney Pollack, who also stars in the film.) Clooney agreed to star for back-end gross only: the movie cost just $20 million upfront. Even so, Gilroy was able to shoot in New York City, with Clooney on hand to press the flesh whenever he needed help. "He'd put Vernon Jordan on hold to talk to the cops," says Gilroy.
Gilroy always wrote Clayton with the opening monologue from the mad lawyer, which is nailed so well by actor Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom). Gilroy actually shot it on the first day of filming, in a freezing Queens jail cell with Clooney. "I had Tom do it in front of him. George knew he was doing that, he wanted it. He went home and got a good night's sleep," Gilroy jokes.
Wilkinson is getting serious Oscar buzz. So are Gilroy and Clooney. Like Soderbergh's similar Erin Brockovich, Michael Clayton could win up as one of the last films standing in the Oscar fray.
Perhaps remembering how hard he had to work to equally promote his two Oscar contenders in 2005/2006, Clooney has decided, following his recent motorcycle spill which painfully broke one rib, to back off trying to finish his third film as director, Leatherheads, this year. Reshoots were always planned for the last weekend in September, when Clooney had grown a beard for the Coens' Burn After Reading.
Now Leatherheads will open in April, giving Clooney more time to promote Clayton, finish Burn After Reading, and edit Leatherheads. Sounds like a sane move. I hear there's a character in Leatherheads who smokes a lot, which may be another potential thorn in Clooney's side. Universal marketing is buying a Superbowl promo spot, so the studio stands behind the period football pic.
Here's one Gilroy interview. And here's David Poland's video sit-down:
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]