Tony Gilroy's Tangled Universe

Beirut's screenwriter creates exhilarating thrillers about complicated people

Written by Peter Bowen

In Brad Anderson's Beirut, a former U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) returns to Lebanon in 1982 to help negotiate the release of a kidnapped friend with the help of his CIA-assigned handler (Rosamund Pike). While this tale of a politically conflicted, war-torn Middle East feels ripped from today's headlines, Gilroy wrote the screenplay nearly three decades ago. After having met a former CIA analyst in 1991, Gilroy saw the dramatic potential for putting "a negotiator in a historical setting where it could feel true to life without actually being a true story." Immersing himself deep in historical research, Gilroy learned all he could about the conflicting cultural and geopolitical forces shaping Lebanon in the 1980s. However, for him the focus was less on the region's complex historical fabric, and more—in the tradition of John Le Carré's spy stories—on how it affected his protagonist. "I was interested in writing about people trapped inside a political situation," explains Gilroy. The dramatic tension that Gilroy found in Beirut between an all-too-human hero dealing with an imperfect world ignited his imagination, pushing him to create some of cinema's most memorable characters. "Mason was the beginning of my fascination with characters in need of redemption, which is also true for Jason Bourne and Michael Clayton," recalls Gilroy. To showcase Gilroy's screenwriting legacy, we spotlight some of his most remarkable creations.

Matt Damon in <em>The Bourne Identity</em>

The Bourne Films | A spy for the real world

In 2000, Doug Liman approached Tony Gilroy, who'd already gained a name in Hollywood for deftly adapting difficult novels, about taking on Robert Ludlum's best-selling spy story The Bourne Identity. Uninterested in working on "an airport novel," Gilroy turned him down. "Those works were never meant to be filmed," Gilroy later told The New Yorker. "They weren't about human behavior." Only when Liman gave Gilroy license to throw out the bulk of the novel and just keep the core idea of an assassin with amnesia did his imagination kick in. From that single concept—a man haunted by a past he can't remember—Gilroy launched his hero into a billion-dollar franchise that spans five films (with Gilroy writing four of them and directing one). With the release of The Bourne Identity in 2002, Gilroy created a different kind of spy movie.

BBC called it a "fast-paced, unpredictable and edgy yarn that breathes new life into the espionage thriller genre." Rather than having a well-dressed spy with a license to kill, The Bourne Identity focuses in on its hero's internal conflict. "The moral dilemma that The Bourne Identity presents emerges when the hero discovers his true identity as a CIA assassin," explains Salon's Charles Taylor. When Paul Greengrass took over the directorial duties for 2004's The Bourne Supremacy, Gilroy completely rewrote the novel's plot to create global thriller infused, as The Los Angeles Times describes it, "with personality-driven cross-continental intrigue" without losing any of its moral complexity. By the fourth film, 2012's The Bourne Legacy, Gilroy stepped up to helm his own vision, creating "something more realistic and closer to the ground," notes Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum, "The change is refreshing."

George Clooney in <em>Michael Clayton</em>

Michael Clayton | Fixing a broken system

After years demonstrating how brilliantly he could adapt other people's work, Gilroy got the chance to show the world what he could do with his own original screenplay when he both wrote and directed Michael Clayton. After having "worked on movies where the director wasn't allowed to talk to me," Gilroy told Filmmaker Magazine, "[Michael Clayton] was the best experience, to be able to be in complete control, to say, ‘This is mine.'" While doing research for The Devil's Advocate, Gilroy was intrigued by the legal machinery rarely portrayed in cinema. "I was struck how all these huge New York City law firms I visited had a large, wood-paneled room, but no one ever used it," Gilroy told The Seattle Times. "The real action was in a vast, backstage area where strategies are devised." He turned these ruminations into a complex character study about a legal fixer (played by George Clooney) who finds himself in middle of scandal even he can't make go away. While its labyrinthine plot of corporate greed and white-collar crime may seem like, as Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman points out, "a hundred other muckraking dramas, Michael Clayton makes you feel as if you've never seen any of it before." Gilroy's unique vision of corporate espionage proved a critical and box-office hit, receiving nominations for nine Academy Awards—including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.

Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh in <em>Dolores Claiborne</em>

Dolores Claiborne | Reframing a Stephen King novel

As a novel, Dolores Claiborne was not an obvious choice for a film adaptation. Told as a continuous monologue by the title character, the novel "had a character that was completely fully drawn and completely Stephen King," Gilroy told The Washington Post. Gilroy was recommended by famed screenwriter William Goldman to transform the book. "My track record of adaptations are pretty much all tear-downs," Gilroy explains. To dramatize the novel's singular voice, Gilroy reframed the novel's focus to include both Dolores (played by Kathy Bates) and her daughter Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a New York City journalist, who returns to her hometown in Maine after her mother is charged with murder. Telling the characters' stories in flashbacks 25 years apart—a device that director Taylor Hackford credits as "Tony Gilroy's brilliant idea"—gives the film a dramatic tension missing from the book. For Den of Geek, this is a story about two women "who exist in a world of men, men who seek to divide them and keep them quiet." A box-office success, Dolores Claiborne was listed on Time Magazine's "10 Greatest Stephen King Movies." As The Washington Post notes, "Clearly, the filmmakers exercised care instead of speed for "Dolores Claiborne" -- and it shows."

Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino in <em>The Devil's Advocate</em>

The Devil's Advocate | Finding the Hell within

Tony Gilroy reunited with Dolores Claiborne's director Taylor Hackford for The Devil's Advocate, a dramatic reworking of a popular novel. Many producers had been intrigued by Andrew Neiderman's pulpy tale of Kevin Lomax (played by Keanu Reeves in the film), an ambitious lawyer who discovers too late that his prestigious New York City firm's primary client, John Milton (Al Pacino), is the Prince of Darkness. But few of the adaptations could get beyond the tale's simplistic supernatural premise. Taking his cue from Nietzsche and C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, Gilroy turned this tale of horror into a suspenseful and thought-provoking exploration into the nature of evil. "The seductive problem of free will was one of the breakthrough insights into getting a foothold on how to fix that script," Gilroy told The Washington Post. By doing so, Gilroy turned a simple concept film into engaging drama. "This is a writer's as well as an actor's movie," writes The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle, commending the "screenplay of sink-or-swim moments, tense seductions and philosophical confrontations." The movie's box office success gave Gilroy, according to The New Yorker, "a reputation as a guy who could fix broken scripts."

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