The A-List: Roman J. Israel, Esq. director Dan Gilroy

By Iain Blair

Writing and movies have always been in director/writer Dan Gilroy’s DNA. The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Frank Gilroy, he has two brothers who’re also in the business — director/writer Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the Bourne franchise) and editor John Gilroy.

After making a name for himself as a successful screenwriter on such projects as The Bourne Legacy, Real Steel and Two for the Money, he made his feature directorial debut with Nightcrawler in 2014. He also wrote the film, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed. Nightcrawler earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Dan Gilroy and Denzel Washington on set.

His film, Roman J. Israel, Esq., which earned its star Denzel Washington an Academy Award nomination and recognition from the Golden Globe and SAG, is another intense character study. Set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system, it stars Denzel Washington as a driven, idealistic defense attorney whose life is upended after his boss and mentor, a civil rights icon, dies. When Roman is recruited to join a law firm led by one of the legendary man’s former students — the ambitious George Pierce (Colin Farrell) — and begins a friendship with a young champion of equal rights (Carmen Ejogo), a series of events ensues that put the activism that has defined Roman’s career to the test.

Collaborating with Gilroy behind the scenes was director of photography Robert Elswit, editor John Gilroy, production designer Kevin Kavanaugh and costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck.

I recently talked with Gilroy about making the film and collaborating with Washington.

Is it true you wrote the film on spec specifically for Denzel?
I did. After Nightcrawler I took myself off the market for a year, researched this and wrote it on spec. I could only ever see Denzel playing Israel.

Would you have still done it without him?
No, I would have just put it away. He was crucial to the film. You have to take a pill with every movie and buy into the premise, and on this you had to believe that for 40 years he’s toiled away in the shadows and never compromised his beliefs. And Denzel utterly transformed himself physically for the role, but he’s also a man of faith who believes in something bigger than himself.

What did he bring to the role?
Apart from being this incredibly gifted actor, he brought a deep conviction to the part.

What sort of themes were you interested in exploring through this?
My biggest struggle is with my conscience. Am I doing enough? And this was a chance to examine activism, which can take a big emotional toll, but then you also know that you’re helping make the world a better place. That’s one of the key themes of the film — the importance of belief. It’s an homage to activism and to anyone who dedicates some of their time to a cause other than themselves. That sort of belief can be both a blessing and a burden, as it can get you up in the morning to fight for something, but it can also sap you.

Why did you shoot 35mm rather than digital?
We wanted that great film look, even though it’s very expensive to shoot that way now. Denzel and I actually shared the added cost.

Doesn’t that affect the post workflow nowadays?
You’re right, it does, as you have to find a lab that can still handle film as everyone’s so used to digital now, and you have a slight delay in dailies — 24 hours. But apart from that, there’s not much interruption to the flow. One big thing it does is cut way down on the footage you have to deal with in editing and post. When you shoot digitally, you don’t think twice about doing 10 or 15 takes in a row. You don’t do that with film. You’re far more careful and specific about what you shoot.

Dan Gilroy opted to shoot on 35mm.

You shot all on location downtown. How tough was that? 
Very tough. We had over 60 locations, and unlike Nightcrawler it was nearly all daytime, and the traffic is just brutal and makes it very hard just moving around. I always wanted to put the character in real-world situations, so sometimes we’d hide cameras down alleyways and behind cars and shoot stuff as if it was surveillance footage. Denzel would be walking around and people would bump into him and not give him a second glance — and those weren’t extras.

Where did you post?
On the Sony lot. We did all the sound at Formosa.

Do you like the post process?
I absolutely love it. You have all the pieces in front of you, and they haven’t hardened yet. They’re malleable, and you can do anything you want and rewrite the whole movie in post if you want. You can pre-lap dialogue, you can intercut and do so many things that have a profound impact on the flow of the story. You can speed up stuff and slow it down by the way you cut and use transitions, and give scenes a whole new energy. Post is amazing.

You edited again with your brother John, who cut Nightcrawler. How did that work?
He read the script before we began shooting, and then he was on the set and then we worked side-by-side on the assembly. He’s like my right arm. (See our interview with John.)

What were the main challenges of editing this film?
The time! We were running long and had to keep cutting. We went to the Toronto Film Festival with it and screened it at 2 hours 14 minutes, but that was still too long, so we had to go back and cut another 13 minutes… that was very tough to do.

I heard Denzel was also involved in the edit.
It’s true, he was. Isn’t that crazy? Normally I couldn’t have even conceived of having an actor come into the cutting room and doing that, because most actors are just not objective. But Denzel is such an asset, and he truly is objective and has an incredible eye. Of course, he’s directed films himself, so it made perfect sense to keep collaborating in the edit.

How many visual effects shots were there and who did them?
Zero VFX did them, and there were quite a few. The biggest VFX shot — which originally was going to be done practically — was when we dropped down 400 feet at night into this alley. We planned to do it with a drone, so we sent it up with an Alexa on it, but it was wet and windy that night and it just didn’t work, so we had to redo it all in post. The apartment building they’re constructing next to Israel’s building was all a big VFX shot, and we had a lot of smaller shots and clean-up and so on.

It has a great soundtrack. Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
They’re so important to me, and they’re a huge percentage of the final film. Music can instantly transport you to other levels and places and change the whole emotional fabric of a scene. Denzel was very involved in that too. He has over 20,000 songs on his iPod and he came up with specific songs that would be the soundtrack to Roman’s life — songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s — and picked a lot of the cues. James Newton Howard, who did Nightcrawler, did the film score.

How about the DI?
We did it at Company 3 in LA with Stefan Sonnenfeld who has worked a lot with Tony. I’m very involved in about 85% of it, and then I leave the last 15% to the DP and my brother John. I love the DI as you can go in and highlight small details and play around with the look and color so much. It’s so creative.

Did it turn out the way you hoped?
It’s beyond what I imagined when I was writing it, and I think Denzel’s performance is truly amazing.

What’s next?
I’m in pre-production on a film for Netflix, a drama set in LA’s contemporary art world. It’s starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Renee Russo, and it’ll be out in October.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


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