Andy Schwartz/Universal Studios
Anthony Mackie (right) plays a supernatural — yet still very human — agent of fate in the new romantic thriller The Adjustment Bureau. Matt Damon (left) stars in the film, adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story The Adjustment Team.
Anthony Mackie (right) plays a supernatural — yet still very human — agent of fate in the new romantic thriller The Adjustment Bureau. Matt Damon (left) stars in the film, adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story The Adjustment Team. Andy Schwartz/Universal Studios
The Adjustment Bureau
- Director: George J. Nolfi
- Genre: Sci-fi Romance
- Running Time: 99 minutes
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image
With: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery
If you and your better half can never agree on which movie to see, you're in luck. A new film starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt is a genre-defying thriller with something in it for everyone. It's a love story, a sci-fi flick, a ballet film and a political drama — with a conspiracy plot to boot.
The film's writer and director, George Nolfi, and one of its actors, Anthony Mackie, sat down with NPR's Michele Norris to discuss the movie, its themes and why it just might be the perfect date movie.
Not Your Typical Bad Guys
The film, adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story The Adjustment Team, centers on David Norris, a promising New York politician, and the "agents" of the mysterious Adjustment Bureau who watch over him.
Norris, played by Damon, has a lofty political future ahead of him but goes off course when he falls for a contemporary ballet dancer, played by Blunt. Their love story, the pair learns, is not a part of the Adjustment Bureau's plan. An action-packed fight between fate and free will ensues.
The bureau's supernatural agents of fate aren't your typical Hollywood villains, says Nolfi. They carry around magical notebooks and sport fedoras with superpowers, but they also have plenty of human traits. They accidentally fall asleep, make mistakes and get frustrated with their bosses just as much as the next employee.
"I'm always fascinated by trying to create characters across the board that are sort of three-dimensional and interesting," explains Nolfi. "I couldn't get to some of the themes in the movie that I was interested in getting to, if these guys were just 'bad guys.' "
Andrew Schwartz/Universal Studios
Writer, director and producer George Nolfi (left) on the set of The Adjustment Bureau with co-stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.
Writer, director and producer George Nolfi (left) on the set of The Adjustment Bureau with co-stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Andrew Schwartz/Universal Studios
A Twist Of Fate, Or Free Will?
It was this complexity that drew Anthony Mackie to the project. Mackie plays Harry, a young agent with the bureau, who is in charge of watching over Norris. When Mackie first read the script, he was drawn in by the questions it raised about free will.
"I'm a huge believer in fate and I realize I'm a product of fate," he says. "I was reading the script and I was blown away by the idea of George [Nolfi] challenging fate versus free will."
This crux of the film taps into an age-old debate. Nolfi likens his characters to those in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was a partly divine Babylonian king who tried to defy the gods' decree that he must die. Like the king, David Norris fights against his fate at all odds, Nolfi explains. But questions of fate weren't just a preoccupation for the ancients.
"You've got that whole tradition within literature," says Nolfi, "and then you've got the much more prosaic stuff ... people feeling like their everyday choices in life are constrained because there are no jobs in the economy, or because of the environment they were born into, the country they were born into."
"It makes a huge difference whether you were born into a wealthy family in Washington, D.C., or whether you were born in a slum in Cairo," he says. "People are always dealing with that question of how much can I choose my own path in life, versus how have I been pushed down a path by life?"
'Looking For A Challenge'
Mackie is known for taking high-intensity roles such as an Iraqi war sergeant in Hurt Locker, a former Black Panther in Night Catches Us and a reforming drug dealer in Half Nelson. His role in The Adjustment Bureau is a new type of character for him.
"I had been looking for a challenge," he says. "I'm not a very subtle person, in day-to-day life, and it's something that I've been working on for about a year or two now. This script fell right into my hands at the right time."
Because of his success playing highly dramatic characters, Mackie is typically offered roles that are more of the same. He was looking for a new sort of opportunity.
"I was just excited to be able to try something different," Mackie says. "To have an inner passion and drive that can be translated into many different things by the audience, whatever they take from it."
Andy Schwartz/Universal Studios
On The Run: Aided by a magical fedora, David Norris (Damon) and Elise Sallas (Emily Blunt) attempt to escape the heavy hand of fate.
On The Run: Aided by a magical fedora, David Norris (Damon) and Elise Sallas (Emily Blunt) attempt to escape the heavy hand of fate. Andy Schwartz/Universal Studios
The Casting Sparks Fly
When Nolfi saw the screen tests between Damon and Blunt, he says he just knew that the pairing was perfect.
"It's kind of like ... the Supreme Court saying, we know pornography when we see it," he jokes (referring to Justice Potter Stewart's oft-quoted concurrence in a 1964 case describing his threshold for pornographic material). "You just know it as a human being," Nolfi says, "if you open your eyes when you see two people working together and the lines sound right."
But finding Blunt was no small feat. To cast the role of Elise, the smart, flirty ballet dancer, Nolfi and his casting directors auditioned more than 1,000 different women.
They first looked at dancers, and then at actresses who could dance, because "the authenticity of the dance aspect of the movie was very important to me," Nolfi says.
Though Blunt was neither a dancer nor an actress who could dance — one of the best dancers in the world helped her out out, Nolfi says — he knew almost immediately that she was right for the role.
"She came in for the screen test and honestly in about 15 seconds, I turned to my producer who was next to me and I said, 'I think that's Elise.' "
Thinking Outside The Genre
Nolfi and Mackie joke that dance, plus sci-fi, plus a love story make The Adjustment Bureau the perfect date movie. The film is essentially a sweet story about two people who are meant to be together — but it's also action-packed.
Although his film spans genres, Nolfi says he received no pressure from Universal Studios to limit its scope, or play up its action.
"The studio really embraced the vision from Day 1, and they pretty much let me make exactly the movie I wanted to make," says Nolfi.
The director says it is his hope — and the hope of many others in the filmmaking industry — "that the audience is craving movies that don't just fit into ... a genre box, that isn't the same old thing."