'Michael Clayton' Turns Camera on Corporate Law

A new film in select theaters this weekend examines the moral and ethical pitfalls of corporate law. Michael Clayton is about a lawyer who has a psychotic event when he's no longer able to stomach the agribusiness he represents. The title character is brought in to clean up the mess. Writer and director Tony Gilroy speaks with Andrea Seabrook.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, Host:

A major producer of agricultural products is fighting a multibillion-dollar class action lawsuit over a nasty chemical that causes tissue death and cancer. The hard-nosed board of directors and a crack team of attorneys defending the conglomerate will do anything to quash the suit, and they do, until one lawyer has a breakdown and finds a conscience.

Though it sounds ripped from the headlines, this is the story of the new movie titled "Michael Clayton." It stars George Clooney and Tom Wilkinson. And it was written and directed by the man who wrote the Jason Bourne trilogy. It's Tony Gilroy. He joins me now.

How are you?

TONY GILROY: Very, very happy to be here.

SEABROOK: Talk to me about these characters. Where did you get the idea for these people and this film?

GILROY: The starting point for this was - we made a film called "Devil's Advocate" about 12 years ago. And Taylor Hackford and I were scouting locations in New York for the law firms. And I was really taken as I sort of wandered off the tour at these offices. And I was really struck by the sort of vast backstage area of these firms. And I thought it was really fertile, untouched area for a story. And I sort of filed that away. And at some point later on, the idea of the fixer came in. There's, you know, there's a grand tradition in all businesses of people who can make things better and make things go. And the combination of those two - that environment and that character - was the starting point for this.

SEABROOK: I want to - for our listeners - outline a couple of the characters here. You have Michael Clayton - this is the George Clooney character. He is a lawyer or, as you call him in the movie, a fixer. We're going to play a scene here where he's bailing out another lawyer at the firm played by Tom Wilkinson. And this guy's had a psychotic event during a deposition. And he sort of no longer able to stomach this agro-business that he represents. And in this clip, Clayton is trying to get his friend out of jail and back on his medication.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MICHAEL CLAYTON")

TOM WILKINSON: (As Arthur Edens) They killed them, Michael, those small farms - (unintelligible) farms. Did you - did you - did you meet Anna?

GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Michael Clayton) No.

WILKINSON: (As Arthur Edens) Oh, you got to see her. You got to talk to her. She's - she's a miracle, Michael. She's God's perfect little creature. And for $50 million in fees, I've spent 12 percent of my life destroying perfect Anna and her dead parents and her dying brother.

CLOONEY: (As Michael Clayton) When was the last time you took one of these?

WILKINSON: (As Arthur Edens) No. No. No. I'm not losing this. Everything is now finally significant. The world is a beautiful and radiant place. I'm not trading that for this.

CLOONEY: (As Michael Clayton) If it's real, the pill won't kill it.

WILKINSON: (As Arthur Edens) I have blood on my hands.

CLOONEY: (As Michael Clayton) You are the senior litigating partner of one of the largest, most respected law firms in the world. You are a legend.

WILKINSON: (As Arthur Edens) I'm an accomplice.

CLOONEY: (As Michael Clayton) You're a manic-depressive.

WILKINSON: (As Arthur Edens) I am Shiva, the god of death.

SEABROOK: So this fixer, give me some examples of what this fixer does for the clients.

GILROY: Well, first of all, I don't think all law firms have this. It's not that, you know, they take an ad out in The Economist or American Lawyer and say we're looking for this. This is a position that he's really evolved into over the years. I mean, he came he from a - he's father's a cop. And his brother's a cop. And he's sort of the favorite son who went to - became a, you know, an ADA in Queens. And at some point early in his career, he went over to white-shoe law firm and over the last 15 years he's evolved into this position. The kinds of things that he does is - I mean, 3:00, you meet him. At 3 o'clock in the morning, there's a client that's been involved in a hit-and-run accident and he goes out to take care of that. But it's anything from that - if somebody's wife was picked up shoplifting or a mistress that won't move out of somebody's condo. He's the pretty much left with all of the small and large human problems that the clients may have at this firm.

SEABROOK: Damage control for the rich and famous.

GILROY: Yeah. Yeah. And a very debilitating, soul-killing job over time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MICHAEL CLAYTON")

CLOONEY: (As Michael Clayton) Cops like hit-and-runs. They worked him hard to clear fast. Right now, there's a BCI unit pulling paint chips off a guardrail. Tomorrow, they will be looking for the owner of a custom-painted, hand-rubbed Jaguar XJ12. And they got you hit? If you got a look at the plates? I want you to take that along.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGING TELEPHONE)

CLOONEY: (As Michael Clayton) It's a no play here. There's no angle, there's no champagne room. I'm not a miracle worker. I'm a janitor. The math on this is simple - the smaller the mess, the easier it is for me to clean up.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGING TELEPHONE)

Unidentified Man: That's the police, isn't it?

CLOONEY: (As Michael Clayton) No. They don't call.

SEABROOK: And then to this agricultural firm that Michael Clayton's law firm is trying to defend...

GILROY: Mm-hmm.

SEABROOK: It's like in Monsanto. Is that where you got the idea?

GILROY: I've set it in that world. But along the way as I was doing research on this and talking to attorneys, one attorney I took out for a drink started telling me about the concept of a bad document. And I said, what is that? And he said, well, you know, it's a document that hasn't really been put in discovery and should have been put in discovery. And I heard some really - I started pursuing that idea.

SEABROOK: And there is a bad document...

GILROY: There is a very bad document.

SEABROOK: It's almost a character in the movie.

GILROY: It really is. It's a document that says that we have a problem with a product that we've made, and it's going to cost - it's written by an engineer - and it says it's going to cost this much money to go back and fix the problem with the product. And it's going to cost this much money to pay out the potential problems and deaths and injuries that occurred from this. And someone else in a higher pay grade is going to have to decide what that decision should be. And that's a document that in this lawsuit has been never put into discovery.

SEABROOK: When you do a research for a movie like this, it sounds like you are sitting down with, like you said, lawyers and people in corporations and sort of getting a sense of - the kinds of things they talk about. Tell me about that.

GILROY: It's one of the great things about my job. And I've had the chance over the last 20 years to do all kinds of research and become a superficial expert in a whole variety of really interesting things.

SEABROOK: You sound like a journalist.

GILROY: It's very much like it, but it has one huge advantage. It's journalism. Imagine if you could go out and do journalism where you never had to put anybody on the record. In fact...

SEABROOK: Yeah.

GILROY: ...you can't put anybody on the record. So a lot of times - I mean, people really want to talk about what they do. You know that very well. But I can sit down with attorneys, or I can sit down with kidnap-and-ransom companies, or I can sit down with, you know, cops and security people, anybody. You know, you can lie to me. You can give me a composite. Just make sure it feels like the truth to you. Tell me what's going on. And if you're really, really off the record, people will really open up in a way that they should be afraid to speak to journalists.

SEABROOK: So what are those situations where - what if fiction has more fact than the news might have?

GILROY: More access. More freedom.

SEABROOK: You were - you directed this movie as well. You're the first - it's your first time directing something, but you are surrounded by world-class directors. You've got George Clooney. You've got Sydney Pollack. They were both actors in the film. You've got Steven Soderbergh and others who are producers. Did that make you sweat a little?

GILROY: No. That was - it was a huge security blanket. And when Sydney and George showed up to work, they were there as actors and they wanted to be as actors. They're both really, really fine actors, I mean, the last thing they wanted was to be paying attention to anything that was going on. Their benefit and their value was really along the way. I mean, George's value's incredible. I mean, when George - this movie doesn't get made unless you have a movie star who comes in and decides to work for free.

And once George came in, he was just like a bulletproof vest. I mean, he ensures that I don't have to cast anybody I don't want. You know, we pretty much made the film without any adult supervision at all. We sort of - we got to do everything that we want to do. So he protects me. In a practical level, Steven Soderbergh and Sydney and George just went out of their way to make sure that I had all the things that they would always want. It was really - it was an incredible luxury.

SEABROOK: Tony Gilroy is the writer and director of the new film, "Michael Clayton." It opens in select cities this weekend, nationwide next weekend.

Mr. Gilroy, thank you so much for joining us.

GILROY: Thank you for having me.

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'Michael Clayton'

George Clooney and Sydney Pollack. i i

hide captionBurned-out attorney Michael Clayton (George Clooney, left) handles the dirty work for law-firm boss Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack).

Warner Bros. Pictures
George Clooney and Sydney Pollack.

Burned-out attorney Michael Clayton (George Clooney, left) handles the dirty work for law-firm boss Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack).

Warner Bros. Pictures
  • Director: Tony Gilroy
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 119 minutes

In this smoldering corporate thriller, Tony Gilroy — the screenwriter behind the three Bourne films — works a less frenetic, lawyerly variation on that same basic plot line: You know, the one involving a tough character who has an identity crisis about working for the bad guys.

George Clooney plays a fixer for a high-powered law firm who is asked to look after one of the firm's star litigators (a terrific Tom Wilkinson). The older man has stopped taking his medication and gone off the rails, thereby threatening a huge corporate merger. Clayton slowly realizes that the litigator's madness may stem from the case he's investigating — a chemical company's multibillion-dollar environmental settlement — and as the minder's own allegiances shift, he finds himself in danger.

As a corporations-are-scum morality tale, the film is hardly unorthodox, but it's uncommonly smart in its writing, and sharply acted by its principals — including Tilda Swinton as a corporate counsel who's professionally chilly, but made to sweat plenty by Clayton's discoveries. Gilroy's direction is crisp, unhurried, and except for a couple of dead ends in the script — the title character's family story doesn't go anywhere — as taut and controlled as the performance of his leading man, who's likely to be remembered come awards time.

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