Opening next weekend is writer-director George Nolfi’s romance/thriller The Adjustment Bureau. Based on the short story Adjustment Team by Philip K. Dick, the film centers on the apparently forbidden relationship between politician David Norris (Matt Damon) and Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). As the story goes, the two are kept apart by a mysterious team of adjusters who claim it’s in everyone’s best interest if they go their separate ways. Playing members of the Adjustment Bureau are Terence Stamp, John Slattery and Anthony Mackie. For more on the film, here are 7 clips.
Anyhow, I recently got to do a phone interview with Nolfi and we talked about what it was like to make his first feature, getting his cast, working with the studio, the test screening process, balancing the love story in a sci-fi setting, working with cinematographer John Toll, and a lot more. Hit the jump to either read or listen to the interview:
If you’d like to listen to our conversation, you can click here for the audio. Otherwise the transcript is below.
Finally, while this was Nolfi’s first feature, I thought he did a fantastic job and am sure that he’ll be behind the camera again. I was very impressed with how he balanced the love story and the sci-fi. Definitely recommended.
Collider: Are you enjoying doing your first big press junket?
George Nolfi: It’s daunting. The whole 4 minutes on camera followed by another 4 minutes and another 4 minutes It’s a new experience for me, but I want to get the message out. I like the movie and I think the audience will like it.
I thought the movie was great and really enjoyed it. I discovered that you wrote the screenplay with Matt Damon in mind.
Nolfi: Totally. Yeah.
How did knowing who you wanted to cast in a role influence you while writing the character?
Nolfi: Well, it’s not something where I can take you step by step. It’s kind of like if you know a person then you know what their voice sounds like. You know the interests that they have. I’ve had a lot of political discussions with Matt. So, I knew that politics would be something that interested him. I actually had an earlier version of the script where he was more of an everyday businessman kind of guy. We talked about that and I was like, “How about a politician? That would be an interesting thing for you to play and we are both interested in it.” So it’s that kind of thing. If you know somebody’s interests and you know their voice – it just comes out.
Nolfi: I had a huge advantage in that I had a script already written, Matt had signed up, and we had gone to MRC, who had agreed to fund the movie. So it was a greenlit movie and we were going around to studios to sell the greenlit movie. It was a very unusual situation. In terms of MRC, they kind of came after me. There was a woman there who sort of came after me and met with me a few times. She told her boss, “Hey, I really think this guy can do it.” So it was a very informal kind of thing. Then, they got the script and said, “We want to fund it, even though you are directing.” Obviously, a huge part of that is having Matt’s blessing and him telling people, “I believe in this guy. He is going to make a good movie.”
That’s a very nice ace in the hole.
Nolfi: Yeah, but it’s not always a guarantee. It is far from a guarantee. I just think that my studio partners, MRC and Universal, showed incredible courage in backing this movie and backing me so completely, and backing my vision for it so completely. There was absolutely zero inference during the making of the movie with what I was shooting. They let me cut the movie and then they had comments that were really quite minimal. Then, there was sort of an easy discussion. There is nothing in the movie that feels like a compromise. There are things that make me go. “Oh, I wish I did a better job on that.” of course. But there is nothing in the movie that is me compromising with the studio, and that is really rare in Hollywood for a movie of any size and scope. For somebody that has never directed before to get that ability to make something really your own is just amazing. People talk about how studios are so risk averse and I’ve seen the opposite.
Could you talk about the test screening process? Did you do any test screenings and did the audiences that you showed it to actually have positive notes that might have lead you into changing something?
Nolfi: We did very few. We only did one real test screening after I had all of the footage I wanted. One of the things that Matt and I talked about when we were talking about how to physically produce the film was how the movies we had worked on had been greatly affected by reshoots. Just about every director I talked to said, “Make sure you save money for reshoots.” Because you need to edit the movie together, put music to it, and then you realize that you need a little bit more of a scene, or change the location of a scene. So I saved about almost ten percent of my shooting budget for reshoots. I knew what I wanted to do and I had them all written. Matt was doing True Grit and had long hair so I couldn’t cut his hair to do my reshoots. So we did one screening with an incomplete movie basically and the audience, thankfully, reacted to the things I wanted to. It wasn’t even reshoots – it was additional footage and scenes mostly. Then, when we did the second screening, we were really content with the score and what people thought about it. So we really didn’t have to do much. They wanted some changes in the music, but we had not had the time do the music at that point. We had a temp score. So, that is a no brainer. But, in general, I think audiences are collectively very smart. I always read every card in a test screening. I have in movies I have written too just to see, you know?
How close is the final film compared to what you originally had envisioned in your head while writing it?
Naolfi: I would say that the tone, the unique blending of genres, and the ideas were very similar to what I envisioned. I don’t think of the initial scenes that I write as permanent things so some of those changed. But even if I’m writing, writing to direct, or if somebody hands me a script for my next one that I do direct – the scenes are there in a particular time and place. Then, you go and actualize them by finding a location, actors, and by having the actors read the lines. Then, you make adjustments – no pun intended – to make them better. The thing that I think a director has to have in order to make a movie really work, and to certainly make a film that feels personal, which I hope this one does, is that you have to have a sense of the feeling that you want to create in people, the tone which you want to tell the story, and the basic themes you want to come out. You can’t compromise on those because you are then not making the movie that you are going to be good at telling. Does that make sense?
It does. One of the things that I was very impressed by was what you were able to do with the film in how you were able to tell a love story within a movie that has science fiction elements, which is, to be honest, really hard to do. I don’t see many good films that mix those two things together. Can you talk about how you were able to find that balance?
Naolfi: You put your finger on the greatest challenge that I had as a writer, and that challenge carried over into the movie itself as a director. Yeah, most science fiction movies are pretty dark and heady. They are much more male in terms of their appeal, but it’s a trick. I’m sure there will be some people in the sort of harder sci-fi world that will are like, “Why didn’t you do something closer to the Phillip K. Dick story?” But, you know, he is a great author whose work can be interpreted in many different ways or used as jumping off point for many different tones I think. You know, it really boils down to something that there is no plan for. It is just in your brain. I wanted the story to be very realistically grounded because the premise was going to be very fantastical. I wanted the sci-fi elements to be just a tinge of sci-fi as opposed to showing lots of equipment, which is more of a harder sci-fi thing. I wanted a lot of things to be hinted at, you know? I basically tried to create a real world feeling in the visuals, the actors I chose, the kind of performances that I try to draw out of them, in the dialogue, in the way that other people behave in the streets to things, and in the construction of the doors. The doors were not in the short story. It was like, “How do I do those in a way that sort of makes sense? In a way that all of us haven’t seen them?”, and I hope it worked. But you’re absolutely right – it was a huge challenge.
I was thinking about my sister. To bring her into this, she doesn’t really like sci-fi movies, but she loves romance and love stories. So I really think that this is something that can appeal to more woman than typical sci-fi.
George Naolfi: Yeah, absolutely. But I don’t think it will alienate the sci-fi crowd at all. There will always be some that will wish that it was done differently, but I feel that there is enough there. It’s a fun movie with a great premise and hopefully with a lot of action, and men will enjoy that. For me, personally, I don’t want to watch a sappy love story. I need those other elements.
We are on the exact same page. This is your first time behind the camera and you’ve made a great film. Have enough people seen the movie where you are already taking meetings and talking about other stuff? Or is it still so early that you have to wait until it comes out?
Naolfi: I have not asked to meet with, talk to, or hear anything from anybody else until this movie is properly handled all the way to release. But people who are seeing it…hopefully I will be able to direct again. It was a lot of fun.
Often times I speak to screenwriters who have a bunch of scripts in their desk that they have sort of been waiting for the right time. Do you have one of those scripts that have been sitting in your desk that you wrote and that you have just been waiting for the right person to get financing on?
Naolfi: I don’t have anything that I feel that based on the form that I put it on the shelf is perfect to be made. But I have some things that are very strong beginnings or are worth a rewrite that I think I would be interested in doing, but I don’t know. I’ll see once this movie is out and depending on how it does, and how critics receive it, and so on. People will send me stuff, and maybe that is what I will do next, or maybe I will do something on my own. I just want to be able to make a movie that takes some chances like this one does. I don’t just want to do something that is purely stuck in a genre box. I would like to have the kind of autonomy that I was so lucky to have on this one.
Naolfi: I wish I had a good answer for that. I think it’s actually just chance. I mean, I didn’t know anything about Black Swan when I decided that the lead character should be a ballet dancer. I mean, she’s a very different type of ballet dancer. She is a contemporary ballet dancer. She really is a contemporary dancer with a lot of ballet training. You know, I don’t know. For me, it was about how Matt’s character in the movie is constrained. His true nature that makes him get into a bar fight when he is elected to congress when he is 24 and does the thing that he does which loses him the senate election. That is who he really is. He is a guy who is…the bindings that the adjustment bureau are putting on him to try to turn him into the perfect politician he has to break out of because he is much more of an instinctual kind of character. So I wanted a character in the woman that he was going to fall in love with to be a much more free form unbounded person. There is something about dance that is actually a great tension. There is something that is incredibly freeing about dancing for dancers who do it. They tend to be really arty and interesting people in real life. At the same time, they have this incredibly rigorous training schedule. So it just sort of embodied the themes of the movie for me. It gave me a counterpoint for Matt’s character that was going to be really interesting.
Could you talk a little bit about working with your cinematographer, John Toll? Could you talk about how you guys came up with your shot selection? Was a lot of it storyboarded in advance or did you guys find your shots on set?
Naolfi: We did a fair amount of storyboarding and we ended up very often changing the storyboarding. There were some particularly big visual shots that I just had in my head all along that I wanted to do like what we call the Escher loop, or the Escher staircase, or the way to handle the door shots that sort of become progressively like you are with the character as they move through the door. Those were all things that I had. But when you are on the street, in the middle of 6th avenue, you got a certain amount of time, and the weather conditions are a certain thing – you sit with your DP and go, “Well, what we basically want here…” I came with a visual plan, which was when the adjustment bureau was in total control we would do much more formal, composed, beautiful shots. If the camera were to move, it would move on a dolly or a crane with very smooth movements. When the adjustment bureau had lost control, and when it was human being’s impulses that were in control, the camera would move in a much more hand held manner. We wouldn’t pay attention to the shots being perfectly composed and stuff like that. We would always ask ourselves and come back to that on a day when we were reacting to weather or traffic conditions. Thankfully, John has done this for a very long time and the combination of me sort of knowing what I wanted the scene to feel like and how I wanted the visuals to tell the story if you were to turn the sound off. John is a great and artistic guy and has an ability to be really practical with what we found on the day. It was a pretty seamless relationship. It was great.