Roman J. Israel, Esq. made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, and it’s okay. Despite another outstanding performance from Denzel Washington, the plot meanders and lacks immediacy. Apparently, Washington and writer-director Dan Gilroy were able to read the room and see that the film wasn’t landing quite the way they had hoped, so they’ve recut the movie a bit.
According to Deadline, “They dropped a dozen minutes from the running time, moved up a key scene, dropped another, and radically changed the musical backdrop.” I’m not sure how much this could help the movie, but it’s enough to pique my curiosity. In a statement to Deadline, Gilroy says:
“The first time we actually showed the film to a real audience was in Toronto,” Gilroy said. “We went right from the cutting room to the Ryerson Theatre. We wanted to make that festival but realized, watching with that crowd, that Denzel so inhabits and embodies his character that we could lean much more into the plot than we had. We re-conceived the balance of the movie, in crucial sections. The day after Toronto, Denzel and I went back into the cutting room and spent weeks making changes. Not just to the pacing. We reordered scenes, we changed elements, particularly with Colin’s character.”
[You may want to come back to this article after you see the movie since it gets a bit spoilery on what changes were made]
The biggest change in terms of reordering the film is in moving a scene between Israel and a polished, callous lawyer undergoing a moral awakening, played by Colin Farrell:
One major change: a scene where Farrell’s lawyer character takes Israel to a Lakers game, and drops his polished veneer to express a longing to embrace his former teacher’s morality lessons. He wants to become a different lawyer and sees the teacher’s partner, Roman J. Israel, Esq., as the linchpin for that ambition. This happens after Israel has gotten himself in serious trouble with dangerous criminals, in pursuit of the material trappings he avoided his whole life.
“That Staples Center scene is crucial not just for Colin’s character but in establishing the tone of the movie, and at Toronto it came near the end, at a point where the suspense part of the story is in such high gear that you can’t even register what Colin is saying and what it means to Roman,” Gilroy said. “We put it much earlier where it becomes more of a pillar for the film. And by doing that, we also then cut out one of the subplots which established the same kind of internal conflict in Roman.”
As for Washington’s involvement, he helped tweak the movie’s music and score:
Washington, who was able to throw himself into the editing process before starting on The Equalizer sequel, guided the changes in the music cues, including the soul and jazz music his character listens to in a small apartment that is chocked with LPs (the first record Roman puts on his turntable now is a jazz song by saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, chosen by Washington). Washington and Gilroy also nuanced the James Newton Howard score and where the music played in scenes.
It will be interesting to see how much these changes alter the film and if they turn it into a better overall picture or if it’s just cosmetic.
Roman J. Israel, Esq opens in limited release on November 10th before going wide over the Thanksgiving holiday.