Interview: The Adjustment Bureau director George Nolfi
If all had gone according to THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU's original plan, we'd probably now be talking about the film coming to DVD and Blu-ray. Last summer, Universal pushed back the release date from a mid-September date to today, March 4th. Those who read too much into these sort of things theorized that meant bad things for the latest Matt Damon film.
But if fate was determined to keep us apart, writer/director George Nolfi was just as determined to bring us a really good movie. He used his time to fix aspects of the film he was unhappy with. He wound up being extremely successful and defying the "release date shift" conspiracy theorists (our Chris Bumbray called it "a damn fine film" in his review).
I got a chance to speak with Nolfi about the film's delays, shooting in New York and the winning chemistry between Damon and Emily Blunt that is the key to the film's success.
How does it feel to finally have your film released after some pretty substantial delays?
It's exciting. I'm really happy with it so I hope others agree. It's definitely great to be able to premiere it in the city we filmed it in.
Speaking of New York, a lot of movies get New York City wrong, but your movie got the geography down to a tee. Was that a conscious effort or did it come about naturally?
It's actually a minor obsession of mine to get geography as right as you can possibly get it. Obviously sometimes there are extreme constraints about where you can shoot but I definitely tried. When David and Elise are walking up through the City after he runs into her in Soho or the border of Soho and Chinatown, they at least walk up in a northerly way towards the park. Even though the Central Park scene wasn't really Central Park because of production constraints. That really matters to me. I want people from the place it was filmed in to be able to experience it in that way. A lot of people know New York geography even if they're not from here.
When they ride the bus together, it feels like the length of the bus ride.
I walked that path down Broadway and we filmed that greenscreen for various reason but I think the visual effects people who put that together did a phenomenal job. I could barely tell. I showed it to some experts and even they were like, "How did they do that and keep the light consistent?" But that whole Madison Square Park area I thought was underfilmed or hardly ever filmed and I love that area and it was definitely in my head to see whether we could, by editorial trims or by the way I originally wrote the dialogue, I wanted it to go from Madison Square Park to Union Square, would it fit? If you put one stop in there for the bus, it sorta fits.
Delays in Hollywood are nothing new, that said, when you found out the movie was getting pushed back, what was your immediate reaction?
Since I was involved in pushing it back (laughs), I was happy. It was more that the initial date the studio gave me I couldn't hit because I saved about 8-9% of my original production budget to do additional footage and reshoots. For example, I filmed the initial Statue of Liberty scene on greenscreen and I was not overjoyed with it because I was so concerned with the movie having an utterly realistic feel to ground the fantastical nature of the premise. I wanted to go back and film that on Liberty Island. That was an enormous constraint when I was originally filming because we just didn't know if we could do it. I had a set budget and I absolutely had to stay within that budget. We just weren't sure we had the money to do it for real. It basically eats up a whole day to put people on an island. That was something I wanted to reshoot and shoot on the top of The Rock, which was difficult to do in November. The days are short and you have the high winds... That was another thing I wanted to reshoot. I just couldn't get the film out by the original release date. Studios have reasons to put movies out at certain times have more to do with marketing. The alternative date after Matt was filming TRUE GRIT and HEREAFTER so the thought was to let me get the additional footage in. Matt had long hair for TRUE GRIT so there was no way to do it earlier, so we had to wait for him to cut his hair and get back into the look of THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU. I wish the initial date had just never been set because nobody would've read into it then. When you see the movie though, you'll realize it had nothing to do with anything other than the constraints of releasing and getting our additional footage.
My producers, the studio and Matt and I all knew there would be that reaction from some people, especially people who follow the details on how movies are released, like, "Oh where did they go wrong?" And there's no question that some of the time when a movie gets pushed, it happens because they're trying to fix things. And usually they can't fix them. It's also true that most movies don't work because it's hard to make a good movie. The next time I try, I might not succeed. But I'm really happy with this movie.
A good portion of the success of this movie hinges on the chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt and the audience believing these two are soul mates but how can you be sure that the pairing will work before you start filming?
When you have a movie that depends on a guy deciding to go against a higher power to be with a woman, you better believe it. Any movie where the love story is important is really essential. As to how you get chemistry, you cast for it and then you give it the space to live within the actual production and then you edit the scenes together. As to how you know it when you see it, I think you would've known it too if you watched the screentest.
I was looking for a professional ballerina and I couldn't find anyone that I thought fit perfectly with what I needed. Whether it be relating to Matt or their acting ability, I just couldn't find it. Emily came to me late in the process and she wanted to get a meeting. I finally was like, "I don't think she can dance but she's a really talented actress and she really wants to do this part." So we met her and she said, "I can't dance at all, I've never danced in my life...but it's my job as an actress to do everything I can to learn about dance and get in shape in the amount of time that I have and I will work incredibly hard for you." And she came in, which she didn't have to do and hasn't done for years, and that was a real testament to me that she really wanted the part and how she would really work for the role. All I can say is, 10-15 seconds into the reading of the first scene they did together, I was like, "OK, these two people together, have it." You see it and you think that all you need to do is bottle it. And that's creating the space on the set for it to grow and evolve and come to fruition every time they're together. That meant rehearsing scenes, seeing what comes out of it, seeing if you can make changes to make it sound more natural between them and then you get in the editing room and say, "This piece is great and this piece is great," and you put it all together. And that's the magic of great acting.
Did you allow them to go off-script? Are you as a director comfortable enough with yourself as a writer to let them explore that?
Absolutely. I think that's essential. Even when I was writing for other directors, I always said, "It's something like this and let's see what you come up with on set." The set is a different place than a coffee shop or hotel room where you wrote the dialogue. You're asking of your actors to inhabit these roles and become these characters and then come to me and say, "This line feels forced," or say, "This feels a little long, what if I just say this?" and great, we cut out four lines because we're always looking to cut things out for poetic compression. It's the same thing as your DP coming to you and saying, "We talked about this scene being really beautiful but if we shoot it in the direction you were initially thinking, the sun is going to move and it's going to get ugly in the second half of the day." What I want is the scene to be beautiful no matter what. So it's just about creating that together and getting the maximum amount for the film.
Do you consider yourself a religious person? The movie is not overtly religious but it does have some undertones and themes.
I want the movie to speak for itself on that level. What I will say is that I don't think the movie is overtly religious and shouldn't be thought of as one. It can be viewed through a theological perspective but it can also be viewed in a completely metaphorical way. I think everyone in the world has the experience of their desires and goals being thwarted by an outside force. Or it can just be a sci-fi movie. I really want people to someone who is religious to look at it from their perspective and say, "OK, my religious deals with these fundamental questions with how determined your life is" and I want someone who is just interested philosophically in the questions to be able to look at it too and the total atheist who just loves sci-fi to enjoy it too. I don't want it to be viewed through my particular perspective.
It's easy to watch a movie and theorize what happened to the character after the movie ends and while watching it, I thought that as David and Elise were given free will at the end, that could almost be perceived as being negative, given that humans are inherently flawed. Under their own free will, they could doom their own relationship. Did you ever think about the future of these characters? Do you see them spending the rest of their lives together?
I don't think they'll have a perfect relationship because nobody does but I think in my mind, they probably stay together. The question is, does she pursue his dancing to her fullest and does he pursue his politics to the fullest and I don't think there's an answer to that. But in my gut, they stay together, yeah.