Director George Nolfi talks The Adjustment Bureau, showing a different side to New York City, making this Philip K. Dick story his directorial debut, and more.
Like most screenwriters, George Nolfi had always wanted to direct. He wrote four movies - Timeline, Ocean's Twelve, The Sentinel, and The Bourne Ultimatum - before getting his shot at the helm. Unlike most directors, George Nolfi landed an extremely ambitious project for his directing debut in The Adjustment Bureau, which will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on June 21.
I was curious about how you first came across this Philip K. Dick short story, and when you decided to adapt it?
George Nolfi: Sure. Michael Hackett, a producer on the film and a good friend of mine, pitched the story to me, and the notion of fate personified was really fascinating and hadn't been done before. I thought, here's something that people wouldn't expect from me, necessarily, and something that blends genres in an interesting way, which I always like to do. I just made a connection to it. I optioned the short story, and kept it under option for years while I was getting involved with other projects.
TSince this is a short story and not a full novel adaptation, is that more freeing for you, because you're not really tied down to a very long story?
George Nolfi: Well, it certainly gives you more freedom, if nothing else, because there's not much there. I just go where the interesting ideas are. If I were able to find a book I liked, I would use a lot more of the book. In this case, there was an idea that I loved, and then the idea from my producer about the love story, which I also loved, and then there was just a lot of breaking rocks to figure out how that all works. It would be tough to call that enjoyable, because it's painful breaking a story, but it's also invigorating.
Most of Philip K. Dick's movies are set in these neo-futuristic worlds. What I really liked about this movie is it really felt grounded and modern, like this could actually happen. Can you talk about that balance of keeping this grounded while keeping the sci-fi elements intact?
George Nolfi: Well, first of all, there are so many Philip K. Dick stories out there, and most of them are set in this dystopic future world, which is tech-heavy, so on and so forth. I thought, that has been done before, so what can I do different in that regard? Secondly, I think it's just a part of my personality, that any story you give me, I tend towards wanting to do the naturalistic or authentic to real world version of it. That's just something that comes out of me. I don't know what else to say about that. Once you have that impulse, you just run it through the whole movie. It's like, how do I not give them technology if I want to say they exist in our world? They need to be dressed like us, no crazy suits, and things like that.
The cast is wonderful here, with everyone from Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, to Michael Kelly and John Slattery. Can you take us inside the casting process for these roles?
George Nolfi: Sure. Matt was very early, obviously. I sent him an early draft of the script, and then John Slattery was next. I knew him peripherally, and ran into him at a coffee shop. I told him there was this script I was trying to get off the ground and I would like to practice directing, if he had a day. He said yes and came in and I did a little practice scene where he actually played the Thompson part, which was fucking awesome. I loved him as an actor anyway, but just getting to work with him and seeing what he can do, and how he could change his performance. He had worked all night before on his TV show and he still just came in and nailed it. I definitely wanted to use him, but the Thompson role is definitely smaller than the Richardson role, and Richardson is kind of the face of the Bureau so I offered him the bigger role. I think Terence Stamp was next, and that was just looking for the heavy who could go against Slattery. With Emily, I was looking for a dancer, and I couldn't find a dancer who meshed well with Matt and had the total acting chops. Emily read the script and she really liked it. We tested her with Matt and she was fantastic. Michael Kelly, I went to New York and he came in and just kicked ass in the reading. It was really great to have him in the film.
Can you talk about the nature of shooting in New York? This film shows us another side to New York that I haven't seen in awhile. Can you talk about the things you wanted to rbing out when you were shooting there?
George Nolfi: Well, I had this notion that if The Adjustment Bureau were really in control of the world, it would be beautiful and clean and perfect, visually and more quiet. More like you're stepping into The Vatican or something. I wanted to use all these amazing buildings in the city which were mostly built between 1900 and 1940, that have these big classical proportions. That was part of it and then I wanted to be out on the streets and make you feel like you were really there, and not just highlighting monuments, or moments where one monument is prominently featured. I love New York. I live there part-time and I go there enough that I just love and appreciate the city, a little bit from an insider's eye, and a little bit from an outsider's eye. I really wanted to show as much of it as I could in this contrast, the most beautiful with the most chaotic.
This is a very ambitious project for a feature directorial debut. Can you talk about the things which were easier or harder than you originally thought they were?
George Nolfi: I have been on a lot of sets before, and I have watched the four movies that I'm credited as a writer on, shot almost in their entirety. The concept of doors just involve so many locations, and we had to move the crew around a lot. We'd shoot something in the morning, then have lunch, pack up the trucks, move across town, unpack the trucks and set up and shoot in the afternoon and early evening. That was very trying because of traffic and the difficulty in navigating around the city. The city was incredibly helpful, but it's a very busy, crowed, city, and to move a crew of 150 or 200 people, is really difficult and it cut my shooting hours down massively. It was like, 'I've really got to be on my game when we get set up here.' Instead of having four and a half hours to do something, I would only have two because we have to move in the middle of the day.
I read about the original ending which was scripted and shot, but you didn't end up using. I don't believe this ending is on the Blu-ray or DVD. Can you talk about the decision behind that? Did you test that ending and it didn't test well?
George Nolfi: Sure. When I was writing the script initially, there are really three ways to end the movie. They meet the Chairman, or this higher power or whatever, which I hadn't really seen done in a non-comedic way before, or they elude to the chairman, and it's left open because none of us have met a higher power. Then the third option was sort of they get ripped apart and then maybe they meet again. That's kind of the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ending or Heaven Can Wait. I thought that the one that hasn't been done at all, in this context, was meeting the Chairman, so let me try that. I knew it was risky. When I was filming it, it was late and everybody was tired and I was watching the scene unfold and I thought it just didn't work. I went to my line producer and said I think we'll be shooting this in a way where they don't meet the Chairman. There was really no question, from me, from that night on. There was a pretty strong agreement that we didn't want to meet the chairman, so that was that.
Is there anything you're currently writing now that you can talk about?
George Nolfi: I am working on a few scripts that aren't done yet, and because they're not done yet, I don't really want to talk about them. They are more genre-driven. Obviously, The Adjustment Bureau blends a lot of genres, and your audience needs to find their way in the film and they have to establish a unique tone. I want to try something different with the next one, where the audience knows what this film is, but then elevating it as much as possible. It will either something which is an action thriller or an action-comedy.
What would you like to say to anyone who didn't get a chance to see The Adjustment Bureau in theaters, about why they should pick up the Blu-ray or DVD this week?
George Nolfi: Well, I think it's a really different and unique film. If you like sci-fi stuff with a romantic through-line, I think the film has a lot of rewards. You'll definitely see something you haven't seen before.
Great. Well, thank you so much for your time, and best of luck with your new scripts.
George Nolfi: Thank you very much. Take care, and thank you for writing about the film.