'Hattitude' Adjustment: George Nolfi makes directing bow with cosmic Matt Damon thriller
Matt Damon in a state of agitated perpetual motion, dodging determined foes against backdrops that are always shifting into other backdrops—it could only be The Bourne Inception, right? In spirit and special effects, yes—but otherwise Damon’s latest escapade (debuting on March 4 from Universal Pictures) goes under the title of The Adjustment Bureau and his erstwhile Jason Bourne is now David Norris, a politico riding the choppy course of true love.
George Nolfi, Bureau chief and first-time director, warms quickly to the Inception allusion. “It got a little complicated on the rules, but it was a fascinating movie,” he allows. “Plus, it’s really important to me, as a filmmaker, that there be a space for films that are really pushing the envelope. Christopher Nolan does it in every film he does. I should be so lucky as to have any kind of career that Chris Nolan has, but, personally, I’m definitely interested in films that don’t just fit into the cookie-cutter.”
To maintain this eccentric cutting edge, Nolfi raided the vaults of legendary sci-fi author Philip K. Dick and found a slender tome to inflate to feature-length size. “I don’t know the page count off the top of my head, but it’s no longer than 15 pages,” which left him with lots of room for invention. Lots. In fact: “None of the characters in the short story were transferred into the movies. Our characters are all invented.” Even the story’s title was adjusted from Adjustment Team to The Adjustment Bureau.
What, then, did he take to justify the Philip K. Dick claim? Basically, an idea: the personification of Fate, which here takes the physical form of an armada of Stepford suits, led by “Mad Men”’s John Slattery, setting the dress code (hat, ties and gray-flannel formality). And their sole purpose on this planet appears to be to keep our hero apart from the love of his life, ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), whom he stumbles across in a men’s room (talk about meeting cute, if not looking for love in all the wrong places). As suddenly as love, the chase to a happy ending is on.
“Thinking of these crazy ways of looking at the world and bending the rules of the universe that you take for granted—that’s what his genius was,” opts the adapter-director of his source, whose far-out fantasies have served cinema well in the past (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall). “I’m a fan of Philip K. Dick, but I’m not a science-fiction expert in any way, shape or form. My producing partner, Michael Hackett, knows more about science-fiction—the literature, history, everything—and he had always liked this story since he was a kid. He brought it to my attention and said, ‘It’s kind of a dystopian thriller as the short story, but what if you did it as a love story where Fate stood in the way of this guy being with the woman he loves?’
“Right off I knew, ‘That’s a script I definitely want to write.’ It felt like something that was fresh enough and original enough—at least in the way I was conceiving it in my head—that it might be a good thing to take a shot at as a first-time director.”
Nolfi didn’t make it easy on himself by tricking up the mad chases about Manhattan. Characters will bolt through one door in a dark alley and come out at the Statue of Liberty. “The conceit of the doors—I don’t have a count in my head, but it’s obviously something like a dozen plus, and anytime you do that, you’ve got a location on one side and a location on the other—so that’s 24 locations right there.
“We did them all in different ways, and that was, by design, for two reasons. The first aspect of the design was a storytelling design. I wanted to slowly reveal that the guys in the hats had powers and ways of traveling and getting places that were not quite adding up—they were not following the laws of physics—so when John Slattery and his partner walk out of the headquarters building, basically on a direct cut, and into a restaurant that’s in the middle of Central Park, your mind doesn’t necessarily go, ‘Whoa! That’s an impossible cut.’ But you know there’s something wrong there.
“The second aspect of the design was to deal with practical problems. There were locations where you couldn’t put something physically on the other side, so you actually couldn’t have a green screen there. You must do a different visual-effects process or you have to do it practically. There were times where we built things. I wanted to save moving the camera through doors to up the stakes later in the film.
“Yeah, it was biting off a lot for the first time. We have 85 or 90 locations, almost all of them within the New York City limits, and I had 70 days to shoot. That meant moving my crew in the middle of New York City on multiple occasions—filming something in the morning, moving before or after lunch, then filming something in a different location in the afternoon. The logistics of that are incredibly difficult and expensive. To block off huge avenues and national landmarks becomes a very challenging thing for the A.D. department and a very challenging thing for the line producer. Then, from the standpoint of the director and D.P. and actors, you gotta be on your game if you’re going to walk out into the middle of the street and do a scene—often with the public 20 or 30 feet away. You have to let people walk. We filmed it guerrilla-style a lot. We ‘let the crowds live’—that’s what the A.D. said.”
Believe it or not, all this manic running around is the brainstorm of an academic who came to filmmaking after getting a PhD in political science and doing graduate work in philosophy. “I was sort of heading on that track,” Nolfi recalls, “but in my spare time I wrote a script on spec because I was very interested in Hollywood, and it sold in ’95. The reason I wrote, as opposed to going to film school, was that I was already involved in academia full-time. My kind of interest in film was in the finished product. How do you get up on screen a vision of something that’s interesting and satisfying and allows you to explore themes? I explored lots of timeless philosophical questions in this fictional context, so I guess what I thought I always wanted to do was be a filmmaker—and the way into that, given that I was a full-time graduate student, was to write. Once you have some success as a writer, Hollywood tends to want you to just keep writing, but I’ve known from early on I’d like to, at one point, write a script I’d be able to get set up to direct. That was in me long before I sold a script—the thought that I want to take whatever I write and turn it into a movie.”
The spec script that turned the trick was a caper comedy involving two thieves called Honor Among Thieves, which, with a little adjustment and addition, became 2004’s Ocean’s Twelve and gave off all the sounds of a sequel to 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven. “We took just the basic idea of the script that I wrote and said, ‘How can we map that onto the Ocean’s world?’ We were trying to do a lot of other things, too, but the Ocean’s script is extremely different from the script that I used as a leaping-off point. And then, for various reasons, we did a lot of revising on set.”
By comparison, Nolfi found making his directing debut with a complicated, big-budget location film was “less tense than writing on set where you have to figure something out for the next day sometimes, or sometimes for the next hour, or sometimes for the next one minute. I find that to be very, very stressful.”
Of course, this didn’t keep him from signing up for the sequels to The Bourne Identity and more of the same. “I did a little bit of work on The Bourne Supremacy—one scene, the last one in the movie—and then I worked on The Bourne Ultimatum for most of the shooting and all of the reshoots.”
Other than ulcer-producing angst, the one constant of those three films was actor Damon, who observed how well Nolfi kept rising to the occasion and deduced there was a director lurking inside of the writer. “It was a baptism by fire, because those situations were stressful. Seeing me in that situation gave him confidence that I could handle directing. When you write something and you think about it a long time, you have a sense of tone and vision you wouldn’t necessarily have if someone just handed you a script and said, ‘Meet on the floor, directing, in eight weeks.’
“The Adjustment Bureau wouldn’t have happened without Matt saying, ‘Yes, I will do it with this guy.’ Matt’s view is very strongly backing the director. Once he takes the leap, he’s all behind the director. He’ll fight or argue for things about his character, but he believes it’s the director’s movie. It would never get made without that—and, also, it made the process easier for me because I had the confidence of my star. He was behind me 100% from the beginning, getting the movie made, and on set that created a tone that was invaluable in terms of making the movie I had in my head.”
Nolfi feels he has emerged from the flames of his film debut unscathed, unscarred and uncompromised. “It’s hard for me to believe that. I didn’t think, going into this, that I’d be able to say this after, but the movie you watch is, to the best of my ability, the movie I wanted to make.”
It certainly makes him want to go back for directorial seconds—“and, almost certainly, with something that I wrote. I want to find another situation where I’m blessed enough to have the freedom to do something that’s not the standard movie and still get the backing I did. In this case, Matt and MRC [Media Rights Capital] and Universal let me make the movie that I wanted to make, and that’s a very hard thing to do nowadays…”