In one New York high-rise, Howard Tully, CEO of consumer-products giant Burkett & Randle, is briefing his competitive intelligence unit about a top-secret breakthrough: "Why are we here? Because it's no longer enough to have the best ideas or the best manufacturing or the best pipeline to deliver your product. We're here today because we find ourselves in a world where Duplicity and theft are tested daily as replacements for innovation and perseverance."
At that same moment, in another high-rise nearby, Dick Garsik, the CEO of rival Equikrom, is reading aloud from a stolen copy of Tully's speech. "You believe this?" he scoffs. "This from the guy who bought a dump so he could go through our garbage."
This dark, funny scene is from Duplicity, Tony Gilroy's latest exposé of the inner workings of the corporate world. Although the writer-director works in fiction, his films exude the gritty authenticity of investigative journalism. In Michael Clayton, which garnered 11 Oscar nominations (and one win) last year, George Clooney plays a morally ambiguous fixer for a major law firm that is defending a chemical company trying to cover up the fact that its fertilizer causes cancer. Duplicity, a romantic thriller that opens this spring, features rival consumer-products companies going to incredible — yet true, Gilroy insists — lengths to protect an innovation and prevent a leak, or, failing that, to steal the other's product.
Fast Company visited Gilroy in his office in the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan, where he and his team edited the film.
FC: Several of your movies explore the corporate world: Proof of Life, Michael Clayton, and now Duplicity. What intrigues you about business?
I don't think of it as business. It just seems contemporary. I like work. I'm intrigued by what people do. The way they do their job. The way they think about their job. There's a lot of meat on that bone for a dramatist. Those things help inform a character. If I were writing a Western, I'd ask, How does a gunfighter care for his weapons? Those are the tools of his trade. That tells me a lot about my gunfighter.
But you return to the drama of organizations trying to win, often at all costs. What interests you about that conflict?
These companies are kingdoms now. This is what passes for village life, isn't it? People go to the office and they're very involved in what they do. Like that building across the street. I don't even know what company it is, but I'll watch the people at work from my desk. These kingdoms have a public and a private face.
You show what's usually private, how people bend the rules. Is a certain corruption inevitable?
You have incredible imagination and incredible money and innovation, but in the end, human beings ruin it.That's always interesting to me.
How did you get interested in corporate espionage?
I've done a lot of spy movies, law enforcement, and military-intelligence things, and I've built up contacts in the intelligence community. Most of the spies in my address book have gone private. I watched them set up companies or join ones, and make more money than they ever thought they would make. You'd see them two years later, and they'd have their teeth done, a new suit, a new wife. So I thought there was something fresh there for a movie. Nobody had done it. It was surprising that it was so untouched.
You don't hear much about this, especially from companies.
There's no upside for the victim or the victor to talk about it. You're not going to see a press release saying, "Hey, our $60 million idea just got ripped off." Most of this remains unreported. But when I was working on the script a few years ago, there was an espionage war between Procter & Gamble and Unilever that got out. [P&G settled out of court over allegations of trash sifting and other spying.]
When you're doing research and talking to insiders, are they more open because you're creating a work of fiction?
It's a huge advantage. For Proof of Life, [director] Taylor Hackford and I contacted Control Risks, a company in London that journalists have been trying to get in for years. We called up and said, "Hey, we're doing this movie about kidnapping and ransom, and we want to talk to you. We're not doing the real story. We don't want to use your name. But you're the experts, and we want to make sure we get it right." We went right upstairs to the managing director.
Your movies are fiction but based on facts — is that it?
I have a chance to get at the essential truth. I can show what's going on without being tethered to the facts.
One of the CEOs in Duplicity says that companies are focused on stealing ideas rather than innovating. How much does this actually go on?
That's the character's worldview. He's addressing the military wing of his company and making a Battle of Britain call-to-arms kind of speech. I don't think that's entirely the case, but this corporate espionage thing is huge. If you're going to spend $60 million to develop a product and take five years to do it, I could spend $2 million on intelligence — equipment, personnel, whatever I need — and I could have your $60 million investment for $2 million.
You're not talking about monitoring email. Your companies are looking at employees' new cars, investments, lost laptops. It made me pretty paranoid.
It should. There isn't anything in the movie that isn't true.
There's no shortage of corporate scandals these days. When you look at Bernard Madoff, John Thain at Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers ...
They're right here. Lehman was up the street. I was at a restaurant across the street, and we looked out the window and saw all these people carrying boxes out of the office.
Do all these things affect your view of the employee-employer relationship?
[Laughing] It's just a confirmation of my ingrained paranoia.
Is big business going to become Hollywood's favorite go-to villain now?
I don't think it's new. Look at All My Sons. Look at Frank Capra's movies. I think it's a trope you can get stuck in. I was trying to undermine that in Clayton, to say it's the human beings. It's not the organizations. It's individual personal decisions. In Duplicity, a primal hatred between two men [rival CEOs], this irrational school-yard ugliness between two grown men, causes everything else to happen, not some organization.
You focus on consumer products in Duplicity. Could it be any industry?
Sure. You sit down and talk with people in the fashion business or the radio business, and it's the same thing. They'll tell me, "It's so cutthroat. You wouldn't believe what goes on. You should do a movie about it." In any tribal gathering, there are only so many pieces of meat.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.