In his new movie Duplicity, which opens tomorrow, and 2007’s Michael Clayton, Oscar-nominated writer/director Tony Gilroy deftly exposes the backstage drama in business. The petty battles between rivals. The big-time and bit players running the spin machine behind a high-stakes product. It’s the sort of complex and revealing portrait that journalists aspire to create. Fiction definitely has its advantages.
When I met Gilroy recently in New York City, I asked why he’s so drawn to tackling business. Turns out, he’s not. It’s work that intrigues him. How people do their jobs. How they navigate the politics of an organization, in business and elsewhere (think of the Bourne trilogy, on which he was the screenwriter). The individual decisions people make, which eventually have huge ramifications.
Gilroy: “Right as I went on the press tour for Clayton, I remember reading in The New York Times a tragic version of what happens in the movie. A company in Florida was manufacturing some spray for your home. I don’t remember the details, but a guy had found out there was a bad run. And this guy in the warehouse is sitting there looking at 80,000 units, knowing that if he doesn’t ship them, the company is in huge trouble. But if he lets them get on the truck, there’s a chance that somebody is going to get really hurt. And he makes the decision to send them out. That act, that binary switch of saying yes, is what it’s all about. Someone says, ‘Yes, I’ll do that.'”
Duplicity, which stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, represents a stark departure from the darkness of Clayton. It’s a romantic comedy. Okay, a romantic spy comedy. Why the change in tone? “That’s the great part of this gig,” Gilroy says. “I wanted to do something different, to be afraid.”
What was he afraid of?
“It’s always scary to do something you haven’t done before. I’m trying to be light and amusing in this film, and it’s much more difficult and complicated than the other. If you’re doing Clayton, you’re navigating to the same North Star every day: It’s ugly and cold, and there are no leaves on the trees anywhere and everyone’s unhappy. It’s very easy to figure out where you’re going and to steer there. The difference between that and a movie like Duplicity is like the difference between making bacon and making a soufflé.”
One of my favorite scenes is during the opening credits. It’s a fantasy sequence in which Tom Wilkinson, the CEO of a consumer products global giant, charges across a tarmac in his power suit, his lieutenants in tow, the corporate jet parked in the background, storm clouds looming overhead. And charging toward him is Paul Giamatti, the CEO of a rival company, with his lieutenants in tow and his jet behind him. The confrontation is in slow motion, which turns this metaphorical showdown into a monumental life-and-death battle right out of Braveheart. It’s the juvenile clash that rages beneath the surface in business. And it’s hilarious.
Gilroy makes a delicious soufflé.