“Michael Clayton” had many godparents. When screenwriter Tony Gilroy started shopping “Clayton” around as his directorial debut, among those who came to his aid were Sydney Pollack and Steven Soderbergh. The project had been at Castle Rock initially and went into a “benevolent turnaround,” according to Gilroy, but it wasn’t until the helmer switched agencies that the project gained momentum.
“Tony and I had a great meeting in my Boston offices, and we agreed to move forward to make the film,” producer and Boston real estate developer Steven Samuels recalls. “I would provide the financing for the project, and we were going to continue to look for principal cast and work around a rough budget number.”
After financing, getting star George Clooney to commit was the film’s second biggest hurdle. Producer Jennifer Fox, who worked with Soderbergh at Section Eight, says, “Tony’s first choice for the lead was George, but, at the time, he was coming off of films with Soderbergh and the Coen Bros. and saw no reason to take a risk on a first-time director.”
Just after finishing “Syriana,” however, Clooney met with Gilroy. “They talked for something like eight hours straight,” says Fox. “If you’ve spent any time with Tony, it’s clear why George said ‘yes’ in the room. Among other traits, they share a knowledge of and passion for paranoid thrillers made in the ’70s. Tony was without question the only person to direct this film.”
Clooney agreed to significantly cut his fee, and the final budget came in at $21.4 million. Summit Entertainment came onboard to sell foreign, and Warner Bros. took domestic rights.
The film shot on location in New York.
NUTS & BOLTS
Challenge: “The DNA of the film itself,” says Fox. “It is unequivocally a thriller for adults. It is deliberate and character-driven. Before we had the support of Steve Samuels and George, people were afraid of what is ultimately the film’s strength — its complexity.”
Lessons learned: “If I was to be highly critical and look hard for a way to improve the process,” says Samuels, “it would be to find a way for the domestic and foreign rights holders to have more coordination in the release strategies. Not an easy task considering the independent film model relies on multiple foreign distributors.”