The last time Dan Gilroy brought a film to the Toronto Film Festival he had “Nightcrawler” in tow, a dark urban drama focused on a nocturnal bottom-feeding stringer who peddles his video wares to the highest broadcast news bidder. This year he’s back with another rich character study, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” about a good-souled Los Angeles attorney used to toiling away at the impossible on behalf of the ungrateful, a sort of assured activist foil to “Nightcrawler’s” craven careerist.
Gilroy, speaking to Variety ahead of the film’s Sunday night festival premiere, says he wrote the eponymous role with two-time Oscar winning actor Denzel Washington in mind.
“There’s a quality about Denzel — he’s a very big believer in the human spirit and human dignity, and that is something that really defines the character in many ways,” Gilroy says. “He’s someone who really believes in people. It’s not a part that Denzel has ever played before and I think that’s what he was attracted to.”
Carmen Ejogo and Colin Farrell also star as a grassroots organizer and a slick metropolitan defense attorney, respectively, two sides of a coin Gilroy is interested in exploring once again in the streets of L.A.
Roughly a year ago, as they went into pre-production with multiple financiers in place, Gilroy and Washington began digging in on Israel’s look. The character would be a frumpy bookworm type, clad in a loose-fitting suit (seemingly the only one he owns), sporting massive eyeglasses and ancient orange-foamed headphones plugged into an early model iPod. He’s more at home buried in a tome of legalese than spinning in front of a judge and jury.
Washington, who produced alongside partner Todd Black and Jennifer Fox (“Michael Clayton”), “de-glammed” a bit for the role as well. He grew his hair out and, for the first time in decades, removed the caps from his teeth. He also wore slightly bigger shoes to influence Israel’s hurried shuffle along the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
“There’s a fine line between character and characterization and you don’t want to cross that line,” Gilroy says. “The things that Denzel did to transform himself were very organic to the character. He’s an unusual character. He lives on the margins of society.”
In contrast to “Nightcrawler,” which treated downtown as a far-off dreamscape and stuck to L.A. boroughs like Hollywood and areas of the San Fernando Valley, the majority of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” takes place downtown. Gilroy says he and his Oscar-winning “Nightcrawler” cinematographer Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”) were able to capture Washington moving through the city unrecognized via “surveillance shots” in vans and alleyways.
The setting was practical on one hand: Israel has lived in an aging fashion district-adjacent apartment building most of his life, and of course the criminal justice system is based downtown. But it also provided Gilroy thematic opportunities, as the on-going metamorphosis of the city, with countless new high-rises and condominiums going up, reflects the slippage of time happening all around Israel.
“There’s more construction going on downtown right now than anywhere in the United States,” Gilroy says. “That transformation of Los Angeles very much parallels a transformation in the character.”
To that point, the film started out with a different, slightly pulpy title more reflective of that atmosphere: “Inner City.” But as the initial assembly came together (courtesy of Gilroy’s editor twin brother John), it became clear the story was much more about the character than the landscape the character moves through. “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” was born.
A movie about an activist clinging to a passion to change things, all too aware of the hardships that lie in wait for a life dedicated to the cause, seems likely to resonate in a climate where #TheResistance has become a rally cry. But Gilroy says his film is topical more by chance than by design. He ultimately hopes it can transcend what’s happening today and connect in the micro.
“I think anybody who hears a call to do more will see themselves in Roman,” he says. “He’s a fighter who sees the world for what it could be, not what it is.”
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” premieres Sunday night at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto. The film opens nationwide on Nov. 3.