Tony Gilroy interview

27 years after Tony Gilroy wrote Beirut, it’s finally reaching theaters. Long before his time on the Bourne franchise, directing Michael Clayton and Duplicity, and his work on Rogue One: A Story Wars Story, Gilroy penned a story about Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm), a troubled, grieving, and alcoholic negotiator who returns to Beruit 10 years after a personal tragedy to negotiate the freedom of a CIA agent and former friend.

When Gilroy first wrote the script for Interscope, the thriller garnered the attention of movie stars and drew some controversy, but ultimately, the expensive project went unmade. Four or five years ago, there was new interest in Beirut, so Gilroy spent a week or two revising the script before the director behind Session 9 and Transiberian, Brad Anderson, went to shoot the movie in Morocco.

Gilroy also had the chance to look back on some old writing of his, to see how his writing had changed. It was an experience the writer and director recently told us about in a wide-ranging interview about mistakes young writers make, great dialogue, writing “the best of the best” type of characters, why he doesn’t want to write true stories, and more.

Below, read our Tony Gilroy interview.


Beirut is another one of your stories where a part of the thrill comes from watching a character who’s good at their job. For you, where does that joy come from, watching someone who is really effective at what they do?

I don’t know what the origin of that pleasure is. I don’t know what the attraction is. It might be generational [Laughs]. One of my father’s great credits was The Fastest Gun Alive, but it’s like, “Well, who is he?” “Well, he’s the fastest gun alive.” There’s something about great competence that’s interesting. You probably know I wrote this movie a long, long time ago, and this was really how I learned how to be … I’ve done a lot of journalistic kind of movies where there’s a lot of research, and this was the one that really taught me how to do that in a fundamental way.

If you’re talking about somebody who’s the best bricklayer who ever lived, or the best figure skater who ever lived, or whatever, you get to learn a tremendous amount. That’s part of the job that I really like, but I don’t know. Also, you have to show them doing the thing. I could introduce you in a movie and say, “Oh, my god. This is the greatest getaway driver in the western hemisphere,” and if you say it loud enough and clear enough, all of a sudden, you’re the greatest getaway driver in the western hemisphere, before I even see you in a car. It just works.

Then there’s the challenge of showing they’re the greatest getaway driver in the world.

You have to prove it. You’ve got to show your work, eventually.

I feel like you we a lot of movies or shows where everyone says so-and-so is such a great writer, but they rarely show you why. 

That never works. That never, ever works. I don’t like movies about writers. Gambling is really hard. They did beat it in Rounders. The trick they found in Rounders really won the day, but my father used to write a lot of gambling scripts. My father was a huge gambler, but he really thought that very few people ever captured it. It’s really tedious in a way. Yeah, it’s like, “Who’s a great writer? Okay, okay. Exciting. Yeah. Write your way over the wall…”

[Laughs] I know you wrote the script for Beirut about 25 years ago, so when the project was revived, what was your initial reaction to reading a 25-year-old script of yours?

I was impressed with the research when I went back and checked all the research and had the benefit the internet at that time. Also, there had been a lot of other journalism and books that had been written about the period of time that had closed down the verdict on a lot of things that were kind open-ended back in 1991. So, I was happy with the scholarship, and I was happy with the plotting and the ambition of it, but it was a little bit easy. There was too much of me in it. When you’re a young writer, a lot of times you can really feel the writer in it, like you’re going for a line, or you’ve got a hook on a scene, and you’re kind of warping a scene so that you look cool.

I’ve had all of that effectively beaten out of me over the years. You just humble yourself time after time, where you have scenes shot that you’re just groaning. “Why did I write that, and why doesn’t he shut up?” You get quieter. You get humbler. You get much more trusting the actors and the stillness. You get much more honest. So, I really didn’t change very much, and I was really pleased to be collaborating with this very young, energetic, writer who had done all the research for me. I was really pleased to go in and put a quieter, I think a much more real and, not actor-proof, but actor-friendly and director-friendly, pass on it.

What else does making a script more actor-friendly and director-friendly involve?

Making it honest, instead of tilting a scene so that you have something that’s jazzy happen, or tilting a scene around a line. “Gotta have a great line, and I want to have this great line at the end of the scene.” I mean, most of everything that we do is scene work. You write 70,000,000 scenes in your life, and the idea of buttoning up scenes and rounding them out is something that you get rewarded for when you’re young. Certainly, as I was coming up in the ’80s and ’90s, and desperate to be a screenwriter, that was really the style of the time: round everything out, button the scenes. It’s not what life is like, and it’s not good drama, and it puts a strain on everybody, and you’d go into rehearsals with actors, and you’d watch actors…

Before I was directing, you’d watch actors try to strain to get to certain moments, and you’re frustrated, and they’re frustrated and, finally, you start to realize, “My God. Their navigation systems are usually pretty accurate.” You quiet things down and let truth play, and rely on the camera more. Just try to be honest and always ask really difficult questions in the scenes if there’s something that’s bothering you, doesn’t seem quite right. Well, you better answer that question, because it’ll always be wrong.

You mentioned wanting to tilt a scene around a line early on in your career. Do you ever have lines in mind before writing a scene, or do the most memorable lines usually come more naturally?

I’ve never had a line before a scene, but I’ve been in scenes and I’ve written a lot of scenes where there’s a great line, and you just get rid of it because it’s killing you. As a director of my own work, a lot of times … not a lot of times, but it is certainly enough times, there’s been a line in a scene and, in rehearsal, or at the morning before you start the scene, or talking to the actor and say, “Look, this line, here. I don’t wanna hear it. It’s right on the edge of being too much. Take the piss out of this line. Take me out of this. If I hear me in this scene, if I start to feel like I’m in the scene, I’m gonna do something else. So, let’s do everything you can to not lean into that.” I’m hyper-conscious about trying not to have lines where you just feel like the writer is just teeing up. It’s like playing golf where you’re only using the driver. It’s like, “Let me tee up on the green.” If you’re listening and you’re really hard on yourself, I think you get quieter and more natural as time goes on. Good lines don’t impress me that much anymore.

No?

No, no. I mean, every now and then you get one that does everything you want for it. It’s quiet, and it resonates, and it does everything. Every now and then, there’s this one, and you just go, “Oh, thank you,” and it has everything. It’s quiet. It’s real. It’s poignant. It sounds good. Everybody looks good, but I don’t know. If people are paying attention to lines, then they’re not in the story.

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