'Beirut' Screenwriter Tony Gilroy Isn't Impressed By Good Lines [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. 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.

When you were researching Beirut, you went the library. Now, you have Google. Do you ever feel nostalgic for going to the library for research or do you just prefer the speed of a Google search?

Man, you just get torn by it. The upside is what you can know and what you can find out, and the amount of research that you can do, and the way you can crosscheck, and the way you can find out to make sure you're working on something that nobody else is working on and, then, all that stuff is just platinum gold. It's just so valuable. The distraction, however, to have that at your desk... I mean, smoking was a better habit than the internet for writers. The internet is really, really destructive to your attention span. I know that, and it's a constant. So, I think as much as it gives, it probably takes away just as much. It's really a tap suck on your attention span if you're not an incredibly disciplined human being because there's always something you could be looking up. You're always, "Oh, my God. I'm working. I've got to look this up." I'm always learning, but in the end, then the day is gone, and you've spent time on nothing but nonsense.

When you're researching these jobs or parts of the world you're depicting, do you ever find what's honest and what's cinematic clash? Are the two ever at odds for you?

Wow. I'm trying to think of a specific example. You know, no. One of my guiding principles of 15, 20 years has become, really, if there's a difficult question, a fundamental question, anything that's difficult – and it could be story point, it could be a really grand sweep of a whole section of a film or a moment between two people – that there's something there that is bothering you, that you don't wanna ask the question and you know there's trouble there, my experience is if you don't go after it right away, you're just wasting time.

And number two, almost every major problem that I've ever encountered in plotting, or character in anything, if you really go at it, has turned into something much better. You really have to take things that you're afraid of and the problems that you're afraid of, and just embrace them and turn them around, and keep twisting them on the chalkboard and figure it out, and there's always an answer. Then, when you have it solved for something that was just fundamentally wrong, it's just so exhilarating, and you know you're on good territory.

You know that your character's behavior is right, and it's mostly about behavior. Would this person do that? Would you do that? Would you ever really do that? Would you really ask that question? Would you really wanna go there? Would you really know that? Answering those questions that I used to be afraid to answer. I mean, a lot of young writers, people read the scripts, and they're afraid to ask those questions. That's usually a really big solve for people's problems.

Do you recall a scene or moment from Beirut that felt like a problem you had to fix?

Something specific. I was afraid you were gonna ask me that. I'll tell you one thing, and this is not exactly the same, but there was one thing in the movie that shocked me later on, reading it as a director. I don't want a spoiler, but the incident in 1972 at Skiles' house, I never followed the boy out of the house. I never followed the boy into the car. I just left him. He just disappeared, and when I wrote the script, I was a writer. As a director, now, I was like, "Wow. What did you do? Where is he? What did you do? You don't have that scene? What's wrong with you?" That was just such an incredibly necessary thing to have, and the idea that I didn't know that I needed that 30 years ago is such a tell on my inexperience at that point, to me.

I imagine looking at the Lebanese Civil War was a different experience in 1991 than when you did a couple of years ago. For you, how did time affect the story?

Well, 1982 was not really sexy in 1992. A 10-year gap is not really distinctive enough to light things up. That was one thing. So, I mean, 1982 now is really sexy – the technology, the lack of technology, the vibe, the wardrobe, the rest of it. So, the time period itself just became a lot more interesting. Look, I really accurately set this down in the winter of 1982, and the competing ugly forces that were wreaking havoc on Lebanon at that point, from the PLO to the Reagan White House, to Israel and Syria, and Russia. Those forces all coming down on this one moment in time, which is why I picked that moment in time.

Several months after this movie is over in real time, everything is gonna fall off the plate. Everything is just gonna get so much worse. If you went back and told people in 1982 in Beirut that as bad as things had been and as bad as the civil war had been, and the city destroyed, and everything, that things were gonna deteriorate from there in the Middle East, they'd think you were out of your mind.

So, looking back, it's really interesting that this is just before religious fundamentalism comes in in a strong way in the Middle East. There's no Hezbollah. There's no suicide bombing. The first suicide bombing will happen six months later. The massacres and Shatila and Sabra will happen after these. All these horrible consequences of what happens in this movie explode in its aftermath. Over the course of the next 20 years, the idea of looking back at this moment, it really looks like, and ... I'm sure people could pick a couple different points in time that they were real exit ramps in foreign policy where things might have really been different, but if this moment in time had really been handled differently. If there was a different administration, if Israel had been a little more afraid, if the PLO had been a little bit more unified, things might have gone in a different direction, and we know that now.

I read the story was inspired by the kidnapping of William Buckley, but you've said that you're averse to telling true stories. Why is that? What keeps you away from telling true stories?

I'm averse to it for two reasons. One, I feel so incredibly responsible to the truth. The idea that I would change something or put words in someone's mouth that they didn't say, I cringe even saying it. That sort of Calvinistic, fundamentalist regard for the truth is really powerful to me. Also, on the flipside of being incredibly inhibited by what actually happened, I really do this so I can shape a story, so I can make it how I want. The idea that I would be trapped by a real event is really inhibiting. So, the whole of thing of it seems so claustrophobic to me. The flipside is the rigor that I put into keeping the background completely accurate. Let me a put a fictional story in the most realistic background that I could possibly do.

So, I don't know. I've watched so many colleagues tear their hair out over either trying to do them or when they do them, what happens to them afterward, in the aftermath, or being really unsatisfied with the experience. Look, there's a lot of great true-life stories, and I love them. I mean, I can't wait for the Cheney movie to come out. I look forward to them. I'm into it, but I couldn't do it.

Right. Just not for you.

Yeah. I just can't do it. I would clutch up.

I know you've been writing a lot in the last year, so any chance we might see you direct another movie in the next year? 

Man, I hope so. I'm trying to get out of my room. I have spent too much time in my room this year. So, my effort is going to be to get out of the room this year. Yes, I would like to get back out into the world.


Beirut is now in theaters.