The Adjustment Bureau Behind the scenes with director George Nolfi

The man behind ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ script & this week’s Matt Damon thriller was in Dublin for the Jameson Film Festival, we caught up with him to talk movies…

The Adjustment Bureau has been described as Jason Bourne meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Would you agree?

GN: It probably a little more complicated than that. There are strings of North By Northwest and It’s A Wonderful Life, maybe. It’s very hard to do that with this movie. I have trouble characterising it, and I have trouble putting it into a genre. Other people can do that, and they are probably going to be better at it than me! [laughs]

A chance meeting completely changes David and Elise’s lives. Do you believe that happens in ‘real life’?

GN: Yes! And you can ask the larger question was it chance or was it part of a larger plan?

What drew you to this particular story?

GN: I’ve been fascinated with the question of how determined our lives are by larger forces, be they social forces or the family you are born into or cosmic, religious forces versus how much autonomy do you have yourself and control over your decisions. I have been fascinated by that since I was a kid and I studied various versions of that – whether its social forces or economic forces that control you – and the story took us into that realm, but did it in a way that was very filmic. You’ve got two actors, who can be in conflict in a scene, and one of them is your protagonist and the other is Fate. Fate is normally an abstract idea, and yet it is an obsession of human beings since ancient Greece – Homer in Oedipus – to Shakespeare and all the way through to today. It’s the richest vein there is; ‘why are we here? Do we have any control over our lives or is it other larger forces?’ To be able to turn that into scenes between actors and conflict is a wonderful thing.

Why do you think the idea of fate captures people in the way that it does?

GN: I think human beings are naturally questioning beings and it’s built into our brains and our souls. Inevitably we turn it back on ourselves and ask ‘Why are we here? And how do we fit into things?’ The first question in the ‘How do we fit into things?’ category is ‘How much can I actually control what I am doing and get what I want by my actions?’

Do you believe in fate?

GN: I believe that there are very powerful forces – whatever you want to call them – chance, societal structures, corporate structures or god. There are many forces that impinge on our path in life and set us on a path in life. It is up to us to say ‘I’m gonna make my own choices, and direct my own life’ even if it runs contrary to some of those things that your family is telling you or society is telling you. I think the greatest thing about being a human being is that you can look at all the stuff that’s bearing down on you and you can still make your own choices.

The film is based on the short story The Adjustment Team by Philip K. Dick. How challenging was it to adapt a short piece of fiction into a feature length film?

GN: Very! Partly because I viewed the short story as having a great set up, but I needed characters – I had to pretty much invent all the characters – and I wanted a totally different tone and the idea of melding the premise and sub story with a love story started to take me into a realm of multiple genres. All of this – from the first time my producing partner brought me the story and said ‘you could do this as a love story’ – is all happening in 2 or 3 minutes. My mind is spinning going ‘what is this going to look like when it becomes a movie?’ I just felt like it was the right thing for me, even though I knew it was going to be a lot of work and invention and trial and error because I didn’t have another movie to look to and see ‘how did this movie do it?’
Why do you think Philip K. Dick’s work translates so well to the screen?

GN: Fantastic premises. Fantastic ideas. Science fiction generally asks us to turn our assumptions on their head and he found ways of turning those assumptions that were really fresh and interesting.

New York looks fantastic in The Adjustment Bureau, was the film a love letter to the city?

GN: Sure! I do love the city and I am sure part of me just wanted to make it look really good. Whenever, in the movie, the Adjustment Bureau is in control, I wanted to make the city look impossibly beautiful because if they ran things there would be order, and structure and beauty, but there would be no freedom. Then, New York’s got this other side that is chaos and dirt, and I could have Matt run from them and break up their plans and suddenly it’s chaotic traffic and people in the way and trash in the street, whereas two scenes earlier it was quiet and perfect.

Did you always want to direct the movie?

GN: Yes. I spent my own money optioning the short story because I thought ‘I know how to write this script, it’s going to be hard, but I know how to do it and if I do it, it will feel fresh and original and someone will want to do it – some actor, some studio’.

How did you move from writing into directing?

GN: The transition was helped greatly for me because – by that point – I had a long-standing friendship with Matt [Damon]. I didn’t get a lot of interference because of that and to have your movie star in your corner is huge because he is in almost every scene in the movie. Every day you are coming to work with Matt, so if he is like ‘What do you want to do today, boss?’ that’s a very different thing than if he is brooding in his trailer, saying he wants changes. I had also been on the set of the four movies that I am credited on as a writer for almost all the days of the shoot, so I was able to watch and learn from these four directors and also from crewmembers – all the way down to electricians and grips. People were really generous with their time at lunch or when they had downtime on the set or on the weekends – talking to me about their jobs. I got to really know a film set at the level of the craftspeople that make it run but also got to know about directing by talking to the directors and talking to the actors. Because of Ocean’s Twelve and The Sentinel and Bourne I had worked, as a writer, with a large portion of the big stars in the world and was able to have the conversation; ‘what helps you as an actor?’ That’s a giant advantage, that’s the equivalent of a six year long film school except that you get to work with people that are doing it in the Hollywood system.

This was the third time that you had worked with Matt Damon, what was it like working with him again, and in a completely different role?

GN: Like I said, he’s so relatable for the audience, so you are starting with the base of people like him, they have sympathy for him as an actor and he can inhabit the role of different characters doing different things in different situations with incredible authenticity, which I really wanted to grab. I made many many decisions in the movie to make it more relatable, but the cast is the most important. I wanted actors who act from a place of real life, then I filmed it in a realistic way and I hid the special effects rather than dazzled with them. He’s just a fantastic asset and he’s a great guy. The fact that he can act a vision that’s not the safe Hollywood vision of a thriller was awesome!

You have written – and now directed – some great thrillers. Will we ever see a George Nolfi rom-com?

GN: [Laughs] It’s not at the top of my list! [laughs] I will definitely do something again, in the Ocean’s Twelve-y, comedic style. I don’t think, any time soon, I will do a big, broad comedy or a straight rom-com but I like comedy a lot, I just tend to like more dry humour and the humour that comes out of real situations. I love Monty Python but I’m probably not the guy to do the Monty Python type humour or the softer rom-com.

What’s next?

GN: I have written one thing that’s an action thriller. It’s a little more bounded by genre than this [The Adjustment Bureau], but it’s also breaking some of the rules and also getting into larger thematic issues… Then I have another thing that’s pretty comedic, so I just have to figure out which one to do first!

Words – Brogen Hayes

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU hits Irish cinemas on March 4th