When Dan Gilroy went to Denzel Washington about playing the lead character in his legal (and spiritual) thriller, he didn’t know who Roman J. Israel Esq. was. He certainly had prepared the script, the dialogue, and even the emotional journey of a 1960s activist hitting the abrasive reality of the 21st century, however who this man was—and perhaps why he felt the need to add “esquire” to his name—came, like so much else, from an exploration of self. One that was shared by the writer-director and Denzel Washington.
“I had the idea of a guy from the ‘60s who was committed for 40 years, who worked in the back room, becoming disillusioned. That was all there, predominantly,” Gilroy muses to me over a lively phone conversation. “[But] there was no description, there was no sense of what things really looked like, how he acted—what it was.” Yet over six months, the mild mannered, passionate crusader (and all the paradoxes therein) came to life following weekly meetings between Gilroy and Washington.
“Every day he would start coming in and going, ‘I’m thinking this, and I’m thinking that. I’m interested in Asperger’s. I think this guy might be on the spectrum. I’m interested in this.” What followed is a character whom Washington gained weight for, grew out his hair to capture, and whom he wholly inhabited. It was also unlike any of his other onscreen personas. Here is a man that speaks with the eloquence and passion of Cornel West about the moral bent of the universe and justice (although Gilroy is uncertain if West was a conscious influence on Washington), and yet when he is out of his legal sphere, the man is introverted and almost helpless—and maybe ready to sell his soul.
“Really I watched the character come to life,” Gilroy marvels. “Wearing shoes that were two sizes too big; creating the walk; the weight; every aspect… He had never played this before. He is invisible; he’s mocked; he’s vulnerable. I think it was liberating for him to go to these places to be honest.”
It was also in service of a poignant and ever timely film, one that, like its star, is named Roman J. Israel, Esq. The grandiose moniker signifies a high level of self-respect, but also an old-fashionedness that is already out of step with the world when the film begins. Gilroy, fresh off the unsettling Nightcrawler, which saw a similar metamorphosis by its star Jake Gyllenhaal, aims to explore the corrosive effect of capitalism on our circuitous legal system, just as he previously explored it decaying television journalism. But by design, it came from a place of discovering an imperfect vessel: A man who was a crusader for civil rights in the 1960s, but fought so hard that he hadn’t realized the frontlines had changed until he was on the wrong side of 50 and desperately needed the kind of law firms he’s always despised.
“I was just waiting for an idea,” Gilroy recalls of his inspiration for a legal thriller. “I am wandering downtown in the desert of creativity, waiting to look down and see something shiny. At this time, what looked shiny to me was I remember the 1960s.” Understandably, it was the decade of the future filmmaker’s youth, and one burgeoning with social justice and a seeming revolution that would upheave the injustices of American life—many of which still persist.
“I was 10 in 1969, and it was weird at that time, because you turn on the TV and everybody was involved in something: civil rights, women’s rights, against the war. I grew up thinking like, oh my God, I’m in this world where everybody’s involved.” That shiny future was obviously compromised, yet an older Gilroy became fascinated about exploring those who weren’t. The world of civil rights law was a natural progression for those who still fight for painful, incremental change, but the idea of an actual avatar of ‘60s engagement in 2017 became the real goal of Roman J. Israel, Esq.
“When Roman comes off the frontlines after 40 years in his back room and suddenly steps into the real world?” Gilroy asks about his film’s opening salvo, where Roman discovers his law firm is closing after he spent 40 years working as a legal savant in its pro bono files. “Lo and behold, he finds out he’s completely out of touch with the people he thought he had the most in common with. It’s not really a commentary because it’s legitimate.” This involves Roman not knowing how to engage with millennials fighting similar battles with new tools, and new targets that might include notions Roman holds dear.
It’s a conceit that is rife with drama and more than tinge of tragedy. But right down to the movie’s use of a retro Columbia Pictures logo, Roman J. Israel, Esq. views itself as a warm and optimistic film. Shot on celluloid—and apparently with only a single camera, which Gilroy notes with more than a hint of pride—the movie has a warm earthy tone reminiscent of one of Gilroy’s favorite Sidney Lumet films, The Verdict.
Says Gilroy, “The film gives us a really nice warm grain. We decided early on that we wanted the film to look warm, because it’s an emotional film.” Caravaggio for the darkness of courtrooms. It is also a choice that, like the grimmer Nightcrawler before it, the writer-director hopes shines a light on what he views as the danger of money. It’s a threat so endemic that it can even destroy fundamentally good men like Roman.
“I’m trying to inject some of my worldview into this,” Gilroy considers. “I believe we’ve entered a time of hyper capitalism. I’m not saying there’s another better system than capitalism. I’m not saying socialism is better. I don’t believe communism works, period. But we have entered a time of hyper capitalism, and for me it’s sort of the law of the jungle.
“I think if you are weak in any way in today’s world, you’re at a disadvantage just on every level, health insurance to employment to housing, to just quality of life. It didn’t use to be like that. I remember a time when we had a robust middle class that was well taken care of. I believe it’s been decimated, and I think there’s a tremendous number of really greedy, rapacious people, who have amassed this staggering amount of wealth. It almost feels like, to me, [the time] before the French Revolution. I believe, unfortunately, we do live in times where the value of human life and the human spirit is utterly marginalized.”
And in this context, Nightcrawler and Roman J. Israel, Esq. can be viewed as two different lenses looking at the same problem.
Nevertheless, the director is still positive, if by force of will, of the role the legal system has in fixing it—and what it can represent if more people come around to listen to the Romans of the world, a major theme in his newest movie’s final act.
“Law is a tremendously positive, powerful tool,” Gilroy says. “The execution of it has great potential to do good in our world. I am hopeful for where people can take it.”
Perhaps they can begin by taking in a screening of Roman J. Israel, Esq.? It opens wide on Wednesday, Nov. 22.