George Nolfi interview: The Adjustment Bureau and adapting Philip K Dick

With The Adjustment Bureau out this Friday, we caught up with writer director George Nolfi to discuss the making of the film…

Originally published in 1954, Philip K Dick’s Adjustment Team was a short and sharp work of fiction, delivered in a surreal, wry manner that was typical of the author.

Now adapted into a Hollywood feature film called The Adjustment Bureau, Dick’s slight tale of a man who’s afforded a brief glimpse behind the curtain of reality has been transformed into a grand fantasy romance, with Matt Damon starring as a young politician whose attempts to start a relationship a feisty dancer (played by Emily Blunt) are perpetually thwarted by a mysterious higher power.

Unlike the doom-laden, paranoid worlds that typically arise from Philip Dick’s work, Nolfi’s film is refreshingly different in tone, with a redemptive theme running throughout. As I mentioned to the director, it’s closer in atmosphere to It’s A Wonderful Life than the rainswept gloom of Blade Runner.

A seasoned writer of films such as Ocean’s 12 and The Sentinel, Nolfi chose The Adjustment Bureau as his directorial debut, a bold decision, given the potentially tricky structural and practical problems the film’s concept poses.

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I was, therefore, fascinated to hear how The Adjustment Bureau came to be, and exactly what Nolfi’s views were on one of the most eccentric writers in US literature…

What was the genesis of The Adjustment Bureau adaptation? Obviously, it started as a Philip K Dick short story.

My producing partner pitched me the story one day, the premise really, and I started life studying to be an academic. Philosophy. And the idea that a guy in conflict with fate – fate not being an abstraction, but fate being people, or like people – was a really interesting premise to me.

And the notion that people are all around us, making tiny, tiny adjustments in our surroundings to keep us on course, I thought was incredibly fresh.

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When he pitched that to you, was the concept fully formed, or did the idea for the romantic element come in later?

The short story, which is worth reading, only accounts for 15 minutes of the movie. The short story’s about a guy who’s supposed to get to work at a certain time, and a talking dog, who works for the Adjustment Bureau, falls asleep and doesn’t bark. The guy gets to work and sees his friend frozen, and then he runs from the Bureau.

So, all the characters in the movie essentially had to be invented. I also wanted to turn the premise of the story on its head. The story’s about the line between reality and fantasy. I wanted to confront the character with, “Everything you think is real isn’t actually real.” Which is more like the matrix, really. There’s a reality behind the reality, and you see how the character reacts to that.

But I also wanted to change the tone, from this kind of dark, dystopic tone, to – I don’t know how to describe this movie! It has its own tone.

It struck me that it’s much lighter than most Philip K Dick adaptations, actually. It reminded me a little of an old Michael Powell film called A Matter Of Life Or Death.

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I haven’t seen that.

Or even It’s A Wonderful Life.

It’s not quite as light as It’s A Wonderful Life, but definitely, that’s a movie I had in my head when I was thinking about this.

Yeah, I set out to make a movie that couldn’t be categorised as a genre. From the very beginning, from the very first conversation I had with my producing partner, because he also said we could do this as a love story.

So, we had these big issues of fate versus free will, connected to a love story, and I’m going to want to tell it in a realistic tone. And I realised, as I was kind of adding it up in my head as a writer, that this was going to take me into territory that most movies aren’t in. And as a writer and someone who wanted to direct, as a filmmaker generally, I’m always interested in trying something that’s a little outside the box.

Like, Ocean’s 12 was a very weird sequel to a huge Hollywood movie, and that’s a really interesting challenge for me. I did a video, a companion piece to The Adjustment Bureau, that’s going to come out online, where we took photographs of people all over the world, and they cover the course of human life, from birth through high school to later life. First steps, riding a bike.

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We assembled them all together, and put some of my characters into the shots, so the Adjustment Bureau guys are in the shots. The idea is, like, they’re always around everybody, adjusting your life. We’re using the Internet to say you can give us up to 21 of your own shots, and essentially make your own version of the video.

I haven’t seen anyone use the technological things that are out there, to interact directly with the audience, in that kind of direct way. My interest was, the technology’s there, the concept of the movie is that there are these people all around us. Let’s find a way to put those things together.

That’s way off course, but anything that breaks new ground – though it’s impossible to completely break new ground – that’s something I want to do.

You mentioned about keeping the film grounded in reality. While I was watching, I was thinking that it could easily have been another special effects movie, but you’ve kept a lot of the effects practical. Was that a challenge, to come up with ways of not using CGI to achieve the things you did?

Yeah, yeah. But the whole thing was driven by the fact that it’s a fantastical premise, but I wanted the whole foundation of it to be realistic. So, I put aside anything that might be obviously CGI. I only went to CGI when it was absolutely impossible to do it practically.

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I thought it was interesting, too, that in most Philip K Dick stories, the central character’s an everyman, whereas in The Adjustment Bureau, he’s a high-flying politician. What was the thinking behind Matt Damon’s character?

He’s an everyman, but he’s a superman as well. I think Dick’s concerns were really more about taking his reader and saying, “This is you. Now forget about the character, and imagine, from your own point of view, all these things happening to you.”

He intentionally made a bland character, so you could look outward into the sci-fi world. That wouldn’t work for a big Hollywood movie, I don’t think, and it would be a waste of Matt Damon.

So, I had to create a three-dimensional character, who started in one place, had flaws, realised he had those flaws, and through conflict with the antagonists changes and transforms. And the character that I ended up thinking was the most interesting was this politician who is doing it for his own reasons.

He needs the adulation of the crowd. He can’t be alone. He can’t really even love another person because he lost so much as a kid.

And then you watch that character become a whole person through the film.

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In terms of chemistry, Emily Blunt was obviously very important. Was she cast quite early on?

She was the last person asked. It was very, very hard to find someone who could do some of the things I needed her to do. Some of the scenes I had written were very hard. Deceptively hard. And she came in and did some screen tests, because I was looking for a dancer, but in the end we had to go with the acting.

George Nolfi, thank you very much.

The Adjustment Bureau arrives in cinemas on Friday.

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