Three years ago, Nightcrawler arrived in theaters. The film’s star, Jake Gyllenhaal, played Louis Bloom, a man of imposing work ethic with less than laudable ethical practices. Armed with a pawnshop camcorder and accompanied by a homeless intern, Lou Bloom made his living filming the dark side of Los Angeles nightlife: stabbings, shootings, carjackings, fires. Subsequently, after rushing from one horrific scene to the next, indeed Lou’s circumstances may have changed for the better but his disposition did not. He remained as unrepentant as he was unchanging.
Since 2014, Nightcrawler writer/director Dan Gilroy has stayed busy co-writing this year’s Kong: Skull Island as well as writing and directing Roman J. Israel, Esq., starring Denzel Washington and Colin Farrell. Slated for a Thanksgiving weekend release, what Roman J. Israel, Esq. shares most with Nightcrawler is that both stories converge upon immutable protagonists. Denzel Washington plays Roman Israel, a seasoned attorney who’s been fighting the good fight far longer than most. However, once a heart attack takes his partner’s life, Roman’s noble ideals get put on trial, so to speak.
Tenacity and perseverance reside at the center of Roman J. Israel, Esq., much as was the case with Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler. Interestingly enough, Lou--in his own way--also labored for respect and admiration. He studied, worked long hours, competed. Like Roman, Lou wanted to maintain a level of integrity along with a steady paycheck. Only, the difference is that while Roman has lived a life aimed at bringing his clients closer to justice, Lou Bloom embraced and exploited the realities of injustice. Night after night, Lou’s lowbrow footage broadcast across “the vampire shift of the lowest rated station in Los Angeles.” In terms of exposing and/or espousing some sort of truth, the images Louis captures on his DSLR say far more about those watching than those being photographed. As such, he prolongs the status quo while, contrastingly, Roman attempts to defy it. He wholeheartedly defends the neglected, marginalized, and mistreated people of society because, well, it’s the right thing. If Lou Bloom is an antihero then Roman Israel is cavalry.
According to Gilroy, he first began to conceive of the film by wondering what happened to the few purists that never relinquished their desire to save the world. “I remember the 1960s,” he says, “and I remember the spirit of everybody fighting and challenging civil rights laws, arguing for/fighting for women’s rights, [and] anti-war protests.” In Gilroy’s view, a more concentrated effort existed amongst the activists of the ‘60s--a behavior he doesn’t see as held dear within contemporary circles of activism. “Modern activism would challenge that,” he says. “Are we all thinking the same? Do we all have the same goals?”
“Roman is out of step,” Gilroy says. “He’s an activist out of his time,” but Gilroy still defines Roman as “an activist, certainly. He never stops.”
Denzel Washington also never stops. With over 50 films to his name, Gilroy says, “Denzel was very much in charge and took ownership of the character, the idiosyncrasies, the look, the mannerisms.” For Roman J. Israel, Esq., opted to sport dated blazers and an afro, not to mention he gained a fair amount of weight for the role. Plus, moviegoers will see a lot of Jif in
this movie--also Washington’s doing. “The day before we started shooting,” Gilroy says Washington insisted his character, “only eats peanut butter sandwiches over a sink.”
Gilroy adds that, when in comes to, both, Farrell and Washington, he’s “not directing either one of them.” In fact, even though Gilroy penned the movie, he feels his leading men came to know more about their characters than himself. “I like that,” Gilroy says. “It was really exciting to watch them because I didn’t know exactly what they were going to be doing or how they were going to interact, which is great. I wasn’t concerned because they’re both so talented and have done so many films that their energy feeds off each other. It becomes a very interesting aura that starts to surrounds them as actors.”
As far as intent, Gilroy says he “was trying to lessen the plot.” Many of his other works--Freejack (1992), Two for the Money (2005), Real Steel (2011), The Bourne Legacy (2012)--Gilroy injected a great deal of entertainment and spectacle. The 87th Annual Academy Awards nominated Nightcrawler for Best Original Screenplay. “I wanted to do a character study in which the internal conflict of the character was really driving the story,” Gilroy says referring to Roman J. “It’s a different way of approaching a film. They used to do it more in the ‘70s to be honest. Sidney Lumet used to do these kinds of films.”
To flesh out the character of Roman J. Israel, Gilroy notes that music was utilized in the film in two ways. Firstly, Washington gave a good deal of input regarding R&B and ‘70s music. “Denzel was very instrumental in picking a lot of the songs that Roman listens to. So it became personal. That was great,” Gilroy says. Washington, who also served as a producer, “has 28,000 songs on his iPod.” From there Gilroy and composer James Newton Howard discussed how to approach the score. “We didn’t want the vibe to change,” Gilroy says, so Howard composed his score using prominent ‘70s instrumentation, such as a Wurlitzer organ, vibraphone, bongo drums, etc.
Despite his good intentions, Roman struggles with social cues. He has trouble looking people in the eye. He’s a bit unkempt and unrefined. He unnecessarily causes strife with judges, coworkers, and the like. Perhaps he’s even brilliant but he’s a bit of a hot mess too. In this way, his awkwardness is analogous to his activism. Namely, they are the only tools by which he know how to navigate the world. Naturally, his worldview and his behavior invite consequence. “I am in awe of people who spend their time trying to make the world a better place,” Gilroy says. “Trying to confront injustice. Trying to confront inequality. These are enormous mountains to climb. And in this country and in this world you don’t get much back in return. You’re not going to get paid well. People are going to kind of look at you like you’re an outsider--why are you doing this? Emotionally it’s going to take a toll.”
“In researching the film, I’ve encountered quite a few activists--it becomes a sort of a lonely fight in a lot of ways. These are smart, intelligent, driven people who could easily become partners in companies and firms...and yet they choose to dedicate themselves to a shared humanity about making things better. So what I hope--it’s not a message--but what I’d love is if people left with a little bit of Roman Israel inside of them. The next time they had a choice as how to use their time
or resources to do something you might think of Roman and choose Roman’s path which is one in a lot of ways of self-sacrifice and believing in something bigger than yourself and believing we have a shared humanity. The status quo is not all right. There is just way too much inequality and injustice going on on every block of every city in this country that needs to be looked at. It’s systemic and it runs deep and it’s historic and it has not been taken apart and it has not been addressed. And Roman is out there everyday, every minute trying to do what he can do to do it and it takes a toll on him.”