EXCLUSIVE: The creative team behind the legal thriller Roman J. Israel, Esq is appealing for a retrial. After a Toronto International Film Festival premiere, the drama has been substantially reconfigured by writer/director Dan Gilroy and star Denzel Washington, to become what they feel is a much leaner, tighter and more focused drama. They dropped a dozen minutes from the running time, moved up a key scene, dropped another, and radically changed the musical backdrop. Sony opens the film in a platform run on November 10, broadening November 17 into a wide release for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Washington stars as the title character, a curmudgeonly 60-ish Los Angeles criminal attorney whose wardrobe and ideals come from the socially conscious 70s, but who falls into existential crisis when his law partner suffers a fatal heart attack. Israel is a soft-spoken legal savant who devoted his life to the idealistic championing of the downtrodden. Suddenly, his 70s afro, ill-fitting suits and diet of peanut butter sandwiches seem arcane, especially after he is introduced to his late partner’s slick former law student (Colin Farrell), who has been tasked with winding down the law practice. The changes send Israel down a dangerous path of temptation to replace altruism with materialism.
The film is Gilroy’s second as a director following his stirring debut on Nightcrawler. His sophomore effort got positive but mixed reviews following its single screening in Toronto, but Gilroy and Washington feel that if those reviewers want to give the film a fair trial, they out to come see it again in its final cut form. It is a challenge to present a film at an international festival and then alter it, but it was done with success earlier this year when writer/director Taylor Sheridan trimmed about four minutes from Wind River after its Sundance debut. At Cannes, Sheridan was awarded Best Director in Un Certain Regard for his final version, which went on to become one of the highest grossing prestige film releases of the year.
“The first time we actually showed the film to a real audience was in Toronto,” Gilroy said. “We went right from the cutting room to the Ryerson Theatre. We wanted to make that festival but realized, watching with that crowd, that Denzel so inhabits and embodies his character that we could lean much more into the plot than we had. We re-conceived the balance of the movie, in crucial sections. The day after Toronto, Denzel and I went back into the cutting room and spent weeks making changes. Not just to the pacing. We reordered scenes, we changed elements, particularly with Colin’s character.”
One major change: a scene where Farrell’s lawyer character takes Israel to a Lakers game, and drops his polished veneer to express a longing to embrace his former teacher’s morality lessons. He wants to become a different lawyer and sees the teacher’s partner, Roman J. Israel, Esq., as the linchpin for that ambition. This happens after Israel has gotten himself in serious trouble with dangerous criminals, in pursuit of the material trappings he avoided his whole life.
“That Staples Center scene is crucial not just for Colin’s character but in establishing the tone of the movie, and at Toronto it came near the end, at a point where the suspense part of the story is in such high gear that you can’t even register what Colin is saying and what it means to Roman,” Gilroy said. “We put it much earlier where it becomes more of a pillar for the film. And by doing that, we also then cut out one of the subplots which established the same kind of internal conflict in Roman.”
The Staples Center scene provokes action by Israel to undo a Faustian bargain he made, a dilemma that is the crux of the film’s third act.
Gilroy feels that he, Washington and Gilroy’s film editor brother John would have found their way to this final cut. But they don’t regret coming to Toronto, even though they realized they would be graded on a movie they weren’t quite done with.
“We weren’t worried,” he said. “We looked at it as a very high end test screening. We had the time, the resources, and Denzel and I had been collaborating so closely that we said, let’s go do this. Movies are forever, that’s the way Denzel and I look at it. And a screening for 1200 people in Toronto is not going to define for us what the final version of the movie is. What we did here was strengthen and refocus a film we were already really proud of. We also cut a lot, over 12 minutes of the movie,” he said. “You’re looking at a film where we’ve cut any fat, right down to the muscle. We realized that Denzel’s character was so strong that we could lean more into the plot around him. You’ve never seen him vulnerable like this; it’s a major transformation, physically and emotionally. Watching it with an audience, we realized that beyond his character, there’s a story here that was going to operate better if it was tightened and refocused. That was really the beginning of us getting to change things, including the music cues.”
Washington, who was able to throw himself into the editing process before starting on The Equalizer sequel, guided the changes in the music cues, including the soul and jazz music his character listens to in a small apartment that is chocked with LPs (the first record Roman puts on his turntable now is a jazz song by saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, chosen by Washington). Washington and Gilroy also nuanced the James Newton Howard score and where the music played in scenes. Most directors loathe when actors invade the editing room, particularly when that star is himself an accomplished director. Gilroy said he wouldn’t have had it any other way than to have Washington serve as his wing man.
“Denzel brought so much to the editing room,” Gilroy said. “He has directed three and starred in what, over 40 films? He has incredible instincts for pacing, for story, for finding false notes and knowing when a scene is sagging. He is very objective in taking outside opinions like the ones we got in Toronto, and listening to them. He’s unique that way; a lot of actors can only focus on their own character. I would not usually be inclined toward having an actor come in to the cutting room, but every day, I looked forward to Denzel coming in. The two of us worked so closely with my editor brother John to get to this place. Denzel was an invaluable resource on every level.”
Added Gilroy: “We love our film and we’re showing to certain people who hadn’t seen it before and we’re getting incredible response. Denzel loves it, and his character, evidenced by his coming in and working all these weeks with us to get the film exactly where we wanted it to be.”