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Writer's move to director goes according to script

"Hollywood likes things that win," Tony Gilroy said.

He ought to know. Gilroy's screenplays for the "Bourne" series starring Matt Damon have kept him on a five-year winning streak that seems likely to continue. Gilroy's directorial debut, "Michael Clayton," just opened to strong reviews.

"Hard to believe he's a rookie," said George Clooney, who stars in the title role, during an interview when he was at the Boston Film Festival last month to present an award to producer Jerry Weintraub. "Don't know what took him so long to become a director. Tony's got a presence about him."

That presence was apparent as Gilroy sat in a hotel suite last month. He has the air of someone who doesn't miss much - or necessarily give much away. Lean, casual, alert, with a lot of coiled energy, he looked like a younger, hungrier Robert De Niro: very sharp, quite smooth, but not completely smooth - the slight rough edge retained by choice.

It's not easy to imagine Gilroy as a fixer for a high-powered Manhattan law firm. It is, however, easy to imagine him understanding one. Clooney, as the title character, plays just such a fixer in "Michael Clayton." When a settlement in a multi-billion-dollar class-action suit goes off the rails, it's up to Clayton to save the day - and maybe his soul.

Steve Samuels, one of the film's producers, praised Gilroy during an interview at the Boston Film Festival. Gilroy has "a very interesting personality," Samuels said. "When he walks into the room, you want to know the guy. He exudes a confidence."

The idea for the movie originated a decade ago, Gilroy said. He was spending time in legal offices researching his script for "The Devil's Advocate," about an ambitious young lawyer (Keanu Reeves) who discovers he's working for Satan (Al Pacino).

"What I found there was this arena," Gilroy said. "Pretty much when you see movies about lawyers you're in wood-paneled rooms or courtrooms. It's like going to a restaurant and thinking there's only the dining room. Well, there's a kitchen and there's the basement and there are all these people. This is really rich, dramatic territory."

Gilroy began work on a script. Around the same time, he also began thinking about directing.

"I don't think it's really possible for a screenwriter to be completely satisfied," Gilroy said. "If you're writing well, you're really seeing a film. You spend a long time making it in your head. Even when things are so much better than you imagined them, it's still disorienting when someone comes in from the left instead of the right."

Gilroy comes by his screenwriting naturally. His father, Frank D. Gilroy, is a screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright ("The Subject Was Roses"). His brother Dan is a screenwriter, too. Close enough is another brother John, a film editor, who edited "Michael Clayton." "I'm second-generation imagination," Gilroy said.

Originally, Gilroy wanted to be a musician. He spent two years at Boston University in the mid-'70s before dropping out to concentrate on his music career. "I was so eager to get out, to get to a city," said Gilroy, who was raised in upstate New York. "I loved it here." He sang and played guitar with several locals bands. At the end of the decade, he made the big move to New York. Rock stardom did not ensue.

"I decided I would write a screenplay and pick up some quick cash," Gilroy recalled. "I spent five years tending bar in New York trying to figure out how to write screenplays and fell in love with it."

Gilroy had his first script produced in 1992, "The Cutting Edge," so he didn't make the jump to directing without having been around a few film sets. "Look, I'm 50!" he said with a laugh. "There are some real advantages to being a little bit wise when you do this. First of all, you know that the overwhelmingly important part of the job is hiring the right people."

"Michael Clayton" boasts an impressive lineup of talent both behind the camera (cinematographer Robert Elswit) and in front of it (Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack). But the rightest of the right people, Gilroy said, was Clooney.

"It gets sort of silly after a while to talk about how great he is, but he really is. Over time, in every situation, from the moment he came on, he's been a protector of the film - creatively, economically, in every way.

"He changes everything. Number one, [his presence] gives you a [financial] formula so that you can make a movie like this. You don't want to make this movie expensively; and this is a very inexpensive film. So he waives his fee. So now you can make a movie that sits at a number where you can have ambiguity and complexity. At a certain economic number, you have to start underlining everything. Bad guys have to wear black hats over a certain amount. It allows you to keep the number down.

"It also means that I don't have to cast anybody else from any pressure from anything. I don't have to make a foreign-sales number. I don't have to hit some demographic and have somebody else say, 'Oh, we wouldn't want her,' 'Would you take a look at him?' I don't have to do that at all. We could cast who we want. And having Clooney also attracts people. You're trying to get the best crew. 'So what movie are you going to take this spring?' 'Well, there's this movie and that movie.' 'I heard there's one with George Clooney.' It filters down, all the way down."

Even as a film veteran who had Clooney aboard, Gilroy said that being a first-time director "was not without anxiety." Still, he relished the experience, he said, and hopes to direct again.

"The best part of directing," Gilroy observed, "is that everybody wants to help you. Everybody wants to help you. When you write, nobody wants to help you. Nobody cares. I sat in a room for 20 years. Your wife doesn't even care! People pretend to care. Nobody can help you. You're just all alone. And it's a hard job.

"Suddenly, as a director, you come out there and you have an office and - everybody - wants - to - help - you." Gilroy shook his head, betraying equal parts wonderment and consternation. "I mean people will help you to death. That's one of the very first lessons. You say, 'God, I'd kind of like to see some whipped cream over there,' and you turn around. 'Wait a minute, not a mountain of it!' So it's extra sweet for the writers who make the transition.

"The worst part is all of a sudden you're seeing things that are really out of your control. Worrying about weather, worrying about the health and the safety of the 14 people you can't do without for the next two weeks. I guess that's the corollary to what's so good about it. You also, all of a sudden, become very vulnerable - so you need all these people who are so helpful to you."

Carol Beggy of the Globe staff contributed to this article. Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney @globe.com.

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