The Adjustment Bureau – Director George Nolfi on falling inside genre bounds

The Adjustment Bureau – Director George Nolfi on falling inside genre bounds

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The Adjustment Bureau - Director George Nolfi
Writer/director/producer George Nolfi © 2011 Universal

The Adjustment Bureau marks George Nolfi’s directorial debut. An accomplished screenwriter, he has penned such successful movies as The Sentinel, Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum.

Nolfi was raised in Boston, Chicago and Washington and he did his graduate study in philosophy at Oxford and political science at UCLA.

The Adjustment Bureau stars Matt Damon as David Norris, a politician who has just lost a big election. Just before he is to make his concession speech he bumps into a New York dancer named Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). There is an instant attraction between them, but when they decide to see each other again David is approached by a mysterious organization called the Adjustment Bureau who informs him that she is not supposed to be a part of his destiny.

You’ve written movies that have starred Matt Damon. When you adapted this screenplay did you specifically have him in mind?

The Adjustment Bureau - Matt Damon and Director George Nolfi
David Norris (Matt Damon) and writer/director/producer George Nolfi © 2011 Universal

I didn’t know Matt when I first optioned the material, so I didn’t have him in mind at first. I definitely had the thought that I wanted an everyman to play it.

It was five years of gestation before I had a script, and by the time I was writing the script I had worked with Matt on Ocean’s Twelve and I’d gotten to know him pretty well, because I was there for 85 days during the shoot.

When I sat down to do it I thought, Matt’s really the best everyman we have in the industry. I told him very briefly about the idea and then I said, ‘I’m going to write you something and show it to you.’

I took him a script that I didn’t think was perfect, it had a different character, basically just a businessman instead of a politician, and then we really made it a movie that has as much of him in it as possible after that.

Was concept a hard sell to Matt Damon?

The Adjustment Bureau - Director George Nolfi, Emily Blunt and Matt Damon
Writer/director/producer George Nolfi, Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) and David Norris (Matt Damon) © 2011 Universal

The movie has a very unusual tone, it doesn’t fall inside genre bounds and when you don’t have a genre to guide you it’s very hard, particularly on the page, to make it clear what that tone is. What I did say is that the way that it’s shot, all the dialogue and the way that the characters are portrayed [has to be] real, that was going to be our guide as much as possible. That would make everything fit together.

We start out for two minutes in what seems to be a political drama, then it becomes a love story and then has a twist twenty-five minutes in that turns it completely on its head into a fantastical or sci fi-tinged thriller.

How would you describe the Adjustment Bureau?

They’re an expression of a higher power, so it’s not like a government agency that doesn’t want you to do something. They have powers that go way beyond what the earthly powers of an intelligence organization would be. They set us on the course that we are supposed to be set onto so we will follow the grand plan. To them they just work at a bureau. They might as well work in the IRS; they’re doing their job.

Why did you choose New York as the central location for the movie?

The Adjustment Bureau - Director George Nolfi
Writer/director/producer George Nolfi on the set © 2011 Universal

New York is central to my vision of the story for a number of reasons. If there is an American city that stands for the most powerful city – it’s got to be New York.

Aside from filmmaking, my favorite art forms are architecture and dance. So by setting it in New York and constructing my head an Adjustment Bureau that was a big, massive, tall building – that allowed me to play out my interests in architecture. Then, Elise allowed me to get into the dance world. Both of those things are centered, at least in the U.S., in New York City

Why did you choose a dancer to be the person David Norris would fall in love with?

For many reasons, a dancer has a different life than a politician, far less calculating. You can argue that dance is about the purest expression of free will. Although alternately, you could say if you’re following a routine or a choreographed piece, then you don’t have any free will at all. There’s the complexity in this character that I like.

Why are the members of Adjustment Bureau all men?

The Adjustment Bureau - Emily Blunt and Matt Damon
Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) and David Norris (Matt Damon) © 2011 Universal

Because initially I was going to show the Chairman at the end and have the Chairman be in female form, and I wanted the surprise of that. I shot the scene and was worried about it, because it’s obviously treading on very complex territory, especially because I didn’t want anybody to mistake it as really male or female.

Part of what’s nice about them all being men, but saying, ‘The Chairman comes in all different forms,’ is that it makes people say, ‘They’re not men, they are just in that form.’

Can you talk about the question of free will that is the basis of this movie and how your education in political science influences your choices in your storytelling?

It’s always there. It’s there when you’re saying, ‘What makes sense for the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, finding out that he freely choose to be put in the position where he’d be trained and treated to become who he was, is dealing with the issue of choice and is it free or is it compelled?

If I was writing a paper in philosophy I would be making a certain argument, and a hundred people would read it. But if you’re going to send something out into the world that you hope will be a fun, engaging movie with interesting characters, with pace and momentum, you have to [make it palatable] because movies are expensive and they get really boring if they’re ponderous.

Even caring about the issues I care about, I’m not going to have the answer that no systematic philosophy or religion has had the answer to, so I just tried to make the argument in a lot of different ways.