The Twisted Mind Behind Julia

The director of Duplicity, a modern day spy adventure that revels in the dirty work of CEOs, discusses why Julia Roberts works on the big screen, how romance isn’t a stretch from the boardroom, and the counterintelligence “brain drain.”

03.21.09 7:05 AM ET

Tony Gilroy is a man who loves puzzles. The director of Michael Clayton and writer of the Jason Bourne series has emerged again with Duplicity, a twisted romp into the affairs on the corporate world. His perfectionism is intriguing enough to warrant a profile in The New Yorker and he’s known for constructing narratives too cunning to be whittled into Hollywood clichés.

In Duplicity, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play former CIA and MI-6 agents who dive into the world of counterintelligence and grapple with big business and loving each other—but loving their lies even more. The timely film hinges on a complicated game of corporate espionage: As the CEO of Equikrom, Paul Giamatti is a high gloss finish of himself, a ringer for Amazon’s Jeff Bezos who subsists on the attention of his shareholders and his hatred of rival corporation Burkett & Randle and its corner office titan, played with aplomb by Tom Wilkinson. The two companies and their cutthroat leaders are on a high-stakes race to discover the plans for an innovative and highly secretive new product that would spike even the sluggish markets.

We sent Paul Giamatti to some eastside CEO spa for the day, just like the Cowardly Lion, and they made him over: manicure, shave, barbering, and god knows what the hell else they did.

Tony Gilroy talked to The Daily Beast about the hierarchy of actors, making over Paul Giamatti, and how a CEO brawl reminds him of the playground.

Everyone in Duplicity lies—to themselves, to each other, to those who trust them. This feels especially relevant now with Bernie Madoff and John Thain making headlines.

Well, [Julia] and [Clive] are people who are supposed to be lying professionally as opposed to people who are supposed to be telling the truth, but who are turning out to be professional and liars. The job of a counterintelligence officer and a field agent working for the CIA or the MI-6, their job is not to tell the truth.

There really isn’t anything in the movie that isn’t true. The competitive intelligence business is enormous. I didn’t have to make up anything to put it in the movie, I actually had to consolidate some things, and push some stories around and I intensify a little bit but there isn’t anything in the movie that doesn’t happen [in real life].

How challenging was it to inject romance into the staid world of corporate affairs?

This is romance between two people who are in the very unusual position where their jobs make them really good at being liars and make them very suspicious of everything else that goes on. Trust is a very diminished quality in both of them, and when two people like that carry on a love affair, that’s what’s interesting—what happens if they actually get off on the idea of not trusting each other? That’s what I’m exploring here. It is what it is. I never think about it as corporate or where they are, it’s who they are.

Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti portray dueling, power-hungry CEOs, which isn’t hard to imagine.

These are two guys who, from a business point-of-view, have their own personal blood feud hatred of each other. There is this complete imperial sense to both Tom and Paul, it’s a very comfortable thing to say “Here, put this suit on.” Paul came in late, just a few weeks before shooting, and he just came back from Russia where he was doing Cold Souls and was just a mess, and had a beard, and when I met him I said, “Paul, I need you to be a total winner, you don’t look like a winner.” We sent him to some eastside CEO spa for the day, just like the Cowardly Lion, and they made him over: manicure, shave, barbering, and god knows what the hell else they did. They put a suit on him, brought him back, and he said, “Yeaaah, I feel like this guy now.”

How accessible is information about the lengths companies go to protect their secrets?

Competitive intelligence has its own trade organization—they have conventions and much of what they do and what they say what they do is above board and using public records and making sure you know everything about your competitor that you possibly can, which includes combing quarterly reports, and the rest of it. There is a very large operative end to this, and there isn’t a major corporation on the planet that doesn’t have, at the very least, a very strong defensive unit to protect themselves.

How has corporate espionage remained such an untapped subject?

My big fear over this project, which I wrote six years ago, is I thought this was such an incredibly juicy subject and I couldn’t believe no one else was doing anything with it. I was in constant fear that someone else was going to come and take the air out of it.

Even you were looking over your shoulder at the competition…that’s a meta moment.

I wasn’t worried about being ripped off necessarily, but just that someone would do it, and all the people that I’ve met over the years that I’ve spoken to while doing research on traditional spy movies, and the people I’ve done research with have all gone to the private sector. There’s actually a huge economic brain drain from the intelligence services of all these people who go private because they can make a lot more money, live a lot better and not have to worry about life and death issues.

Do you think audiences derive some satisfaction from seeing larger-than-life CEOs taken down a peg?

There have been all kinds of leaders in corporate America, people that have been totally out front—showmen, big, wild, larger-than-life characters—and they’ve been very successful, and there are people who you never see a picture of. You don’t have to spend any time convincing people that these two guys hate each other.

Their slow-motion slapfight on the tarmac certainly showed that.

I don’t have to spend any time after that scene telling you they hate each other. You get it from that point on.

That’s exactly how I imagine CEOs would brawl.

Right, just like third graders.

Your scripts are all very character-driven. How do actors become experienced enough to carry the weight of a great script?

The audience ultimately makes that decision. Actors have to wait for someone to put them to work, they can’t generate their own lives. There’s such an element of luck involved, and there’s so much anxiety or craziness that goes with that, and then finally, in the end, the audience looks at them and says, “I want to be with that person again.” Your movie stars are really brilliant actors [first] and then something else happens that the audience wants to be involved in.

Does writing carry the same level of stress?

I don’t think there’s that much luck involved. There’s some, but it’s absolutely negligible compared to acting. Writers can make their own life. Nothing can stop them from writing, and sooner or later if you’re writing enough brilliant scripts or novels, there are enough people involved that it’s going to come to the forefront. Actors have no such outlet. They can’t sit in a room and perform—I can sit in my room and write and can pull it from out of my head. As an actor you have to wait for someone to tell you to go to work.

There are many flashbacks and reversals in your films that require the audience’s full attention. How does the complex storyline challenge you?

It’s easier to talk about as a writer, because as a director I’m just trying to serve the script. I don’t ever really start out saying I really want to go back and forth in time. My two main criteria are that I want to hang out to your attention for two hours and not have you be bored, and to tell the story that I set out to tell, and I’ve learned over time that I’ll do anything to tell that story. And if telling the story means using flashbacks, then I will.

Kara Cutruzzula is a culture reporter at The Daily Beast and recent graduate of UCLA.