Interview: Adjustment Bureau George Nolfi Talks Architecture And God

Given his background in studying philosophy and political science, it's no surprise that for his first film George Nolfi is taking your classic Philip K. Dick sci-fi story and turning it into a love story that's also about God and politics. In The Adjustment Bureau Nolfi sends Matt Damon-- for whom he wrote both Ocean's Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum previously-- on a race across New York City, first to find the woman who first captivated him (Emily Blunt) the night he lost the election to become senator, then to find the mysterious men who seem to want to keep him from her. As the movie goes forward it dredges up all kinds of philosophical and even spiritual issues, from the nature of fate to what happens if there really is a higher power keeping an eye on all of us.

Nolfi wants you to know, though, that the movie is also a "rollicking good time," and boasts some of the best on-location New York City cinematography you'll see all year. Below check out my interview with Nolfi, in which he talks about making the transition from screenwriter to director, how Steven Soderbergh inspired him, and the hidden meaning behind all the spectacular locations you see in the movie. The Adjustment Bureau opens this Friday.

You went from this academic world [Nolfi studied philosophy at Oxford and has Ph.D. in political science] to being a screenwriter-- was directing always part of the plan too?

I was naive, because when I got really seriously interested in writing screenplays for the the first time, I was in England, studying philosophy at Oxford. I was 7,000 miles away from the center of the film business, and i thought it was a simpler process than it is. From the beginning I thought, oh, writing and directing are the same kind of thing, trying to shape this story. It wasn't until I got out to Los Angeles and realized how hard it is to sell a script, much less get it made, that I had a better appreciation for how hard it was to even get the opportunity to direct.

The perception of writers, especially on large movies, is that the writer is at the bottom of the totem pole and everything gets changed. Did you have experiences like that on your previous films, and was that a shift working on this?

I know a lot of people feel that, or that's the reputation, that writers don't have any power in the moviemaking process. But I wouldn't say that was my experience. There is no way in film to not ultimately have the director be the person who has veto power, because they have so many decisions they have to make that are shaping the movie. In my experience, I had a really good collaboration with all the directors I worked with. It was a mutually respectful one in which I could have a great deal of influence.

Did any of the directors you've worked with previously particularly influence the way you made The Adjustment Bureau?

Probably the person who had the most influence on me as a director was Soderbergh, because Ocean's Twelve was the second movie where I was on the set. It's obviously a big production with a lot of stars, and there's no yelling or screaming, it's an incredibly efficient set that Steven runs. He's very concerned about telling the story in a visual way. If you turn the sound off, you would be able to watch the movie and understand what's going on. That was a real revelation to me, as a person who hadn't gone to film school and hadn't spent a ton of time studying movies. To realize the power that was in your hands to tell your story visually was something that Steven really introduced me to. I was pretty vocal about asking him questions after he did shots. He was kind enough to give me some insight into that. That opened a lot of doors for me and helped me see what the tools were, and see how I could use the visuals to really deepen the story and tell it at a different level.

I was so taken with the visuals of The Adjustment Bureau, because of the version of New York it presents. The bathroom at the Waldorf, the court at Centre Street-- all this architecture an locations. How did you pick those locations and how did you set up the look of this world?

Locations were hugely important to me. Many of them were written into the script, because I knew the city pretty well. The look of the film, obviously people tend to think of what the DP does, but the look of the film is equally determined by the locations. The goal of grounding the whole film in realism was probably my paramount goal, or touchstone as a filmmaker. I knew I was dealing with material that was difficult and stood outside of genre. To keep the tone consistent so you knew where you were in the movie and what to feel, it needed to be grounded in something, and my choice was realism.

The one location that's inside the Adjustment Bureau itself looks like the reading room at the New York Public Library-- is that actually it, or is it a set?

It is the actual reading room.

It looks so impossibly huge.

It is a bigger room than you realize when you're standing there, because there's a large central section to that space. We took out the central section to that space with visual effects, then we used lenses that are wider than your eye is, so it makes it a bigger space.

Same with the lobby too, you see it in one shot. Everything looks so impossibly huge.

If you look at ancient architecture, pyramids, Mayan pyramids, Greek remains or whatever, all these structures built by powerful or built to represent the gods, they were always huge. They were designed to convey to the person in them that you were small in relation to them.

Even the locations not technically related to the bureau-- the Brooklyn Bridge, the Court House--were huge like that. Were you trying to evoke that bigger power, of something huge looming over everybody?

Absolutely. One of the reasons New York is such a great place for the story is New York is monumental. The buildings are larger than human scale. The use of doors to suggest that there are lots of choices that you have in life, one door or another. The long corridors that visually suggest being constrained on a particular path. The stairwell imagery suggesting moving toward a higher power. There's a lot of things that are subtextual like that.

The movie evokes a God in some sense, though you're careful not to be specific about it. Do you want people to put their own religious ideas into it, or do you want it to be its own separate thing with spiritual overtones?

I want the audience to come out of the movie with questions, confronting some of these larger, deeper issues, and to be able to take their own beliefs and the questions in the movie and have conversations that arise from that. First and foremost, I want people to have a rollicking good time in the movie, and I think it delivers on that front. But i want them to come out with the sense that there are these deeper questions, and things people sweep under the rug and don't think about and there are so many other things to think about in life. If it makes a religious person think about their beliefs, then great, and if it challenges their beliefs, then great.

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend