Screenwriter, scholar and first-time director George Nolfi ponders whether our lives are determined by fate or free will in the romantic thriller The Adjustment Bureau.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
When it comes to political philosophy, especially as it pertains to the shaping of mass values, George Nolfi, the first-time director and screenwriter behind the new Emily Blunt/Matt Damon romantic thriller The Adjustment Bureau, knows his stuff. Despite the baseball cap and athletic, Boston-Irish look, he’s a serious scholar who graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's in public policy from Princeton and studied philosophy at Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship before switching to the political science doctoral program at UCLA.
But Nolfi also wrote Ocean’s Twelve and worked extensively on the script for The Bourne Ultimatum, so he knows his way around a screenplay. His unique charm is somewhere between Columbo, a PhD candidate, and a corner bar Red Sox fan (Nolfi was born in Boston, but later moved to a suburb of Chicago as a teenager), and he is earnestly passionate about exploring the philosophical, moral, and political issues he has studied through the lens of film, where he hopes he can take a dry subject and make it appealing to a much larger audience.
“Film is a way to raise larger questions in a way that people want to engage with as opposed to it smelling like spinach,” he says. “Academic philosophers talk to a really small group of people who are also academics, but the question of what society values is hugely important for everything from whether or not the Egyptian army fires on its own people to whether we have heath care in the United States that tries to include everybody.”
Bureau is loosely based on a premise from a same-titled Philip K. Dick story he optioned several years ago. Where Dick’s original short was all sci-fi/psycho-thriller, Nolfi expanded the film’s canvas to encompass politics, reality, and romance. At its core, the film is about whether fate is a thing to be accepted or challenged and shaped.
Nolfi spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about The Adjustment Bureau, the crucial involvement of his pal Matt Damon, and how this final script is largely a product of the writers’ strike.
This is based on the Philip K. Dick story, but really in premise only, correct?
Yeah, it’s an incredibly fertile premise and big idea, but the characters, ultimate theme, and tone are different than the short story.
Photo: © 2011 Universal Pictures
Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau.
What are some of the big thematic issues for you in your script and film?
It’s fundamentally about whether or not we let life and the constraints and obstacles that everyone faces determine our path or whether we say, “No matter what gets put in my way, I’m going to make my own way in life.” Do you let your life be controlled by fate or do you seize your free will? That’s obviously one of the oldest questions in philosophy and it’s central to any moral theory or religion, so it’s fertile ground, but it’s also deep underneath there, so I wanted to build an architecture around those concepts that was a thriller and a love story.
Basically, it’s about a man falling in love for the first time in his life and fate intervening to say, “Sorry, you can’t be with her.”
The love story element is a key change from the source material. What made you choose to go with it?
[The short story] is about a guy who wakes up, goes to work, and sees something he’s not supposed to see – the agents of fate working on somebody and freezing time, and then they chase him down. It’s a dystopic, ‘50s, ‘60s kind of tone. But what if you did it as a guy-meets-girl [story] and [the Bureau] tries to take her away from him?
In the first formation of the adaptation, I felt like I knew how to do that. It was a blending of genres – love story and thriller. I felt like I could integrate my longtime interest in large philosophical questions, but presented in a kind of thriller structure. What better to fight fate for than love? From the oldest stories, Gilgamesh and Greek [mythology], it’s either you’re fighting to be immortal against death or you’re fighting for love.
Did you know Matt Damon was attached from the beginning of the writing?
I had a rough script right before he went off to shoot Bourne [Ultimatum], and I said, “If I didn’t know you, I wouldn’t give you this script because it’s not there yet, but I want you to tell me if you think the realm and world and idea are interesting to you. And then let’s have a conversation about the character.”
He read it and said he was interested. I think the script takes you both to a place where you say, that’s what Matt Damon does really well and yet at the same time, it’s things he hasn’t really done before. It has a fantastical, supernatural aspect to it and a real love story and that’s not what people think of when they think of Matt. They think of super-realistic, grounded – even when he does Bourne, it’s not James Bond, it’s the opposite.
After that initial conversation, I put it aside to work on Bourne for seven months, but when we were done, we had a few conversations. I had an idea of a couple of things to make it better from his standpoint, plus a lot of my own ideas that just happen when you let something germinate for seven months while you’re working on something else.
So just to get this straight, you gave Matt a full script initially?
And then had seven months away from it?
Yes, and then I took a few months off because I needed a break and then a few months to fulfill a few other obligations. Then when the writers’ strike happened, I said, “Well, I’ll sit down and see if I can notch this up.”
So this is partly a baby of the strike?
Yeah. Well, there was the first draft that I showed Matt, and then there was the rewrite I finally did during the strike. He read it and said he liked it.
That must be a nice thing to hear from Matt Damon.
It was awesome. There are a lot of steps between an actor saying he’s interested in doing something and getting the money and going and doing it, but, yeah, it was great.