At first glance, Tony Gilroy does not seem like a writer familiar with the concept of “development hell.” One of the most prolific scribes in the film industry, Gilroy’s name can be found at the top of everything from the Bourne franchise to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to Michael Clayton (which he also directed). Yet the 61-year-old New Yorker has also spent the past two decades carrying around one of his first scripts: Beirut. Until now, that is. On April 13, the Middle East thriller – set in 1982, at the height of Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization tensions – finally makes its way to theatres, with Jon Hamm starring and Brad Anderson (The Machinist) directing. The Globe and Mail spoke with Gilroy about the gap, the industry and what it takes to rewrite a younger version of yourself.
Beirut opens as a bit of an outlier. It’s not based on a novel, there’s no franchise aspirations, there’s no intellectual property attached.
I know! Do you think we’ll find an audience? It’s interesting. …
Well, are you skeptical that it will?
I would that say my entire experience on this film has been one of surprised incredulity all the way down the line. In a pleasing way, but if [it found an audience] that would be the final bit of miracle. I wrote this back in 1991, so it’s quite a miracle for me that it’s finally been made.
What inspired the idea?
On the very first movie I ever made, The Cutting Edge, which was shooting in Toronto, I was on the set there. And the producer, Robert W. Cort, had been in the CIA as an analyst. We were reading the same books, both of us fascinated with the Middle East, and so after that I spent a year writing this script, in 1990-91, just researching and writing. You couldn’t actually get on the ground in Beirut at the time and we were preinternet, but my office became a warren of Beirut for a year, filled with boxes and boxes of research.
And then, the two-decade-plus gap happened.
It was a popular script at the time and a lot of A-list people flirted with it over the years. It got me a lot of attention and became a great calling card. But two things happened. First, the politics seemed much more inflammatory at the time. The portrayal of Israel, of the PLO, the Reagan White House. There were not a lot of heroes in the film and that was much more radioactive in the nineties, so people got spooked. The second thing was, I was writing in 1990 or 91 about 1982, and a 10-year callback is not a very interesting lens. And again, my research was library clippings, books. Twenty years later, when the producers said they had Jon and Brad, I went back and read it again and knew I needed to make another pass at it. There’s a lot more literature now about what happened and what had been red meat to some people 20 years ago was now almost quaint. Plus, all of a sudden, 1982 looked sort of sexy.
Is that unusual, though, getting the chance to go back at a script that’s been passed around for 20 years?
I like to think I’m as steeped in screenwriter history as most anyone you would talk to and I’m sure something like this has happened before, but I don’t know the analog to it, no. I ended up spending 10 weeks on the rewrite, not changing the plot or adding or subtracting characters, but more granular work. I’d tell my wife I’m collaborating with myself over a 20-year period, rewriting the younger version of myself. I was both impressed with what I’d done and irritated with the younger version of me.
Did you find that you’re more of, say, a cynical writer today than you were back then?
It was two things: There was a level of proficiency that appears to be slicked through the writing, which I was embracing then. It was orchestrating scenes around lines, like “I have a great line, and I have to protect it,” and then perverting the truth of things to get at something that I thought was really slick. That’s been beaten out of me since. You learn to trust the camera more, the actors more. The other thing is more substantial, in that I was a young man writing about disappointment. I knew what it looked like, but I didn’t know how it felt. It seemed more voyeuristic, whereas I was able to inhabit it in a more organic way this time.
Do you think the reason this finally got made is because it’s a lower-budget effort than it once was intended to be?
This was supposed to be a Peter Weir film, a Wolfgang Petersen film, starring Michael Douglas or Mel Gibson. It was going to be an expensive early-nineties prestige studio picture. Sydney Pollack or maybe John Frankenheimer! Part of my feelings of incredulity here was when the producers came back to me with Jon and Brad, I was like, “Great! But you want to make it for only how much?” I didn’t think it was going to happen and I didn’t want it to look malnourished. But none of those things happened. They bedazzled me every step of the way. The fact that they pulled this off, I’m very impressed.
How much of your surprise is also tied into the current landscape right now, especially for adult-targeted dramas with no IP?
You know exactly how ghettoized the marketplace is right now. But [distributor] Bleecker Street is confident. We took it out to [Sundance], not to sell it, but to show it, and we got nice reviews. Jon feels like a giant movie star here. But I don’t know. Maybe we’ll sneak it through. Maybe this can be a nice little unicorn for this quarter. I see the same things you see – this is not a slam dunk by any measure.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Beirut opens April 13.