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The Adjustment Bureau – George Nolfi interview

The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi

Interview by Rob Carnevale

GEORGE Nolfi talks about writing and directing The Adjustment Bureau and going outside of the genre to combine elements of science fiction, action and romance.

He also discusses his views on faith and whether the film is religious and what he gained from the experience as a first-time director.

Q. What made you decide to tackle Philip K Dick’s short story, The Adjustment Team, and bring such a mix of genres to it: action, sci-fi and romance?
George Nolfi: Well, what attracted me to the project was the premise of the short story, but the short story was fairly narrow. It was just the idea of a guy being in conflict with fate, and fate not being some intellectual idea but fate being people. And people who are all around us but we don’t realise it. I realised that I could take it in a direction that would be outside of a genre, or a blend of genres, and that really excited me and propelled the long process of trying to figure out how to make the script work. It’s very challenging when you write outside of a genre because you have no example to look at when you have a problem. You can’t say: “Oh, how did they do it in The Fugitive?” Because there is no Fugitive to look at.

Q. At what point during the writing process did you decide to make it your first feature film as a director as well?
George Nolfi: I spent my own money optioning the short story because I thought I wanted to direct this for my first movie… probably naively because it’s a lot of things. I was biting off a lot. But I probably didn’t realise when I set out how ambitious this would be. I was just fascinated by the story and fascinated by the idea of adding a love story to it, and the thought in my head that I could take it into this genre blending space. It was only after years of confronting the problems in what the script would be… because I spent about six years just thinking about it, that I realised this was going to be tough. But the script was where the work was.

Q. The love story aspect is one of the most surprising elements of the film and it works really well. The chemistry between Emily Blunt and Matt Damon is great. When did you know you had it?
George Nolfi: You do try to get in the script characters who, on the page, have chemistry. That’s a crucial starting place. I already had Matt cast, so I was like: “Well, I know these characters on the page read for me and for other people as having this electric chemistry, but I just need to find a woman who can be the Elise character and bring that character off the page.” I realised I had it when Emily came in and did a screen test with Matt. It was so apparent.

Q. But sometimes that doesn’t translate to the screen, once you get on set. Was that a problem you were aware of and worried about as a first-time director? That this could make or break the movie given…
George Nolfi: Not in this… but again I was probably naive [laughs]. I knew lots of actors and I’d spent a long time on sets, so I never really worried about the dealing with actors part of it. So, once I had seen it I knew it would happen on-set. And also these were very extensive screen tests with a director of photography and 30-person crew. We did three extensive scenes and multiple takes. So, there was no question.

Q. Where do you stand on the issue of fate? Are you a believer in things being pre-determined? Or do we have free will?
George Nolfi: I think it’s both, which is what the movie struggles with. Fate doesn’t have to be this big grand idea from the Gods. You can just view it metaphorically and I think should view it both ways. But metaphorically it’s… the country you’re born in, the language you speak, the neighbourhood you’re born in, what your parents do for a living, who your friends are, the chance things that happen to you, your health… mean, so many things shape your life and push you down a certain path.

I don’t think there’s any human being on the planet that doesn’t have the experience of: “I really want this thing, but I feel like there are all these obstacles, or these things that are thwarting me that are outside of my life.” We know that we make choices in life that lead us in one direction or another, and they’re hugely impactful on the outcome. But we also know that there are these massive, overbearing forces of nature and society that shape your path.

The Adjustment Bureau

Q. Are you intrigued to see how people read the adjustment bureau itself? It could be interpreted on a strictly religious level, even though you never say the Chairman is God… But some people could make that leap and accuse it of being religious?
George Nolfi: It is an accusation for some people! I definitely didn’t set out to make a religious movie. I set out to make the bureau able to be interpreted in a lot of different ways. I think that what a film should do ideally is take you through a fun, thrilling, entertaining ride and then leave you at the end, as you walk out of the cinema, that you can talk to your friends about. And so that’s all I wanted to do – take the last moments of the film into a space that most people don’t think about. Some people deal with that space by thinking: “Is my life more determined or is it more what I choose to do?”

Some people think great literature deals with that. Other people deal with it by saying: “Well, the social forces are what make you who you are.” And other people deal with it by saying: “You know, there’s God.” So, it’s not for me to say. It’s for me to say: “Hey, these are fundamental human questions that 3,000 years ago people were dealing with and the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare.” Obviously, it’s not new territory. It’s territory that humans have always grappled with and struggled with and you bring to the movie your own backgrounds and thoughts and interpretations of that and hopefully walk out and have conversations with your friends about it.

Q. How has your friendship with Matt Damon evolved since you first started working together on Ocean’s 12?
George Nolfi: Well, with Matt it’s the same evolution that there would be with any friend you work with, right? You work with somebody and you’re friendly with them and you get to know each other more and more. So, you have a short-hand that develops and it’s a great thing if you can find a colleague who you are also friends with and have similar interests and tastes with.

Q. How have you evolved as a director since making The Adjustment Bureau?
George Nolfi: That’s a much harder one. You know, probably in so many subtle ways that I can’t say. There isn’t something that I learned on the set where I’d now say to myself: “I’m never going to do that again!” It was a really good experience but the body of knowledge that you gain by being on sets and working with actors and all of the things that I started doing when I was a writer then became useful to me as a director because you then have to start making all the decisions yourself. So, you learn something new to add to that every day. I’m sorry, that’s probably not a cool answer for you.

Q. But you’ve caught the bug and will continue to direct?
George Nolfi: Oh definitely. I loved it!

Read our review of The Adjustment Bureau