Clooney's Michael Clayton

George Clooney stars in the title role of Michael Clayton, a “fixer” at Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, a top Manhattan law firm. A former criminal prosecutor from a working-class neighborhood, Clayton is an anomaly at the white-shoe firm; in spite of his 15-year tenure, he has not been promoted to partner and probably never will be. His boss, Marty Bach, sees Clayton as an invaluable asset to the firm, but only in his “niche,” one that is relegated to cleaning up the Firm's sticky situations quickly and quietly.

Apex of Dissatisfaction

“While Michael is great at solving other people's problems, the film catches him at the apex of dissatisfaction with his career,” says Clooney, who also serves as an executive producer on the film. He started out with ambitions of becoming a trial lawyer, but along the way what he really becomes is a bag man.”

“Michael Clayton is a 45-year-old attorney who feels that he hasn't done everything that he could have done with his life; he's starting to think he should have done something else, or could have done better,” says writer-director Tony Gilroy. “He's made some bad choices and a lot of compromises. He has come to the point in life where his next few decisions will determine everything about him.”

“How we make those choices–how fear, comfort, inertia and self-preservation bend us to the wheel–that's the fuel for the story,” offers Gilroy. In the midst of his discontentment, Michael Clayton is sent to defuse Arthur Edens, Kenner, Bach & Ledeen's chief litigator. The defense architect for the U/North case, Arthur suddenly suffers a crisis of conscience after finding a smoking gun memo that exposes the client's moral turpitude. The character is played by Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson, who notes, “It is very much a road to Damascus moment. Arthur's an expert lawyer who has been at the top of his game for years, but comes to a realization that he's been defending a cancer.”

Clooney the Fixer

“Michael Clayton is a complicated character; he's not a hero who always does the right thing,” says Gilroy. “All the traits that have served him so well before his charm, his ease, his authoritynone of those things are of much use to him as the story progresses. All the charisma in the world isn't going to help you find your way home when you're lost. Lots of actors say they want to play parts like that, but it takes a certain kind of bravery and ambition to hang your neck out there and really do it.”

“One of the things that interested me about this project was that Tony had been saving this script for himself to direct,” states George Clooney. “Tony has had much success as a screenwriter, and has been around the block enough to know what he wants. He was clearly driven to make the film, and his confidence was inspiring.”

Gilroy on Clooney

Gilroy remarks, “George obviously has all the chops, and he's intelligent and charming. He can be very convincing as someone's who's conflicted, which made him perfect for the role.”

Producer Jennifer Fox offers, “George is very believable in the part, and has that unique spark that gives Michael Clayton the ability to charm people into believing that he'll make their problems go away.”

Glorious 1970s

“My first meeting with George lasted eleven hours,” the director recalls. The two found much common ground in their affinity for 1970s cinema and spent much of their marathon meeting discussing their various influences and inspirations, overlapping decisively on such directors as Alan J. Pakula, Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet. “There was a certain electricity about the way films were made in the 1970s. The characters were complex. The films were beautiful, yet they weren't pretty. They didn't always wrap up neatly in the end,” says Gilroy.

“It was a time of groundbreaking social progress, and filmmakers were really into reflecting that,” adds Clooney. “This movie deals with social conscience in an entertaining way. Tony's script was written with the passion of a filmmaker, and scripts like this don't come around very often.”

Drawing inspiration for the backstory of Michael Clayton from his own personal experiences, Gilroy says, “I grew up in Washingtonville, a real cops and-firemen town on the outskirts of New York City. Every kid on my school bus had a father who was either a cop or a fireman. Michael Clayton is from a proud, working-class neighborhood where his father was a cop and his brother, Gene, is now on the force. Michael is the first male in his family who's not a cop.”

Troubled Family

Michael's career choice has created distance between himself and his family. His decision to commit the last 15 years of his life to Kenner, Bach & Ledeen has begun to take its toll. He barely has time to see his 10-year-old son, of whom he shares custody with his ex-wife, and even less time to see his ailing father. Worse, Michael has a younger, alcoholic brother, Timmy, who drove their once-promising business venture into the ground and stuck Michael with an $80,000 debt, a sum he must pay in less than a week to avoid unstated consequences.

Clooney notes, “Michael's one hope for escaping the fixer business was his walk-away money, but that's been blown on the business with Timmy, leaving Michael with very few options.”

Clooney on Tom Wilkinson

For the role of Arthur Edens, senior litigating partner of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen and lead defense architect for the U/North case, Clooney suggested Oscar-nominated actor Tom Wilkinson. “Tom was the first person I thought of,” says Clooney. “He has been so strong in his previous roles and was just perfect for this pivotal character.”

With a recently deceased wife and an estranged daughter, Arthur has no family and is a diagnosed manic-depressive. But as one of the firm's best litigators, he has been ceaselessly devoted to protecting U/North for the last six years. The unintended by-product of Arthur's life choices manifests itself in ways beyond anyone's control, even Michael Clayton's. The film opens with a confessional monologue from Arthur. “It's a classic stream of consciousness speech,” states Wilkinson. “Arthur has this frenzied desire to communicate his epiphany to Michael, whom he trusts and respects.”

Arthur and Michael share a distinct bond solidified through years of working together at Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. Michael's ability to handle crises delicately and effectively had saved Arthur from a prior breakdown eight years ago. Since then, Arthur had agreed to take prescribed medication and to go to Michael if he felt a relapse surfacing. However, this time around, Arthur skips his meds without talking to Michael and has a total and complete breakdown, and begins to construct a case for the other side.

Tilda Swinton

On the client side of the U/North case is Karen Crowder, played by Tilda Swinton. Karen is an aggressively ambitious litigator who has just been promoted to the seat of U/Norths in-house chief counsel, and assumes the duty of guaranteeing a successful outcome in the class action suit. Gilroy remarks that his goal with Karen's character was not to make the faceless corporation the obvious villain. “I have great affection for Karen,” offers Gilroy. “Odd as it may sound, I find a way to root for her in every scene.

Pollack the Partner

Apart from Karen Crowder, the person with perhaps the most at stake is Marty Bach, a founding partner of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, played by Sydney Pollack. “The character I play depends heavily on Michael Clayton to get Arthur under control,” says Pollack. “It's Marty's name on the door, and this incident comes at a critical time when his firm is in the midst of a merger with a company in London, which would be a lucrative buyout for him–a way to retire with a big chunk of change.”

Clooney's Son

In contrast to the high-stakes drama among the main characters, Michael Clayton's son, Henry, is played by 10-year-old Austin Williams. A bright and imaginative boy, Henry is an avid reader of a fictional fantasy novel called 'Realm and Conquest,' which influences both Arthur and Michael in unexpected ways.

Time spent with his own son inspired Gilroy to incorporate this story element. “My son spent a great deal of his childhood obsessed with fantasy fiction. Books, cards, graphic novels, multi-player computer gamesI've been surrounded by this stuff for years,” says the writer-director. Some of it is brilliant. A lot of it's repetitive. But there's a draw to the genre that has a lot to do with the needs of the reader. There's escapism, there are epic journeys and, more subliminally, there's an unexpressed yearning for virtue.

Clooney the Actor-Director

Having enjoyed success as a screenwriter, Gilroy stepped up to the challenges of directing his first feature film, including the formidable task of working with a main cast of seasoned actors, two of whom are acclaimed directors.

Clooney, who made his feature directorial debut in 2002 with 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,' knows what it takes to successfully cross over from another focus into directing. He says, “As a director, you're the general. You've got to be smart enough and convincing enough to make everyone believe in you. The very first minute Tony walked in the office, I thought, “I like this guy and I think he's smart. Most important, he knows what he wants.” Tony was not afraid to make decisions on his own.”