Screenwriter turned director George Nolfi took on a major challenge for his debut feature adapting a Philip K. Dick short story entitled Adjustment Team. Fans have every right to be apprehensive about a new movie inspired by the writings of the visionary novelist and short story writer. The films released have provided plenty of misses and only a few hits. Even the landmark masterpiece Blade Runner took a good ten years to receive its due.
The Adjustment Bureau sees Matt Damon and Emily Blunt play star-crossed lovers who ironically, in the grand scheme of things, should never have met. They do so after a mishap with time lines devised by the shadowy organisation. Nolfi radically interpreted Dick’s work into a tale of love and fate and even dared to have a happy ending.
Nolfi, as writer and director, manages to do his own thing whilst retaining key Dickian themes. It takes place in modern day New York where things are not quite as they seem. Once Norris discovers the existence of the bureau his world gets extremely complicated but he refuses to back down. Starburst recently spoke to the director to discuss taking on the legendary writer’s material, being unafraid to run with it into areas never imagined and why other adaptations failed miserably.
Starburst: Was the Adjustment Bureau a long-time project for you or something more recent?
GN: It was definitely a long-time dream project. My friend and later producing partner brought me a short story by Philip K. Dick about ten years ago and I optioned the story with my own money because I knew I wanted to write it. It’s been nine years of figuring out how to tell the story and took a few years of writing various drafts and setting it up with studios.
You must have been really taken with the material to wait so long?
I was working on other stuff and taking notes periodically for years. When I optioned the story my first movie got made as a writer and then my time was spent – about six years – doing the four movies as a writer that got made, and re-writes I wasn’t credited for. I was really busy as a writer and had no time to stop for six months to stop and nail the script. Finally I had some time to write and did a first draft in four or five months. I brought that draft to the producer and asked him to read it. I gave him the tone of what I wanted and the inner workings of the Adjustment Bureau. The character wasn’t quite there. We worked on David Norris in just a few verbal sessions. I got a call saying ‘come work on The Bourne Ultimatum’, which was another seven months of writing. I didn’t get back to it until after that. I gave it to Matt Damon and he said yes, in principle, and then there was a process of doing little re-writes… then we had to get it to set up!
Were you a fan of Philip K. Dick’s writing or did you just react to this particular story?
To be honest, I reacted to the concepts my producing partner pitched to me. I’d read a little bit of Philip K. Dick but I wasn’t a person who read a ton of sci-fi when I was a kid. I loved films like Blade Runner, Total Recall and, later, Minority Report. I knew it was fertile ground for other filmmakers but mostly it was the story and the ideas in the story. It’s a pretty extreme departure from the source material. That was something we talked about with the Philip K. Dick estate right up front. I told them I’d be going pretty far up field here. I think that’s the mark of a great writer, that the work can be interpreted in so many different ways. You don’t have to tell the story the way the writer did. You can move on from that. Look at Shakespeare. People are using the exact same words but telling the stories in incredibly different ways.
How did you arrive at the romance narrative angle then?
When my producing partner pitched the idea to me he said maybe it could be done as a love story. That made it a lot more interesting to me. It was a way to blend genres in a way I’d never seen. The concepts by Dick were very fresh but it appealed more with the love story. I’m always trying to do something a little different than things that have been done.
This is your debut feature. Did you have to put your foot down with the studio and say ‘I’m directing this’?
I optioned it with my own money because I wanted to control it and because I wanted to direct it. Not once did anybody say ‘hey would you give this to somebody else?’ Everybody was supportive of me taking that first step as a director.
One of my favourite things about the film is use of real locations. It really brings the film alive. Was that always the plan to shoot on the streets of New York?
It was. I love New York. I wrote the script set there and Matt Damon lives there a lot of the time. They have amazing tax credits. I always say it’s the only place in America where the headquarters of fate would be. It was a project that corresponded to all the different reasons to use those locations.
Matt Damon and Emily Blunt share a great chemistry. Were you surprised by that and how did Emily get involved?
Emily read the script and was interested in playing the part. At that point, I was actually looking for a professional dancer and she asked to meet with me and one of the producers. She was very charming and told me that she thought I was going to need a professional actress to do this role… and she was right! I couldn’t find anybody who was a dancer first and pull off the acting part, especially since they would be alongside somebody like Matt who is such a strong actor. She did a screen test with Matt and it was obvious into a few seconds of her screen test that she was the best one. She really delivered.
When it comes to Philip K. Dick adaptations why do you think a great majority fail?
I think that movies and short stories are very different things – even movies and novels are very different things. They have different elements of storytelling and it’s really hard to take one medium and make it work in another. His ideas involve radical shifts in reality and they make you think in philosophical ways. Whenever you try and make one of his works into a film you are getting into deep philosophical territory and it’s hard to place it there if you’re making it into something like Fast Five. How many movies are released per year and how many do you remember? How many do they want to own on DVD… at most ten or fifteen? I wanted to do a movie that when you watch it a second time you see new things and in a different light. I think people want to see The Adjustment Bureau again and they’ll see new things.
The climax of the film divided opinion. Did you write another version for it and did you shoot it?
What I wrote was the ending in the film. I considered two endings. One was they overcome the obstacle of the Adjustment Bureau and that’s in the movie. I also considered, which I’m sure some people would have preferred, where they get broken up and they meet again later and you get the sense that they may have a relationship. I just thought that second one had been done in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and it reminded me of that Warren Beatty movie… I forget the name…
Heaven Can Wait?
Yeah that one. I wanted the theme of the movie to come out more clearly… this idea of no matter what the obstacles that are put in your way you can make choices that can beat it.
Have you any plans to direct again?
Absolutely. I put all my energy into The Adjustment Bureau and I’m just starting to figure out what will be the next thing.
The Adjustment Bureau is released Monday 4th July on Blu-ray and DVD