BY BRENDA VONGOVA
Michael Clayton tells the story of attorney Clayton (George Clooney), an in-house “fixer” at Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, one of the largest corporate law firms in Manhattan, New York. The career of Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the in-house chief counsel of an agrochemical company, rests on the firm’s settlement of a suit. It is Clayton who takes care of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen’s dirtiest disasters, and tackles the case when the firm’s most brilliant litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), suffers from a breakdown and tries to sabotage the entire case.
On February 10, 2008, the Harvard Law School’s Arts & Literature Law Society (ALLS) hosted a film screening of the Academy Award-nominated film, followed by an engaging discussion on its filmmaking with Producer Steve Samuels, hosted by the Harvard Business School’s Entertainment and Media Club.
Michael Clayton was financed by Samuels Media, an independent entertainment company headed by producer Steve Samuels. Samuels Media also co-financed and co-produced with Summit Entertainment writer-director Paul Haggis’ Oscar-nominated dramatic thriller In The Valley of Elah, starring Charlize Theron, Tommy Lee Jones, & Susan Sarandon. During his visit to Harvard, Samuels shared his reflections on independent producers versus studio producers. Independent films are generally classified as films under $30 million. They are quality-driven and content-driven. They may also be star-driven, since stars today are more willing to receive a salary cut because they are driven by the intrinsic rewards of acting in films worthy of Academy Award nominations. For an actor to survive in Hollywood, they must choose roles that stretch and satisfy them. Examples include actors like Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, Hillary Swank, Heath Ledger, Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, and Bruce Willis.
In the world of indies, the goal is to secure a great director that has been sitting on his passionate project, providing them with creative control. In contrast, studio films hold creative control and are blockbuster-driven because they must appeal to the largest section of the public film audience, the age range of 18 – 25 years.
One of the most important pieces of advice from Samuels to aspiring film producers was regarding leverage: “You cannot be the only person exposed.” For 80 years, Hollywood has been legendarily known for wealthy financiers walking in with their money and losing everything.
According to Samuels, it is important to negotiate a deal where, if the film fails, then everyone loses: “The first money in is the first money out.” Steve Samuels negotiated a fair partnership with George Clooney to serve as executive producer on Michael Clayton, a real partnership where every dollar made was split with Clooney.
In contrast to many Hollywood productions about law firms, Michael Clayton paints a more realistic picture of the corporate law world. In developing the script, writer-director Tony Gilroy interviewed attorneys, paralegals and partners. According to Gilroy, the original inspiration for Michael Clayton came to him during visits to New York law firms when he was doing research to write the screenplay of The Devil’s Advocate. Gilroy recalls, “Wandering through these giant New York law offices, I was struck by how much goes on behind the scenes. Every firm had vast, back-of-the-house departments running twenty-four hours a day to keep afloat.”
Gilroy emphasizes, “Given the infinity of destructive moral choices that are made every day by people who know what they’re doing is wrong, it’s always amazed me that there aren’t more whistleblowers. When you consider how much is wrong, how deep that wrong is, and how much of it is done by people who go home and pay their taxes and love their children, isn’t it astonishing how few actually go off the deep end?”
“Tom [Wilkinson]’s character is one of those magnificently intelligent madmen who can convince any judge, jury or plaintiff to drop or settle a case. It’s why he’s so good at what he does and makes the kind of money he makes. But at the end of the day, what’s the real cost?”
According to Samuels, the script was close to perfection when he first received it. Remarks Samuels, “The main characters in Michael Clayton have chosen career paths that come with certain rewards and compromises. It takes tremendous courage for someone to risk losing everything in order to do the right thing.”
As a result of doing the right thing and making the right decisions, Michael Clayton has been rewarded with seven Academy Award Nominations, including Best Picture, Tony Gilroy for Best Director, George Clooney for Best Actor, Tom Wilkinson for Best Supporting Actor, Tilda Swinton for Best Supporting Actress, James Newton Howard for Best Original Score and Tony Gilroy for Best Original Screenplay.