Nightcrawler Director Dan Gilroy Talks His New Film, Activism and Using Cinema for Good

Denzel Washington (left) and Dan Gilroy      

Three years after his Academy Award nominated directorial debut, Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy returns to the streets of Los Angeles for his new film: Roman J. Israel, ESQ.

Gilroy partners with Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington, who plays the titular character: a driven, idealistic defence attorney whose life is upended after his mentor, a civil rights icon, dies. Gilroy wrote the film specifically for Washington to play the lead, and admits it never would have happened if Washington had turned down the offer.

“I wrote this movie for Denzel because Denzel is a man who believes in human dignity and the human spirit. Knowing who Denzel is in real life, I knew he would bring that part of himself to this character.”

Gilroy’s inspiration for writing the film came from his experiences growing up in the 1960s, where it seemed like everyone was fighting for a cause, whether it be civil rights laws, women’s rights or anti-war protests. The film explores how standing for something has evolved over the last several decades.

“I wondered what happens to someone who never left the system, who never gave up on that idealism; never gave up on their firm belief that there’s injustice everywhere that needs to be challenged. In researching it, it turns out that the few that stayed behind went into civil rights law or criminal law to support themselves, and I think that’s very interesting to explore this world and a character who went through that.”

This sentiment is what drove Gilroy and Washington to create Roman J. Israel ESQ.

“For Roman, the world is a war-zone and he’s never left the front lines.  It’s a blessing and a burden,” Gilroy says.  “Activism can take an enormous emotional toll, but on the other side of the balance is the knowledge that you’re making the world a better place.  That’s one of the key elements of the film: the importance of believing in something and the burden that often comes with that belief.”

And while Gilroy doesn’t see film-making as a form of activism, he does believes film is the medium with the most power to transmit ideas to the public.. Gilroy works to see “what can be done and to push the boundaries of it; to communicate my world view and how I think we can make this a better place.”

That is part of the reason why shooting in Los Angeles was such a key aspect of Roman J. Israel ESQ. Much like Nightcrawler, no soundstage is used, with almost the entire movie shot in raw Los Angeles.

“The character is involved in civil rights law and criminal law and the there are few more busy court systems and overburdened court systems than the L.A. County court system. The courthouse we were shooting in sees 900 inmates a day. There are busses going in and out like it’s a revolving door. It’s a very harrowing, depressing place where Roman is working, and the part of that I like is that I’m trying to shine a light on a system that really needs to be looked at and reformed on some really basic levels because of the incredible amount of inequality and inequity going on in the L.A. court systems.”

Gilroy said he does not want his audiences leaving the theatre with a specific kind of message, but that he wants each person to leave with “a little bit of Roman Israel inside them.”

“That the next time they have a choice on how to use their time or their research for something, you might think of Roman and choose Romans path, which is one in a lot of ways of self-sacrifice and believing in something bigger than yourself: believing we have a shared humanity.”

Roman J. Israel, ESQ premieres Wednesday November 22, in theatres worldwide. Dan Gilroy has also recently signed a movie contract with Netflix, reuniting him with his Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo.