Writer/director Dan Gilroy on process, outlines and breaking the rules for Roman J. Israel, Esq.


Roman J. Israel, Esq. is set in the Los Angeles criminal court system, far from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. Used to working in the shadows, Denzel Washington stars as a shy, idealistic defense attorney whose life turns upside down when his mentor, a civil rights icon, dies unexpectedly. But when do-gooder Roman is recruited to join a firm led by an ethically questionable lawyer, George Pierce (Colin Farrell), Roman is tempted to abandon his long fight for justice in favor of wealth and fame.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler, Kong: Skull Island, The Bourne Legacy) sat down with us on camera to talk about breaking the rules of screenwriting, the importance of outlining your ideas and using the seedy parts of Los Angeles as a character. “It’s not about the answers you come up with,” says Gilroy, “It’s the questions you ask.” Gilroy also gives some of the best advice to up and coming screenwriters we’ve ever heard. Check out our video.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is currently playing in theaters.


Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

7 Replies to "Writer/director Dan Gilroy on process, outlines and breaking the rules for Roman J. Israel, Esq."

  • comment-avatar
    Jaime Gallardo November 20, 2017 (12:01 pm)

    The best line to remember,
    Spend eleven months writing your outline, one month writing the screenplay.

    • comment-avatar
      Bb November 21, 2017 (2:22 pm)

      Fantastic. Perfect synopsis. thank uuuuuuuu

  • comment-avatar
    William Sommerwerck November 20, 2017 (2:14 pm)

    The writing process is itself a source of inspiration. But… thinking long and hard before your start writing usually makes better use of your time. I find that, whether I’m writing user documentation, a letter to a friend, or a screenplay, simply lying in bed and letting my mind wander produces all sorts of unexpected results — including tough plot-problem resolutions.

    J is a distinguished middle initial. Consider Bullwinkle J Moose and Homer J Simpson.

  • comment-avatar
    Hudson1 November 20, 2017 (5:40 pm)

    Gilroy’s film has an interesting, tragicomic character, a great actor, and a screenplay riddled with problems of plot, tone, and character that falls flat.

  • comment-avatar
    Jean-Marie MAZALEYRAT November 21, 2017 (12:11 pm)

    Great talk. However just like The Fall, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not the kind of script that would make a hit in contests or pitch sessions IMO. Better write Real Steel. So if you’re not an insider already …

  • comment-avatar
    Mike November 25, 2017 (12:49 pm)

    The trailer is absolutely horrible. Even with talents assembled, I would never see this.

  • comment-avatar
    Raymond MacDonald February 17, 2018 (11:01 am)

    Screenwriting Magazine

    transcript of Shanee Edwards interviews Dan Gilroy Writer/director, on process, outlines and breaking the rules for Roman J. Israel, Esq.


    Q: did you come up with the name or the character first, and how does the name inform the character?

    DG: I came up with the character first, but shortly after I came up with the character, I started to think about the name and I started to think about the character having an internal conflict….of his desire to change the world and be true some ideal… But, at the same time feeling like he’s not getting everything that he should material and he’s not getting accolades. So, i wanted that conflict.
    i always liked the name Roman. I thought that was a really cool first name. And in Roman I thought that conflict; Roman Israel. Those are two words that are, sort or, biblically and historically (are) in conflict with each other So I thought, wow, put Roman and Israel, that’s a conflict. The esquire, I’m really intrigued with people that put esquire in their names, and, I don’t know why I put the J in there…because I wanted a middle initial that was very specific to the character.

    There’s a conflict within that character, that after 40 years, I wasn’t thinking about that defining the plot. and, like in nightcrawler, there is no inner conflict in the character. Bloom has no conflict whatsoever. you don’t… there are no rules. I don’t believe there are rules. So, you don’t need a conflict, you don’t need an arc, you don’t need a backstory, the character doesn’t have to be likable, you don’t have to have any preconceived ideas about an idea. The key to an idea is to come up with something that reveals itself…And you don’t sort of, take it and form it right away into like: “it has to have a happy ending”, ‘it has to have a likable character’. ‘Cuz, …allow the idea, whatever it is, to sort of define whatever it wants to be…and have patience to, sort of, pursue where the idea wants to go.

    Q: So, by the time you sit down and start writing pages, do you know the end, have you defined it?

    DG: Oh, yeah. If you gave me 12 months to write a screenplay, I would spend 11 months thinking of the idea and outlining, and 4 weeks writing it.

    Q: Okay

    DG: So, by the time I’m writing …I think there’s many writers who want to sit down and write…”I’m not writing today”… and they’ll start: “Interior: and it’s like “ have a vague idea of something …
    Your’e doomed. It’s too hard to do that. It’s the equivalent of somebody saying, “hey, you’re going to do an HBO Special”..like, you’re going to do it tomorrow….And that’s the same as writing ‘interior or exterior’. Or it’s like, you have a year to prepare. You’re going to test jokes… you’re going to go out there, i mean…I work off…by the time I’m writing I have 4 different outlines. I have a research outline that’s 100 to 500 pages, I have character, sort of, ideas, I have things with dialogue, I have descriptions I know I want to use. By the time I am finally going to write interior / exterior, I know everything. I know much more than the ending. I know everything that’s happening within a scene.
    It’s so hard to write credible, realistic dialogue that, by the time I’m writing the script, I want all my energy to go into making people sound real.

    Q: I really liked that he was, sort of, the guy behind the scenes and then he was sort of thrust into his own new journey.

    DG: I was six months into the idea before that came

    Q: Really?

    DG: Yeah, because you have to be open at that point, because i’m outlining at that point. So when you’re outlining, it’s ok. Now, you start writing a script for six months and you suddenly come up with that idea, and you go, “oh, my god, 8 pages now don’t work’

    Q: [laughs]

    DG: So, don’t commit. Don’t paint the house until the house is done. Because you’re going to have to re-paint it. People rush too quickly before the idea is formed. Let the idea form in your research. Let the idea form in your outlines. See where it goes. Don’t ever settle. It’s not the answers you come up with, it’s the questions you ask. Have you asked all the questions about the idea?
    In Roman’s case, ah, why is he older?, why isn’t he younger? why is he a back room guy? Why is he not… I know the answers to all those questions. I explored all of those options.

    Q: so many times we see, Beverly Hills, we see Hollywood as the character…and it seems easy to do, but here we have skid row, and the seedier part. Can you tell me a little bit about creating that?

    DG: So, that was because Roman’s character is in a time warp, and now he’s stuck out in the world….and he realizes the whole world is changed. And we got really lucky. There’s a tremendous amount of construction going on downtown, right now. And, so, we started to realize that downtown and skid row and all these places that are really rapidly gentrifying were going to work really well for our shooting the movie. So, we could take Denzel and put a qadar camera behind a van or an alleyway and put him out on the street. And we could have him walk through all these gentrified neighborhoods…and you have this very realistic quality to it. So, that helped us a lot in LA, in that regard.

    Q: Talk a little bit about your writing process…you don’t follow structure.

    DG: No.

    Q: Do you outline?

    DG: Yeah.

    Q: and then, re-writing. Do you have a specific process that you use for re-writing?

    DG: Every morning, I re-write the couple of pages I wrote the last couple of days. I do that. And, when I’m done with the script, I will give the script to a group of people…mostly family members… that I trust. And, if they give me notes that are consistent in tone or a number of people feel that way, I will go back and I’ll re-write the script.

    Q: How did you become a writer? Were you called to be a screenwriter, were you a playwright?

    DG: My father was a playwright and a screenwriter. So i grew up in a household where he wrote. And he wrote in his house everyday. He worked in his robe, everyday. He’d go upstairs and write in his room everyday. you could hear his manual typewriter clicking away. And, out of college, I had to get a job. I wind up in an office and I didn’t like it. And I was thinking, man, the old man working in that bathrobe…that’s not a bad gig. So I think I started to go for that.

    Q: Do you remember your first big break?

    DG: I got paid to write a screenplay when I was 29 for two thousand dollars. That was a big break. Because, I was like, oh my god, i got paid. The other was like, the first time I sent a script to an agent. Big agent in New York at the time. Six months, I hear nothing. After six months I get a phone call, “I’m halfway through and I’m really liking it.”

    Q: [laughs]

    DG: After six months..they’re like …four months later, she was like, “that was really good…but I’ll send it out to some people in LA”
    Like, don’t look for the big break. Little tiny things that lead to big breaks. The big break doesn’t usually come. Look for small things that lead to slightly bigger things…you know…allow to slowly grow. ‘Cuz that was my story.

    Q: what advice do you have for someone who wants to write sort of an Indy character-driven drama or something similar that would lead to this

    DG: First of all, come up with an idea that is really, that you feel passionate about….that gets you up in the morning that makes you feel excited. That’s the first thing. The second thing is when you’re done, the first thing you should do is run a budget on it. Find out what’s the cheapest amount you can make it for, well. Find a line producer and an executive producer and literally, spend a couple of weeks and do a budget. it might cost you a little money, but it’s worth it. Once you have that number, there are actors and actresses out there that are worth more than that number. Every actor has a value. So the financier looks at a certain person and says i know overseas I can sell that person, regardless of whether the movie bombs or not, I’ll finance that movie.So, if you come up with, say, a 2 million dollar movie, and you can come up with a half a dozen or a dozen actors that are worth more than 2 million dollars, if you can get one of them to commit…your movie’s going to go.

    Q: Really?

    DG: It will be a “go” film. Because there’s a lot of independent money out there. There’s a lot of wealthy people out there that want to make movies. A lot. Dozens of people…and they’re looking for things. And, if you can come to them and say, “I have a script, but also I know how much it’ll cost, and I have an agent who sent it to an actor and they want to do it. They’ll say, “Ok, yeah” We can do pre-sales on overseas, and forget the studios, forget all this other stuff. Write a script, get a number, get an actor that’s worth more than that number, and you’ll have a go movie.

    Q: Is there anything else that you want to tell me about writing a screenplay?

    DG: I cannot emphasize enough how important the idea is. People talk about writer’s block….It’s not…If you have writer’s block it’s because you haven’t thought the idea through. Writer’s block is like, I’m writing and I can’t write. Don’t start writing. Think about…think about the idea. What’s good about the idea? What’s not good about the idea? …Maybe I only have half an idea. If your movie is not getting traction, maybe the idea isn’t formed. Maybe there’s some piece of it that is still missing. And maybe it only takes 5 seconds to even tell that piece.

    Q: I want to thank you…

    DG: Absolutely. It was a pleasure to talk to all the screenwriters out there.

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