Somebody somewhere is looking out for George Nolfi. That’s the only way to explain the friction-free path of “The Adjustment Bureau,” the first-time director’s genre-bending sci-fi romance, which arrives in theaters Friday. “It’s an unusual movie, to say the least,” said Nolfi, who also wrote the screenplay. “It’s not one of those things where the studio is saying, ‘Here’s a genre you know and you’ve seen it a thousand times and it’s a sequel or the start of a franchise.’ This one is a little different.”
The $62 million film, which stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, starts as a political thriller, slides into a crackling grown-up romance and then pivots into full-on science fiction with the emergence of the title organization — a bureaucracy of aloof sentinels who tilt world events and personal fortunes to fit a set cosmic agenda. [Updated: An earlier version of this story misstated the budget figure.]
Those guardians, who travel by dimensional doorways and wear some retro fashions, might remind some viewers of the Observers from the Fox series “Fringe” or even of the forlorn angels from “Wings of Desire” (or the American remake of that earlier Wim Wenders film, “City of Angels”). In real life, though, the guardian-angel figure for this film project was clearly Damon, who pushed for Nolfi’s vision to reach the screen even as he worked with the writer-director to sculpt the final draft of the script.
Nolfi wrote the 2004 film “Ocean’s Twelve” and got to know Damon well enough to show him a work-in-progress draft of “The Adjustment Bureau,” based on a Philip K. Dick short story “Adjustment Team.” Producer Michael Hackett was the one who had first mentioned the 1954 Dick story to Nolfi, though little remains from the original other than the idea of agents who tend to the tumblers of destiny.
“Dick was really interested in the line between reality and some mental construct that could be illusion or could be another level of existence,” Nolfi said. “I really wanted to take that and turn it on its head and ask, ‘What happens if you see behind the curtain and it’s unequivocally clear that is the truth?’ What you’ve seen before is only a tiny part of reality, how do you deal with that?”
Unlike most sci-fi films with a deeper-reality revelation, Damon’s character doesn’t spend much time doubting his sanity. The struggle is instead with the forces of the universe that tell him he isn’t supposed to be in love with the woman, the dancer played by Blunt, who has captured his heart.
Damon liked the fate-as-foe premise and romantic tone of the story but he felt that the main character, a New York politician named David Norris, needed work. The project inched along even as Nolfi and Damon worked together again on 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum.” After that came the writers strike, but as the months passed, Nolfi kept chiseling away at the story.
“The really tough part of the process was cracking the story I wanted to tell,” Nolfi said. “The short story was sitting on my shelf for five or six years with me gestating ideas and taking notes on yellow pads.”
For Damon, the allure of the role was to play a romantic lead in a film that had a brainy reality-bending tale to tell. Along with films like “Inception,” which was nominated for a best picture Oscar, and the upcoming “Source Code,” there is a widening interest in fantastical concepts presented with a reality-based tones and relationship drama.
Still, the norm in Hollywood would be to push a film like “The Adjustment Bureau” into a straight thriller. But Damon said the project’s Kafka-meets-kismet strangeness is what seized his attention and that, in working with filmmakers like Clint Eastwood (“Hereafter”), he has learned the value of following his gut instinct.
“What you originally respond to is so important,” Damon said. “There are so many calculations going on and what feels like intuition is really a well-thought out decision. You shouldn’t screw it up by thinking about it too much. The best people I’ve ever worked with, their allegiance is always to idea. It isn’t about ego.”
Damon said he was especially intrigued by the details of Nolfi’s world and the way those details gave a specific rhythm to the project. Damon, who with Ben Affleck won a screenwriting Oscar for the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting,” said he admires the way Nolfi “presents pieces to a puzzle that feels different but also feels true to itself.”
Nolfi brought a considerable intellect to the project — he studied public policy at Princeton, philosophy at Oxford University and political science at UCLA — but he is smart enough to know that he beat the odds by delivering a film that emerged from the studio pipeline with all of idiosyncrasies intact.
“I mean, what’s the genre?” Nolfi said. “It’s crazy and it may never happen to me again in my entire career. It was like a perfect storm but in a good way. There was minimal interference, the least that could be possibly imagined. It wouldn’t have ever happened without Matt’s backing. Maybe it was destiny.”
– Geoff Boucher
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