The Denzel Washington-led legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq. has undergone a significant re-edit, following its premiere on the film festival circuit. Starring as the titular character, Washington portrays an altruistic lawyer who fights for the downtrodden with a relentless, aggressive style, until his firm dissolves after the sudden death of his law partner. Colin Farrell also stars as a hotshot attorney who lures Israel into a more materialistic, and even dangerous, lifestyle.
The official trailer for Roman J. Israel, Esq. hints at this crises of conscience, and an unethical choice for personal gain that backfires on Israel in a big way. Unfortunately for the cast and writer/director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), the film’s debut at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival in September displayed some of the same disjointed trajectory as the trailer. The movie was met with mixed reviews, with critics uncertain of the true meaning and direction of the story.
That reception wasn’t a total surprise to Gilroy, however. In an interview with Deadline, the director reveals that the desire to exhibit at TIFF meant essentially going right from the cutting room to the festival. After the premiere, Gilroy and the film’s star realized they needed to re-focus the plot:
“We re-conceived the balance of the movie, in crucial sections. The day after Toronto, Denzel and I went back into the cutting room and spent weeks making changes. Not just to the pacing. We reordered scenes, we changed elements, particularly with Colin’s character.”
One of these pivotal scenes involves an unguarded moment at a Lakers game, when Farrell’s character reveals to Israel a desire to change his own tactics, in an effort to live up to his former mentor’s morality. Gilroy explained that the scene gained much more resonance in the plot with a big shift in its placement in the narrative:
“That Staples Center scene is crucial not just for Colin’s character but in establishing the tone of the movie, and at Toronto it came near the end, at a point where the suspense part of the story is in such high gear that you can’t even register what Colin is saying and what it means to Roman. We put it much earlier where it becomes more of a pillar for the film. And by doing that, we also then cut out one of the subplots which established the same kind of internal conflict in Roman.”
The change makes that conversation a motivational catalyst for Israel’s actions, rather than an extraneous bit of character development. Gilroy also revealed that over 12 minutes was cut from the film, removing “any fat, right down to the muscle.” The director also welcomed his star’s substantial input on the final edit, explaining that it only made sense to capitalize on the actor’s connection to the character, backed by an impressive resume and Washington’s own experience helming films.
Gilroy and Washington are hoping critics will take another look at the finished Roman J. Israel when it opens in theaters next month. It sounds as if the filmmakers have taken the criticisms to heart, and given the film the focus it sorely needed. Gilroy and Washington even re-edited the musical score, all the way from the jazz songs Israel prefers to the actual placement of when the music played in scenes for maximum effect. Washington was already receiving praise for his performance, so the added tweaks to the plotline should make the film worth a second chance with critics – and a first viewing from moviegoers.