Dan Gilroy on Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal and the current state of news media.
Watching Nightcrawler you would never think that the film was made by a first-time director, but Dan Gilroy has truly made a splash with his debut feature, thanks to a longer history working in Hollywood as a screenwriter and his work formerly a journalist. This is a man who knows what he is talking about as his film is a dark portrayal of the world that we live in, a meditation on media that is bold and frightening, and a character study that is sure to become a classic. Scene Creek had the fortunate opportunity to sit down with Dan, to discuss making his first film, working with Jake Gyllenhaal, and the current state of news media.
Nightcrawler depicts a world that has never really been tackled on film before, but one that is so prominent in our daily lives, that it’s kind of surprising that no one has thought of it until now. On the inspiration of the idea, Dan says, “I was really interested in crime photography a few years back, this guy named Weejee, who was a crime photographer in New York City in the 30s, 40s and 50s. He’s actually now collectable, there are books out [about him], stark black and white photographs, he also had a social conscious. But I couldn’t figure out a way to do that movie. Then I went to LA and realized this was the modern equivalent, people who drive around at much higher speeds, I just thought it was a great world to try and explore.”
Gilroy used to work as a journalist, so it seems that he has an inner-knowledge of the environment, which makes Nightcrawler feel all the more scary and real. Dan discusses why news media has taken this dark turn, “As somebody who was a journalist, I’m interested and educated in the history of broadcast news, and I don’t know what it’s like in Canada but in the US, some point several decades ago, networks decided that news departments suddenly had to make a profit. There was a long time when they didn’t have to make a profit; it was considered almost a service. And I am very aware that once news has generated to make a profit, it becomes entertainment in a lot of ways. So I think that for me, being aware of that was the genesis. If I was going to point to a specific moment, three years ago, two years ago, it might have been the LA local news, have in the midst of the car chase capital, they will pre-empt a presidential debate to watch a little Tercel putter around for 4 hours, and you’re watching like ‘it’s the third goddamn hour’ but you know what they’re waiting for, they’ve got their fingers crossed that someone is going to get killed, or something horrible is going to happen. They have this system in place where they have a delay, and in the last three years, two or three times, we missed the delay, and you’re watching someone get killed live on television. Ratings go through the roof, and you start to ask yourself, ‘where does this go’? You ask me where it goes, and I’m not going to use a term like worse, because I think someone else has to make that decision, [but] I think it’s leaning farther and farther towards lurid and graphic because I feel that’s the world we are living in now, because that generates ratings, and I feel that right now the bottom line is the prime mover for what happens around us.”
Dan seems very involved in the morality of the news world, and these are the issues he brings to the forefront of his film. Through our anti-hero Lou Bloom, we see these boundaries being constantly straddled, as Lou does or doesn’t cross the line in generating news footage that may be successful based on how graphic and disturbing it is. Dan talks about crafting Lou and the moral label he didn’t want to impose, “The thing that I leaned on while writing the script was that I never wanted to put any moral label on the character. Because I feel that any morality that the writer puts on the character limits the audience in deciding how they feel about the character. I never wanted to put any morality label on the character of Nina, or News in general. I feel that Lou is caught in a much larger world; it’s a much larger complex issue or problem. And I think what we were trying to do with Lou was present somebody who, in terms of the modulation of the character, we just wanted the acts to speak for themselves. These are reprehensible things that he does and we thought we could counterpoint that with the personality that he projects, the idea that he’s a personable, well-groomed, respectable young man who if you passed in the hallway of your workplace you’d think ‘oh what a lovely, great hope for the world’ and keep that connection with the audience, but then let the acts speak for themselves, and [let] the audience decide how those two go together.”
Part of the reason why Lou has a likeable quality, is because of his unwavering motivation and his general positive attitude. His daily affirmations contrast with the things that he does in order to get to where he wants to go, Dan talks about Lou’s goals, “People who have a goal are blessed. There are so many people in the world who don’t have a goal, it’s like ‘what am I doing?’ ‘Why I am doing this?’ I think that’s a terrible place to be. To have a goal, whatever the goal is, you’re a very fortunate person. Lou wants to be the guy that owns the station that owns a camera. If you have a goal, and you have your top of Mount Everest that you’re climbing, and you wake up in the morning and know where you’re going, what a joyful and wonderful place to be. So, the affirmations that he spouts and the things that he says are really always just part of ‘I am moving forward.’ And the nihilistic, meaningless parts of this existence, ‘I don’t want to dwell on. I am focusing on this.’ Life is a better place when you’re distracted and accomplishing something, that you believe has relevance. If you can convince yourself and believe what you’re pursuing has relevance, god, what a great place this is. It’s amazing.”
It seems that Lou isn’t the only one who has a goal in mind, as Dan speaks highly of actor Jake Gyllenhaal and his drive and need for a challenge, “I feel like Jake is in a place right now where he wants to push himself in areas where it’s not about succeeding or failing, it’s about trying. That’s something I love about him as an actor because it’s something I very much believe. I think the thing that Jake is most terrified of is mediocrity. He’s terrified of doing something that doesn’t challenge him. He talked to me about his character in Prisoners and what he did, and my understanding is it was his idea to put the tattoos and to button his shirt, and to give the eye blink. As a director, you’re actor comes up and tells you ‘I’m going to have an eye twitch’. ‘Oh dear God no!’ is your first instinct. And believe me the studio is going like, you’re not going to have an eye twitch in this Goddamn movie. And yet you go back and watch it and those eye twitches bring that character in Prisoners to life. This speaks to Jake’s fearlessness.”
Dan describes how Jake lost the weight for the role of Lou Bloom, how it was Jake’s idea, and that he would run 10-15 miles a day and eat kale, and then work for 15 hours. Dan says he doesn’t know how Jake sustained himself, but that he got through it. The end result is worthwhile in the end. It was Jake’s role in End of Watch that caught Dan’s attention and desire to work with him on Nightcrawler.
Dan didn’t just get to work with Jake, but Nightcrawler seems to have been a bit of a family affair, as both of Dan’s brothers, (film editor John Gilroy and writer/director Tony Gilroy) helped him out as editor and producer, and Dan’s wife Rene Russo acts alongside Jake, in a role that Dan specifically wrote with her in mind. On working with his family, Dan says, “Tony was enormously valuable because I watched Tony direct Michael Clayton, and I went on set and I watched him direct Duplicity, and I worked on Bourne Legacy, so Tony is not just a director I watch, but he’s someone I can talk to. I can talk to him about lenses, and actors, and dealing with navigating producers and financial situations. He was the producer of the film and he got me final cut. This movie does not exist unless Tony gets me final cut. Lou is not what he is, he doesn’t get away with murder in the end, I mean so many things [would] change. So that was the enormous thing he got me. In terms of my brother, whose the editor, he’s just the best editor I feel, and he’s my twin brother, so we are very close, so it was easy for me to sit in the room with him and have a creative dialogue. The three of us are very close. We communicate often and support each other. In terms of Rene, I creatively collaborate with her often because when I write scripts I’ll give her it to look at as an actor, because she can improve my dialogue, so I’m one of those people if somebody has a good idea, I’ll take it. I’m not one of those people who’s like ‘I have the answer to everything! I’ll do it my way!’ I’m one of those people, like Lou, like ‘oh that’s a good idea, I’ll take that.’”
On inspirations for the film, Dan sites To Die For, The Talented Mr. Ripley and The King of Comedy as influences, but Nightcrawler stands alone as its own timely and relevant piece. Dan Gilroy is incredibly humble about the whole thing, but Nightcrawler is surely a masterpiece that people will be looking back on for years to come. Dan says his goal for the film is “for people to find some personal meaning that’s relevant to them”, and Nightcrawler is sure to open up the discussion about morality and ethics in our society, our obsession with tragedy, and our general desensitization to violence and crime. Dan has directed an incredible film, that you must be sure to seek out when it hits theatres on October 31st.