Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler.
Dan Gilroy has Hollywood in his blood: His father is Frank Gilroy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter, and his brother is director-writer Tony Gilroy, best known for his work on the Bourne series and Michael Clayton. And though Dan Gilroy’s been a well-established screenwriter (Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy) for nearly two decades, he had to explore the dark underbelly of the sprawling city to truly step out of his family’s shadow.
Nightcrawler, Gilroy’s directorial debut, is a stunning look at the vultures that come out in the Los Angeles night. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a blank vessel of youthful ambition and human ambivalence who stumbles into the world of tragedy voyeurism and becomes a paparazzo specializing in late-night crime videography. As he manipulates the night news director of the town’s lowest-rated station (played by Rene Russo, Gilroy’s wife) into giving him more and more power in exchange for his bloody videos, his terror of the Los Angeles streets only grows. If it bleeds, it leads, and Bloom made sure to keep the news flowing.
Gilroy, who also wrote the film, spoke with Yahoo Movies this week about his leading man, the dark side of the media, and the making of Nightcrawler.
As a writer on the internet, I know that people look for sensational headlines. So what’s it been like trying to promote this movie that involves the media?
On one level, it’s been very interesting to have people in the media come and talk about the film and seem to identify with the reality of it. Many people say, “Listen, I work in local television news, and this is just spot-on.” I had a top investigative reporter at a network come up to me at the NY premiere the other night and say, “This is just so accurate in terms of what I worked on.”
So what kind of sensational headline could I give this story that’ll get people to click?
I would be very loathe to give one, because then I’m doing the thing that Lou would do, and in many ways I’m hoping the film is a cautionary tale. I leave it to others to give it a headline. I’m very much hoping that people have an individual response to it. Do you have one in mind yourself?
I don’t! But I’ve got to sell the story and get people to click on it.
In an odd way, the conundrum you’re facing is what we faced when we had to title the film. We spent a lot of time, going back and forth. Night in Bloom was one of them, King Midnight was another. Finally, after a lot of discussion, we settled on the term Nightcrawler. One, because it’s a term that they actually call themselves once in a while. And two, because it had “night” in the title, which seemed accurate and reflective, and “crawler” captures I think the underbelly of the world that this character moves through. So I know what you’re probably going through, looking for headlines.
Gilroy with wife (and Nightcrawler co-star) Rene Russo.
In the film, Gyllenhaal reminded me of a robot with freshly loaded artificial intelligence: Always getting smarter, but never becoming more human.
I think that’s a really good way of looking at it. My brother John, who was the editor, had a slightly different take. He one day said, “He’s like an alien who’s come and read a handbook about human beings and is trying to be like one.” There are boundless opportunity for [Bloom] to learn, but no opportunity for him to have a moral guidepost on how to use this information.
We never learn much about his background. Was that something you and Gyllenhaal worked out for yourselves?
The only backstory we have is implied: It’s vaguely implied that he’s abandoned and vaguely implied that he’s abused. That was by design, because I feel to have a character with so little a backstory allows the audience to start to manufacture their own backstory, and I feel it engages the audience on a level that [doesn’t happen] on bigger-budget films, where everybody feels the need to explain everything.
Without backstory, did you guys talk about how he would play it?
We were always trying to make the audience feel connected to the character, regardless of what he was doing. Trying to find the character’s desire to want to have a relationship, or the character’s desire to succeed or his desire communicate with other people. These are all things that anybody in the audience can relate to, and we felt that as long as we could keep those avenues open, the audience might look beyond just some sort of reductive, sociopath label, and say, “Wait a minute, this is actually about the world that creates somebody like this and rewards them.”
This movie is set in LA, but there was nothing about paparazzi photographers and celebrities.
These stringers/nightcrawlers — their worlds don’t really intersect too much with the paparazzi who film entertainment. The people who film the crime stories are working in parts of Los Angeles, in the Valley and Southern L.A., that are far removed from Hollywood, and really have much more to do with neighborhoods that are socio-economically on the lower end and have nothing to do with celebrities. So it has nothing to do with it in reality, which is what we were following.
The newscasters really drive home the white flight from the city, and want to fan the flames of fear of violence reaching them.
I think Michael Moore pointed it out in Bowling for Columbine — this idea that television has a narrative of fear that helps sell commercials, but when you dive into it in a deeper way, in Los Angeles and other markets, the bigger story is urban crime creeping into the suburbs. You get these fairly well-off TV viewers who are lying in bed and watching television and these stories whip up a climate of fear that not only keeps them watching to the next commercial to see if there’s more information that will save them, but keeps them tuning in night after night.
It’s a very powerful narrative. It’s appealing to human beings’ desire to want to look at graphic images, and if it’s often tied in with [this idea that] if you don’t watch them, you might be unsafe. It’s a powerful equation that they use to great effect.
Do you think they’re serving the desire of the audience that’s already there, or do they manufacture the desire for these kinds of stories by putting them out there?
I think they very much serve a desire that’s already there. And one of the things I would hope that a viewer might take away from the film is that as much as we indict local television news, ultimately it’s we in the audience are the people that watch the images that they broadcast. I don’t believe anybody in television created the desire; I believe the desire was always there. They’re just exploiting it.
Did you steal any shots in the LA night?
We definitely stole shots, particularly in the title sequence. We’re moving around at night, in the middle of LA at night, just roaming around with our camera, looking for shots, and if you see something, you just set up the camera and shoot it. We didn’t jump any fences or break into any facilities, and we certainly never filmed anyone or a business in a way that violated some kind of copyright thing. But if we saw a beautiful location at 3:45 in the morning and there was no one around and we had our camera, we would shoot it.
So what are you working on now?
I’m working on another original script. I’m not being paid to write it — I wasn’t paid to write Nightcrawler. [The new movie’s] something I want to control, it’s something that I’m just starting to research and get into. I’d like to direct it. it’ll be for a budget [that’s] probably larger than Nightcrawler, but not of the size that’s going to force me to make creative compromises. To take a step up to a larger film but to retain creative control, which I thought was really important for this project.
It’s hard to do an original idea these days.
The hard part of that is coming up with the idea and the world. Believe me, Hollywood would to have people coming up with more original ideas. It’s just that a lot of people aren’t coming up with them. A lot of people are working on studio films or brands, or sequels or prequels. I just decided to turn my attention to a different direction. And I encourage other writers to do it.
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Gilroy photo: Getty Images
Watch the trailer for Nightcrawler: