Veteran screenwriter and first time feature director Dan Gilroy started his career as a journalist, but the film Nightcrawler (in theatres Friday) certainly isn’t autobiographical in any way. After working as a writer for Variety and other various publications, he followed his director brother, Tony, and editor brother, John, into the film industry full time.
For his first time calling the shots behind the camera, the perfectly well adjusted, humorous, and not at all sociopathic Gilroy decided to tell the story of a highly motivated, and highly dubious photojournalist. With the help of a transformative performance from star (and producer) Jake Gyllenhaal, Gilroy tells the story of Lou Bloom, a former petty criminal who finds purpose and a self-starting job in the form of becoming a tragedy chasing news hound. Hitting the streets at night with a police scanner and an underpaid homeless partner (Riz Ahmed), Bloom quickly catches the eye of a local network executive (Rene Russo) who appreciates Lou’s ability to get the right shots at any cost. Those shots have a moral and ethical price, however, that isn’t felt by the calculating Bloom, who uses his talents as leverage for more money and power.
During a trip to Toronto during the film’s premiere at TIFF, Gilroy sat down with us to talk about how he perceives the media, the physical and narrative creation of Lou Bloom, and how the filming of Nightcrawler became a family affair.
Nightcrawler is a film about a character that very much lives on the edge and who pushes himself further than most people, but he remains consistently true to himself. It’s a hard tone to pull off, so how do you make a film about a character like Lou Bloom and maintain that sort of almost amoral tone that the character possesses without making him overpower the whole film?
Dan Gilroy: Something I leaned heavily on while I was writing and all through shooting was that I never wanted to put any kind of moral label on the character. One, because I think that any morality that I or any other filmmaker puts on a character limits the audience’s ability to feel what kind of morality the character is speaking to them with. I never wanted morality or any label on Lou, the media, the news, or any characters in general.
I feel Lou is a cog in a much larger world. It’s a much more complex issue-slash-problem, and I think what we were trying to do with Lou is present somebody… you can talk about going too far or not far enough, but in terms of the modulation of the character, we just wanted his acts to speak for themselves. These are reprehensible things that he does, and he does them all himself. We counter that with the personality that he projects: that he is a personable, well groomed, respectable looking young man who if you passed by him in the hallway of your workplace, you’ll thing, “Oh, look, there goes this great hope for the world!” But if you make that connection with the audience and then let the acts speak for themselves in terms, you let the audience make up their minds for themselves.
He gets away with murder. I mean, Lou never directly touches that button with his own hand. It’s actually a good question that I never thought of before. Would Lou pick up a gun of his own volition and use it to kill somebody? I think he has no issue indirectly killing someone or letting them just march to their own death, but ultimately the media is something that destroys.
So you’ve lived in L.A. and worked there for a while, but what was the impetus for coming up with this story or what inspired it?
DG: I was really interested a few years back with a crime photographer named Weegee from New York City in the 1930s and 40s, who’s now really collectable. I’ve seen books of these gorgeous black and white photographs of his. He had a lot more of a social conscience, but I couldn’t figure out a way to make that movie. Then when I looked around L.A., I realized these guys were sort of the modern equivalent. They ran around at much higher speeds, of course, but I thought that would just be a great world to explore.
You’ve seen the evolution of L.A. news over the past few decades as being the car chase news report capital of the world to the more TMZ style of tabloid reporting that it is now. So when you’re thinking about this story and how much the news has evolved, how much of that history factored into the writing process? And do you think things are getting better or getting worse in these respects?
DG: As a journalist, I’m interested in the history of broadcast news. I don’t know what it’s like in Canada, but at some point in the United States about three or four decades ago networks decided that news departments suddenly had to make a profit. There was a long time when news departments didn’t have to make a profit, and it was almost considered as a public service. I’m very aware that once news is generated to make a profit, it becomes entertainment in a lot of ways. So I think that for me was just being aware of that at the genesis.
If I was going to point to a specific moment, two or three years ago. You’re right, they are the car chase capital of the world because they have and will interrupt a presidential debate to watch a Toyota Tercel putter around Ventura for four hours. “Jesus, guys, this is the third hour of this!” (laughs) But you know what they’re waiting for? For a horrific crash or for someone to get shot and killed. Theoretically they have this system in place where there’s a delay and these crashes and executions aren’t supposed to be shown. In the past two or three years there have been two or three times where it’s been, like, “Whoops! We missed the delay.” You’re watching someone get killed live on television, and the ratings go through the roof, but you just ask yourself, “where does this go?”
If you ask me, I’m not going to use a term like “worse,” because I want someone else more qualified to make that decision. I think it’s leaning more and more towards the more lurid and graphic. I feel that’s the world that we’re living in now because that generates ratings. I believe that right now the bottom line for what moves us to tune in to the world around us.
But there were a couple of films that I really took inspiration from while I was making it. In terms of constructing a hero and an antihero at the same time, I was really interested in To Die For, The Talented Mr. Ripley, movies where they’re more overt villains, but still somewhat personable. A big one for me that has a big cult status now is The King of Comedy. Films that have heroes and antiheroes. It’s such a great formula, but studios will never touch it,
There’s kind of an urban legend around Jake’s physical transformation already. Was Jake really on a diet of chewing gum?
DG: (laughs) Yes. And ice cubes! It was incredible. Jake and I decided to do the movie, and we started to rehearse, and about two months before we were going to shoot the movie, I was at his house talking about what the character would look like. We had this sort of symbolic idea that he would look kind of like a coyote because L.A. coyotes really have this dead eyed look where it seems like they can never be satiated. So when Jake said, “I want to lose weight,” naturally I said, “That’s great!”
So over eight weeks later, he was down about twenty pounds, and I LOVED it. It was a bit of a political football for some other people, though. Some people would say, “Oh my God. What is this?” The dailies looked bizarre and frightening to some people, but once we shot the first day or two days, that’s it. We were committed and we were locked in.
What’s amazing to me was that in order to keep the weight down, every day he would run ten or fifteen miles to the set. Why? I don’t know? (laughs) Then he would go eat kale, and work for fifteen straight hours. I didn’t know how he sustained himself to get through, but he kept to it. He would come in and ask, “Do I look fat?” And I would say, “Don’t you dare lose any more weight.”
I had people coming up to who were above me saying, “He cannot lose another pound. If he loses another pound, we’re gonna have a problem.” It was just so frightening to see him via the dailies. Now you can see him in the context of the film and it all makes sense, but you start watching the dailies that are only coming in fragments, and you just think, “All I can see is his eyes. He looks like a ghost. What the hell are you doing?”
Well, even out of context I think that’s why the trailer for the film is so effective. That’s all you really know.
DG: Yeah, and all of that speaks to Jake’s fearlessness. Right now he just wants to push himself into areas where it’s not about succeeding or failing. It’s about trying. That’s what I just love about him as an actor, and it’s something that I very much believe. Jake, as an actor, is most terrified of mediocrity. Just terrified of doing something that doesn’t challenge him. He talked to me about his character in Prisoners, and it was my understanding that it was his idea to put the Cyrillic tattoos, and how he buttoned his shirt, and how he does that eye blink that he does in that movie. I gotta tell you, as a director, if your actor comes up to you and says, “Hey, I’m gonna have an eye twitch,” your first instinct and reaction is, “Dear God, no.” (laughs) Even the studio will say, “Jake’s not gonna have a goddamn eye twitch in this movie.” But then you go back and look at the final product, and those tics and twitches are what brings that character in Prisoners to life. Suddenly a whole, unspoken backstory comes to life. Is something wrong with him? No, that’s just jake.
Where did the idea come from for Lou to always speak to people with these positive, daily affirmations to try and get them motivated? That seems very much a King of Comedy thing.
DG: Yeah! It kind of is that, because when you think of King of Comedy, that’s a very Rupert Pupkin thing to say. I think people who have a goal are blessed. So many people in life don’t have a goal and they just wonder who they are and what they’re doing and why. That’s a terrible place to be, and anyone who has a goal and whatever it is, I think you’re a very fortunate person.
Rupert wants to be famous. Lou wants to be the guy who owns the station and owns the camera. I think if you have a goal that you feel is the top of your Mount Everest, and you can wake up every morning and know where you’re going, what a joyful and wonderful place to be.
So the aphorisms that he spouts are really just always in support of him saying to people that he’s moving forward. And the nihilistic parts of this existence that he doesn’t want to dwell on, he just shifts the focus away from again. You’re in a much better place if you can focus on something without being distracted. You can convince yourself that what you’re doing has relevance, and that’s a great place to be. My goal for this film is for people to find a meaning that’s personally relevant to them.
Jake also worked with you as a producer for this film, so what was that like knowing he was on board and supporting the material beyond just being an actor for hire?
DG: I first met Jake when I flew to Atlanta while he was doing Prisoners. We sat down for dinner and we had this four hour dinner, and it quickly became established that I want to collaborate with him and that he was going to be a producer. He was a very active producer, not in the sense that he was developing the script, but when we started to ramp up production and started to hire department heads. When I started hiring, if he had any questions or objections, I would listen to him. He was very instrumental in helping with the casting process, especially Riz Ahmed’s part. We auditioned over 70 actors before Riz, and Jake was there for almost all of those auditions.
With this film, you have the help of your brothers, Tony as a producer and John as your editor, and your wife, Rene Russo, all in the film. How did they help you realize and support your vision?
DG: Tony was enormously valuable because I watched Tony direct Michael Clayton, and I used to go on the set. I also watched him direct Duplicity, and I worked on The Bourne Legacy, so Tony isn’t just a director that I watched and paid attention to, but he was someone I could sit down and talk with. We could talk about lenses, working with actors, navigating producers and financial situations. He was the person who got me final cut on this film. This film doesn’t exist in this form without Tony fighting for me to get final cut. Lou is not what he is and he doesn’t get away with nearly as much as he gets away with. So much changes without that, and that was the most enormous thing he got me,
In terms of John, he’s just a wonderful editor. And he’s my fraternal twin brother, so it’s easy for me to sit in a 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 I’ll just give her scripts or pages that she can look at as an actor so she can help me improve my dialogue. I’m one of those people who if someone has a good idea, I’ll want to hear it. I’m not one of those people who says, “I have all the answers, so I’m gonna do it my way.” I’m actually a little bit like Lou in that respect. I hear something good and think, “Yeah, I’ll take that.” (laughs)
You’re also shooting almost exclusively at night in L.A., which seems different from most films that shoot there.
DG: Shooting at night in L.A. was actually great as opposed to shooting there in the day because there’s no traffic! We had 80 locations to shoot in, and some nights we had double moves, which means that we’re talking about having to move 50 people and a caravan of trucks that stretches a quarter mile. During the day there’s always traffic, but at night no one’s around. At night it’s just helicopters flying around chasing God knows what and stray dogs. At night we were fine!
The other thing that was interesting about it was how it was the reverse kind of mentality from what you normally think would be a problem. When you shoot during the day and the sun starts to go down, you start to have a heart attack. For us, it was when the birds started chirping that the heart attacks kicked in. (laughs) “Oh my God, dawn is only thirty minutes away and we still have two pages to shoot!”
The scene where Jake runs down the driveway with Riz and he says, “You should do this and this,” the birds were chirping and papers were starting to be delivered to all of the houses nearby, and I’m just thinking “Oh my God, it’s over!” The homeowners were probably already going to kick us out because we smeared blood all over their nice white carpet, and now we weren’t getting anything done. (laughs)