Interview: Nightcrawler Director Dan Gilroy Explores the Underbelly of L.A. News

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For an in-demand screenwriter like Dan Gilroy to take time off from screenwriting to direct his first feature is a big decision, but he clearly was ready to make that move when he wrote Nightcrawler, an LA-based thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a guy desperately trying to find a job in a tough economy who comes upon the world of the “nightcrawlers.” These guys race around the city at night chasing police scanner reports with video cameras to try to get exclusive footage of the most horrifying crimes and accidents to sell to local news stations. Louis jumps into this world feet first, hiring an assistant (Riz Ahmad) and finding a producer (Rene Russo) whose sense of ethics are just as questionable as his own.

Our review will be up soon, but it may be one of the best L.A. thrillers since Nicolas Refn’s Drive, an impressive debut from Gilroy, especially with the performance he got out of Gyllenhaal, who delivers Gilroy’s dialogue with such confidence to create an odd character whose obsessive drive to be the best leads him to amoral decisions to achieve that status.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Gilroy a few weeks back to learn more about how Nightcrawler came about.

ComingSoon.net: Obviously, you’ve been a screenwriter for some time, and this is a great script about an interesting subject…
Dan Gilroy:
Thank you.

CS: Was this something you’d been working on or shopping around for a while?
Gilroy:
No, I wrote it as a spec and things happened within a matter of days after I wrote it. It got a response that was very encouraging and Jake came on very quickly. We got our financing within a matter of a month or two and we were shooting extraordinarily quickly. Things happened very, very fast with this script.

CS: That’s amazing. I remember hearing about it when Jake came onboard, but I feel like it then started shooting right away and was at Toronto less than a year later.
Gilroy:
We were shooting a year ago right now. We were in our first or second week of shooting right now.

CS: How did you learn about this world? I assume you’ve lived in L.A. and it’s something you saw and learned about much like Jake does in the movie? Or was it just an interest in where news channels got some of their on-the-scene footage?
Gilroy:
I moved to LA and watched a lot of local television news and I started to see the burn logos up on the upper right hand corner, On-Scene Video, RMG Media Group and all these other ones. I just became intrigued with it. I started doing a little research and I started to realize that there was this group of people who went out at 10:00 at night and drove at high speeds all around L.A. and caught these images. It just seemed like a really interesting frenetic, vibrant place to set a film. But the film really itself, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. The film itself really gelled when the lead character, Lou, sort of appeared and started to speak, and I started to realize how he plugged into the world.

CS: Lou’s a very unique individual, I have to say, although in some ways, I know people like him.
Gilroy:
Yeah, I agree.

CS: So he’s unique because he’s so obsessive and manipulative and it’s a problem to know people like that.
Gilroy:
Yeah, no, exactly. I was trying to create a character that would escape the classic label of sociopath or psychopath and perchance, you could sort of see other elements in him, that he was more human than you might first believe in the sense that he has a desire to get a job and he’s lonely and he has a desire to have a relationship. He’s really in many ways a lot like us, I guess in the category that are not sociopath or psychopath. To sort of show that a character like this is more common than we’re led to believe through cinema, that psychopaths are not these weird beings who do only pop-up infrequently, that there’s many more of them out there, I think, than we’re led to believe.

CS: I’ve interviewed Jake a bunch of times and he tends to play characters that are likeable, even in “Prisoners,” where he was sort of flawed. You really get absorbed as you watch him and you are really interested in what he’s doing onscreen, so what made you think of him? Did you get the script to him or did he find it on his own?
Gilroy:
Well, you know, I was a fan of Jake’s since “Brokeback Mountain,” but I remember about three or four years ago reading an article in which Jake publicly announced that he was changing the direction of his career in the sense that he wasn’t going to be going for money or large scale projects, that he wanted to do things that he found challenging and offbeat. I just thought that was such a brave thing 1.) to decide to do, but 2.) to announce it that way. Then, I watched “End of Watch,” in which I thought he was just utterly spectacular, and a smaller film that he was obviously doing out of love more than anything else. When I wrote the script, Jake was right at the top of the list of people that I wanted to play it. So I flew to Atlanta where he was doing “Prisoners.” We sat down to dinner and we had a three or four-hour conversation in which it became apparent that we had very similar views about the script and very similar views about what we did and what we wanted to do, which was try to challenge ourselves and not be afraid of failure, not be afraid of trying something that was unconventional. I think we both wanted to push ourselves, to a degree.

CS: I just spoke to David Ayer, who directed “End of Watch,” for his new movie “Fury.”
Gilroy:
Yeah, he did a great job.

CS: I feel that might’ve been a turning point for Jake in some ways, that movie.
Gilroy:
I think it was. I think it was. I think it showed all the commitment and talent that he talked about in that article—”I want to take what I have and what I know and use it to an effect that satisfies me” and there it is on display in “End of Watch,” beautifully on display.

CS: As a screenwriter, you’ve written a lot of scripts over the years. What made you want to direct this one? Did it take a lot of convincing for them to let you direct it? How did that come about?
Gilroy:
Well, I think a first-time director always has to convince a lot of people that they’re ready to do it. I felt confident, having watched many directors direct my work and being on sets that I understood the process and I’d studied it. I’m at a point in my life now where I felt confident I could do it. So, I wrote a script that people were interested in, particularly actors that I knew that if I got a certain level of actor like Jake, that I’d written it in a way that did not cost a lot of money, that the elements would be in place that people would want to back me to do it, which is exactly what happened.

CS: The stuff you’ve written over the years is very different from one movie to the next. Was there any frustration about the fact that it’s a director’s medium and that once the script is sold, it’s out of your hands. Some directors will work directly with the writer, but not all of them.
Gilroy:
I mean, look, my screenwriting credits in my career are probably not dissimilar to some other ones in the sense that a lot of the scripts you write don’t get made and the ones that do get made are certainly, as a writer, they’re not your vision. They’re ultimately something that’s being interpreted by somebody else, the director. So I can’t lay creative claim to most of my work. I had a great experience working with Tarsem on “The Fall.” I love what Tarsem did with “The Fall,” and I very much was excited to work with him on that. A script like “Nightcrawler” gives me an opportunity to truly realize a vision that’s mine, which is exciting.

CS: Yeah, it’s great the way LA is depicted in it. It’s obviously modern LA, but it has a ’70s vibe, which so many directors and filmmakers try to get.
Gilroy:
Robert Elswit, the cinematographer, and I sat down, and we decided we wanted to shoot in LA in a way that a lot of times you don’t see, which is LA is often portrayed in an exaggerated light–it’s a place of freeways and downtown. Robert and I wanted to avoid those things. We wanted to show the LA that we know because we both live here, which is much more a wild, untamed landscape, a place of mountains and ocean and desert, and try to capture the more wild elements of LA, try to actually capture the physical beauty of it by going wide angle and staying deep focus as much as possible and avoiding shallow focus. So we were trying to make it look physically beautiful and vibrant and alive, is what we were trying to do.

CS: Robert shot some of Tony’s movies, right?
Gilroy:
Robert shot all of Tony’s movies. Robert shot “Michael Clayton,” he shot “Duplicity,” he shot “Bourne Legacy.” He’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s DP, as you know, and he’s just an extraordinarily, extraordinarily talented man.

CS: It’s interesting to see how he shoots California so differently between this and “Inherent Vice.”
Gilroy:
Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing “Inherent Vice,” actually. I’m very much looking forward to it.

CS: Everyone always says when they make a movie that “it’s like a family,” and in this case, it actually is a family. You have your wife in the movie. You edited with your brother. Your other brother is producing it. I mean, it’s very rare, in some ways, and you kind of made it independently, I guess.
Gilroy:
Well, it’s independent in a sense that we had an independent financier and working with my brother just gives me an insane amount of support that I think a lot of first-time directors don’t have. I mean, I’ve got one brother who is a writer turned into a director, so he knows every part of the arc that I’m going through. I’ve got another brother who’s a master in post at editing, who’s got my back on the other side. René, you know, my creative partner and my wife is on the set and I’m working with her. I think walking on the set as a first-time director, probably even as a 20th time director, it’s nerve-wracking every day when you show up, what you’re facing and the level of preparation and what’s expected. So to walk on and have friendly faces and people you trust gives an enormous lift to every day that you’re working on it.

CS: I also wanted to ask about shooting in LA, because not many movies are shot in LA anymore. You have maybe two or three years maybe, if that.
Gilroy:
Well, what’s happened is we had an insanely beautiful, profitable, glorious homegrown industry called the film business in Hollywood, and it was culturally our largest export. Rather than protect it by enacting tax breaks, which all competitive states and countries enacted, the politicians up north decided it was in somebody’s best interest, I don’t know who, not to support the film industry. So this incredible industry that we had, has been frittered away and then dissipated, so films don’t get made in Los Angeles. Only last year, have they decided to beef up the tax credit. The only reason we shot in Los Angeles is just because we were one of the few films that got the tax credit. It bothers me to no end that something as valuable a commodity as films, and all the jobs that it generates has been squandered by short-sighted politicians. If I knew their names, I would tell you who they were.

CS: Give me their phone numbers and I’ll print them, too.
Gilroy:
I would. It irritates the hell out of me.

CS: I want to go back to Jake, briefly. A lot of times actors get credit for being able to deliver great writing. It’s always a question about what’s good about a performance, the lines that came out of their mouth or the delivery or both. In this case, it is both. There’s parts of Jake’s performance when his mood changes, I guess I can say without spoiling anything, he looks visually different. Was that enhanced by lighting or makeup or was that just what he did with his face?
Gilroy:
No, we didn’t have to enhance really anything. I mean, Jake decided, it was his decision that he was going to lose roughly 25 to 30 pounds for the part, which is an extraordinary commitment on his part, and it physically transformed him. So Jake, with that much weight loss, has an angular face and very prominent eyes. At nighttime, just natural shadows are falling in different ways and giving him a different appearance at any moment, so it was a function really, of the lighting. We weren’t planning it, but it was just an effect that you could see starting to develop. The other thing that comes from his decision to lose that much weight is that he was actually literally hungry during the entire shoot. He was not getting enough food, and that was by design. There is a hunger that comes out of his performance and a restrained, violent sort of need for sustenance that’s always being suppressed. I felt that that really comes through in his performance. I thought that Jake brought a level of commitment and creative thought to the part that he’s birthed something that I think is–I’m trying to say this as objectively as possible–it’s remarkable. I mean, I’ve seen the film now quite a few times because I go to screenings, and I’m always amazed watching Jake. I find it riveting. He is chameleon-like in the movie, in the sense of how his visual look changes, and through that visual look, what he’s transmitting, whether it’s danger or charisma, it just seems to be changing by the second. Different things are flickering over his face all the time, but it didn’t need any sort of CGI enhancement or makeup.

CS: Having worked with him, would you write a script with him in mind to try and challenge him even more
Gilroy:
Oh yeah, no. I mean, it’s based off the idea, but if I came up with an idea that I thought he was even remotely good for, I would write it for him. I absolutely would. I mean, I want to work with him again. He’s just I think one of the best actors working today. He’s one of the most fearless actors working today. To me, fearlessness is just a wonderful quality for creativity, to not be afraid of failure, to not be afraid of trying something, to not be afraid of challenging yourself in the pursuit of moving the bar higher just for yourself. I mean, you can’t buy that quality. I think those are the guiding principles that Jake’s operating now, and I’m very excited to see anything Jake does from this point on. He’s at the top of his game.

CS: I know he’s a fan of foreign films, also, and I feel like he has been able to learn a lot from watching foreign actors who approach things very differently.
Gilroy:
No, he may have. We never had a discussion like that. I know that Jake’s process is a very deep, internal process. It may have some external components, which is watching other films, but he never referenced it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was almost more of a hermetically-sealed world that Jake moves around in, in which he’s exploring the inner part of himself and bringing that out. That wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case.

CS: Where do you go from here? Do you feel at this point you’d want to direct everything you write or do you still write for other people?
Gilroy:
If I wrote a script, I would want to direct it. I would still write scripts for other people, but in terms of directing – I should say it the other way. If I was going to direct a script, it would be something I wrote, but I will still write scripts for other people because I love the process of writing.

CS: It’s interesting to talk to filmmaker, like David Ayer, who do write most of the movies they direct. I think he’s directed one movie from someone else’s script, but writing and then directing mans you’ll direct less movies while you’re in the process of writing.
Gilroy:
Yeah, that’s true because it takes six months to 12 months to nail a script down, so yeah, it takes you out of the seat for that long, definitely.

CS: Are there other things you’ve written, you think you might want to tackle now?
Gilroy:
I’m very interested in doing things that I’m feeling right now, so I think it’s the projects in front of me that I’m interested in directing rather than anything I’ve written in the past, you know? It’s where I’m creatively at this moment that interests me. Actually, Jake is very much at that mindset. Jake, when he’s doing a scene, it’s usually what he’s literally feeling at that moment after all that preparation that becomes a big component of what he’s channeling. I have that in common with Jake as well, in the sense that it’s just what I’m feeling at this moment in my life, that’s at this point in time and space.

CS: What are you working on right now? I know you’re working on something for Stan Lee. Is that a real thing?
Gilroy:
I wrote that story. I worked on that about two years ago. It was an original idea that Stan had that I wrote it and they’re trying to raise some co-financing money with China, which I guess it’s a laborious process.

CS: Yeah, what was that like? Did you spend a long time with Stan?
Gilroy:
Oh yeah. Stan is just the greatest guy in the world. Stan is just not only creative and energetic, he’s just one of the most decent people you’ll ever meet. It was a joy to work for Stan. I haven’t talked to him in a little bit, but it was just magical to sit down with Stan and talk about an idea and develop it and work with it. He’s just all there, man. He’s in his office every day and he’s working and it’s just exciting to see.

CS: I spoke to Shawn Levy back at Toronto and he talked a little bit about “Real Steel.” I know it was popular and a lot of people liked it. It did pretty well overall, I think. Are you involved in the talks as far as trying to figure out a sequel to it?
Gilroy:
No, I wrote that as a spec script, and it’s funny, because if I wrote that as a spec script now, I would’ve directed it myself, but I didn’t have the power to do it. I wrote a spec script and I sold it and it was heavily rewritten to the point that I really only got some level of story credit. So I’m not really creatively involved in it. I always felt very passionate about the idea, but it was taken in a direction that I didn’t pursue or really have any inclination to pursue.

CS: Again, that’s one of the natures of Hollywood in general, I think. Was “Bourne Legacy” one of the times because your brother was directing, that he was able to keep you more involved in it?
Gilroy:
Oh yeah, when I was writing with Tony, because Tony was the director as well, so we were talking ten times a day, not only about the script, but once he started to make it, I was watching dailies. So that was a very unique case from a writing standpoint. I was actively involved as a writer because of my involvement with that script through my brother Tony who was directing. So that was a special case, which I loved. I loved it.

Nightcrawler opens nationwide on Friday, October 31. Look for Silas Lesnick’s video interviews with the cast very soon.