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March 22nd, 2019

Dan Gilroy Interview, Nightcrawler

Writer-director Dan Gilroy’s fascinating crime thriller, “Nightcrawler,” examines the nocturnal subculture of maverick stringers who prowl the L.A. basin in search of a newsworthy story while the city sleeps. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an earnest, hard-working, ambitious young man with a ruthless determination to succeed. Lou is faced with a bleak future in which the employment and advancement opportunities for his generation have vanished. His rapid ascent in the field of TV news reporting is a classic American success story with a dark twist. Opening October 31st, the razor-sharp satire also stars Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed and Bill Paxton.

At our roundtable interview, Gilroy talked about how he was inspired by 1930’s New York crime photographer Weegee, the influence of writer Paddy Chayefsky and the humor and horror of 1976’s “Network,” his collaboration with DP Robert Elswit on the stunning look and vibe of the film, capturing the wild and natural beauty of L.A. along with the untamed energy and predatory aspects of a character like Lou, crafting the climatic car chase sequence, how people today are being consumed by the perversion of the American dream, and why he considers Gyllenhaal one of the most talented actors working today.

Here’s what he had to say:

QUESTION: How did the idea for this project first emerge?

DAN GILROY: I came up with the idea of the movie in pieces. The first piece was that I heard about a guy named Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig), a crime photographer in New York who was the first guy to put a police scanner in a car and drive around in the 1930s. He took still photographs and sold them to newspapers. And then, Joe Pesci did a movie about that called “The Public Eye.” Then I moved out here and I heard about the modern equivalent, these stringers/nightcrawlers that drive around at a hundred miles an hour with a dozen scanners going. I got really interested in the world because it’s nighttime, it’s L.A., it’s crimes, it’s all that stuff. But I didn’t really know what to do with it. I mean, your instinct is to make it like a thriller or a plot heavy story and put a conspiracy on it, and I didn’t want to do that. I held onto it, and then one day, I sat down and the character of Lou started to come out. I started to think about Lou’s character, and when he plugged into that world, it became a very personal story in the sense that I could not only tell a story that I thought was engaging but was relevant to me in terms of the ideas that it presented and thoughts that maybe it provoked. So I just sat down and wrote it for myself and then everything came from there.

Q: Can you talk a little about the influence of Paddy Chayefsky? When you were growing up, were you a fan of his writing? Also, did you love that film noir movie, “Ace in the Hole,” by Billy Wilder, which tackled similar themes back in the 1950s?

GILROY: “Ace in the Hole” is a phenomenal movie. It’s one of the all-time dark movies about a journalist who comes upon a miner who’s trapped and makes a story about it and kills the guy. It’s an utterly beautiful, horrible movie. And yeah, Paddy Chayefsky is one of the all-time great writers, and I was certainly aware of “Network” because it’s such a brilliant film. I think there’s a similarity in our film because it’s about journalism to some degree. There’s also a similarity in the sense that there’s a lot of humor in “Network.” I think what Paddy was going for at the time was true and people knew it was true, but it was also so horrible that it was funny. I feel like that’s what we’re showing in this movie, though it’s 40 years on. I think you’re watching it, but you sense that it’s true, and it’s so extreme that it’s almost absurd. So you’re almost laughing but you’re also going, “Oh my God, it’s true! But it’s horrible.” It’s kind of doing that little ethic and it dwindles off and has no end.

Q: Can you talk about your collaboration with your DP Robert Elswit and how he contributed to the stunning look and vibe of the film?

GILROY: Robert is a friend. I knew Robert before through Tony (Gilroy) because he’d shot my brother Tony’s movies. When I sat down with Robert, he read the script. He found it to be very subversive — that was the word he used — which he loved. And then, he lives in Venice and we started talking about Los Angeles, and how you look out the window and it’s all trees and mountains, and how often in Los Angeles films, you see cement and freeways and downtown, and how we wanted to capture more the wild aspect of L.A. and more of the natural beauty, like going up on top of a hill and looking down and seeing far, or looking up at a mountain and seeing Mt. Wilson and those shots of antennas. We wanted to capture a wild, untamed energy in the sense of a character like Lou, almost like a coyote roaming through this wilderness, this landscape that had a physical beauty to it. We shot a lot of really wide angle lenses. It’s such a cool view out there and we wanted to try and capture as much of that as possible and to see as far as you can see. It’s that sort of deep focus and not shallow focus.

Q: Lou is also a character that just picks things up as he goes along and it feels like he can go in any direction at the start of the movie. If he doesn’t drive past that car crash, where do you think he goes?

GILROY: I firmly believe that he wanted the salvage yard job. If that guy gave him a job, the movie’s over. He wanted that job. If you look at him as an animal, as a coyote, I actually was looking at him as a larger predator, like a leopard or a tiger or something. But animals don’t kill out of any emotional pleasure. They kill out of necessity. So Lou would have taken those earlier jobs, not because he’s drawn to violence. Violence is just a function to an end. It just gets him to where he wants to go. I always saw Lou as a very hard working, earnest guy who’s respectful in a lot of ways, who wants to work hard. And he expects the people that work for him to work hard. And Rick (Riz Ahmed’s character) doesn’t work hard enough.

Q: Dan, can you talk about that spectacular, climatic car chase scene that’s such an amazing practical stunt?

GILROY: I should say that we have a second unit director, as most films do these days for action, a guy named Mike Smith who’s extraordinarily talented, who brought an incredible team of stunt drivers and riggers and car manufacturers to the table. And that said, Robert Elswit, me and my brother Tony were actually involved in that, in crafting the look and what we wanted, to make it compressed and compact and to really focus in on the quality of what you’re watching rather than drawing it out for long periods of time. I think visually one of the things that came out of this was, when I started to work with Robert and we started to go location scouting with the cameras that Lou’s character uses, the little viewfinder that he looks at, Robert started to go, “You know, the viewfinders are interesting. We could start to show the action through the viewfinder rather than showing the action in large scale.” That became a really important idea, because when we have the shootout at the restaurant, that’s all coming through the viewfinders. If you go back and look at it, everything is in soft focus. It’s really your eye is drawn to this little viewfinder until finally we pull back at the very end. We’re keeping the action close in the chase to the characters. And in the chase, we’re staying in the car as much as possible. So when the car gets hit in the intersection, you see that through the windshield. Whereas, in a lot of chase movies, or in movies that have a chase, they would jump ahead a hundred yards and do a wide angle and they’d take you out of the action to show the spectacle of it. We wanted to show it from the point of view of what was going on in the car. I thought that made it more visceral and more personal.

Q: Was Jake using the camera on those shots or was it somebody else?

GILROY: Yes. There were many times that it was Jake’s shot or what Riz shot that we used. And there were other times that what they’d shot was slightly defocused and didn’t work. It was not all the time, but there were definitely times when we used Jake’s footage and Riz’s footage. Sometimes that was the only footage we had because we were moving so fast. It was like, “Wait! We didn’t get that?” and we wound up looking in their cameras and finding it. That happened more than once.

Q: Did Jake receive any type of training?

GILROY: He practiced. He took the camera home a week before and he practiced with it. He did know how to use the camera. He carried it around all the time.

Q: Did you want to explore the current state of the American dream in a time when people are really questioning the myth of the self-made man?

GILROY: It’s a very big part of the movie. My point of view, and this is again one of those personal ideas or themes, I believe that the American dream is increasingly gained by people like Lou, that the less humanity you have, the more you look at the bottom line, and the less respect you have for the human spirit, the greater the chances are that you’re going to climb this bloody ladder that leads to extraordinary wealth on a scale of disparity that has never really existed before.

Q: Is this admiration for him at the end genuine or maybe a genuine reflection of what you think of that kind of behavior?

GILROY: We approach it as a success story, but I only did that to get the effect that people stayed connected to the character. The real aim was that at the end of the film hopefully people would go, “Wait a minute! The problem isn’t Lou. The problem is the world that creates Lou’s and rewards Lou’s.” That was really where I was trying to go, that people would look at it and be horrified by the fact that he succeeds and be horrified by the fact that now he has three employees, and he’s going to have twelve employees in four months. He’s like a virus. At the end, when the cars go off in the two directions, I always imagined that it was literally like a virus that had infected a body and they were going into the bloodstream and they were going to be infecting it. I very much see Nina (Rene Russo’s character). It’s almost like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” People are being consumed by a perverted dream. I feel that the world is just increasingly that way.

Q: You’ve even got the Kevin McCarthy character in there shouting, “This is crazy. This is wrong!”

GILROY: Kevin Rahm (who plays Frank Kruse) is like a moth that gets brushed aside. He’s utterly inconsequential in today’s discussion on this topic. He has no relevance.

Q: Joe Loder is a really interesting character. What led you to cast Bill Paxton in that role?

GILROY: I’m such a Bill fan. He did a great movie, “A Simple Plan,” which has such a great, dark ending. I just love his work. I think Bill is a tremendous actor. And so, I felt so fortunate when he signed on board to do this part. He’s an L.A. guy and I feel he has an L.A. vibe. You could imagine him as the L.A. dude a little bit. I felt he was realistic for the part and the world, and he’s just a great actor.

Q: Was it hard to craft the character of Joe Loder in contrast to Lou Bloom?

GILROY: Yeah. Well it’s interesting because Joe Loder is the apex predator before Lou comes in. You can tell that Joe is crossing the lines to some degree, but Joe has still some level of humanity. There still are things that would be inconceivable to him. Lou comes along and eclipses everything that Joe Loder believed would be possible, and ultimately is killed by him, which I feel is the order of nature. I feel that a system operates in which you have an alpha predator, and usually the new alpha predator that comes in – I feel that we are animals that live in a wilderness in a lot of ways. I feel like we can put wallpaper up and carpet, but ultimately we live in a wilderness and we are animals to many degrees and we carry a lot of animal instincts with us. Joe Loder is somebody who can’t conceive of what the next predator is going to be. Just like we can’t conceive of the next thing that’s going to hurt us, but when it shows up, chances are by the time we realize it, it’ll be too late, whatever it is.

Q: Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection?

GILROY: Absolutely. I feel like [inaudible] is in full effect. I really do. And I feel increasingly like the business world and the American dream is very much becoming much more. It’s uber capitalism. It’s hyper free market, and hyper free market is wilderness, I think. I feel like we’re going more and more in that direction. It’s like in “Where the Wild Things Are” when the kid goes to sleep and suddenly his bedroom turns into a jungle. I was always struck by that image. It’s like suddenly the world evaporated and you’re back living in a jungle. I feel like we’re living in that world a little.

Q: Did you lose any scenes that you loved? Was there a bigger cut?

GILROY: We lost a couple scenes. There was one scene after he goes to the salvage yard. He went on a sexting website and a woman comes and he meets her at a diner. It was a really cool scene and a woman named Kathleen Newark did a great job. He’s being really nice and respectful to her, and she goes, “Did you read my ad?” And he didn’t read her ad. So he goes, “No, I don’t think so. I was driving.” And she goes, “I like it rough,” like she’s into bondage. And he goes, “Well, I think I can do that.” It was a great little strange scene. But it was weird when watching the movie. It was a two-minute scene and from a pacing standpoint it slowed things down a little bit. So we had to cut that scene out. That was the scene that stands out.

Q: Jake has done amazing work recently and throughout the years, but you don’t see him consistently rewarded with nominations and awards. Do you think he is underrated as an actor?

GILROY: I think he deserves every award in the world for what he’s doing right now. I believe it’s going to come to him. I believe he has almost limitless talent from what I can see, and his drive, and his commitment to what he is doing, and the choices he’s making. I feel that he’s going to get everything that the world has to offer in terms of awards. It’s funny, I know everybody likes awards, but I think what drives Jake is just that he has this inner drive. He’s just not going to stop for himself. He has an artist’s sensibility and he wants to push himself. And he doesn’t want to be mediocre. I don’t think he could be mediocre. He just always wants to go to that farthest degree. I feel the world is waking up to Jake. I think people were always aware of him. I know I was. But the world is very much waking up to Jake from what I’m feeling and sensing, particularly from “Prisoners” and “End of Watch,” which I love. Michael Pena was great in “End of Watch” as well.

Q: How collaborative was Jake in infusing ideas in a producing capacity because he wears the producer’s hat, too?

GILROY: He was very active as a producer. There was no hiring of department heads. There were no moves that we made from a production standpoint that Jake didn’t have a voice in. Jake was at probably almost every audition, like choosing Riz (Ahmed). He got very active in that, active on a nightly basis. I say nightly, because daily we didn’t really shoot that many days. We shot like 24 nights in a row. He was very much a very active producer and a very creative producer. He was a very good voice to have.

Q: We had “Network” 40 years ago and nothing changed. In fact, it went in the opposite direction and it’s gotten worse. Do you have an expectation that this film is going to make things better?

GILROY: No. I don’t believe things are going to change, but I believe hopefully that people who see this film might stay with it, and maybe they will be aware of what they’re watching and understand the narrative that’s being sold to them, like urban crime creeping into the suburbs. And they might be aware of, “Maybe I don’t need to watch that ISIS beheading. Maybe that’s sort of not a good thing. Maybe I can edit myself a little bit.” I mean, a little bit more self-awareness. I’m a big believer in self-awareness. Cognitive therapy, that’s what it’s all about. Go to therapy.


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