Interview: Dan Gilroy
Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, out this week on Blu-ray, is the best American movie of 2014. Gilroy constructs an exciting and enraging vision of contemporary life from the spectacle of TV-news freelancers scrambling through L.A. at night to record gory accidents and crimes. This film is incandescent verbally—Gilroy’s eloquently slangy script has been nominated for an Oscar—and visually—the great Robert Elswit did its electric cinematography. The movie boasts gutsy, imaginative performances from Jake Gyllenhaal as tyro videocam stringer Lou Bloom; Riz Ahmed as his naïve assistant Rick; and Rene Russo as veteran L.A. news producer Nina Romina, who starts out as Lou’s mentor and becomes his accomplice. The eyewitness-news ethos—“If it bleeds, it leads”—has often been depicted in films and TV shows, but rarely with the boots-on-the-ground veracity of Nightcrawler. Gilroy captures how digital technology has escalated the tabloid-TV race for unique pictures of disaster to a diabolical intensity.
Neither an exploitation film nor a message movie, Nightcrawler is a psychological thriller about a character with a deceptively positive psychology. Lou progresses from total outsider to industry hot hand because of talent, ambition, and total amorality. Spouting business data and human-resources jargon that he’s inhaled from the Internet, Lou embodies a ruthless, deracinated, digitized pragmatism that’s part Horatio Alger, part Tony Robbins, part The Art of War. Gyllenhaal plays Lou with a smile that’s initially disarming and ultimately chilling.
Thanks to its wildly original protagonist, beautifully observed milieu, and can-you-believe-this? black comedy, Nighcrawler is the strongest debut for a writer turned writer-director since Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton (2007). Tony, Dan’s older brother, is one of Nightcrawler’s producers. John Gilroy, Dan’s fraternal twin, did the editing. (All three previously collaborated on Tony’s The Bourne Legacy, which Tony directed and cowrote with Dan, and John edited.) Russo is part of the family, too. Dan met her on the movie Freejack and married her in 1992. He moved to Los Angeles to be with her, and has lived here ever since.
Both Tony and Dan became directors when they were already mature artists. Tony was 51 when Michael Clayton played the Toronto Film Festival and Dan was 55 when Nightcrawler premiered there. It’s a family tradition. Their father, Frank D. Gilroy, became a writer-director at 46, with Desperate Characters (1971), after two decades of writing teleplays and stage plays that included the Pulitzer-prize winning The Subject Was Roses. He’s still writing Amazon Singles at age 89.
“I grew up in a house where our father was a working writer and working at home,” Dan says. “We got to see him write, and that demystified the process of becoming a writer.” His father’s decision to direct “demystified that process, too—‘Oh, writers can become directors.’ You read about it and you certainly see films where it happens, but to have your father do it—that sticks in your head! So when you reach a certain point in your writing career, it’s like, ‘Hey, the old man did it! Let’s do it!’ “
Frank Gilroy, Dan says, was a “tough gambler from the Bronx,” who “got pulled into World War II, saw combat, came out” and went to Dartmouth on the GI Bill “after being turned down by seventy other colleges, literally.” He found steady work writing in Los Angeles, but eventually moved his family about an hour north of New York City. “It was a literary house in the sense that there were books in the house and he was writing, but just as often I was betting on football games with him, or we were doing something outside. It was a very active, physical house, between the three brothers and our dad and our mom on this very large rural property. He’s a tough son of a bitch in the best possible way. He imparted to all of us that it’s a tough world and if you want to do something you’ve got to really focus and devote all your energy to it.” John and Dan followed him to Dartmouth. (Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr was a classmate there, and Dan took one of film critic David Thomson’s classes.) “I was an English major,” Dan says, “and I was obsessed, and still am, with Victorian literature. Trollope, George Eliot, and Dickens—the first one who came up with the idea of the serialized form, the cliffhangers, way ahead of his time.” Frank Gilroy’s plan was to keep his sons far away from “the industry.” It didn’t pan out. “I think when we all got into our twenties, it was like, ‘Ah, man, the movie business seems like a good way to pretend you’re working.’”
I spoke with Dan by phone, eight days after he received his Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay.
I saw Nightcrawler with a regular Saturday matinee crowd at the AMC Burbank, and everyone responded to it, laughing at the smartest jokes and applauding at the end.
I’m glad you got a chance to see it in a theater because all films play differently with a crowd. And you don’t get that laughter unless you’re with other people. I think when someone starts to laugh it gives you permission to laugh and it releases some of the tension, and it’s also subversive, which works for this film. When I see it with an audience, this movie’s humor comes from the huge gulf between what Lou says is going on and what you see is going on. The humor comes from the absurdity of that.
What’s distinctive is how you connect the tabloid side of TV news to Lou’s particular character. He’s like a 21st century version of the 19th century Horatio Alger hero—he works hard, he’s thrifty, he prides himself on being direct with coworkers. He also uses every bit of pseudo-wisdom about business success that he’s gleaned from the Web. I saw Nightcrawler after reading the coverage of the New Republic meltdown. Some of the quotes from the new CEO—using “vertical integration” to create “a sustainable business model”—sounded like Lou explaining his view of building a news company to Rick or to Nina.
I heard a great quote: “We shouldn’t be afraid of robots becoming human, we should be afraid of humans turning into robots.” I feel we live in a hyper-capitalist society, in the sense that everything now is the bottom line—it’s really a world reduced to transactions. In this world Lou is so far ahead of everybody else, because he’s only about the bottom line. So his way of speaking, in the line of that integrated-vertical-synergistic bullshit—that’s literally his religion. Lou is a corporation. He admits as much at the end when he says to Rick, “I can’t jeopardize my company’s success by retaining an untrustworthy employee,” which is basically saying, “This is why I just killed you.” He believes that fully, and Jake delivered that line with full earnestness and credibility.
In research I’ve sometimes had to do on this, I’ve read scientific studies that show you can often find sociopathic tendencies in the boardroom. Jake and I always believed that if you came back in ten years Lou would be running the corporation. There’s no stopping Lou. He’s only going to ascend and get stronger. He’s found his niche, he’s got his foot in the door, and he’s going to burst his way through. Capitalism is capitalism, success is success, and people who strive and are not encumbered by the usual, more fragile societal things that we put importance on, are usually going to do better than someone else.
Your movie reminded me of Nathanael West’s satire A Cool Million, except that West’s novel is about a loser, and your movie is about a guy who looks like he’ll end up on top.
As much as I like satire, I did not want this to become a satire. The tremendous thing of Jake’s performance is that if he takes one step too far one way, it becomes a sociopath study or a psychopath study, and I’m not interested in that. It’s just too reductive. If he takes a step another way, it becomes satire. It becomes, “Oh, this is an amusing, dark, violent film,” and I didn’t want that, either. Jake makes you understand that Lou is feral. He’s unencumbered by human emotion and conscience.
Part of what keeps it from becoming satire is Lou’s action hero or villain physicality.
Jake is really credible at that. A lot of younger actors can’t pull it off. Jake is a physical being. Jake is very athletic, Jake is graceful, and he’s incredibly strong. He weighed 168 in our film, and I think for Southpaw he went up to 195. He’s got beautiful athletic moves, and I always thought to get that physicality out early was important for the character. He’s credible, he’s scary, and when he says to Rick, “I might be obliged to hurt you for this,” you believe it—he could hurt you for this. You don’t want to be in a car with Lou when he’s angry.
Which came first, Lou or the nightcrawler milieu?
The first component was learning about this world of TV-news stringers. I got excited, because it seemed like a great backdrop for a film. I lugged this idea around for years, thinking I was going to use it in a conspiracy film like Chinatown. There were other variants, but none of them panned out. Then I thought, “Well, maybe I should start with the characters,” though usually I start with the plot.
I started plugging heroes into the story. From a literary standpoint, I was following convention. I was thinking, “OK, I need a hero.” This is the way you think—most of the time you’re mired in the hero notion. Again, nothing worked. So I put it aside once more. Then, I don’t know why, I suddenly thought, “Why don’t I try an antihero?” I certainly know about antiheroes, but I’d never written an antihero.
As a literary device, a genuine antihero is fairly rare, because he’s literally the hero and the villain simultaneously. One, it’s difficult to pull off, and two, antiheroes are usually really dark, and I’m not interested in psychopath movies. I don’t find psychopaths in and of themselves to be particularly interesting. So I thought I would start breaking some narrative conventions. “Okay, if I go with an antihero, I don’t want to do a reductive story of a psychopath. I want to do an antihero success story.” Right away something clicked, because it became something very personal to me.
The idea of taking a character who is maladjusted, who leaves his humanity behind, and to make him a success—that’s what I was going for. The literary device of the antihero, as a tool, led me to this equation—because we framed an antihero story as a success story, and put no morality in at all, and did not judge his actions, the audience would say at the end, “Wait a minute, maybe the problem isn’t Lou. Maybe the problem is the world that creates a Lou and rewards him.”
In horrifically traditional cinematic storytelling, you have a hero, and he’s flawed, and that allows for an arc. Throughout the course of the story, the character bends to the world—the world gives the hero part of something that he needs, and he becomes whole at the end. That’s the hero.
What I found fascinating about the antihero is that he makes the world bend around him. He doesn’t change. He forces other characters to do things that they normally wouldn’t do. What I learned is that because antiheroes make the world bend around them, they hold a mirror up to the world. They expose the world in a way that I don’t think you have the opportunity to do with heroes. Because when the hero is flawed by definition, and the world around him supplies what’s missing, the world has a rosier patina inherently. With an antihero, the world has a more realistic tone to it.
And the world right now, from what I see… there’s a huge socioeconomic disparity. Globally, wherever I travel—I was in Italy a few weeks ago and I saw in the paper that 48 percent of people under 25 are unemployed. That’s a staggering number.
I feel Lou is spouting the lexicon of the world today, which is based on the idea that people, human beings, are just another commodity to be data-mined and exploited to whatever degree you can sell them something. They’re consumers of whatever you can unload on them. And “vertical integration,” and those kinds of terms, just grease the wheels for that process.
Even that “classic” hero structure you refer to is rare now. Today we have a superhero model.
And the flaws the superheroes have are so minimal now. They’re not even flaws. I don’t know what they are any more.
When you talk of antiheroes influencing other people, I immediately think of Nina saying that Lou has inspired everyone in her department to step up their game.
Cinematically, I always try to visualize the end instead of the beginning, because it gives you something to aim for. The last shot, of Lou’s two vans going off in two different directions—I always imagined that Lou was like a virus, and those two roads were like capillaries going into the body, and he was now going to infect the rest of us. Because of Lou’s three innocent, young—God help them—little interns who’ve just been hired. And yeah, he’s infected Nina. She was infected before, but now he’s really won her over—it’s a little bit like Invasion of the Body-Snatchers.
You come from a close family—you even work with your brothers, and apparently like it. But you depict Lou as having absolutely no family.
I do have a strong support system and a strong family and I enjoy that. It gives me tremendous comfort and it makes me sleep better. I want all that—I’m a very blessed person. At the same time, families are rough, because you wake up at three o’clock in the morning worrying about them. They consume a lot of emotional energy, and use up a lot of time, as well as they should, because they’re worth it. Lou lives an existence that I think some people would imagine to be heaven. He has no emotional encumbrances whatsoever. He never has to worry about anything; he never has to think about another person. He is literally focused on moving forward. He’s an animal! There are times when I watch animals that I think it must be a very beautiful, pure existence not to think about anything but survival. Jake and I talked about this: Lou has a lucidity you and I will never know, he has a purity that you and I will never know—the kind that a coyote has, which is the animal Jake latched onto as an inspiration. But at the same time, Lou is in hell. Because he’ll never know the other side of life, the human side of life, the thing that separates us from animals.
I gave him no backstory. You always have to have a backstory, but that’s one of the rules I wanted to break. All I give Lou is an implied past of abuse and abandonment. So I learned something else doing this movie: losing the backstory enables you to engage audiences, because it allows them to create. Where does Lou come from? Audiences will imagine it. You’re allowing audiences to kick in, in a way that they’re able to do, and they’re usually not allowed to do, because everything is always explained to them all the time. Here they can supply part of the story that’s not being given, and that makes it personal for them.
Did the “success story” dictate your structure?
Everything is structure—for me even characters are structure. They serve a purpose. You’re starting out with a young man who’s looking for work at the beginning of the film and at the end he’s the owner of a thriving business. With all the darkness and immorality—that’s the story. It’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, you know? It’s a touchstone for almost everybody on the planet. Everybody can understand the desire to find work. Once you find work, everybody can understand wanting to climb the ladder. It instantly takes this character with maladjusted, sociopathic tendencies and makes him more like us. People are always asking, “Are you surprised how dark Jake went with the character?” I am always saying, “I’m so surprised by, and love, the humanity he found in the character.” That’s what we were trying to put into it. He’s a guy who wants the job, wants to succeed, wants a relationship. He’s polite, he presents himself well, he treats his bosses and people above him with great respect. And he smiles like us! Everything was geared toward making him seem just like us. One thing that works to our advantage and does not get nearly enough credit is James Newton Howard’s soaring, very uplifting score. If you could isolate the score, you could apply it to a film about the triumph of the human spirit. James and I decided early on that his score would be the music in Lou’s head. It’s the soundtrack he’s walking around listening to. We didn’t want to have a typical suspense score, which would indicate to you that he really is crazy. Whether he is or not is really not to me the ultimate relevant thing.
Why did you want to become a director? Was it the love of film and the desire to handle all its many elements? Or was it what John Huston told James Agee, that he got sick of seeing what “professional” directors did to his screenplays?
The John Huston quote. That’s ultimately the reason why. Things become so personal to you it becomes horrifically painful to hand them off to other people. You spend a lot of time on them and then someone reinterprets them to whatever degree they do. I can’t go through that any more. It’s too painful.
What were your best experiences as a screenwriter?
Working with Tony on The Bourne Legacy , but also working with Tarsem Singh on The Fall . I love Tarsem. It’s one of the favorite things I’ve worked on, and working with Tarsem was just a joy.
Before Huston made The Maltese Falcon  he did drawings of every setup. Did you go in, knowing, well this is how I’m going to visualize it?
Not at all. Look at the script online. There are no interiors, no exteriors, no “NIGHT” or “DAY.” There are one-line descriptions of things. It’s like one long run-on sentence. I just wanted to tell the story in a style that captured the energy of it. Translating that to film was really a question of sitting down with Robert Elswit, our cinematographer, who’s a staggering talent, and meeting with him months before, starting to shot-list every scene and thinking about what we wanted to do with every scene. I had some understanding of lenses and cinematography, obviously not even a fraction of what Robert knows, but enough to have a conversation with him. Robert and I would go out at night, because he was just finishing Inherent Vice and he had a couple of months before my movie. We would go out in L.A. at three or four in the morning in a Dodge Challenger [Lou’s dream car], just looking for shots and talking about the story. We bonded cinematically. The idea for L.A. was for it to be physically beautiful. That’s how I see it. I wanted to capture its wild, untamed energy. Robert and I were always trying to use wider angles and deep focus when we could. We shot on Alexa for the nighttime stuff and shot on film for the daytime stuff.
It looks as if you had a good time directing. I’m thinking, for example, of the pawnshop scene, where Lou rides his stolen bike while negotiating a better price for it.
That’s a classic example of doing what was organic to what was there, at the moment. We only had 27 days to shoot his movie, eight and a half million dollars, and we were moving very fast. We shot-listed the pawnshop scene, but when we got there, it was just boring. We only had the location for a couple of hours and it’s two guys talking across a counter, and we were trying everything. As we started talking about it, Jake, who rides bikes, hopped on the bike and started riding around the store as he’s talking to us. Robert and I looked at each other—and like, “Wait a minute, he’s riding the bike, let’s just do that!”
The stuff with the TV news anchors has an improvisational feel. They’re great at playing who they are.
That’s Rick Chambers and Holly Hannulah: Rick is on KTLA, and Holly is the traffic person on KNBC. I had scripted a lot of what they said, but there’s a lot that they improvised, I just had them watch what Lou recorded and start talking. They bring their own realism to it.
How did you get us inside Lou’s head, without any tricky POV shots?
Some of that comes from the shooting, but a lot of it comes from the writing. From the moment he beats up the guy to steal his watch, audiences are starting to make a decision about Lou. In the next scene, though, he goes into the salvage yard, and pleads for a job in the most respectful, well-rehearsed way possible. I think that pulls audiences up short. We’re saying, “You can’t judge this guy yet.” We’re pulling them into this character. And this is where Jake just physically works so well, because he’s so charismatic and so affable—or at least comes across that way in this character. He’s so earnest, he’s like WALL*E running around, looking for work to do. The music, again, is very subversive. The score when he steals the bike—the first crime he commits that you actually see—it literally could be a music cue out of WALL*E, for this earnest little guy, doing his job, with the don’t-mind-me attitude. Jake is in every shot, pretty much, even the over-the-shoulder stuff. Even when we’re not doing classic POV shots and saying, “Here, you’re the character,” he’s such a presence in the film. His drive, the thing that’s motivating him, is so raw and understandable, and he keeps surprising you. I think he kills seven people directly or indirectly in the course of the film, but at the end some people in the audience go, “I don’t know why but I was so invested in this character!” That’s another thing I learned: antiheroes, if they’re done properly, can be like a magnet. They can attract this darker instinct in you and draw you in.
Whatever is going on between Lou and Nina, we accept that he exerts power over her.
I think that’s a testament to Rene’s acting, because what you realize is this strong, hard-nosed businesswoman can be extraordinarily vulnerable. And Lou can smell weakness. Lou can smell fear. That’s the horror of working with someone who recognizes a weakness in you, and can exploit it. They’ll use it. With Nina, Lou, in his feral way, just goes for it. Rick at one point in the script tells Lou, “Your problem is, you don’t understand people.” I always thought that was ironic. Lou understands people the way a lion understands a gazelle.