I’m surprised to be on the receiving end of questions when I get on the phone with Dan and Tony Gilroy, who with their editor brother John made Nightcrawler. This is the nightmarish wild drama that opened Friday. It’s a savage indictment of plummeting standards and morals in journalism, personified by Jake Gyllenhaal‘s sleazy sociopathic hustler, who makes a Sammy Glick-like rise selling footage of the car wrecks and murders we see on L.A.’s nightly local newscasts.
Right off, the film’s writer/director, Dan, wants to know about my early days at Weekly Variety, 25 years ago. Turns out he ended a three-year stint as a junior reporter there just before I arrived. The sons of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Frank Gilroy, Dan wrote articles while future Bourne Identity writer and Michael Clayton director Tony poured drinks as they figured out how to write scripts.
Tony, who produced Nightcrawler with Jennifer Fox, would step over drunks and past hookers to visit Dan in Variety’s cramped Times Square headquarters that were right out of The Front Page, filled with Variety slanguage slingers who were richer characters than they were writers. After we reminisce about the cesspool that was Times Square, the golden memories of street crime, Three-Card Monte hustlers, $4.99 steaks at Tads and the Stix Nix Hix Pix days at Weekly Variety, we focus on this crazy movie they made with Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, to whom Dan is married.
DEADLINE: Right after reading tributes about the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and feeling pride in journalism, I watched Nightcrawler. First question: what did we journalists, as a breed, do to offend the Gilroy clan so much that you could paint such a cynical picture about news gathering?
DAN GILROY: If you talk about Ben Bradlee, you go back to the 1970s and you have to ask, what lasting influence does the film Network have. What Paddy Chayevsky accurately grabbed was the moment when networks decided that news divisions had to make a profit. He foresaw that when that happened, news would have to become entertainment. I stumbled into this night-crawling world and that was my way in to this story. But when I plugged into the local TV news scene in LA, I realized that it is all about selling the statistically disproved narrative that urban crime is creeping into the suburbs. To spread fear and grab viewers. I guess I felt it when I watched local news, but I didn’t really know it.
DEADLINE: The movie hit me because every editor is drawing lines in the sand and wondering if we should cross them out. Deadline covers business, not personal. But then you have Woody Allen and his estranged daughter, Seventh Heaven‘s Stephen Collins undone by a surreptitiously recorded therapy session tape, Mel Gibson, and those since-recanted pedophile claims made against directors and execs. We avoided most of these stories unless there was a specific business context, but rivals reveled in it. I have no idea who was right, but we certainly lost eyeballs. How much did this fast-changing world of digital-era communication factor into what you constructed here?
DAN GILROY: It was very much a factor, and particularly because I live in L.A .now. Ultimately, this is a study of local news in Los Angeles, which, I feel, is accurately portrayed in terms of the narrative they sell about urban crime creeping into the suburbs. The larger the outlet, the network, the more pressure there is to lean into entertainment. Example: a few weeks after Robin Williams died, I was watching my beloved old network nightly news show. There is a clip of a helicopter, circling his house the day he died. What is the higher purpose? To glimpse a grieving widow? What could possibly be the F’ing news value to that? If a network, the last bastion of journalistic integrity, is doing that, you realize the pressure these people are under to somehow get eyeballs. Tony?
TONY GILROY: It’s province. Ben Bradlee was protected by the Graham family, and an industrialstrength advertising base that had nowhere else to go. He fortunately got to see his industry last a bit longer than the networks, but Mike, the only reason you would ever have to chase those other stories you described is to get eyeballs. It’s about profit. When you hear somebody talking about the efficiencies of the marketplace, get out of the way because you know you’re going to get rolled.
DAN GILROY: As much as we indict local news in this film, we always hoped people would make the connection that ultimately, we, the viewers, are the users of the images that get shown on TV. We are part of that system; whatever is being fed to us, and we consume it like fast food, keeps coming because we seem to demand it. We were never trying to provide answers with this film. We were just trying to raise questions and hopefully create some kind of dialogue and a level of self-awareness that might not have been there before they watched the film. Just to think about that moment where you say, “Wow, I watch this s***. When I turn on the computer in the morning, there’s the latest ISIS beheading. Do I watch it, or not?” The facility and ease with which these images are now coming at us, we have to decide on a minute-by-minute basis what we let in and what we don’t.
DEADLINE: Is it an antiquated, obsolete image, the honest journalist wearing out shoe leather like in All The President’s Men? Do you think the population at large sees journalists in the form of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, where it’s all about buying salacious images, or secretly recorded phone calls that bring people down and bring in the eyeballs that lead to profit?
TONY GILROY: The one advantage you get through fragmentation and all these sources for news is, it’s like you are shopping in a bazaar for your news. There’s a burden in having to do that, and it’s also a burden to have to have to sell news as a product to consumers. I live in New York and find when I go to LA, I’d check into the hotel for a week, put on the news and think, ‘Wow, I need to put on sunglasses to watch this. I’ve never seen anything like this, it’s so harsh.’ By day three, I’m like, ‘I wonder if that car chase is still going on?’
DAN GILROY: There is a societal impact of what goes on in a local news market like Los Angeles, the way they sell this statistically inaccurate story that urban crime is creeping into the suburbs. They package it like news but it comes out as a narrative to spread fear. They show brief, violent images, a breath of narrative of fear and drama, a brief interview with passersby or victims who convey that this violence has somehow found them. There is a string of similar incidents and then you go to commercial. And people walk around with a fear they can’t identify, and to some degree it drives why you hear about shootings or assaults when someone comes into a neighborhood that is not theirs. A snap decision is made that this is a threatening person, because of what we’ve seen on the news. I think there’s no way to really quantify it exactly, but it does have an effect. Michael Moore brought it up, the idea of fear being used to sell products. I think when you see the nuanced version of this in markets like L.A., it has a tremendous societal effect. The idea we are all walking around believing we live in a miasma of danger with no solution other than arming yourself and making snap judgments that somebody might harm you. I think there is a correlation, but the film itself doesn’t get that far into that. It is something I felt after doing a lot of research.
DEADLINE: Jake Gyllenhaal’s character was too frantic to be robotic, but this was one odd, ruthless, soulless fellow. Where did you find that character?
DAN GILROY: The doorway was all these young people out there, desperate for work. My first instinct was to create a hero, but I realized an anti-hero took the story in a more fulfilling way. Jake read the script and we had a long dinner while he shot Prisoners. It became apparent we were completely in tune and wanted to explore not necessarily the sociopathic tendencies of the character, but to try to create an inner landscape. This is Jake’s great gift. He immersed himself in this character and made him human. The loneliness, that frantic desire for an outsider to connect and communicate with people, but somehow it never comes out right. I don’t know what it is he does, but you can’t take your eyes off him. Even when he’s doing horrible things he can be charming. He got so lost in this part in such a great way, it was remarkable to watch.
TONY GILROY: Dan’s also being humble about this script he wrote. From the first draft, everyone who read it said, how do I get involved in this? It was incredibly doable and clear on the page. I don’t want to sound like a bulls****er, but I’ve never been in a movie theater with this character before. I’ve seen sociopaths and people who were innocents and winners, and unlikely victors. I’ve never been in the theater with this character and his level of buoyancy and danger.
DEADLINE: Did you consciously make Jake’s character the first movie protagonist whose shallow values were completely informed by Google searches?
TONY GILROY: He is kind of a guy that we’ve ordered up in this space and time. What do we want? That young guy who’s eager to work and will do anything. Lou Bloom walks in and you say, ‘Wow, I don’t see the pedigree but I see everything else.’ I don’t even know about his pedigree because there is no back story, but I see what I need to see: the eager, clearheaded, ambitious go-getter that we all want working for us. And here he is.
DEADLINE: He clearly was not bred with any sense of decency, which allows him to make the ratings-hungry news producer (played by Russo) sleep with him as a condition of him selling his ratings-grabbing explosive crime footage to her. She sees he’s empty inside, but if she refuses, they both know she will lose her job. It’s a little sickening, the way this former on-air glamor girl-turned producer has to succumb to this bad guy she herself empowered.
DAN GILROY: When I wrote it, I saw her character as a victim. I loved what Rene brought out in rehearsals with Jake, a vulnerability that went beyond the label of hard-nosed businesswoman. She grounded her character in humanity and it gets chipped away. There is that scene in a Mexican restaurant where she is there with him and suddenly realizes how deeply vulnerable she is and how important things like health insurance are at this point in her life and how she needed what he brought to be able to sustain herself.
DEADLINE: And he threw it in her face, and was able to find those vulnerabilities through web searches.
TONY GILROY: That’s an interesting point I hadn’t considered before. People think about Google and their phones as extensions of their memory. You don’t have to remember things anymore, because you store the data. But it also works in a different way. It has created this common, shared consciousness. Jake’s character has fabricated his whole self and you can go back generations and find examples of this in Dale Carnegie or other personal-empowerment campaigns. But it’s easier now; this guy is the great beneficiary of tapping into this collective consciousness right now, this hive mentality. It’s right there at your fingertips.
DAN GILROY: You guys are starting to freak me out, now.
DEADLINE: A little off topic for the next question. Tony, when I interviewed you several years ago for The Bourne Legacy, you told me movies like your gem Michael Clayton won’t get made anymore, but that I needn’t worry because all the guys who want to write and direct the next Michael Claytons will bring them to cable television and wait ’til you see what happens. I shook my head. My question: what numbers should I play in the Pick Six?
TONY GILROY: The truth? I thought I was behind the curve when I said that to you. It was just so clear to me and obviously, it’s crystal clear now. I don’t have many other predictions of seismic change like that.
DEADLINE: The same companies that created this cable-TV golden age by default now are going heavy into the TV business that their indifference to good writing created.
TONY GILROY: It’s clear that is happening, but what’s different from Michael Clayton is, they are not paying everybody as well as they once did. So the Michael Claytons are still screwed. Nightcrawler cost half what Michael Clayton did, it was totally micro.
DAN GILROY: We shot 28 nights, just begging, borrowing and stealing everything we could. We played the California lottery tax credit, gambled and won at the last minute. We called in huge amounts of favors from a big talent pool of great film craftsmen who wanted to stay home from October until Christmas. We lucked out by falling into that slot. People said, I’m not going to take a big paycheck, but I can stay at home for Christmas and I’ll work on the big one next year. There is nobody shooting in LA.
DEADLINE: Compare the degree of difficulty shooting this, with Michael Clayton.
TONY GILROY: Clayton was a really simple formula. Write a part and get a star where, if his full-freight salary is the total budget of the film, and he will take nothing, then that’s the movie. It was that simple. Clayton cost what George Clooney’s full-freight price would have been. He took nothing, and pretty much owned the picture. That doesn’t exist as much anymore. You don’t have actors with those firm numbers that matter anymore, and the whole foreign-sales model isn’t as meaningful. Marvel and the other superhero movies seem to have destroyed and distorted the foreign-sales market.
DAN GILROY: The foreign-sales market is still there, but it’s maybe half what it was when Tony made Michael Clayton. Tony was somewhere around $20 million for that movie and we were just below $10 million. The $10 million-and-below number, that works well. There were a lot of people who wanted to finance this film.
TONY GILROY: There’s another difference. Now, you have to have something electric enough to cut into the marketplace. The materials coming out on this movie, the buzz we were able to get, were much greater than anything we were able to get on Michael Clayton. This is much more jacked up. Clayton was very traditional, solid and classic. That’s how it was perceived; I’m not saying it was a classic movie. This one has this jacked element to it that lent itself to the marketing material and the screenings. This has a chance to really cut through the marketplace in a way that Clayton could not. There, we’d have had to say, ‘Wow, we’ve got this really good movie. It’s solid,. You might be able to see something like this on television, but this is way better.’ That’s what we were selling back then. Do you disagree?
DEADLINE: No. I think your business has changed just about as much as my business has.
TONY GILROY: There’s no use in being myopic about it.
DEADLINE: When your dad, who came up in what seemed like a more gentlemanly time to be a writer, looks at you guys and how you got this movie made and how much harder you have to work to survive, what does he think?
DAN GILROY: Our father did seven independent films on an early guerilla scale. He was a gambler and he would be way into this world.
TONY GILROY: He’d be cranking on a TV show, as happy as he could possibly be. He’d be Kurt Sutter, blogging the whole thing.
DEADLINE: You were raised by a writer and all three of you come out as strong-minded creative guys and I’m including your brother John, who puts his creativity into editing your movies. Is it genetic? What advantage does growing up in that atmosphere provide for a career in this business?
DAN GILROY: We grew up in an environment where our father wrote all day, and worked in his pajamas and seemed to enjoy it. Storytelling was always in the house. When we got in our twenties, there was no mystery of how one gets in the movie business, which is the plus of growing up watching somebody who does that. It seemed viable, possible, if you put in the work. And so we’d fail and keep trying…
TONY GILROY: The love of storytelling pulled us in. We’re on the phone right now, what are we all doing? We’re telling stories the last 45 minutes and we can’t stop. I have to get off the phone but the way we started this conversation, about Variety and Times Square and bartending, I don’t want to go because I could shoot the s*** about this all night. Because that’s what we do. There’s a storytelling tradition, and you just get good at whatever weird version of it is right for you and where you find they like what you do. The thing with my father is, we got to observe a writer’s life, so it wasn’t a mystery. Nobody’s going to hire you or buy your script because you’re somebody’s kid.
DAN GILROY: But you skip a lot of the mistakes that come in figuring it out because you saw the rhythm of that life, the ups and downs and it removes a lot of the mystery of whether you can make a living. You’re right about John by the way. He has edited everything we’ve done. Tony and I have worked together four times now and we haven’t done anything that John hasn’t approved of. He’s the real boss.
DEADLINE: How do the three of you work together, without wanting to kill each other?
DAN GILROY: I’m married 20 years and my wife and I have had some arguments. But the biggest arguments I’ve had in my life were creative ones with my brothers. Most happened in our 20s, before we found our stride and realized we could communicate without yelling and screaming. We realized our lives wouldn’t end if we took a suggestion. Creative arguments can be the most contentious you can have with another human being. They are unwinnable; they are subjective and who knows who’s right? The most attractive thing is, now we have creative discussions and nobody loses their s***. We have a bond that goes beyond work and we like each other. When somebody has an idea, and it conflicts with some previous idea, rather than killing it outright, we explore it and sometimes the new idea wins the day. You feel listened to, and heard. When I wrote The Bourne Legacy that Tony directed and John edited, there wasn’t a moment when somebody couldn’t pick up the phone and say, ‘I just thought of this.’ You could advocate for it, and if the idea had merit, usually the other two would say, ‘Yeah. F*** ego. That sounds better.’ The good thing is, you feel heard and you’re part of a real collaborative process. We don’t have a company or anything, and we are all working on our own things, but we’ll come together again.