After spending his career as a writer of such screenplays as The Bourne Legacy, Chasers, Real Steel and many others, Dan Gilroy—in his fifties—finally made his debut behind the camera with the critically acclaimed Nightcrawler, which he also wrote. With Golden Globe, Critics Choice Movie Award, SAG, WGA and PGA nominations, to name a few that the film has so far received, Gilroy hit the jackpot first time out. Working with his brothers Tony, as a producer, and John, as an editor, Gilroy turned the experience into a family affair. It’s obvious the brothers’ father, playwright Frank Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses), created a show business dynasty.
It’s an extraordinary movie with so many things to talk about. But where did you get the idea for this film in the first place?
The idea came in pieces. I think the first piece is when I became aware of a crime photographer in New York City from the 1930s, a guy named Weegee. I actually collect his photographs. He was the first guy to put a police scanner into a car and go to a crime scene. He sold his photographs to tabloids in New York. I moved to L.A. and realized there would be a modern equivalent where these nightcrawlers drive around at 120 miles per hour with 10 scanners going, and it seemed like an interesting backdrop for a film. It was when the character of Lou Bloom (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) came into the picture that I realized it was ultimately more of a character study than it was about this unique world.
Lou is somebody you keep waiting to turn psychotic, yet I think this guy’s more on the ball than anybody I’ve seen in a long time. He really seems to know where he’s going.
Well, I approached (the screenplay) as a success story. I approached it as a young man looking for work at the beginning, and by the end of the story he’s the owner of a thriving business. The reason I approached it that way is because it takes the moral label away from the character. I’ve never written a script like this in the sense that your hero’s your villain at the same time, and the danger for me when I was working on it was I never wanted the audience, at any point, to say, “Oh, this is a movie about a sociopath.” In the writing of the screenplay, and while Jake was developing the character, we went to great lengths to acknowledge the fact that he did fall out of the classic diagnosis of a sociopath, but as many probably know, that’s a very reductive label. Just like there’s a spectrum for autism and Asperger’s, there’s a spectrum for sociopath, and I actually believe that everyone in this room falls somewhere on that spectrum.
Are you saying that we’re all sociopaths?
I believe all of us, through the evolution of our subconscious brain into our frontal cortex, retain certain elements. I don’t know if you’d get through the world if you didn’t have some qualities. So we were always looking for the humanity of the character.
I definitely root for him throughout the movie, even when I’m watching him step over his partner in that scene. You’re going like, “Whoa, how can he do that?”
What we were aiming for in telling this success story—what we wanted the audience to walk away with—is that the problem wasn’t Lou, although Lou is obviously a problem for quite a few people in the film. The problem is the world…the society that created Lou and rewards Lou. So if you’re feeling that, we’re succeeding on that level in the sense that I was very concerned by the time I was writing and I was like, “OK, most people, if we don’t do this right, are probably checking out this film and sense that he’s a sociopath.” Our hope was that if we cast (the film) right and do it right, people will question this assumption. The aim for the film for me was never to answer any questions. We just wanted to raise questions that hopefully when you walk out, you think, “Well, why was I connected to that character? Why did he succeed?” It was my belief, when I was writing the screenplay, that if you came back 10 years after this film was over, Lou would be running a major, multinational corporation. I believe that the qualities that served Lou well at 3:00 in the morning, dragging bodies around, would serve extraordinarily well in a boardroom. I believe that Lou is a lonely, lost young man who’s living in a world reduced to transactions. This is a very personal film to me on that level.
I looked at this movie as a documentary. I’ve worked in entertainment news. I didn’t look at local news the way I look at it since I saw this movie. That’s extraordinary to me, that any movie could affect me on that level.
I felt that way when I started to write the script. I watch a lot of television, for better or worse, and I am particularly interested in what Michael Moore brought up in Bowling for Columbine, which is the idea that they’re selling a narrative of fear. This narrative of fear has a great societal toll and I think of it like fast food, in the sense that we all eat fast food and we know it’s not good for us, but it wasn’t until they started putting the caloric intake on (menus) that we started realizing we’re eating 20,000 calories at breakfast. I believe if you can put a caloric intake on what local television news is doing to us I think we’d be stunned by what, really, the cost of all this is…ultimately.
Congratulations for making one of the great L.A. movies. I mean this is not something that we see that often anymore because people usually shoot elsewhere, but this movie was shot mostly at night here on the streets of L.A.
It was 80 locations. We shot it in 27 days and it was quite a challenge to do it. One of the reasons we did it was because we were one of the few beneficiaries that year, two years ago, of the California tax rebate. I could spend an hour talking about how irritated I am that the politicians up north have, through inaction, managed to fritter away and marginalize what was once a great industry for Los Angeles, but I’ll leave that to the side for the moment. We were one of the lucky ones who managed to shoot here. Los Angeles is really only shown desaturated as a place of cement and freeways and downtown. The Los Angeles that I see—I’m a transplant from New York—I’m always stunned by the physical beauty of Los Angeles as a place of mountains and ocean and great vistas. I’m endlessly impressed with how beautiful it is. Robert (Elswit, the film’s cinematographer) is a lifelong resident of Los Angeles and when we sat down we very much wanted to capture, in wide angle, the beauty of the landscape.More often than not, we went for the deep focused shots that you could see very far, rather than what you’d normally see with a shallow focus. And to complete the equation of that, we had an idea for Jake’s character. He’s a nocturnal animal who came out of the hills at night to feed. That’s sort of the symbolic idea we had for the character.
Like a coyote, right?
Coyote. And so, with that concept in mind, Robert and I always imagined that this was like an animal documentary about a coyote.
I’ve spoken with Jake Gyllehaal about the movie and he sung the praises of the dialogue in this film. It was really hard for him to go on to something else after having the ability to deliver these kind of lines.
Well, that’s incredible. Jake read the part and fell in love with it and immersed himself to the point where those words became burned into his head. I was doing an interview with him the other day. We shot (the film) a year ago and I don’t think there’s really a page in the script that he can’t recite verbatim still, which shows his level of commitment of Jake Gyllenhaal. I think what you’re seeing up on screen is a door to one of the finest actors alive today, and I mean that as objectively as possible. He has a process that is very unique and he’s fearless. He’s not afraid to try something and have it fail. The beginning of that process is an incredibly disciplined, rogue learning of the script. He didn’t change a word of the script and he was so respectful of it that I was respectful of the process of what he wanted to explore. Part of that exploration was, “I’m going to lose 30 pounds for this part.” If you look at it now it makes total sense, but as the weight’s coming off and he’s disappearing and this new Jake Gyllenhaal is appearing, it was a little scary. You have to go with it. These are choices that Jake has made and I’m supporting because I believe they were creatively right and I believe that Jake’s instincts were right.
What are your thoughts on writing a script where there are no relatable characters—no one to root for?
That is an utterly legitimate question. It’s a legitimate reaction and I’ll tell you, when I wrote the script, I was very concerned by that. I was deeply concerned that your reaction, which is legitimate, might be, statistically, the general reaction. One of the things that Jake and I have in common—I love to gamble. I don’t know if it’s because I need heightened risk to feel, but I like when things are risky and that’s when I sort of feel alive. You don’t know what the hell’s going to happen until you have your first test screening. I was terrified. All I knew was that the people who worked on the film liked it.
And you’re a first time director.
I’m a first-time director. It’s unheard of but I had final cut and I made the movie I wanted to make. We didn’t have a distributor going back to March and April of last year, and so all of the other companies are like, “Well, we should start having test screens because who knows what distributor…?” I was like, “I don’t want a test screen,” and I dug my heels in and we went back and forth a little bit. Bold Films didn’t push it that far and I have only good things to say about them. What happened was, we went to Cannes and they went with the trailer and because there was a buzz on the film and because of whatever else was going on, a bidding war broke out and we were bought, sight unseen, off the trailer, which is remarkable, with a company called Open Road, who I absolutely love. Suddenly, they picked it up. It went very quickly.