EXCLUSIVE: On Saturday night, Netflix’s pulsating and riveting new thriller The Guilty will have its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival showing at the Princess of Wales Visa Screening Room. The film, an English-language remake of the 2018 Danish film Den Skyldige that starred Jacob Cedergren, is directed by Antoine Fuqua and stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a tour-de-force performance as an emergency responder working in a 911 dispatch center in Los Angeles.
The movie takes place in real time during the course of a morning where Gyllenhaal’s bitter and deflated police officer Joe Bayler, now relegated to a somewhat mundane task of fielding various calls, finds himself in a race against time to save a distressed caller (Riley Keough) riding in a car in which she is being abducted even as she seems to be pretending to be phoning her own young daughter. As wildfires are also raging on screens on the wall of the Los Angeles emergency call center, Bayler tries to keep the lines open and track her movements even as his own past psychological state and personal demons come into play all in the course of trying to save this woman.
As in the Danish film, which initially premiered at Sundance (that’s where Gyllenhaal saw it and decided it would be worth pursuing as an American remake), there is an ensemble of voices running through his headset as the tense story unfolds, and that cast also includes Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard and Paul Dano. True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto provided the script, which Fuqua shot in 11 days during the pandemic, a technical feat that involved Covid restrictions as well as some very tricky and skilled filmmaking.
Although neither Gyllenhaal nor Fuqua, who previously collaborated on the film Southpaw, can be in Toronto for the premiere, they joined me together earlier this week in advance of the TIFF debut for a conversation about the distinctly unique challenges of making of the film.
DEADLINE: Jake, this all started with you. What made you think this would be ripe for an American version?
JAKE GYLLENHAAL: Well, I’d seen it right out of Sundance 2018, and as soon as I saw it, I don’t know exactly. I couldn’t tell you why necessarily, but sometimes, you just have these feelings in your bones, and I just felt like it needed to be transposed into an American context. I just felt immediately like it spoke to a lot of things that I love about, or that I’ve loved recently about storytelling I found myself in the midst of. I spent the past year before this worldwide pandemic onstage, and I was doing a monologue, you know, that was Off Broadway, and then, it went to Broadway, and then, I think something about the nature of those things that are unsaid, our perception, our using our imagination in cinema, and how far can you push that.
I just was so seduced by that idea, and I love that form of storytelling where you can just subtract three quarters of what we’re used to because we’re an audience that’s so used to seeing and being told everything, and I just thought that is such an interesting way of storytelling. But I also thought putting this in the American context would be really interesting, too. So, I spent two years sort of bouncing it around and developing it, and then, eventually, when we were in the midst of the pandemic early on, and everybody was looking for movies to make that were contained, this happened to fit the bill, and so, I sent it to Antoine, and within a day, he said he read it, and he said he wanted to do it.
DEADLINE: Even though Antoine has made this supremely cinematic, there are some ways I could see this working as a play as well. Did you ever consider it as a stage vehicle since it is basically a one-man show or was it always a movie in your mind?
GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. I think so, because on stage you can’t get close. I mean, that’s the fortunate, unfortunate thing about a theatrical performance. Antoine can speak about it, obviously, too, but I think we have a very intimate relationship, and I think, there were times on this, in this process, where the camera was, depending on the lens, he was using the three cameras operating at the same time inches from my face. So, though it does play, and we did shoot it over long sections, we cut the movie into five acts, and we shot 20 pages a day. We shot the movie in 11 days. So, you know, we did play it like certain sections as if you were doing either an extraordinarily long scene for a movie, or an extraordinarily short scene for a play, but we cut it into 20-page sequences.
DEADLINE: Antoine, you are known for doing many actions films and larger-scale projects, but this one, though just as edge-of-your-seat as any of them, also has a real intimacy. What made you say yes so fast?
ANTOINE FUQUA: I mean, the first thing was Jake. I was working with Jake again, but then when I read the material, it seemed to speak to all the issues of today here in America in so many different ways, but not in the obvious way, as well. I found that to be interesting, and then, to do something just that intense and attempt to hold the audience with these contradicting things that were happening was exciting to try to pull off.
It’s a great suspense thriller and to see if we can hold the cards as much as we can without giving the audience anything, just enough, and see if we can maintain that sort of intensity and that sort of leaning in from an audience that it would require. As Jake said, you can’t get close in a play on a stage, and I would tell Jake in the beginning that I was just going to have the camera stuck to him like an annoying bug. It’s just going to stick to him, and he couldn’t go anywhere because that was part of the story, right, that he would have to stay in one place, and even when he got up and moved to the water cooler, it followed him everywhere.
So, the idea of making it show like he was trapped in some way was intriguing to do and to work it out with Jake, and have him do 20-, 30-minute takes. Now, we have 20 minutes on the page, but remember, we have so many different technical issues going on, it would last sometimes 30, 40 minutes, and he’d have to rerun something because I would say, Jake, go back to the other person. So he’d have to pause, rethink his thoughts, and that is fun for me to watch. I mean, it was amazing, and he would jump right in there, so sometimes it would last not just 20 minutes, but about 30 or 40 minutes that he had to stay on, and without a cut.
DEADLINE: Did that make you nervous, Jake? One false move and you have to start all over again?
GYLLENHAAL: No. I think if you’re lucky enough to do this for long enough, and your joy is the challenge of it, then you give yourself more challenges. The repeating of a voice, that repeat that was happening, that happened to me one time for half a day, and knowing we only had a short amount of time to shoot the movie, and we had impending lockdown in Los Angeles when we were shooting every day; you know, we never knew if they were going to call us and say, “We’re shutting you down.”
We never knew if there would be a positive Covid case, and we’d get shut down, and so, we had a very short 11 days to shoot a movie, and we had a 12-day quarantine (if we had to shut down). So, no matter what, we would have had to take a huge break and come back. I mean, it wasn’t…as scary as moments of it were for the actual health of everyone around, I thrive in those moments. I enjoy them. I know that there are reasons for them. There is no reason to fight them because what are we doing when we do that? We have a great job, number one, but also, it’s always going to give you something. So, I think I’m very much used to, particularly in a long run on the stage or something, you revel in the moments that become outliers. I love the random moments that are the mistakes in a theatrical performance, and have grown to, over the years, love those moments when you’re making a movie.
DEADLINE: Antoine, were you influenced by the original Danish film? Did you even look at it when you knew you were doing this?
FUQUA: Jake twisted it around after I called him back, I don’t know, for a while on the phone, and you know, like, some of the revision that you’ve seen [in the film] is what we talked about. Then I saw the original, which is fantastic by the way, and then, you look at that and Gustav [Moller] did an amazing job, and I was just thinking I don’t know if I can remake this movie, you know? It was so good, but then there were so many things happening in our world, in this part of the world that it made sense, and then, certain choices that myself and Jake made together. I just kind of said every director, everybody has their own language and their own style of things. Gustav certainly laid out a great blueprint, and then I just had a whole Greek mythology concept that I started throwing at Jake who probably thinks I’m a lunatic half the time, but I always saw him as in Dante’s Inferno (with the fires on screens constantly raging).
So, the thing was, he’s in purgatory and it’s all about what happens in purgatory, redemption, or not, or whatever choices. So, there was this sort of other layer that we talked about, even when he’s shaking, and he’s cold. You know, when you’re dying, people say it’s cold, right? So, sometimes guilt is like a form of dying, right? It eats you away little by little. So, there was all these little things that Jake and I talked about, and we got into some deep rabbit hole, but ultimately, when we put L.A. on fire, Dante’s Inferno, like he was in hell… all of that starts to play into the [new} vision of it.
DEADLINE: Jake, how much research did you do with actual people doing this job in emergency centers?
GYLLENHAAL: Well I think that the nature of being inside those emergencies, being with emergency operators, I definitely did my research within that space. But the originality of this character is that he is out of place, and so I didn’t want to be in the same rhythm that you would be in if you had this as a job on a daily basis. What I liked about him as a character is that he’s sort of off rhythm of how he even asks the questions (to callers). The nature of them…[is] not what you get from a 911 operator. They might imply things but they’re never going to say it. Being inside that space is really important, but I also think being inside that space as a first responder, which I have had the honor of playing a number of first responders… I have a number of them who are my friends as a result of all the research I have done, and they were advisors to us, too. So, it’s sort of riddled all over the whole thing, all those relationships that I’ve had over the years, but I think it was very important that he was out of place.
DEADLINE: You are a producer on this as well. How did you put this impressive voice cast together and how did it work in terms of playing opposite them in your ear as it were?
GYLLENHAAL: Well Antoine can speak to that. I mean, basically, the nature of who he was, when I gave it to Antoine, I said, let’s shoot this in a really short period of time. That’s the only way I could get a director like Antoine, to make him shoot this movie in 11 days, and then, get on with the other stuff that they were planning on doing, but we made calls. I mean, we just called people we knew and asked for favors. Antoine called Ethan [Hawke], and he can tell you about that. I go with family first, you know. So, I went to my brother-in-law [Peter Sarsgaard], and obviously, Antoine knows him from working on the movie they did together. So we had all these relationships, and we just said, “Will you do it?” I mean, I do remember there was a moment where I did say to you, Antoine, I was, like, “Give Ethan a call,” and you were, like, “Okay,” and then he said he’d do it. I was, like, “Yeah.” When you get a call from Antoine Fuqua, you’re like “sure,” you know?
DEADLINE: The technical aspects of pulling this off in such a short amount of time must be enormous, and you weren’t necessarily even on set with Jake, right?
FUQUA: Yeah. Well, technically, everything was complicated. It really was complicated because of Covid to begin with. That’s really what it was, and I was exposed to someone that tested positive, but I was negative. So, I had to quarantine, and it was threatening the dates for filming. We had a short window, but it was at the height of Covid. So, as we got into it, we had to come up with ways to keep this thing going and still get the work done in the right way. I was able to, luckily before the Covid test, go to the set with the production designers and Jake, and we talked about all the different things as we walked around. But then, once I had to go on lockdown, we, over a weekend, came up with this van called color van that had monitors and the whole system in it. It is normally used for still photography, and I had the guy come to my house and test it… and there was a lot of glitches, and we were, like, “Oh, my God,” and I think it was my second AD who came up with idea of maybe running a hardwire…the van was like a jet and it had all these monitors and stuff, and it worked when we did a hardwire. It went to the van all the way from the stage. So, literally, right on the side of the stage on the street parked with two cars blocking in front and behind me, so nobody could come around me, and with a Navy SEAL buddy making sure no one was even in the area around me. So, we came up with this device for sound after we figured out the picture.
There’s a box that had to be sent all around the world because the actors were everywhere. You know, New York, London, New Zealand, I think. They were just everywhere, and we have somehow tried to get them this device, to get them to record their performance, so we can have a clean performance, and Ed Novick, who was my phone guy, came up with another way because that wasn’t working. Jake had about, I don’t know, five voices in his head because on my computer next to me I had everybody on Zoom. I could give all the actors a kind of cue, and I could see them sitting in their living room holding their babies, like, all kinds of stuff. You know, people are at home. You know, they’re just sitting. They’re, like, doing their thing with the baby, but I could see them all, but there was always a lag of delay. So, Jake, for the first, I think, day or two, he had a lot of voices in his ear. So, Ed Novick, who I think is much smarter than me, technically with this stuff when it comes to sound, he came up with a way to make it clean on the set because, literally, Jake was hearing his own voice as well. So, he was performing, hearing his own voice, and then, when another actor would come in, their voice was doubling up, and then, my voice at times, and remember, this movie was all about listening, right?
So, we had to figure out that issue, which we did, which I’m really proud of. Ed figured that out. We figured out the hardwire for my second cameraman, my focus puller, actually. We figured that out, and then, once we figured that out, then I got a spy cam on the set, so I could see my crew and talk to my DP and everything. So I had my phone for me and Jake for private conversations. I had two walkie-talkies. It literally was like a command center, and what was interesting is, towards the end, I couldn’t have gone on the set, and Jake would come talk to me from on the wall. He would climb on the ladder, and literally, talk to me down on the street. That’s how we would communicate, or we’d have to text or call on the phone when it was private, but the interesting thing was, I started to realize, this was an amazing opportunity to do this because the movie itself was about a guy that can’t go anywhere. So, I myself in the same situation as Joe, and I was stuck in this van, right, and it was frustrating, but I was so tuned in because it was just me by myself with, I think one big monitor that was split into three different cameras, plus the Zoom of all the actors. So, I had all that going, but I started to realize Jake and I were always in sync. This was an interesting thing because I was really in sync with him physically. I couldn’t go anywhere. I wasn’t allowed to leave the van, right? So, I was sitting there experiencing this with him in that way.
DEADLINE: The film is so tense. Can you talk about the editing process?
FUQUA: First of all, we had a great editor, Jason Ballantine. I mean, when we talked a lot about it ahead of time, as far as I would put the camera in place, so that it does not move at times for a good portion of the film in the beginning. It was just stuck there and I would shoot things that way, and we talked a lot about that, and I wasn’t going to really go into any big closeups until later, but just really sort of inch my way into him like that as it got more intense. But Jason was amazing. You know, he had a lot to do with it, as well, creatively. He had really good instincts, and I think it makes a big difference with suspense thrillers, because it’s just maybe one line or one piece of behavior that could give away the twist, or it can in our case give away certain things, and so, and he was very smart about certain choices that he would make and show me and Jake, and we would discuss it, and he would confirm on some of his thoughts, and when we both talked it over. We thought maybe he’s right. These guys bring a lot to the table, too, as editors. So, I think he had a lot to do with it, as well.
DEADLINE: Jake, how did making this film with so many unique challenges feel different from others you have done?
GYLLENHAAL: I think the whole crew was so grateful to be able to make a film at that time, and as we slowly crawl back and start to understand all of our systems in a different way we were at the beginning of that time, and we were just really grateful. Maybe it’s the period of time in my life. Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve all been through so many things that are so much more important than, you know, making movies. What it made me realize is that what we do is important, and is, I’m not going to say essential, but I mean, it took all the sort of wonderful pressure off of what it is that we’ve done for so long. It felt different, yeah because we were in the midst of something I’d never experienced… Working with Antoine, having it be our second film together, trusting him so inherently, loving him, him loving me, knowing that even though we were not in the same place, was exactly what you want when you work with someone. You want that trust. You want to feel like they’re going to check you, and you’re going to check them, and they’re going to look out for you, and you’re going to look out for them, and that’s what I felt. So, it was an extension of a relationship that we had made five years prior on Southpaw, and it continues to this day, and it makes me realize, in the business we are in, it’s about relationships and not just about sending each other flowers, but going through the experience with friends, and that’s what this was.
The Guilty premieres Saturday, September 11 at the Toronto Film Festival. It will open in select theatres on September 24 and begin streaming October 1 on Netflix.