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Interview: ‘Nightcrawler’ Director Dan Gilroy Talks Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Elswit & Sociopaths

Interview: ‘Nightcrawler’ Director Dan Gilroy Talks Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Elswit & Sociopaths

Writer and director Dan Gilroy speaks in a manner in which ideas, facts and concepts come tumbling out, his train of thought speeding fast but never in danger of going off the track. The credited screenwriter on films like “The Bourne Legacy,” the long-forgotten “Freejack,” the family-friendly heroics of “Real Steel” and the grim fairy tale “The Fall,” Gilroy makes his directorial debut with “Nightcrawler.” Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, the film depicts the rise and fall of Lou Bloom, a self-motivated striver who bootstraps into a freelance job filming the car crashes and crime scenes of L.A. at night for the local news channels that thrive on blood and bad news (our review). 

Gilroy spoke with The Playlist about what cinematographer Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights”) brought to the film, the economic realities behind the Lou Bloom character, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance and the film’s depiction of the dark dream of L.A. that still feels real and fresh.

I’m not from here, but I live here— and I’m so used to cliché Hollywood landmarks— and I love how much this film is about the open-all-night, strip-mall, come-in-through-the-loading-dock L.A. Is telling the story of Los Angeles as a real town part of making this film?
Yeah, in the sense of not going for landmarks that you typically see; we studiously avoided those. I find Los Angeles to be a place of great physical beauty, in which you have the oceans and the mountains and there’s a vertical sense and a desert light that you can see forever.

When I sat down with Robert Elswit, who lives in Venice, we talked about shooting Los Angeles in a way that traditionally you don’t see, which is that most films look at L.A. in a desaturated way, going beyond the specific locations you were talking about: Desaturated, and they focus on cement and the highways and the concrete —downtown is prominent.

We studiously avoided shooting downtown; it’s the easiest place to shoot, they will give you a permit there in a second, but we didn’t want to shoot there because everyone shoots down there. Just like we didn’t want to shoot at Hollywood and Vine, just like we didn’t want to shoot the big landmarks.

We wanted to show the functional side of the city, the strip-malls and the sprawl and the size of it —it just seems to go on forever, but hopefully we also wanted to catch some sort of physical beauty, that at night there is this clarity of light and you can see long distances. So we used great depth of field in the shots rather than soft focus, and we tried to get wide angles as much as possible. Sometimes we were down to 14mm lenses to really make it wide angle, because in an equation sense, the character of Lou is like a nocturnal animal that comes down out of the hills at night to feed. Jake would call him a coyote. That’s sort of the symbolic animal; that’s why he lost all the weight because coyotes are always hungry.

So Robert Elswit and I were always looking at it as almost like an animal documentary. The landscape that the animal moves through is physically beautiful, even though that might not be the term that you would use to describe our film. I found it beautiful, in the sense that you can see far and the neon lights sort of popped out, and the yellow sodium vapor lights really gave it an interesting sort of glow, so we’re trying to make it look beautiful.

When Michael Mann was shooting ”Collateral,” they asked him “Why digital?” And his answer was “Because digital picks up 80 different colors in what film reads as ‘black.’” Was that part of the decision to go with video at night?
The real reason why people are going with digital is that it’s extraordinarily mobile and it’s cheaper and it has a great image, and you just can’t beat it at night. It’s puling in variations of colors, it’s pulling in lights from 40 miles away —a candle would be seen.

Robert Elswit used the Alexa digital to shoot at night, but we shot our daytime scenes on [35mm] film. And that was a choice that Robert wanted … because he is an extraordinary proponent of film, and when you listen to Robert speak, you realize the level of technology that film has achieved, and the quality of image [that film provides] is a far superior image ultimately under the right circumstances than digital. It’s just not used as much anymore for practical reasons.

What I love about Lou is that he feels like if you shoved the Great Gatsby under a rock and just fed him self-help books and other forms of bullshit for 50 years, and then saw what crawled out. Where did that whole “achiever” element of Lou’s personality come from?
I had heard about the nightcrawling world, and I’m very aware that there are tens of millions of young people around the world who are facing bleak employment prospects. Italy has 45% unemployment under 30 —it’s insane. So [I was exploring] idea of a desperate younger person looking for work

I stared to think about the character, and that he didn’t have to be classically heroic. He could be an anti-hero. I stared to think of the anti-hero; I think you have to be careful and aware that you don’t want it to be a reductive study of psycho-babble. You are looking for something more. You want the audience to connect in a way that goes beyond a just sort of a pathological study. The idea of a character who had an implied back story of abuse and abandonments; I pictured him alone as a child, and all he had was his computer and he was going on his computer a lot surfing —this is the back story. And in his desperate loneliness and probably raging insanity, the precepts of capitalism became a religion to him. If you only had [one] direction to climb, which is up, then to have a goal would give sanity. I imagine he started to scour the internet for self-help maxims and aphorisms, and Forbes 500 corporate-HR manual speak. I believe he’s an uber-capitalist, and capitalism is a religion, it’s a religion that gives him sanity and which ultimately drives him insane and pushes him over the edge. Its’ a mindless pursuit of a goal that can never be achieved. That ultimately leaves only a hunger, which goes back to the coyote —this perpetual hunger that can never be satiated. 

The whole Zen thing of that wanting is to suffer, which capitalism never seems to get, because all capitalism is wanting.
It’s the perpetual spirit of poverty. I don’t know another system other than capitalism, maybe some mixed socialism thing. I wouldn’t want to hazard what the better system was, but I think we’re entering into this period of hyper free-market [capitalism] that’s becoming very much like the jungle, in which it is acceptable that the weak perish at the hands of the strong, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And I feel like the world as I see it —and this is a personal film on a lot of levels— has been reduced to transactions, and that Lou thrives in that world because that’s the only thing that has any relevance to him. And we approach it as a success story of a guy who is looking for work at the beginning and is the owner of a successful business at the end, and the reason I approach it that way is because I didn’t want at the end for the audience at to go, “oh, the problem is this psychopath!” I wanted the audience to go “maybe the problem is the world that created and rewards this character.” Maybe it’s a larger question.

I keep thinking of “Broadcast News.” There’s that quick line of “you can get fired for that!” and Hurt replies “I got promoted for that!” Everything that Lou does which he knows is wrong, he gets promoted for and gets more success from.
That context has to do with human manipulation, and manipulation in the news now is rewarded to some degree. Edward R. Murrow is doing pirouettes in his grave right now at the concept that now journalism is now not only manipulating but being driven by that [kind of manipulation].

The phrase that I love that news people keep coming back to in the film to talk about the kind of stories they want to highlight is “urban crime creeping to the suburbs.” It’s so sanitized, it just suggests geographic creep, but that’s not what it is at all.
No. On a specific level, it’s bullshit jargon hiding something truly terrifying. It’s perpetuating the myth and the horror that minorities are dangerous. And if you live in a suburban area regardless of your race, you are in danger from these desperate unwashed people who are going to creep over your hedge and somehow harm you and steal your car. That’s the true tragedy of this narrative that’s being presented by the news, when people then go to sleep and wake up in the morning and get in their car, and they encounter “a minority,”or someone who would fall into the category of that narrative of the “urban person.” You don’t approach them in an open, friendly and harmonious way. You look at them as instantly threatening and dangerous.

And I don’t want to tie it into current top-level stories, but what happened in Ferguson and what’s happening in other cities, where a black person standing alone is perceived and treated as dangerous, and in New York City they are frisked in such outlandish statistical numbers: I feel that there’s a pervasive, fearful narrative that’s being projected on all of us to create negative consequence.

When capitalism becomes dog eat dog, the problem is a) who wants to be a dog? And b) who wants to eat one?
Right, you’re going to be one or the other. And Lou is someone who has made peace with it and understands it and has no emotional attachment to thwart him or to slow him down. I find much of my energy in a day is worrying about people I love or myself. I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning and find myself worrying about myself and friends and stuff and people I’ve encountered. Lou is unencumbered by that, and it gives him great ability to focus in and hunt.

I know actors often do this, for their character, “I wrote 8 pages of backstory.”  Do you write backstory, or do you just let it happen? 
I wrote no back-story for Lou.

There’s a scene where he’s interviewing Rick for the position, and Rick says “yeah, I’m homeless,” and out of nowhere Lou asks “do you trick?” and he’s very insistent about it. It just filled my mind up with possibilities for Lou …
When I wrote that moment, because I had no back story, I was definitely trying to imply that Lou had tricked, and that tricking to him had no emotional weight whatsoever. It was something he had done to survive, and he doesn’t live in the world that we live in, in the sense that we put moral judgments on things or we’re burdened by the acts we do. Lou’s like an animal —you do what you need to do to survive, and then you just move on. That was supposed to be in there, and hopefully open up the door that you could look at and say “oh, that’s something they’re revealing about the character.” 

The film uses the language of cinema to get you on Lou’s side; early on, you see him have an altercation with a stranger … and then Lou walks away bearing his victory trophy, with us never seeing the stranger again.
We wanted the audience to have empathy for the character —and yet we start the movie in a way that he’s doing an act of violence. And that was a little nerve-wracking. I knew it was important to show that side of the character right up front, to not hide that: to put the meat on the table and say “this is somebody who’s dangerous.” But it became a challenge to try and win them back, so in the salvage yard scene, the next scene, he’s so earnestly looking for work, and he’s so polite and so respectful and he so wants a job that I felt those two things opened up a gulf in the audience. The audience is going “oh, at first he’s a criminal … wait a minute, he’s also a young man looking for work, and he seems earnestly responsible …”

So [we wanted] to keep the audience on their toes about the character. Jake and I never wanted to supply answers for the character; I always imagined the character has a big question mark on his forehead that only gets bigger as the film goes along, so that at the end, you’re even more baffled: what makes him tick? “What Makes Sammy Run?” That’s a great title, and that really sums up that element where in some ways we’re crossing over to this territory: what makes this person tick? And I believe what makes him tick is that —and he feels that it’s okay by the cues and signals he’s received from society— he’s stripped away all emotional connections and looks at the world as a business transaction. And that the bottom line is the only thing that’s important, and if you pursue that, you will be rewarded and loved.

…And if you were wrong about the bottom line being the only thing that’s important, you wouldn’t be being rewarded.
I believe —and when I was writing this film, I firmly believed— that if you came back in 10 years, Lou would be running a multi-million dollar, multi-national corporation. Lou would do better in comparison between himself and a corporate head who broke the company apart and put 40,000 people out of work and then went off to build an 8,000-foot square home and wound up on the cover of BusinessWeek Magazine…

…For increasing shareholder value.
These attributes are celebrated, and I believe Lou is a small fish compared to other people. And I believe Lou is will do well and thrive when the movie ends.

It’s the reverse of a canary in a coal mine: The better he does, the worse trouble we’re in.
Absolutely. I believe it’s only the stupid sociopaths that are caught, and I believe most sociopaths are insanely brilliant in deciphering what human cues need to be manipulated, and the sociopaths know people like lions know gazelles; they know every weakness, they know every smell, they know every element that can be manipulated … and Lou understands people and knows how to do that.

How tricky was it when you have to shoot Lou shooting news footage?
It wasn’t difficult in the actual shooting of it, but it became difficult, because usually when we’re shooting over Lou’s shoulder, we’re shooting at the little viewfinder on the camera, and that’s the one time we went soft-focus. We wanted people to focus on that viewfinder, we wanted people to lean in and go “what is that image? What am I looking at?” And that became difficult in post, because sometimes the image that we were shooting didn’t translate practically, and we had to do CGI sometimes, so putting the images in the little viewfinders became an issue.

But the choreography, the sightlines of the whole Chinese restaurant sequence, and the fact you have to do stunts and effects at a 60-foot remove … that had to be a very tough night.
It was a very tough night, because we had to practice that in rehearsal, where we had to understand what you could see and what you couldn’t see from our point of view of over Lou’s shoulder, because you’re not in it. You’re spending a lot of money and big stunts are going off, we’re breaking glass, and you’re definitely wondering. We practiced it, though; we measured it out and recreated everything on a soundstage. Robert (Elswit) exactly replicated all the cameras, and he would look and we would shoot and he would say “yes, I can see the gun”  —when the guy pulls the gun out from under the table— Robert would say, “yes, from 75 feet away and with this lens, I can see the gun, so we’ll go with that. And we’ll go with this lens for the cops coming in.” We had to plan all that out; that was hard.

Is this more specifically a movie about media everywhere, or could it only happen in L.A.? Could you have done an East Coast version?
No … they have nightcrawlers in other urban markets, but they’re not as predominant and prevalent; they’re mostly found in L.A. for a couple reasons. One, at 10 o’clock at night, the local TV news stations let their union crews go, because they get double-time, so there’s a void. Secondly, Los Angeles has enough crime to sustain a good healthy stringer-slash-nightcrawling market, and some of the smaller markets don’t have that. And third, there’s a very large population here of people who watch TV. All those things intersect; you can find some nightcrawlers in other cities, but not to the extent we have them here.

Really brief question: What are the best movies about media no one knows about?
Well, there’s one I love which is not dissimilar in terms of tone: “Ace in the Hole” with Kirk Douglas. And I think it says a lot about what people will do to get a story and how you can manipulate a story. Obviously, “Network” —which is probably one of the great films of all time. “Broadcast News” is another one about journalism that I love. “To Die For,” with Nicole Kidman, is great —her desire to be a part of news, how she uses news to further her career and how it can drive you insane. I love that movie.

Is it a not-great thing that we’re living in an age where people learn how to be human from electronic media? Is that perhaps not to our overall benefit?
It’s not to our overall benefit, because the internet is a wonderful purveyor and supplier of reams of information, but it rarely gives you any indication of how to use that information or certainly how to interact with people socially. There are websites that do that, but people who are on a search for information don’t often stop at the door and say “how do I use this information?” It’s scary! Information is a powerful tool, and if you don’t get the instruction manual that came with it, it can have negative consequences. And it does, in Lou’s case.

“Nightcrawler” opens Oct. 31.

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