This week “Nightcrawler,” writer-director Dan Gilroy’s gleefully perverse tale of a freelance crime journalist (played by a reedy Jake Gyllenhaal) who will do anything to nab a scoop, is finally being released, after rapturously received screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest. The fact that it could play at such disparate festivals and be received so fondly at both is a testament to its singular power and entertainment value. The movie, which co-stars Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed and Gilroy’s wife, Rene Russo, is a bold and visionary slice of American crime fiction. It was a huge thrill to get to chat with Gilroy about the process of directing “Nightcrawler,” and what it was like working with so many family members on the film (one brother, Tony, produced it, while another, John, edited it).
It began when I heard the story of Weegee, who was a crime photographer in New York in the thirties and forties. He was the first guy to put a police scanner in his car and drive around himself. He’s actually collected now by people who collect photography. But I couldn’t figure out a way to do it as a movie. Actually Joe Pesci did a movie about him called “The Public Eye.” So I came to L.A. and I found out the modern equivalent, which are these people who drive around with a dozen scanners driving 100 miles an hour. I was always interested in that world but it was only when the character of Lou came into the scene and plugged into that story that I became really interested. Once those elements united and I started writing the screenplay, I knew I wanted to direct it. I live in Los Angeles. I knew it was a film I wanted to make about the city that I live in, that has themes and elements that are very personal to me. I knew from the writing of it that I could do it for a budget, if we got the right elements attached. So the pieces just fell together. But while I was writing it I knew I wanted to direct it.
When did you know that Jake was the guy?
Jake was always at the top of the list of people who I wanted to play Lou. But when I first finished it, Jake wasn’t available. He was circling some other projects. It took a number of months but then his schedule opened up and I flew to Atlanta where he was finishing up “Prisoners.” We had a four-hour dinner where we just realized that this was a right fit and we both wanted to do it.
What about him made you so sure that he was the right person?
Well, one I, like many people, have been tracking his career since “Brokeback Mountain” and feel like he’s one of the finest actors alive today. I became even more interested in Jake’s career when “End of Watch” came out. I was just fascinated by that character that he created. When I flew to Atlanta and I understood what he was doing with “Prisoners,” I just felt Jake was one of the most committed, talented, and fearless actors working today. I very, very much wanted him to play Lou. So I was extraordinarily happy when he signed on.
Now he lost, what, 20 pounds for this?
25 or 30.
Why was that so important to you and to him?
We always imagined the character to be the symbolic equivalent to a nocturnal animal that comes out of the hills to feed. In Los Angeles, you drive around and you’re coming back from a club or something and all of a sudden you’ll encounter a coyote. And they’re very lean, hungry-looking animals. So Jake said, “I like the idea of a coyote for this character.” The character of Lou is inquisitional and always hungry. He always wants more. He’ll never be fed – emotionally or spiritually or physically. If Jake was on the phone right now, he’d probably say that the added benefit was that he was always hungry. He’d run to the set and eat kale and ice cubes. So when he is doing a scene, there’s a hunger in the character – that comes through in his words and his desires and his emotions and I think it’s a very effective and extraordinary choice that Jake made, to not just transform himself physically but transform the place from where he approached the character on a nightly basis.
You never really label what’s going on with him psychologically. Was there ever a point where you nailed down what was going on inside this guys head or were you always more vague?
I approached the film as a success story, as a young guy who is looking for work at the beginning of the film and runs a successful business by the end. I approached the character with great love. I feel that with films, labels are put on characters that are theoretically meant to give you some sense of where they’re at, but are ultimately too reductive. I did not want to ever have somebody in the audience go, “Well this guy is just a sociopath.” While he certainly has sociopathic tendencies and clinically you could conceivably diagnose him as a sociopath. A sociopath is just a label and doesn’t encompass the entire being of a person. I wanted the audience to meet Lou and form their own opinion of Lou. So yes he robs a security guard at the beginning but then shows himself to be an earnest young man who wants to work, which is an identifiable human quality. And we wanted those identifiable human qualities to build so that the audience becomes engaged with this character, just as they are in real life. There are a lot of sociopaths running around who are probably our friends, if not us and we don’t know it. I find people to be infinitely complex and I was trying to present a complex character in a way that kept the complexity without allowing for a reductive label.
“Nightcrawler” is reminiscent of classic L.A. movies. What were you going for and what were you referencing?
I’m a transplant. I’ve lived here for 20 years and the thing that strikes me about the city on a daily basis is how beautiful it is and how vibrant it is and how strangely wild and untamed it is, especially compared to east coast cities. When I sat down with Robert [Elswit] to talk about it, we wanted to stay away from the Los Angeles that you see traditionally, which is de-saturated and concrete and highways and downtown. There’s not one scene that happens downtown and that’s by choice. We wanted to present a Los Angeles that was vertical, with hills in the background, large, wide-angle desert landscapes – sometimes we would go down to 14 mm. We had the concept of the character of Lou as a nocturnal animal and what that did was make us shoot Los Angeles as the landscape where this animal moves. So we wanted to make it look beautiful as much as possible. At nighttime it’s difficult to make things look “beautiful,” but we wanted it to look vibrant and electric and working with Robert was one of the greatest creative experiences I’ve ever had in my life because he’s very generous in his collaborative spirit and he’s extraordinarily knowledgeable and talented. Robert and I have known each other for a number of years and it was such a thrill to show up every night on the set and the first person I get to talk to and go through the shot list with is Robert. It was an absolute joy.
Can you talk about the decision to shoot film for day and digital for night?
That was something where I followed Robert’s lead. Having many late night conversations with Robert, it’s a crime in many ways that film isn’t being used more because film is a better image overall than any digital image you’re ever going to get. Of course, on the financial side, film costs much more money for lighting and processing and all of this. And because we’re an $8 million film, we had to rely on digital as much as possible and Robert chose digital for night because it soaks up so much available light. But Robert, as a film lover, wanted to use film as much as possible, which made sense for our daytime shots. The image quality was just beautiful.
People talk about movies being like a family but this was literally a family – you’ve got one brother producing, another brother editing, your wife starring. What was that experience like?
It was easier when you have family involved because theoretically you trust your family and you know they’re there to support you, on one level. On the other level, my brother Tony as a producer is a screenwriter who became a director. So he had been through the arc that I was going through. There was nothing that I was going through that he didn’t have some experience with. My brother John, I spent four months in the cutting room with him. Again: we’re very close and he’s very talented and it was an easy fit and extremely enjoyable. And Rene is my greatest partner in a lot of ways. I give her all my scripts to read and we collaborate on a daily basis at home. So to show up on the set, and see so many people I know. I loved it.
Do you know what you’re going to direct next?
I’m working on an original script now that I am going to direct. But you don’t know until they’re done where they’re going to go, but hopefully I’ll direct it. It’s set in Los Angeles.