Fans of challenging, pitch-black filmmaking were rewarded last year by the dazzling “Nightcrawler,” a film that saw nice guy Jake Gyllenhaal take up a cheap digital camcorder and chase around car accidents and hijackings in the twilight of Los Angeles as a heat-seeking freelance journalist. It was undoubtedly one of the more original, energetic cinematic confections of the past year, and if you missed it, you’re getting your chance to catch up, since it is making its debut on home video this week.
To mark the occasion, we recently chatted with Dan Gilroy, who made his feature directorial debut with “Nightcrawler” after years of being one of Hollywood’s most in-demand screenwriters. We asked him about comments that his brother, writer/director Tony Gilroy (who made “Michael Clayton,” “Duplicity” and “The Bourne Legacy“) has made about the mid-sized movie being eradicated from Hollywood, quizzed him on the status of the television show he was developing with Tony, and got him to open up about how “The Bourne Legacy” was actually designed to allow Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass to return to the franchise.
Your brother had made a comment about how these mid-sized movies didn’t exist anymore and the stories that they told were moving to TV. But isn’t “Nightcrawler” just a variation on that mid-sized movie, but with a much smaller budget?
I would say that we are both old enough to remember a different economic model and that economic model had small-budget films and middle-budget films and large-budget films. And the middle-budget films, and this is going back to the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, [were the ones being made the most]. There were very few small-budget films and very few large-budget films being made. The middle-budget films have been decimated. I’m working from the same point as Tony. That market does not exist in the form it did before. But the middle market, which were often referred to as “programmers” – they didn’t have to break new ground and they were genre films. With that market gone, a lot of the money has gone into high-budget spectacle films. And the lower-end market has absorbed part of that middle market but the difference is that those films are now geared towards the fall Academy Awards season. So I think what’s changed is a lot of the middle-budget genre films have left us but there’s a very healthy market on the lower, more independent side, because the studios have seemed to have utterly left behind any desire or inclination to make movies for awards or something like that.
Were you happy with how “Nightcrawler” was received?
Oh, I was very happy with how the movie was received and I was very heartened by how Open Road, our distributor, released it. Everyone at Open Road worked so hard and so tirelessly and so creatively to get our film positioned for a wide release in the fall and kept us in the game and really got the word out there. I’m heartened by the reception and really heartened that we partnered with a company like Open Road.
At one point you were working with Tony on a really cool-sounding television project. Is that still happening?
It’s something that we put aside because we wanted to pursue some feature stuff. But I think that we will return to that. And I agree with you – I think it’s going to be very cool. I’m very into the idea. And we’re pretty far along with it; it’s very evolved. It’s just something that, from a timing standpoint, it didn’t work out. But I could easily see us revisiting that.
So it’s not dead?
No, it’s not dead at all.
What is your next project? Are you developing things with Tony? You’d mentioned “Freed,” a script you had written before “Nightcrawler,” recently.
I had written a script called “Freed,” which I had wanted to direct. And it’s a very similar storyline to “12 Years a Slave.” “12 Years a Slave” is a real story. I was very interested in the 1850s Slave Act and the enslavement of Northern blacks from Canada or who had come in on ships. So I had written a script called “Freed” a few years prior to “12 Years a Slave.” I had trouble getting it off the ground and with financing. And then “12 Years a Slave” came out and Steve McQueeen did such an incredible job, I put “Freed” off to the side. Maybe some time in the future, when it can stand on its own and not be compared to “12 Yeas a Slave” I might revisit it. But Tony and I mostly work alone. The TV thing you were talking about is one of the things we’ve done most recently together. And we did “Bourne Legacy,” I co-wrote that. He’s working on his own projects, I’m working on my own projects. But we talk creatively almost every day.
What was his role in “Nightcrawler” beyond the producer role?
He was the first person to see the screenplay. And I can’t overemphasize how important it was for him to raise his hand and say, “I will produce this.” It’s an enormous time commitment and he had many other things he could have been doing. But for him to say that he would produce it and then to bring in Robert Elswit and James Newton Howard and other people; it was instrumental. I will always be indebted to him for geting the ball rolling and pledging his support. And then on a practical level, on a day-to-day basis, I could call him up anytime during the course of the day and I did. As a first-time director talking to someone who had directed three films, as Tony had, and ask him questions. He was giving me advice all the way through.
You’ve talked about doing another L.A. crime movie. Is that still what’s next?
Crime is more on the peripheral. It’s got a very strong central lead character. I love shooting in L.A. I want to shoot another movie here. I think it’s under-shot and under-represented in cinema. Look, because there are so many people getting tax breaks in other places around the world that nobody is shooting here anymore. I think when you stop shooting in a place then people stop coming up with stories for that place. It’s like, “Why should I write in L.A. when I can’t shoot here and will wind up shooting in Shreveport.” We almost shot in Shreveport. If we hadn’t gotten the California tax break two years ago, we would have shot there. We had people scouting locations. I think, deep in our hearts, we knew that we wouldn’t have to shoot there. But we allowed for the possibility. I’m very happy that recently California legislature has passed the expanded tax breaks that will allow many more films to shoot here and more importantly will allow for many more extraordinarily talented trades people and craft people to work in the state where they live, where the film business was born. It’s a tragedy that California doesn’t support the industry and allows for so much of it to be squandered and go abroad.
But that film is still on the docket?
Yes, I’m writing that script now. But I’d like to do another movie in L.A.
Very important question: will Bill Paxton be back?
I’d love to work with Bill again. It’s possible. I love Bill’s work. He’s a great actor, great energy, he’s a great director, a great producer, just an overall talented guy.
You had worked on “Bourne Legacy,” with Jeremy Renner, and it was recently announced that Matt Damon would return to the franchise with Paul Greengrass. Had you guys mapped out anything else for that character?
No. Tony, obviously, is far more versed on the franchise having worked on the first three films. And he brought me in. I think the assignment, from what I understood working on ‘Legacy’ with Tony, was, at that moment, there was a prior element that was involved in ‘Legacy’ that were no longer involved and Universal still wanted to make a film. And Tony, having worked on it, knew that there was a much deeper landscape to Treadstone, Black Briar and things like that, that were worth exploring. And Tony’s thought always was to leave the franchise alive so if Matt and other people were to come back, it doesn’t step on any toes. Tony was very protective of Matt and the character. Look, there was a time when the thought was, Let’s do something like Bond and just put another actor in there and call him Jason Bourne. Tony was very adamant and protective and said, “Matt created this character who is also still viable but is extremely valuable and you want to protect it and see if we can do something parallel that has its own validity and its own world and keep it within the mythology of the franchise.” But it allowed for exactly what is happening now – Matt can come back and there’s nothing that we did that impedes anything that they want to go for. I think Tony took a wise, respectful path in that respect.