The process of making “The Guilty” was both “the thrill and terror” for producer-actor Jake Gyllenhaal. He was able to push the unusual solo-player movie forward because one) he’s a producer-star with strong director relationships, and two) he’s a seasoned stage performer attracted to acting challenges. He discovered the Danish original, Gustav Möller’s 2018 Oscar submission, when his New York Nine Stories producing partner Riva Marker suggested he’d like the Sundance entry. He did.
Both movies focus on an isolated 911 police dispatcher on the phone with a possible kidnapping victim whose children are left home alone. We see the dispatcher but only hear the people he’s talking to as he gets more and more stressed about what’s happening beyond his control, miles away.
Gyllenhaal happened to be prepping a Broadway monologue at the time he first saw the original — he went on to earn his first Tony acting nomination for “Sea Wall/A Life” — and was excited by the opportunity to exercise his theater chops in a performance piece. “I loved the movie, and I wanted to try and get the rights,” he said at a lunch interview at the Bel Air Hotel. “I felt like I’d found a filmmaker that spoke my language. This is so much about the audience’s imagination. The thing about ‘The Guilty’ was that it was taking away so much of what we were so used to in cinema, using the actual idea of tension, and then talking about assumptions.”
As a producer, he felt “the thrill of doing it as if it were a theatrical production,” he said. “Somehow it did merge those two worlds.” And he recognized that moving the setting from Denmark to America would enrich the story. “The political social issues, just by the pure transposition to our culture, would have a different impact,” he said.
But he had no notion of the real roller coaster ahead.
With backing from Bold Films, Nic Pizzolato (“True Detective”) adapted the script. And when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, Gyllenhaal and his girlfriend were stranded in Los Angeles, and wound up staying in his godmother Jamie Lee Curtis’s guest house for four months. His unassuming performance piece suddenly became a hot acquisition: the one character, one location movie. “We were approached by so many filmmakers because it was the only script that was contained,” said Gyllenhaal. “The interest was kind of insane, the fever pitch of interest surprised me: ‘Oh, my god, we’re gonna make this movie and all these people want to do it.'”
And then, as soon as George Floyd was murdered by police on May 25, interest cooled, because the movie was centered on an officer of the law with a fraught backstory. “It changed everything,” said Gyllenhaal.
But he had an ace up his sleeve: In July, he dangled the movie to his “Southpaw” director Antoine Fuqua, one of those A-listers who can get a movie made — but he’s in demand and tough to get. Gyllenhaal maintains close friendships with his favorite filmmakers, from Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Enemy”) to Michael Bay (upcoming “Ambulance”), looking to work with them again. So he called Fuqua: “Let’s shoot this in five days.”
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Gyllenhaal played on his insights into the filmmaker. “I knew that if I presented him with something that was intriguing in terms of process,” he said, “it would be an added cherry. I know he loves a challenge. There are fun technical things that he could do, different than all these big movies he’d been shooting. I got him at the right place as a filmmaker. Every single time he’s talking to me about a movie, he’s talking about Sidney Lumet. ‘Well, why aren’t you making more movies like Sidney Lumet would make?’ And he’s like, ‘You’re right.'”
Sure enough, Fuqua called the next day, and said, “I’m in. Let’s shoot it in five.”
Then came a bidding war, with every studio and streamer driving up the price. Netflix won worldwide rights for $30 million. Movie chief Scott Stuber convinced them he’d give them what they needed to make it happen. “It was a sense of, you didn’t have to hold anything back,” said Gyllenhaal. “We’ll talk about it later. Go make your movie.”
Fuqua moved the movie from New Orleans to Los Angeles in order to add wildfire visuals and the difficulty of seeing things on the ground. The shoot ended up being 11 days. They had a month’s prep, building the 911 dispatch set in two weeks. “In October 2020, because of safety and COVID,” said Gyllenhaal, “the faster we got in, the faster we got out, was safer forever.”
Gyllenhaal called on his friends to do a few days of voice duty, from his brother-in-law Peter Sarsgaard to Paul Dano. He persuaded Fuqua to call Ethan Hawke. And for the key role of the emotionally strapped kidnapped mother, he approached Riley Keough, who he had discovered while producing Antonio Campos’ “Devil All the Time.”
“She’s just spectacular,” said Gyllenhaal. “She’s so humble, without vanity, and kind, and quiet in nature, but pretty loud in her presence and her talent. I knew she had lost someone close to her in a somewhat similar way. She approached it like it was cathartic for her. It was a place to put hard feelings. And so that was brave. Being with her in those scenes was powerful.”
Fuqua split the movie into five acts, 20 pages to each act. They shot those 20 pages in one day. Each take was 20 minutes long, said Gyllenhaal, “so that no actors are waiting around not working. Every time, the actor is always in the scene with you.”
And then the Friday before the Monday shoot, Fuqua was exposed to COVID. The director (who tested negative) had to communicate with the cast and crew remotely from a hardwired van a block away. They had to push forward because they would lose the actors. The sheer filming logistics were daunting. Ideally, the actors would have talked into a phone in another room. Instead, Gyllenhaal sat motionless on his dispatch set (raging L.A. fires were later added to the monitors) with an earpiece talking to a series of actors who were home on Zoom using remote recording devices.
On the first day, Gyllenhaal had to talk through distracting echoes of his own dialogue. Eventually they figured out prompts so that the actors could talk over each other.
“Our first AD needed to be able to cue them visually because what we had was me cueing him when I dialed based on the choreography of the section or a call coming in,” he said. “It was horrible, truly kind of horrible for a while. They wouldn’t allow me to go back. We had three simultaneous cameras. He changed setups three or four times a day, everybody would do about 10 takes. We figured it all out on day nine.”
The actor is on camera throughout, as stress builds up in the policeman’s body. He’s wracked about a hearing the next day for shooting down a civilian in the line of duty. His partner and the department are on his side, but he’s missing his estranged wife and kid, clutching his inhaler, projecting his anger onto other people, and throwing up in the bathroom.
“It’s about emotional continuity,” said Gyllenhaal. “So a lot of the makeup that was done was about that progression of the evening having its internal effect. He started off as seemingly strong, a physical person who is stuck in a chair. And then the stomach became an issue. And the asthma became an issue. And the asthma was due to the fire, sure, but the lungs are about grief. That was where he was holding all of this sickness, and his tightness and his inability to let out the toxicity. He puts the toxicity in other people in the beginning. And in that way, it’s a study of masculinity. It’s about our assumptions about other people when we can’t see them. And it’s about our projections on other people.”
As Gyllenhaal grows into his career, having starred in almost 70 movies, he’s driven by his love of theater, where he began. “It’s my real heart and my love,” he said. Based in New York, he also produced Tony contenders “Sea Wall/I Love” and “Slave Play,” which is returning to Broadway. He’s producing more theater and film. He has his pick of great roles, but he knows what feeds him.
“Maybe it was okay to calm down, slow down,” he said. “I’ve had much larger swaths of time off than I ever have had. I’ve had 6-8 months off in between projects. And I have grown a life over the past two years. I mean, look, I have a movie coming out. But we made it in 11 days, you know, right?”
Part of his family life is rooting for his sister Maggie, who made her directing debut with “The Lost Daughter” (also a Netflix feature). “It was definitely a moment of great pride and joy when she won the screenwriting award at Venice,” said Gyllenhaal, who grew up listening to his mother, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Naomi Foner (“Running on Empty”) debate feminism with his sister.
“Every family, every sibling, have been through a lot together,” Gyllenhaal said. “We somehow found ourselves in the same business, having grown up with two parents who were incredible teachers in storytelling [who] were also, admittedly, competitive with each other. So that behavior was part of the model we were shown. And I’m her little brother. It’s within my nature to always want to support her, I would walk through fire for her, but it’s also my nature to want to win. But we have moved passed that competition. I can honestly say that all I want is for her to win and it fills my heart to watch her killing it.”
Recently, Gyllenhaal developed a limited series with his sister. “Of course, I can fucking count on her. She’s a beast. I knew it the whole way along,” he said. “Maggie is a leader. And as a producer, it’s everything you want. You don’t have to do much at all. The magic is happening. Because this person is a fierce magic maker.”
And Gyllenhaal is also ramping up to direct. “There are a few things that I’m working on,” he said, while recognizing from being in the trenches with his sister how hard the job is, especially “when you’re sister’s doing it and you can help her. You can watch somebody else out in the middle of the ocean, trying to swim to a safe place, but when it’s your sister doing it, you feel that. When someone shares a piece of your heart, then you feel it a different way.”
Up next: Gyllenhaal has set up Gustav Moller’s next, based on a graphic novel, “Snowblind,” at Netflix. He’s costarring in a videogame adaptation “The Division” with Jessica Chastain. “Sunday in the Park with George” may move onto London after a pandemic postponement.
With three Broadway productions (“Sunday in the Park with George,” “Slave Play,” “Sea Wall/A Life”) behind them, Nine Stories is launching a robust theater section. Cary Fukunaga’s video for “Sunday in the Park with George” changed the trajectory of that play, and inspired the producers of “Slave Play” to approach them. “There are a lot of changes in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said. “We want to fill holes, we want to be producing plays like ‘Slave Play.’ Those are the kinds of authors that I want to champion.”
“The Guilty” is in select theaters now, with a streaming release to follow on Friday, October 1.