There are moments in Nightcrawler that don’t feel like someone’s first film and in a way, that’s because it’s not. Dan Gilroy may not have directed anything up to this point, but he’s been in the industry since 1992, coincidentally, the same year his brother Tony also broke onto the scene when his screenplay for The Cutting Edge was produced.
So Nightcrawler feels like the kind of directorial debut afforded to an industry veteran. It’s got movie stars (including Gilroy’s wife, Rene Russo), an ace cinematographer in Robert Elswit and a producing partner in his brother, the man who just so happens to be responsible for Jason Bourne’s cinematic life thus far. But this is also a very writerly movie. It’s a character piece that seems bound to be mistaken for something more overtly political. The main character, Lou, wanders into the world of crime scene videography, but as you’ll see in the interview, he could have gone in almost any other direction. There’s enough depth to Lou’s inner life that a change of profession might have changed the narrative in some ways, but the essential details would probably be more or less the same.
I did much better in this go around and was able to ask a few questions of the man. Those are clearly demarcated, so if you want to skip to the good stuff, you should be able to find it pretty easily. Also, this has the most spoilers out of the three interviews, so if you want to walk into the movie relatively fresh, maybe save this for later. Without further ado…
We just heard all about you from Jake, that you’re very enthusiastic and talk with your hands.
I do do a lot of stuff with my hands and I do speak too fast. but I’m going to make an effort to speak more slowly.
So let’s just start from the beginning and how you came up with the idea for the movie?
I came up with the movie in pieces. The first thing was, I heard of this guy named Oujia who was the first crime reporter in New York to put a police scanner in his car and drive around in the 1930s. And he took still photographs and sold them to newspapers. Joe Pesci actually did a movie about that, called The Public Eye. Then I moved out here and I heard about the modern equivalent, these “strings/nightcrawlers” who drive around at 100 miles per hour with a dozen scanners going. I got really interested in the world, because it’s nighttime, it’s crime, it’s LA, it’s all this stuff. But I didn’t really know what to do with it. Your instinct is to make it a thriller or a plot-heavy story and put a conspiracy on it, but I didn’t want to do that. So I held on to it and one day I sat down and the character of Lou started to come out. I started thinking about Lou’s character and when he started plugging into that world, it became a very personal story in the sense that, not only could I tell a story that I thought was engaging, but was relevant to me in terms of ideas it presented and thoughts that maybe it provoked. So I just sat down and wrote it for myself.
Was the work of Paddy Cheyefsky an influence on you growing up and are you at all a fan of [Billy Wilder’s] Ace In The Hole.
Ace in the Hole is a phenomenal movie. One of the all-time dark movies about a journalist who comes across a miner who’s trapped and makes a story about it before he kills the guy. It’s a beautiful, horrible movie. And yeah, Paddy Cheyefsky is one of the all-time great writers. I was certainly aware of Network because it’s such a brilliant film. I think there’s a similarity in our film because it’s about journalism to some degree, and there’s also a similarity because there’s a lot of humor in Network. I think what Paddy was going for at the time was true and people knew it was true, but it was also so horrible that it was funny. And I feel like, what we’re showing in this movie, though it’s 40-years on, you sense that what you’re seeing it’s true, but it’s—once again—so absurd, so you’re laughing, but you’re also saying, “that’s horrible” and it’s the kind of laugh that dwindles off and has no end.
Can you talk a little about your collaboration with [Director of Photography Robert] Elswit and how you came to the look and the vibe of the film?
Yeah, Robert is a friend whom I knew through Tony (Gilroy), my brother. He shot my brother’s movies, so I sat down with him and went through the script. He found it very subversive, that was the word he used. And he lives in Venice, so we started talking about Los Angeles and how when you look at the window it’s all trees and mountains, but how so often in movies you just see cement and freeways and downtown. And we wanted to capture more of the wild aspect of LA and more of the natural beauty. Like going up to the top of a hill and looking down and seeing far, or looking up at something like Mt. Wilson in that scene with those antennas. And we wanted to capture a wild, untamed energy, in the sense of character like Lou, like a coyote, almost roaming through this wilderness and this landscape that had a physical beauty to it. And we shot a lot of really wide-angle lenses to try to capture as much of that as possible and to see as far as you could see with that deep focus.
CHUD: Lou is also a character that picks things up as he goes along and it feels like he can go in any direction at the start of the movie. If he doesn’t drive past that car crash, where do you think he goes?
I firmly believe that he wanted the salvage yard job. If that guy gave him a job, the movie’s over. He wanted that job. You see, I think Lou is not out to—if you look at him as a coyote and I was actually thinking of him as a larger predator, like a leopard or a tiger—but animals don’t kill out of any emotional pleasure, they kill out of necessity. So Lou, I think would have taken those earlier jobs, not because he’s drawn to violence—violence is just a function to an end, it gets him to where he wants to go—I always saw Lou as a very hard working, honest guy who’s respectful in a lot of ways. He wants to work hard and he expects the people who work for him to work hard and (pause) Rick doesn’t work hard enough.
Talk about that spectacular car chase scene in the climax. It’s one of the finest practical stunts.
I should say that we have a second unit director as most films do these days for their action scenes. The guy’s name is Mike Smith, he’s extraordinarily talented and he brought this incredible team of stunt drivers and riggers and car manufacturers to the table. That said, Robert Elswit and I and my brother Tony were involved in crafting the look of what we wanted—to make it compressed and compact—and to focus on the quality of what you were watching rather than drawing it out for long periods of time. And I think, visually, one of the things that came out was, when I started to work with Robert and we started to go location scouting with one of the cameras that Lou’s character uses, the little viewfinder that he looks at—Robert said, you know, the viewfinders are interesting—we could start to show the action through the view finder, rather than in large scale. And that became a really important idea, because when we have the shoot out at the restaurant, that’s all coming through the viewfinders. If you go back and look at it, everything is in soft focus and your eye is drawn to this little viewfinder, until finally, we pull back at the very end.
So we’re keeping the action close in the chase, with the characters. And for the chase we’re staying in the car as much as possible. So when the car gets hit in the intersection, you see that through the windshield, whereas a lot of chase movies, they would jump ahead a hundred yards into a wide angle, they’d take you out of the action just to show you the spectacle of it. We wanted to show it from the point of view of the inside of the car. I thought that made it more visceral and more personal.
Was Jake the one using the camera in those (viewfinder) shots?
Yeah, there were many times where what Jake shot and what Rich shot was what we used. And there were times when what they shot was out of focus and didn’t work, but there were plenty of times when we used Jake and Rich’s footage. Sometimes that was the only footage we had because we were working so fast. We’d say, “did we get that?” And we’d end up looking in their cameras.
Did he receive any kind of training?
He took the camera home a week before and he practiced with it. He knew how to use it and he carried it around all the time.
Did you want to explore the current state of the American dream? Because we have this self-made man and this go-getter and right now people are questioning that kind of behavior. Like with The Wolf of Wall Street, some people were empowered by this psycho.
It’s a very big part of the movie. I believe that the American dream is increasingly achieved by people like Lou. That the less humanity you have, the more you look at the bottom line, the less respect you have for the human spirit, the greater the chances are that you’re going to climb this bloody ladder that leads to extraordinary wealth on a scale of disparity that’s never really been seen before.
CHUD: So Nina’s admiration for him at the end of the film is genuine, or maybe a genuine reflection of what you think of that kind of behavior?
We approach it as a success story, but I only did that to get the effect that people stayed connected with the character. The real aim was that at the end of the film people went, “wait a minute, the problem isn’t Lou, the problem is the world that creates ‘Lous’ and rewards Lous.” That’s where I was trying to go. That people would look at it and be horrified by the fact that he succeeds and be horrified by the fact that now he has three employees and he’s going to have twelve employees in four months. He’s like a virus. See, at the end when the cars fork off into two directions, I always imagine that it was literally like a virus that was infecting the blood stream. He gets Nina. It’s very much like Invasion of the Body Snatchers! People are being consumed by a perverted dream. And I feel the world is just increasingly that way.
CHUD: You even have a Kevin McCarthy character in there too, the guy who’s screaming that this is crazy and no one is listening.
Kevin Rahm’s character, yeah. He’s like a moth who gets brushed aside. He’s just utterly inconsequential in today’s discussion on this topic. He has no relevance.
A really interesting character, because he shows us the right way to do something, is Bill Paxton as Joe Loder. What led you to Bill, who seems tailor made for that role?
I’m such a Bill fan. He did a great movie, A Simple Plan, which has such a great, dark ending. I just love his work. I think Bill’s just a tremendous actor and we were so fortunate when he signed on to do this part. And he’s an LA guy with a real LA vibe. I think you can imagine him as the LA dude.
Was it hard to craft the character of Joe Loder in contrast to Lou Bloom?
Yeah, it was interesting, because Joe Loder is the apex predator before Lou comes in, so you can tell that Joe’s crossing line to some degree. But Joe still has some level of humanity. You can tell that there are things that would be inconceivable to him and Lou comes along an eclipses everything that Joe Loder would believe could be possible and ultimately gets killed by him. Which I feel is the order of nature. The way the system operates is that you have an alpha predator and usually the new alpha predator who comes in—I hate to be using this—but I feel that we are animals who live in a kind of wilderness in a lot of ways. I feel we can put wallpaper up and lay carpet, but ultimately we live in a wilderness and are animals to many degrees and that we carry a lot of those instincts with us. So Joe Loder is someone who can’t conceive of what the next predator is going to be and when it shows up, it’s already too late.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection…
I feel increasingly like the business world and the American dream are moving towards this uber capitalism or this hyper free market. It’s like in Where the Wild Things Are, the kid goes to sleep and his bedroom turns into a jungle. I was always struck by that image. Like suddenly the world evaporated and you were back living in the jungle. I feel like we’re living in that world a little bit.
Were there a lot of scenes that you lost that you loved and was there a bigger cut?
We lost a couple scenes. There was one scene after he went to the salvage yard, and he goes on a sexting website and a woman comes and he meets her at a diner. And it was a really cool scene, the actress’ name is Kathleen York and she did a great job. And he’s being really nice and respectful to her and she goes, “did you read my ad?” And he didn’t because he was driving, and she says, “I like it rough, like, I’m in to bondage.” And he goes, “well I think I can do that.” It was a great, little, strange scene, but it was weird when we were watching the movie, it was a two minute scene and from a pacing standpoint it really slowed things down. So we had to cut that scene out. That was the scene that stands out.
Do you think that Jake is underrated as an actor? Because he’s done amazing work throughout the years, but you don’t see him rewarded with nominations and he’s in that weird space where, yeah, he’s awesome, but if you ask the critics, who are the top ten actors working today, maybe he’s not there for some reason.
I think he deserves every award in the world for what he’s doing right now. I believe it;s going to come to him. I believe he has almost this limitless talent and this drive. I feel he’s going to get everything the world has to offer him in terms of rewards. It’s funny, I know everybody likes awards. I think what drives Jake is just, he has this inner drive. He’s just not going to stop for himself. He has this artist’s sensibility and he wants to push himself and he does’t want to be mediocre. I don’t think he could be mediocre, but he just always wants to go to that furthest degree. I feel the world is waking up to Jake. Particularly from Prisoners and End of Watch, which I love. Michael Pena was great in End of Watch as well.
How collaborative was Jake in his capacity as a producer?
He was very active as a producer. There was no moves we made that Jake didn’t have a hand in. Like choosing Rick (Riz), he was very active in that. Active on a nightly basis. I say nightly because we really didn’t shoot that many days, we shot 24 nights in a row.
Do you have any expectations about meaningful change? Because 40 years ago we had Network and nothing changed. In fact, it went in the opposite direction and got worse. So is there any expectation that this is going to make things better?
No. I don’t believe things are going to change, but I believe hopefully for the people who see the film, it might stay with them and they’ll be aware of what they’re watching and understand the narrative and think, “maybe I don’t need to watch the ISIS beheading.” Maybe I can edit myself just a little.