Grantland logo

Through the Lens Glass: ‘Nightcrawler’ Filmmaker Dan Gilroy on Car Chases, Screenwriting, and the Internet’s Latchkey Kids

“I’ve worked on quite a few studio films,” Gilroy says, “and there’s one narrative rule you must never break — and it’s been going on since they made the first silent film. If somebody does something wrong they need to be punished. Good needs to triumph, and evil needs to be punished. And as much as I would like that to be the case, that’s not the world we live in.”

Midway through Dan Gilroy’s kinetic, squirmy directorial debut, Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom — an amoral freelance news cameraman played by Jake Gyllenhaal — tries to use professional leverage to coerce his producer (Rene Russo) into bed. Russo, aghast, says, “Friends don’t pressure friends to sleep with them.” Lou replies, “Actually, that’s not true, Nina,” and that’s when it hits you. This isn’t just a movie about how TV news feeds on human suffering and exploits a white audience’s fear of black criminals, although it’s certainly that. It’s also the first great movie about the era of Gamergate and photo hacking — an exploration of the way the mediating screen of a computer or a camera can embolden unconscionable acts. (The key is that patronizing and coldly rational “Actually … ,” the official prefatory clause of male-privilege assertion in online discourse; Gyllenhaal sounds like he’s chiming in on a Reddit thread for aspiring pick-up artists.)

It’s a movie about images and image-making — Lou’s an L.A. malcontent who takes up news photography because it beats stealing scrap metal, and he succeeds because he’s willing to do anything to get the shot, regardless of who gets hurt. But it’s also about language and the way words become weaponized in high-pressure situations. Lou mouths hollow business-speak cribbed from the Internet to dazzle and confuse people; Russo’s Nina wields ridicule like a chain saw. (“Journalistically and ethically,” a coworker starts to say, in a debate over whether to air one of Lou’s gory crime-scene tapes. Nina cuts him off, dripping contempt: “This isn’t Hartford.”) Gilroy has played with these ideas before; he wrote Two for the Money, about sports-betting consultants, with Al Pacino mentoring Matthew McConaughey in the proper use of the word “fuck.” But that film still wanted us to like Pacino and McConaughey when the credits rolled; Nightcrawler wants us to catch ourselves rooting for Lou to win because he’s the protagonist, and then it wants us to feel gross about that impulse.

Gilroy was born in Santa Monica but grew up in New York. His father, Frank D. Gilroy, was a screenwriter and playwright and a 1965 Pulitzer winner for The Subject Was Roses; his older brother, Tony Gilroy, cowrote all four Bourne films. On The Bourne Legacy, Tony’s cowriter was Dan. Dan’s other credits include 1992’s Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter sent to harvest Emilio Estevez’s body so Anthony Hopkins can move into it; he was also among the many writers who cycled on and off the never-realized Tim Burton–Nicolas Cage Superman movie.

“I’ve worked on quite a few studio films,” Gilroy says, “and there’s one narrative rule you must never break — and it’s been going on since they made the first silent film. If somebody does something wrong they need to be punished. Good needs to triumph, and evil needs to be punished. And as much as I would like that to be the case, that’s not the world we live in. Good people, moral people, get exploited, and people who are amoral and maladjusted and willing to leave their humanity at the door are thriving. I wanted to break that narrative rule because I felt like breaking that narrative rule, but I also wanted people to feel uncomfortable at the end of this film.”

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou is obviously a creep in this movie and most likely a sociopath — but he thrives and flourishes in the world of local TV news. This strikes me as a pretty damning indictment of that business, the fact that it’s a perfect host body for someone like him.

Y’know, we do indict local television news on a certain level. We do show, or try to show, that the narrative of fear that’s often being sold in these broadcasts has a negative effect, and that moral boundaries are being broached on a fairly regular basis. But I also like to think and hope that people might, at the end, say, “Well, wait a minute — I’m one of the people watching the three-hour car chase rather than watching PBS or the BBC. I make those choices as well. What is it about me that likes these images?” And, maybe on another level, “What is it about me that I was invested in this dark character’s journey to success? Is it the fact that I also feel a tremendous desire and a need to succeed in an increasingly competitive landscape? Why am I tying in to that struggle?” I’m trying, hopefully, to present a world that reflects the world that I see, which is one where people like Lou are increasingly succeeding, and people like his partner, people who are decent and hard-working, are being taken advantage of. And to start from the point of the character who is desperate for work and then show where that desperation can lead. As a cautionary tale. So it’s an indictment on one level, and I am hoping it’s a cautionary tale on another.

When did you first become curious about how the bloody local-news sausage gets made? Was there a particular piece of footage that put the question in your mind?

Well, it might have been when I moved to Los Angeles, 20 years ago. The first time you turn on the TV and you suddenly realize all the local stations have been preempted because you’re following a Honda Accord around at 40 miles an hour, and there’s a three-hour police chase going on, and you can’t believe that literally everything has stopped. And you ask yourself why this is happening, and it’s because everybody’s waiting to see the violent end of this chase. I suddenly became aware of and intrigued by the idea that it must be a powerful force for a TV station, when they realize their ratings go through the roof when they show something with the potential for violence, like a police chase. And what the demand and need must be like for people who run these stations, particularly during a sweeps week, where the demand is just for violence and graphic images with the potential for danger and drama. I think I became very intrigued with the idea of capturing that in a visual way and showing it.

nightcrawler-2-gyllenhaalOpen Road Films

You said 20 years — were you out here for the O.J. chase?

I was. I remember it vividly. It was four o’clock, or five o’clock one afternoon, and it was on literally every local station, and then CNN went over to it. You’re looking at the white Bronco going down the 405 and making the right onto Sunset. And what are you waiting for? You know it’s not going to end well. Mercifully that one ended peacefully, and thank god, and they often do, but every once in a while you know the person comes out of the car shooting. Or they crash the car at 120 mph and then they show it. It’s very graphic and it’s very disquieting. And after you watch it you feel vaguely unclean. But when it’s shown again you find yourself watching it again. I think it’s just hardwired into us. And they exploit that.

That’s the first televised police chase I remember seeing, because I didn’t grow up here. Once you live here you realize it’s an everyday thing in this city — that it’s almost a genre of television programming.

It’s very specific. You rarely see it in other markets. It’s a function of how sprawling L.A. is. It’s a function of how there’s always a helicopter up. The news departments, they have helicopters up in the air, and they follow the scanner. When we were researching this film — you go into any local Los Angeles newsroom, and the first thing you hear is like six scanners going. They’re listening for a chase, and when it happens they launch the chopper, and it’s live TV and you don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re back in the Coliseum to some degree.

Were you able to do ride-alongs with the stringers as they were actually reporting this stuff?

Yeah. Jake Gyllenhaal and I and our cinematographer, Robert Elswit, went out with them. We spent nights out there, and it was utterly harrowing and difficult to watch. The first night that Jake, Robert, and I went out, we came upon a really tremendously horrible car crash where three girls had gone head on into a wall and plummeted off an overpass and all been ejected, and we were there right after it happened. It was brutal. And that was just an average hour on an average night for the people that do this job. It’s like a war zone out there for them. I think there’s an adrenaline rush to it, you know? Which you find in emergency workers and soldiers — I think after you’ve been an emergency worker, after you’ve done that job, things sort of seem boring when you try to go work somewhere else. I think there’s a part of them that misses the excitement and the not knowing what the next minute’s going to bring. It’s exciting, and really dark, and horrible — but it’s definitely exciting.

You’re also looking at how things are staged. You end up going to these things over and over. The police cars and the fire trucks pull up in certain ways. How loud is it? What are the EMTs doing? The people shooting the film, where are they moving to? Because they’re moving very fast — they’re getting closeups, they’re getting medium shots, if there’s an overpass they’re shooting down from there. And they’re trying to craft the best visual image they can. There’s a lot of artistry to it. There’s nothing like going into a real situation that you’re trying to re-create in a film and trying to get as much information and factual basis as you can. It’s invaluable.

Lou has almost no backstory. Was that always the case? Was there ever a version of the script in which there was more to him than what we find out in the finished film?

No, because most of the scripts I write are for larger, more traditional films. The people that hire you demand that everything is explained and that everybody knows everything about the lead character. And I very much feel that not telling you everything about a character allows someone in the audience to plug in their own sense of what a backstory may be. The audience becomes more plugged in to the story if you tell them less. I was adamant from the beginning when I started writing it — I was going to tell you almost nothing about this character, and let you start to fill in the blanks.

When the details do come, they’re telling. Like when he’s interviewing Riz Ahmed’s character to be his intern, and he asks him if he’s ever been a prostitute, in that nonchalant way … 

[Quoting.] “A lot of straight guys trick.” So right away it’s not just that maybe he did it, but look at his attitude toward it. I’ll do anything to survive and I don’t really care. That’s just where I’m coming from. That wouldn’t have resonated if I’d spent the first two minutes of the film telling you in some form or fashion that he grew up there and he did this and maybe he was arrested one time. By not telling you anything — now everything he says you’re listening to, because he’s revealing something about the character. There’s something very mysterious about the way Jake plays Lou. I feel like throughout the whole film he has a question mark on his head. Like, “Who am I? What am I? I defy you to try and figure me out.” That mystery serves the film well. You’re never sure what he’s going to do next, because you know so little about him.

You don’t hit this button all that hard, but there’s a reference to Lou having learned a lot of things from videos on the Internet. Did you see him as a creature of the Internet to some degree? It seems like his behavior stems from the same pathology that gives us something like Gamergate or the photo-hacking scandal — that sense that other people are somehow not real because there’s a screen between you and them, except in Lou’s case it’s a viewfinder.   

Yeah. He’s a creature of the Internet. I think it’s fairly commonplace these days. And there was a generation probably before yours that was a TV generation — latchkey kids, who came home from school and had no parents, and they wound up growing up with the television as their parent. I think in today’s world, it’s the Internet. And the trouble with the Internet is that it’s great at providing endless amounts of information but provides really very few guidelines on how to use it. I think Jake’s character Lou is a character who studies the Internet and gets all of his information online, but because he has not had any significant authority figure in his life to guide him, he has no sense that there is a right and a wrong way to use it. And he just uses it in any way he feels will serve him best.

You’ve spent a lot of time in Hollywood as a screenwriter — how much of Lou’s psychotic drive have you seen in people determined to make it in the business?

I see it a lot. But I see it a lot in every business. I don’t think there’s a business out there today that isn’t in cutthroat competition with a rival, and when you come into that as a new employee, I think it’s impressed upon you early on. You need to work hard. You need to always have your eyes open for an opportunity. You need to show up on a Saturday when I’m not paying you. You need to take this internship and work for eight months to prove that you really want it. It’s like a boot camp.

It took you a while to break that door down. You were 33 or so when Freejack came out, right? 

Probably 33, yeah. It took me quite a long time. I tell anybody trying to get into the movie business to have patience, because it doesn’t happen overnight. If you go into it thinking it’s going to happen in the first five or 10 years you’re going to burn out. You’re going to get bitter and you’re going to be self-pitying and those things are deadly for creativity. You want to look at it as a decades-long process. If you go into it thinking, My first short has to premiere at Sundance, you’re going to have a rough time. Because it’s more a business of disappointment than it is of reward. And whatever success you have lasts only as long as your film’s doing well at the box office or on DVD. And after that it’s like, “OK — what’s next?” There’s no job security at all. It’s an utter free market.

Did you have to learn that the hard way?

No, my father and brother — Tony [Gilroy] is the producer [of Nightcrawler], my brother John is the editor, and our father is a writer and a filmmaker and a playwright. So I learned by watching him go through it, daily, growing up. There were times when things were going well, and times where the current was going against him. And I understood it, and it helped us, I think all of us, as we went through the long-range game plan of trying to get where we wanted to go, that this is going to take a long time and that is the way it happens. Watching our father deal with it and weather it and continue to create, I think, gave all of us the tools to continue to do it ourselves.

Was there a pressure in that? Coming from that background?

No. Our father didn’t discourage us, but he didn’t encourage us to go into movies. I think he would’ve been very happy if we had found other careers because it’s so hard! I think the pressure was the pressure that we put on ourselves. Like, oh, I want to try to write and get some films made. I want to edit a film. Bigger films. So it just becomes a pressure on yourself.