Best Film of 2014

Filmmaker of the Year: Dan Gilroy

on December 16, 2014, 12:00am

Artwork by Cap Blackard.

Dan Gilroy is a great listener. It’s a Thursday evening in Los Angeles, and the 55-year-old screenwriter waits patiently as I gush over his directorial debut, Nightcrawler. “I caught an early screening a week before my wedding, and it was all I could think about in the lead-up,” I splurge. “I had my parents in town, I had my closest friends coming in, and I just thought, God, I wish that somebody else had seen this movie because I want to talk about it so badly.” We both laugh. “Well, that’s the reaction you always hope for,” he finally gets to respond, tipping off our 45-minute conversation.

There are three things I learn relatively fast about Gilroy: He’s well-spoken, he’s passionate, and he knows his shit. The latter isn’t really surprising; after all, he’s the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Frank D. Gilroy and sculptor-writer Ruth Dorothy Gaydos, and he shares elbow room in Hollywood with his brothers Tony and John. Given his short background in journalism — he worked as a reporter for Variety decades ago — a film like Nightcrawler, which captures the tactless savagery of the modern news cycle, makes absolute sense for him. To quote his film’s startling anti-hero: “Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue.” He’s quite transparent about both.

“I’ve always been interested in journalism,” Gilroy contends. “I come from the school where journalism is like a religion in that it serves an incredibly holy purpose in our lives. I have a very high standard for journalism, and, like you or perhaps other people you know, I’ve watched with utter horror over the last couple decades and observed what it’s turned into.” He brings up Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 satirical film Network and how it nailed the future of media with terrifying precision. “The influence of Network for me was that you really identified a very particular kind of news, and that’s when networks decided newsrooms had to make a profit. It’s obvious and apparent that the second news has to make a profit, it becomes entertainment.”

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In Nightcrawler, this entertainment comes delivered by Jake Gyllenhaal — in what’s easily his strongest performance to date — as Lou Bloom, a creepy, wild-eyed sociopath who’s initially introduced as an emotionless drifter who stalks Los Angeles at night for scrap metal. When he stumbles upon a film crew shooting footage of a fiery car crash on the side of the highway, he inquires about their business and decides there’s a future for him in the lucrative market of “nightcrawling.”

“When I moved to Los Angeles and I heard about these stringers,” Gilroy explains, “I was interested in it from a screenwriter standpoint in that I’ve never seen that world before, and it’s a very violent, kinetic world. That led me back into the newsroom. And once I started researching the newsroom, the people who buy this footage, it rekindled in me a lot of personal observations and passions to try to accurately portray the state of journalism as I see it today, which is one where news is packaged, spun, and bears little resemblance to reality. It became a very personal vehicle on that level.”

For years, Gilroy knew the world he wanted to explore. He just didn’t have the character.

“I kept trying to find a way into it, and I couldn’t,” he admits. “It was only when I realized the character could be an anti-hero that the story really took off. And then I suddenly realized that it’s a movie not about this world; it’s really about this character. The character and the world meshed so perfectly because he succeeds for all the wrong reasons, and I just thought it opened up a real gulf between what journalism used to be and what it is today.”

What makes Lou so dangerous is that he doesn’t subscribe to any morals. “Who am I? I’m a hard worker. I set high goals, and I’ve been told that I’m persistent,” he professes early on. He’s not lying; he’s driven entirely by success. That success, however, is so vital to him that he’s willing to do just about anything to attain it — from tampering with a crime scene for a better shot to later manipulating a murder investigation for a stronger story. Yet, despite these harrowing actions, his unwavering passion stirs up an eerie sense of urgency to champion his cause, even though he’s immoral and terrifying. Somewhat bashful, I confess to Gilroy that I couldn’t stop rooting for Lou, cheekily covering up my shame by adding I was perhaps charmed by Gyllenhaal.

“No, that was our intention,” Gilroy agrees. “It’s crucial that we bring out the humanity of that character because without it the film gets reduced to a sociopath study and many thematic doors close for us.” The casting of Gyllenhaal, then, was essential. He’s an “affable, personable, charismatic, inherently likeable person,” and Gilroy meticulously and subtly capitalized on these values as he followed Lou further into depravity. Takes where Gyllenhaal’s smiling were often used, and composer James Newton Howard was informed to create “uplifting, soaring, affirmative music” in direct contrast to the expected “10 strings and a nightmarish score.”

The score is quite subversive, I tell him.

“It’s the music in his head,” Gilroy points out. “It’s a bit of a magic trick: As the music is creeping into your own head, it’s creating this feeling of eagerness and climbing the ladder and succeeding and trying and not giving up, all while you’re watching this maladjusted behavior get rewarded — it cements you to the character and his quest.” It’s a surreal effect that romanticizes Lou’s ambitions, making his story feel curiously tangible. Gilroy adds: “We’re alongside him in the car, and we’re on this exciting, adventurous experience. It’s awakening all the same things that you might feel when any of us are pursuing a goal.”

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Nightcrawler is indebted to this connection, and it’s what, in turn, makes the film so compelling. Gilroy knows this: “We very much, all the time, were trying everything we could to keep the audience connected to the character so that, in the end, the audience would look inward and say to themselves, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe the problem isn’t Lou; maybe the problem is the society that creates and rewards a guy like him, and I’m part of this society. It’s the world I live in. Maybe I should take a better look at this.'”

But there’s something alluring about Lou’s convictions that goes beyond posturing scores, clever editing, and first-class acting. At his core, Lou’s fundamentally American; he’s a prideful, self-made man who accomplishes everything on his own terms. Historically, Americans gravitate toward these story arcs — regardless of how controversial they may be — and while Lou’s not exactly commendable, his motivation is both hypnotic and addicting. His success, in light of these maladies, only highlights a world that’s just as corrupt.

“Capitalism is his religion,” Gilroy argues. “One of the truest things I think he says is towards the end when Rick, his partner, is realizing the true scope of what’s about to happen, and says, ‘Fuck,’ and Lou says, ‘You know, I’ve never once cursed in front of an employer.’ Because what Lou realizes, I think, is that he’s in a world of uber-capitalism, hyper-capitalism, which I believe is the world we live in today, and Lou has just made the jump that is apparent in some people, which is that bad behavior is rewarded in today’s world. The more cutthroat you are, if you can get away with it, the more you’re celebrated. Lou feels that breaking the rules is not a crime if you’re not caught.

“Uber-capitalism is the jungle; the strong survive, and the weak do not. Lou has just got his head around the idea and that once you identify that and decide to live by it, life becomes much easier in a lot of ways. You don’t have to worry about people; you don’t have to worry about religion. You don’t have to worry about humanity anymore, but he cares very much that you always are referring to professionals and that there is a hierarchy. There is a ladder, and it must be climbed, and those that can climb it win, and those that don’t get killed or get consumed.”

What better setting than Los Angeles?

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“It’s interesting,” Gilroy starts. “I find Los Angeles to be physically beautiful. It’s not a city that wraps its arms around you and makes you feel good.” He pauses. “People always portray Los Angeles on film as sort of the place where odd ideas start and somehow spread around the world. I very much see Los Angeles a different way. I think it’s a place of pure survival, of struggle and survival. It stresses you by where you are, and that’s pretty much all it cares about, so I felt that it worked for us to have it set here.”

Not since Michael Mann’s Collateral has a film captured the scope and spirit of the city to this extent. Gilroy had his eyes everywhere — from atop the Griffith Observatory to the balmy beaches in Venice to the dusty outskirts — and it’s an exhaustive source of sightseeing. The midnight traffic, the tight neighborhood cul-de-sacs, the lonely mansions, the mountainous roads bathed in darkness, the oft-forgotten 24-hour economy, and all the dirt in between are beautifully lensed by Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to cinematographer Robert Elswit. There’s an indisputable astral energy to Los Angeles few films ever manage to bottle. Twenty-seven nights, eight-and-a-half million dollars, one lucky tax break, and over 80 locations later, Gilroy did just that, and it’s a defining quality of Nightcrawler.

“We were always moving very quickly, and every night it was always a battle to get what we needed before the sun came up,” Gilroy says. “I can’t say there were any easy days; it was all difficult because of the budget and the schedule.”

It probably helps that this was a very family-oriented production. Gilroy’s brother, John, edited the film; his brother, Tony, who’s written over a dozen screenplays, from the Bourne series to his own directorial debut, Michael Clayton, helped produce; while his wife, Rene Russo, played an integral role as the station director who works with Lou. To add even more weight, Gyllenhaal also assisted in producing. There’s a lot of love in this movie, I tell Gilroy. “They supported me and protected me,” he agrees. “Everybody was pulling in the same direction, which I think is really rare.

“All of us had worked on films before where elements seemed like everything was right and some things work and something doesn’t work right,” Gilroy continues, “but we were very happy while we were shooting. Betsy Danbury, one of the producers, would say the movie gods must really like you because things were breaking our way. One location would fall out, and a better location would appear. An actor would drop out, a supporting actor, and another would come in better than we thought it would be. We put in a tremendous amount of preparation for this, but I do really like the final result, and this time of year you watch your film a lot because you’re going to a lot of screenings, and I enjoy the film a lot.”

I bring up the film’s climactic chase scene — arguably the most thrilling action sequence of the year — and digress on how he turned a staple of cinema into something both riveting and refreshing. It’s what some critics might call “a high-octane thrill ride.” Gilroy pulled it all off for one simple reason: He studied.

“The two greatest chases are Bullitt and The French Connection,” he argues. “You go back and look at those chases, and what you realize is they’re in the car most of the time; they’re seeing the character most of the time. I think there is a tremendous benefit if your character’s what people care about and you stay with those characters no matter what’s going on. Once you start filming with cameras at intersections and six different angles, you’re taking people out of the story.”

Those aren’t the only films Gilroy revisited for guidance. Having never written an anti-hero before, he reached into the past and drew inspiration from a rogue’s gallery of sociopaths, specifically Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy, Nicole Kidman in To Die For, and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

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The key to all of these films is that you have a person with a likeable exterior, but an utterly twisted interior,” Gilroy explains. “And it’s that gulf that makes people think, Wait a minute, that feels real. And the reason it feels real is that many films do the opposite. Many films go, ‘I have a bad character. I’m going to tell you guys it’s bad.’ You’re going to know from every cue, the way they dress, everything they say — it’s a needless mistake. I think what’s scary is knowing that there are people out there that we’re talking to who seem normal but are not normal. They’re running countries, and they’re scary as all fuck.”

Sociopaths aren’t exactly what makes Nightcrawler scary. What’s terrifying is seeing how the gritty crime thriller relates to today’s culture, specifically with regards to the media and its viewers. Shifting gears, I extrapolate on these anxieties to Gilroy, calling his film sobering and altogether prescient for what’s unfolded in 2014, what with Donald Sterling, the cellphone hacking, the controversial leaks over at Sony, and the haunting footage that’s surfaced from Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island.

We live in a perpetual state of fear, fueled by a 24-hour news cycle that continues to blur its own morals and shatter any sense of journalistic integrity. In Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal does the dirty work by capturing the footage, but it’s Russo’s Nina Romina, who tailors the stories and perpetuates myths — “an urban crime wave creeping into the suburbs” — that are spawned from subjective truths. And it’s here where the hair on everyone’s arms should start standing up.

“There is a hunger for graphic, violent stories and news cycles that over-extend and botch up real news in order to up ratings and keep people mesmerized,” Gilroy insists. “And this climate of fear being perpetuated and the violent aftermath that comes from it and the lack of in-depth stories to explain it or somehow remedy it … I very much feel that’s the world we live in.”

We want the world, and we want it now — bloody, raw, and shocking.

“The rules for what you can show, the yardstick is moving so fast,” Gilroy says. “Whether it’s a car chase in LA that ends with someone getting executed on live TV because the delay didn’t work or any number of things like that … I start to get concerned about the dehumanizing effects of these images. When you hear about a racial shooting, where somebody wandered into someone’s neighborhood and got shot, you gotta wonder how much of that was because [the shooter] was bombarded by images on the 10 o’clock news again convincing them of this terror.”

It’s a quid pro quo relationship, I tell Gilroy. The media serves its viewers carnage because they know that’s what they want to eat. Online, it’s even worse, I explain, defining clickbait and detailing how readers are quick to run off with loose truths before they ever dig into the actual story. To complicate matters, they then engage in heated conversations that are more often than not based on subjective reasoning and personal prejudices than any actual facts. Within an hour, the story’s so far removed from the truth, it’s impossible to look back without experiencing double vision.

“When I watch news, I don’t see news; I see storytelling,” Gilroy starts. “What you see is a series of graphic, violent images, then you get a bit of breathy narration from a victim or somebody in the neighborhood. It’s been woven together with voice-over about some other incidents that happened in the past, and then you do a commercial. You’re left with this pervasive, nagging fear when the fact is — if you want to speak about Los Angeles —  crime rates are going down, urban crime leaking into the suburbs is an utter myth, and the news is not accurately representing in any way what the reality is.

“You can carry it over to a story like Ebola. Ebola is a very real threat in certain parts of the world, but when you have CNN covering it for 27 news cycles, there is this disproportionate response to stories. And the unfortunate fact is that one, again, it creates fear, but two, it crowds out space for other stories. I don’t want to sound like a wonk, but the whole time this is going on, Ukraine is going down in flames, and the Middle East is literally a bonfire. There are a whole bunch of things pertinent to our lives that’s not talked about on any level.”

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Nobody’s seeking out the actual story anymore; they’re looking for the exclamation points.

“And they’re looking for the ratings,” Gilroy adds. “I’ve spoken with many people now in news, and they told me they had directors that tried to show more substantial stories, and they got fired.” He pauses. “I don’t want to point the finger just at news organizations or reporters. This issue goes to us. It’s part of human nature. The only thing we can hope for is that we somehow become aware with what we’re drawn to as viewers and consumers of news.”

Following this, Gilroy says his goodbyes, and I’m left in the glow of my computer. There’s a series of windows — mostly research for this interview — that are all left open. One is a controversial story about the Illinois General Assembly passing a bill that would prevent its citizens from recording the police. It’s a startling piece of legislation that has my colleagues in a frenzy online. For a few minutes, I imagine how a renegade like Lou Bloom would react to this. Slowly, his final words to his news team tiptoe behind me: “I would never ask you to do anything that I would not do myself.” We know what that means, we know what lengths he’s willing to commit to, and so, I eerily take solace in that mantra. Applied today, it assures me that nothing can be left undiscovered.

That’s impact.

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