Under the Radar

Director Dan Gilroy Talks 'Nightcrawler' & the Dark Side of LA

Film Review Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler, writer/director Dan Gilroy's modern noir thriller about the late-night world of L.A.'s freelance news videographers, is out now on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital HD. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, the movie details Lou's rise from hopelessly unemployed young man to overnight news kingpin. The lengths Gyllenhaal's character goes to get established and later get ahead are incredibly disturbing and Gilroy (along with cinematographer Robert Elswit) presents a suitably creepy version of Southern California in telling the story.

Gilroy's been nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar this year and there was a strong sense that the movie would be nominated for Best Picture, Gyllenhaal for Best Actor and Rene Russo for Best Supporting Actress. Russo (who's married to Gilroy) plays the news director who gives Lou Bloom his big chance and she may or may not come to regret that gesture.

Dan Gilroy previously shares a screenplay credit for The Bourne Legacy with his brother Tony (who directed that movie and got a pair of Oscar nominations himself for writing and directing Michael Clayton). Their other brother John was the editor on Nightcrawler and Tony gets a production credit. All three were raised by WWII veteran Frank Gilroy, who won a Tony award for his return from WWII play The Subject Was Roses, later turned into a classic film starring Martin Sheen and Jack Albertson (who won an Oscar for his performance in that movie).

Nightcrawler makes an interesting companion piece to End of Watch, the LA cop movie that also explores the sides of Los Angeles that don't usually show up in Hollywood movies. Dan talked to us about the inspirations behind the film, his talented family and the influences his father's war experiences have on his sons' work.

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Dan Gilroy on the the set with Jake Gyllenhaal

In "Nightcrawler," you show parts of LA we don’t really see much in movies.

We went to the far corners of our sprawling city, places that most people don’t even go to. Nobody has even scratched the surface of LA. My next film, if all goes well, will be in LA as well.

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You’ve got a lead character who's in his 20's. He's at loose ends and can't find a job.

That was the doorway to that character. I became very intrigued with this world of freelance videographers and I started researching it. There’s always the question of bringing it to life with unique characters. I thought about it long and hard for quite a few years before this character came to mind, and the doorway that I went through was the idea of a younger man desperately looking for work.

Now I quickly shifted and altered that on many levels. I made him maladjusted and obviously sociopathic or psychopathic, but the idea was that in today's domestic and global economy there are a lot of young people who don’t have the job opportunities for a steady wage and pay that I had when I was younger. The thing that keeps popping up when I speak to younger people today is the idea that they're being offered internships rather than real pay.

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The “internship” that Lou offers to Rick was one of the blackest things in the movie.

Now it’s so pervasive, so accepted, that’s somebody willing to give six months, twelve months, eighteen months of their time for an internship can then have the rug pulled out from under them. I feel like that’s Un-American in terms of work and reward.

A lot of people who don’t live in LA or in a big city on the coast will have a hard time realizing that you're making a movie about a real job, that this is something people do for a living.

I've encountered quite a few people who asked if this is actually the state of affairs in Los Angeles and it is. I would say, unfortunately, but it's beyond unfortunately: it just is.

I researched the world of the nightcrawler/stringers. We had one of the foremost stringers in Los Angeles, a guy named Howard Raishbrook, as our technical advisor. He vetted our script to make sure stuff was accurate. Obviously he's not privy to anybody who has dragged a body or staged a crime scene, but he understands that the world we’ve created leaves it open for somebody to do that. For the scenes in the newsroom, we had three or four technical advisors. And it's all utterly accurate, from numbers to procedural stuff.

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Before I started this film, I was aware of the Michael Moore’s concept from Bowling for Columbine, that fear is something that local and national news and cable news use it to keep people glued to the screen. What was particularly eye-opening to me when I started to look the research about local television news in the Los Angeles market was that it's a much more specific narrative, the idea local news covers urban crimes creeping into the suburbs.

That approach comes with a lot of euphemisms and societal baggage and creates dynamic forces that can be exploited negatively when you start repeating that for story after story, creating a fear that there's some faceless criminal aspect that’s about to climb over your head. The truth of the matter is Los Angeles crime rates are going down, which is the opposite of the story you're being told by the local news.

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People in the rest of America are familiar with the idea that paparazzi are roaming the streets of LA, working for websites like TMZ and sticking their cameras down the faces of celebrities, but is there any crossover with the nightcrawlers?

Very, very little. The only time a nightcrawler crosses over is when there's a car accident that involves a celebrity. Often the nightcrawlers will get there first because they're out at 4:00 in the morning, and the accident’s in some random place in Los Angeles where you would not find a paparazzi. That’s the only time.

Other than that, the nightcrawler/stringer goes wherever the tornado of tragedy touches down in LA, at some random overpass on the 110, up Foothill Boulevard. I mean just random, weird places that you would not normally find a paparazzi.

Do local news stations in LA still have camera crews on staff or have they just farmed it all out to the nightcrawlers?

The specific reason the stringers/nightcrawlers exist in LA is because the local television news stations don’t want to pay double or triple time to the union crews after 10pm, so they let them go home. So from 10:00 at night until 6:00 in the morning, nobody is covering news in LA. And so this vacuum is filled by these freelance videographers. That’s the specific reason why they exist.

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You have a lot of family connections with this movie.

My brother Tony was a screenwriter like me. A number of years ago, he decided to make the break and directed Michael Clayton and he's directed two other films after that. My brother John Gilroy is an editor. He's edited all of Tony's movies in addition to quite a few other films. When I decided I wanted to direct, Tony very graciously said, “Well, I'll produce it for you with Jennifer Fox, who produced all my films,” and I got Johnny to come onboard. I got Tony’s cinematographer Robert Elswit to come on board. I was very fortunate and blessed to inherit a crew and a system that Tony had used before.

Your dad Frank Gilroy was a WWII veteran.

He was drafted in '44, toward the end. He went into Patton's Third Army. He was in a reconnaissance division. They saw combat all through France and into Germany.

You know recon division, their unit, had 30 guys with a one and a half ton and a couple of jeeps and some .50 cal machine guns. They would drive in front of Patton's Third Army that was advancing 10, 20 miles a day, and they would wait until they got shot at. That was pretty heavy and then they'd have to turn around and come back and say where the enemy was. So a lot of his work brought up those experiences.

He wrote a play called Contact With the Enemy about his experience as an 18-year-old kid entering Ohrdruf, the first concentration camp liberated by the Allies. In his wallet, he still carries the black-and-white photograph he took that day showing the bodies to remind him of what it was like.

He also wrote The Subject Was Roses about the weekend he returned home after the war and went to stay with his parents and how much his life had changed. He wrote a book called Private about his experiences in the war. The war has very much influenced his work.

Growing up in his household, it influenced all of us. I had a tremendous interest in World War II because of him. He brought home SS Ceremonial Swords, Lugers and those things were in the house. As a kid, I became utterly obsessed and fascinated with them, so I wound up reading about World War II and the forces behind it and the history of it. I'm an enormous nut and fanatic for war movies and I think I've certainly seen every war movie that’s ever been made, including the most recent ones. And so it's had a big influence on my life.

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There seems to be a clarity of moral vision in yours and your brother's screenplays. Do you think there's a connection between how you were raised and your father's experiences in the war?

You know I think there was. World War II is unique in modern times in the sense that it so clearly defined evil. I mean it's almost like ISIS is now.

Even now, when I think of Nazis, I think of a clearly defined evil. There's been many conflicts in the past where geopolitically it's been murky. I grew up in a home where the war that defined my father had good guys and bad guys. That has an effect, so I think my brother Tony and I shoot from the hip a little bit. You can smell things that are bad. You know things that are good. And yes, there is a gray morality out there in a lot of situations, but there are times where there’s certainty about what’s going on. Things are wrong. I would call World War II a situation of absolute morality without question. I think that does carry over in terms of how we view the world.

This seems to be a good time for filmmakers who want to develop military-themed films. Have you thought about working in that genre?

I'd like to do a war movie some day. I've had some ideas for some war films. I mean I think it's an interesting and fascinating genre. One of my favorite movies of all time is Saving Private Ryan. I thought Steven Spielberg's portrayal of D-Day was the first time that I actually felt like I was seeing combat, or what I imagined combat to be, accurately portrayed.

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