Writer-director Dan Gilroy discusses making ‘Nightcrawler’

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Jake Gyllenhaal in "Nightcrawler." The film screens Friday at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Nightcrawler,’ at Academy Screenings

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Friday, Jan. 2, 5:30 p.m.

More info:

Tickets: Wheeler box office;

The shop-worn newsroom credo “If it bleeds it leads” is delivered early in Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler.” But the cliché gets a gorier – and more apt, for this spine-chilling film’s purposes – update later in the movie, as producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo) describes her TV news priorities to Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal).

“Think of our newscast as a screaming woman, running down the street, with her throat cut,” she says.

Unblinking and unfased, Bloom responds, “I understand.”

The film, which plays at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings Friday, is a kinetic, shocking neo-noir that follows Bloom as he works his way up the ranks of “nightcrawlers” – the freelance videographers who speed around Los Angeles after dark, filming car crashes and crime scenes for the morning news.

“Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”
Rene Russo as Nina Romina in “Nightcrawler”

Bloom is amoral and desperate. The movie opens with him stealing copper wire and manhole covers, searching for a job. Soon after stumbling upon a fiery car crash and seeing cameramen rushing to capture the footage, he gets a scanner and a camera himself and gets to work. Without morals to hold him back, he quickly succeeds at the job.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy envisioned the film as a success story. More specifically, as story about the kind of success that’s available to young people today and the sort of behavior that’s rewarded.

“We live in a world of hyper-capitalism, where people who leave their humanity at the door, as Lou does, wind up becoming phenomenal, celebrated successes,” Gilroy said. “I always imagined that if you came back in 10 years, Lou would be running a major multinational corporation. All of the skills that he uses in the stringer world – dragging bodies or killing people – would serve him well in the boardroom.”

Gyllenhaal’s Bloom is an exceedingly creepy figure, who speaks in business jargon and in the royal “we” of a corporate manager, while ruthlessly making his mark as a stringer. He arrives without a backstory, and the film never fills one in.

Gilroy, who has written studio films like “Two for the Money” and “Real Steel” – and makes his directorial debut with “Nightcrawler” – has seen the way Hollywood too often lets backstory drown a film.

“I feel like something really powerful has been lost in primal storytelling, which is, if you don’t give the audience all the information and tell them everything about this character, it allows the audience to start to weave their own narrative,” he explained.

The unsaid and unseen lend power to the film, which takes place largely at night in a seedy vision of Los Angeles. A key sex scene, for instance, is eluded to but left off-screen. Gilroy said some investors in the film refused to put up money unless Gilroy showed it.

“My point was that there’s nothing I can show that will match what the audience is imagining going on behind closed doors,” he said.

He strays from convention in a number of ways in the film. He uses a villain as his protagonist, without making it an over-the-top study of a psychopath. He offers a dim view of journalism, but doesn’t make it a full-on satire.

As a writer, Gilroy has taken an interest in psychology over the years, reading about how mental disorders work and how they’re diagnosed. We don’t learn exactly what’s wrong with Bloom in the film, but he’s apparently a sociopath and also has something like Asberger syndrome. Bloom quickly picks up the unique skill set to be a successful stringer, but doesn’t have a moral compass to guide him along the way.

“I think the tragedy for the character is that he doesn’t morally know how to use that information,” Gilroy said. “I think he downloads information, almost like a computer, with no moral yardstick to know how to use it.”

The spot-on management-speak that comes out of Bloom, Gilroy said, he crafted by reading human resource manuals of large corporations – the same kinds of things Bloom would have found online to educate himself.

To recreate the world of nightcrawlers in Los Angeles, Gilroy, Gyllenhaal and director of photography Robert Elswit went out with real stringers and brought one of them – Austin Raishbrook – on board as a technical advisor.

Gilroy’s screenwriting credits extend as far back as the 1992 cult classic “Freejack,” but he said he never wanted to get behind the camera and direct until he began writing “Nightcrawler.”

“I knew from the moment I started to write it that it would be the first one that I would direct,” he said.

Gyllenhaal signed on as star and co-producer early on. Gilroy recalled traveling to Atlanta to go over the script with the actor while he was filming “Prisoners” there, and bonding over the material.

“We were creative partners from the start,” he said. “And Jake immersed himself in the character to a degree that was revelatory.”

Gyllenhaal, who lost 20-plus pounds for the role, is bug-eyed, gaunt and visibly ravenous on-screen. He creates an anti-hero in the Travis Bickle tradition. Gilroy said the actor envisioned Bloom as a coyote – resourceful, emotionless and focused on getting what he needs to survive.

“That was the image he had in his head,” Gilroy said, “of a nocturnal animal that comes out of the hills at night to feed. It’s not just the physical transformation, which is amazing, it’s his energy that comes through in his performance.”