Interview with Dan Gilroy, director of NightcrawlerWhen Dan Gilroy first heard about the murky, nocturnal world of freelance news reporters – the TV version of paparazzi who are armed with video cameras and nicknamed ‘night-crawlers’ – who race to the scene of murders, car crashes and fires to film footage for news programmes, he knew instinctively that it was fertile ground for a film.
The result is Nightcrawler and the central, unforgettable character is Lou, an ambitious young man who wants to succeed and live the American dream – even if it means filming other people’s nightmares.
Played brilliantly by Jake Gyllenhaal, at the start of the story Lou is struggling to survive in a harsh contemporary world where getting a job – any job – has become harder.
Q: Where did you first get this idea?
A: A number of years ago I was very interested in a crime photographer from the 1930s and 40s named Weegee (the pseudonym for Ascher Fellig). He’s actually become collectable among people who collect photography. He was the first guy to put a police scanner in his car, in New York City. This was like 1940. He would drive around and get to crime scenes before anyone. He was a wonderful photographer, but I couldn’t figure out a way to do a period film, and so I put the idea aside and I moved to Los Angeles. A few years ago I heard about these people called ‘night-crawlers’ who drive around Los Angeles at night at 100mph, with these scanners going. As a screenwriter, I thought, ‘That’s a really interesting world,’ but I didn’t exactly know what to do with it. It was part of an idea. For me, ideas come piecemeal; they don’t come fully formed. That was a part of the idea, and I didn’t know what to do with until I thought of the character to plug into it, which was Lou. Once that character plugged into the world, it was like two parts of an atom that fit together, and suddenly it just made total sense to me, and I knew what I wanted to do with the world and the character.
Q: Did you meet some of the real night-crawlers?
A: Yes, Jake and I and Robert Elswit, our DP, went out a couple of nights with a guy named Howard Raishbrook, who was our technical advisor, and it was bloodcurdling. The first call we went to was a horrific car crash, in which three girls had been ejected from a car after hitting a wall head on. I’ve got to be honest: I don’t think I’ll ever get that image out of my head. I think Jake and Robert and I were rather stunned, watching it, but the gentleman who filmed it very professionally got out of the car, shot the footage, edited the footage within five minutes, downloaded it, and sold it to four television stations. Now, the gentleman who does this, I don’t judge him, and actually he’s become a friend of mine. He and the other people who do this very much see themselves as providing a service, and they legitimately are providing a service. In their minds, the stories that they’re filming become the lead stories on local Los Angeles news, so if there’s a demand to watch this, who am I to judge them? Or to say what they’re doing is wrong? Obviously Lou’s character crosses the line at certain points, and drifts into a world that’s amoral, but I never wanted to portray them or the news media or even Lou’s character in that way. I never wanted to put a moral label on it and say, ‘This is wrong.’ I think once a filmmaker applies immorality to something, it stops the viewers from being able to make a decision for themselves. My morality might be very different from yours, and what I find important might be different from what your priorities are. We wanted to create as realistic a portrayal as possible of this little niche market and the Los Angeles media world, and let people decide for themselves who the villain is and what the issues are.
Q: Where does the demand for this coverage come from?
A: It comes from us because statistically, as a race, humans seem to like to watch things that are graphic and gory. It probably goes back to Neanderthals watching a lion kill a gazelle, and saying, ‘Oh, there’s a bloody thing going on over there, that’s interesting.’ We seem to respond to watching violence. Maybe not all of us, but a lot of people do. Look at the dilemma that Rene [Russo]’s character is in as a news director. Her ratings are based on what she shows, and the more blood you show, the more ratings you’re going to get. I think my biggest hope, at the end of the film, is that people might say, ‘I am one of those people who watches those things on TV. That doesn’t make me a bad person, but what does that say about me? Why am strangely connected with Lou? Why do I find what he does interesting, and why am I not walking out of the theatre at this point? Because what he’s doing is so reprehensiIble. We really don’t judge him, and in fact, we go out of her way to celebrate what he does, or to legitimise what he does.
Q: Has your own view on news changed during the shooting?
A: No. My view before I started the film and my view now is the same. I used to be a journalist. I used to work for Variety, a number of years ago, so I’m interested in journalism, but I’m aware that in the United States, a number of decades ago, networks decided that news departments had to make a profit, and historically they did not have to make a profit. I feel that once news departments are given the task of making a profit, news becomes entertainment, and I think we all lose something enormously important when that happened because rather than getting in-depth stories that educate us and Inform us, we get narratives built to sell a product. The narrative in Los Angeles, and I believe the narrative you’ll find in most local TV news, and Michael Moore touched on this in Bowling For Columbine, is a narrative of fear. It’s a very simple equation: if you’re not watching the station you’re in peril, because there are things outside that could kill you and your family, and if you don’t watch this, through the commercials, you’re not going to know about it. It’s a very powerful formula, and it’s very effective. That’s what drives the whole equation.
Q: Is this film commenting on the lack of privacy?
A: Well it's not dissimilar to TMZ and what the paparazzi do. What Lou does is really the news version of what paparazzi do for entertainment, and I think the line gets very blurred in there. With that kind of coverage people can get hurt. People can get killed, and then you film it.
Q: Lou seems to represent millions of unemployed young people, who are increasingly asked to go further and further to prove their value.
A: You’ve absolutely nailed the genesis of the character. I’m very aware that there are tens of millions of young people around the world who are unemployed, whether it’s globalisation or corporatisation, or whatever you want to call it. Young people just have very little hope of meaningful careers. It’s internships that don’t pan out, it’s no health insurance, and I’m very aware of that. I started with Lou as a character who desperately wanted work, and he gives a speech to the salvage yard owner early on, and in the self-help world of the unemployed, that’s called an ‘elevator speech’. The reason it’s called that is, some day you may find yourself in an elevator with someone who can give you a job, so you should be able to sell yourself in 30 seconds. Lou wanted the salvage yard job. That would have been a great job for him. He’s not out to hurt people. He’s just a desperate young man, and there are many desperate young people out there who are being forced, I think, to make decisions and take jobs that they normally wouldn’t.
Q: In many ways, this is a success story. Are you criticising a world in which Lou can be rewarded for this kind of work?
A: You could look at it as a criticism, but I actually tried to make an objective portrayal of what I believe to be true. I feel that if you came back at the end of ten years, Lou would be the owner of a major corporation. I believe that many people who rise to the head of multinational corporations make decisions that are far worse than anything that Lou does, and Lou will be well equipped to survive in that world. When you can take the pensions away from 40,000 people, and then go and buy a 400-foot yacht that, to me, is far more criminal than anything that Lou does. Lou will be well served, from his experience night-crawling, in the corporate boardroom, and he will thrive. For better or for worse – and I guess you could call it criticism – but I tried to portray what I believe to be true.
Q: Have the real night-crawlers seen the film yet?
A: Oh yeah, Howard saw it with his brothers – he works with his two brothers – and they loved it. They loved it because it was accurate. It was very important to them that it was accurate. They’ll say, ‘We don’t do that kind of stuff,’ but they wanted the police codes to be right, they wanted their jargon to be right. They said, ‘If we’re involved, it has to be real. You have to really show them what it’s like.’ It is utterly real. Everything we show, Bill Paxton’s character, people like that – I encountered them. This is the world they live in. Tonight they’ll go out. They’ll go out seven days a week.
Nightcrawler hits NZ Cinemas on November 27th