Jake Gyllenhaal on Producing, 'Nightcrawler' Cuts and How "Acting Is Incredibly Selfish"

Austin Hargrave
Jake Gyllenhaal

When will he direct? "I am searching for an experience like that, but I have yet to be presumptuous enough"

Nightcrawler producer and star Jake Gyllenhaal has learned a few things about being in front of the camera by briefly stepping behind the scenes.

When asked what he wishes more producers understood about acting, and vice versa, "my answer to both sides is, don't take things personally, everyone has an agenda and it's to be respected," he said on Saturday morning, during a panel at the inaugural Produced By: New York conference at the Time Warner Center. "Acting is an incredibly immature and selfish profession, but I also believe on the flip side of that coin, it can also produce great empathy. … Understand that it is an extraordinarily sensitive job, and I don't mean to be self-indulgent, but it's an odd job. … It's an odd thing conjuring up feelings in the midst of all this chaos ... it's magic."

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He also recalled how End of Watch co-star Michael Pena withdrew from a midnight set for a moment when lighting logistics were interrupting production, saying, "Feelings are like animals, coaxing a tiger in a jungle, ... I need to keep the tiger quiet."

On the other hand, he advises that other actors "be aware of your place in a grand family that is making a movie." Though stars can help provide financing by becoming the face of the movie, their importance can be misunderstood, and many people have and had been tied to the project for years by the time an actor signs on, no matter how committed. He is currently shooting Jean-Marc Vallee's Demolition, and a dedicated producer started to cry during the makeup test. "Somehow, we've merged those two things together," he said of both sides showing and respecting a particular vulnerability. "I think amazing things happen."

Of being both a producer and star in Nightcrawler, "when you're in nearly every frame, it's a delicate [postproduction) because it requires an objectivity and a brutality, which actually comes easily as an actor. I love cutting things out that I'm in; I really do enjoy that." After watching the film three times before being able to give notes objectively, the film's two scenes that highlight his notable weight loss for the role were cut. "I lost all the weight for the two scenes, … but it was not important to the story as a whole."

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Gyllenhaal, who is the son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner, grew up with a curiosity for what's behind the camera. "I've always been fascinated by the abrasion between the actors and what's in front of the camera, ... and all the issues behind it, and how to balance the two. Also I was told by someone a few years ago to never stop being a student," he told Producers Guild of America president emeritus Hawk Koch, whom he's known since he was 2 or 3 years old, and produced Source Code.

"Story is king — I've always read [scripts] seeing the whole picture and trying to see how it could be done," he said. When asked when he's going to direct a film, he joked, "Oh god, so hard to get into DGA!" He noted he'll fulfill that aspiration "when I'm feeling presumptuous," because "my father said you really have to have it in your heart when telling a story [visually] ... I am searching for an experience like that, but I have yet to be presumptuous enough."

The actor (who was excited to be the newest member of the PGA) was an EP on End of Watch and received a full Produced By credit on Nightcrawler, which was shot in under a month for $8 million. He helped sell the film domestically by delivering character soliloquies into the camera at Cannes, and "saw that everyone was happier and more creative" when financed. He recalled how End of Watch's schedule was erratic due to multiple lost locations and its tight budget. "That's fascinating to me: how do you ease up the creative process?"

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Throughout the conversation, Gyllenhaal also noted that he has no problem potentially jumping to a television project ("Again, story is king in whatever the format you're telling your story") or comedy ("I think Nightcrawler is funny, but maybe that answers the question"), would love to get involved in film education ("I prefer to get them earlier, before film school, to high school or elementary and teach about story") and has been supporting the military organization Headstrong after starring in Jarhead.

He still loves watching movies on the big screen, with "the anticipation of going to see something" and the walk home afterward being his favorite parts, and believes that a theatrical release window should exist based on the material: "When something has a lasting power where people are going, it should be given the space."

Despite everything he shared, the entire purpose of his keynote was so that producer and president emeritus Mark Gordon could pop in at the end to ask Gyllenhaal about Source Code 2, as Gordon did and humorously revealed. Laughed Gyllenhaal, "That is a f—ing great producer — he is so busy and he literally came in to make me so uncomfortable."

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee

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