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Open Road Films’ Nightcrawler, which opened this past weekend to an estimated $10.9 million, follows Jake Gyllenhaal as a news stringer who prowls Los Angeles at night — and comes to a close with a thrilling car chase, all the more noteworthy when you consider the film was made for just $5.5 million, according to director of photography Robert Elswit.
Two of Hollywood’s most famous car chases provided inspiration for the scene: Those from Bullitt, photographed by the late William A. Fraker and edited by Frank P. Keller; and The French Connection, photographed by Owen Roizman and edited by Gerald B. Greenberg. In both cases, the editors won Oscars. Additionally, Roizman earned a nomination.
Nightcrawler was shot on the streets of Los Angeles, primarily between midnight and 6 a.m. In the car chase, the police are in hot pursuit of suspected murderers and the nightcrawlers, played by Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed, are right on their tail in an effort to film news footage. “How do you do a car chase from the point of view of the actors?” was the question that Elswit asked himself as he revisited the classic chases in Bullitt and French Connection while creating a template for his shoot.
With a limited budget, Elswit — who won an Oscar for There Will Be Blood and this year has a pair of contenders in Nightcrawler and the upcoming Inherent Vice — had to be highly efficient. The car chase was filmed in just two nights of principal photography and two additional nights of second unit. “It was the fruition of planning something in advance,” he said, explaining that the scene was storyboarded and discussed so everyone knew how each shot would be filmed.
“All the stuff [director and writer] Dan Gilroy and I did was with the actors,” Elswit explained. “The shots on Jake were camera mounts and hood mounts with some Biscuit rig [a drivable camera platform that was designed to film the horse racing scenes in Seabiscuit].”
The cinematographer emphasized the “extraordinary job” of second unit director Mike Smith and DP Christopher Moseley. “In two nights they set up and staged all the stunts. The secret is you don’t want to make it look like second unit.”
The edit of the car chase cuts back and forth between the work of the two film units, related editor John Gilroy. (Nightcrawler is the first movie he edited for his brother Dan, though he previously edited films including Michael Clayton for his brother Tony Gilroy, who produced this film.)
“Once the chase starts, we are mostly with the actors, seeing it through their car window,” the editor explained. “We want the viewer to be with our characters as much as possible through that chase. [The viewer] also had to be really clear on geography. That was important. It was laid out meticulously by Dan and Robert and Mike Smith.
“I cut the stunts first and then picked where to add the actors,” he continued. “Also showing the police radio [in their car] was a big deal because we are listening on the scanner and hearing what’s going on. That added a whole other element that made it very exciting.”
Gilroy also gave a shout-out to sound supervisor and designer Scott Gershin (Pacific Rim), who recorded sound during the shoot that they were later able to use to enhance the sequence.
The majority of the movie was shot with an Arri Alexa, which helped the production to get the look they wanted but also to save money and time by largely relying on available light. Said Elswit: “I picked backgrounds with ambient light so that I only lit the actors in the foreground.”
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