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Gilroy’s third entry as writer-director is a “satirical thriller” set in the contemporary art world of Los Angeles where collectors have leveraged artists and their art into big business. Velvet Buzzsaw reunites many of the creatives from 2014’s Nightcrawler, including lead actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, who is married to the filmmaker. Gyllenhaal plays esteemed art critic Morf Vandewalt, whose reviews can make or break an artist’s career while collectors, such as Russo’s Rhodora Haze, seemingly live by Morf’s every word. The film’s conflict comes from Haze’s associate, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who stumbles upon a magnificent collection of art by a mysterious artist named Vetril Dease. Dease’s collection sets off a chain of events that turns the art world on its head.
Since Nightcrawler became a cult classic overnight, fans have been eagerly anticipating a reunion between Gyllenhaal and Gilroy (or “Gilenhaal” as they’ve been dubbed). After all, Gyllenhaal’s performance as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler is widely considered to be his finest performance to date, however, come Oscar season in 2015, the actor surprisingly missed out on his first lead actor nomination, an omission that still disappoints fans of the film.
When asked by The Hollywood Reporter if Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler snub eats at the two of them, Gilroy states,”It doesn’t gnaw at me, and I’ve never heard Jake reference it before. I don’t know if Jake and I are really pursuing awards, as great as they are and how wonderful it is to be acknowledged by your peers.” Gilroy adds, “I think the prime motive for both of us is to do work that makes us grow and challenges us. I know Jake very much feels that way.”
The last piece to the puzzle was finding the right home for Velvet Buzzsaw, which Gilroy readily admits is an “unusual” movie. While more traditional studios were willing to make the movie at a lower budget, Gilroy ultimately decided that his unusual thriller required an unusual release via Netflix, which is quickly becoming the norm for more and more auteur filmmakers including Alfonso Cuaron, Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh. In regard to his experience working with Netflix, Gilroy explains, “Netflix saw the bottom line costs, saw what the material was and they decided that it was doable and something for them.”
In a conversation with THR, Gilroy also reveals what happens when he and his brothers (filmmaker Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy) give notes and why forgoing a wide theatrical release for Velvet Buzzsaw was right for the film.
Let’s first touch on your decision to start directing via Nightcrawler. Was it a combination of fondness for the material and your previous scripts not turning out as you’d hoped via other directors?
I think my work got more personal; Nightcrawler is a very personal film. There are some movies that you feel better about handing off to other people, but when they become very personal and the themes are personal, then I just felt the need to do it. And to be honest, watching my brother Tony [Gilroy] direct Michael Clayton, because we really sort of follow in the same career path, it was liberating to go, “Oh my God, you can direct your own stuff and do it on a personal level.” So, I think that’s where it came from.
Because your Nightcrawler collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal was so beloved by critics and audiences, did you put a lot of pressure on yourself to find the right follow-up for the two of you? Did you go through several ideas before landing on Velvet Buzzsaw?
No, I didn’t start out with the idea of writing a part for Jake. I’ve always wanted to do a satirical thriller, and I couldn’t find the vehicle for it. Then, I was in a contemporary art museum one night near closing, and it was very creepy. I thought, “Wow, this is really good world to set a thriller.” Thematically, I was very interested in the idea of the relationship between art and commerce in today’s world. It’s a very uneasy relationship. I feel strongly that the quality of the work shouldn’t be judged by the volume of social media engagement, the number of views or amount paid. That’s not to say that commercial success diminishes a work, but it doesn’t define it, either. I wanted to get at the idea that art is more than a commodity, and I think those two things intersected with the vehicle that I had for it. Then, Jake’s character came to the fore. It’s a world with large characters, and when you research it, certain things just start to leap out at you. An art critic became one of them.
Netflix is known for making the type of movies that the major studios no longer make. They’re also known for giving artists creative and financial freedom. Is that consistent with your experience so far?
Utterly consistent. Ted Sarandos, Scott Stuber and everyone over on the Netflix team have done nothing but support this film. Netflix is absolutely breaking down the barriers and allowing artists to come in and make work that they feel is relevant, while supporting them at every turn. There was never a point that they did not support a decision. As a matter of fact, it was never a contention because I felt we always had a collaborative relationship. It was a very collaborative relationship with Netflix. They were an integral part of the team creating this movie. It was never adversarial on any level, and I would love to work with them again. I have nothing but praise for Netflix; I really do.
The movie has premiered on Netflix. Is it nice not having the box-office guillotine hanging over you and your opening weekend?
It’s nice given the landscape of the theatrical experience now. The theatrical experience now is dominated to a degree by branded entertainment and franchises. To take a film that’s unusual and put it into that environment is nerve-wracking. To not have to go through the theatrical experience in today’s climate was part of the decision to go with Netflix, but I’m also much more intrigued with the idea of reaching more than one hundred million homes around the globe, instantaneously. For a storyteller, that’s the most beautiful thing in the world. That is just a revelation. To be honest, most of the people who come up to me to say they enjoyed Nightcrawler were certainly people who saw it on Netflix. So, I just love the platform.
You mentioned how some other studios were interested in making this movie. Had you gone that route, what concessions would’ve been required?
It was budget concessions. The above-the-line people were never looking to make some massive payday on this. We wanted the money to be on the screen. Our below-the-line costs were very legitimate and very real. The studios could not come up with the bottom line costs for us to make the movie and do what we needed to do. Netflix saw the bottom line costs, saw what the material was and they decided that it was doable and something for them. So, that was really the reason for it.
Did you come up with the primary works of art yourself at the script level, such as Hoboman and the Sphere, or did you brainstorm these ideas with your various department heads come pre-production?
I came up with quite a number of them. Then, I worked very closely with David Hundley, our art adviser, and Jim Bissell, our production designer. It started months and months before we started shooting. There’s over one hundred pieces of original art, and we worked together as a team. One of the biggest hurdles when people watch a film about the contemporary art world is making the quality of the art look legitimate. So, we did spend a lot of time on that as a team.
You’ve talked about experimenting with your scripts in the past, especially stylistically. How did this script differ from Nightcrawler and Roman J. Israel, Esq.?
It differed in the primary way that this is a mixed-genre film, which I’d never really done before. I was very interested in using the idea of satire in this film. I’ve never attempted thriller and satire at the same time. I liked the idea, the challenge of that and balancing that as the film went along. The biggest difference was the idea of challenging myself and probably challenging the audience as well to watch a satirical thriller. And no, I didn’t play around with fonts or anything like that. The actual script was about the same length as the others.
There’s a scene where Piers (John Malkovich) and Damrish (Daveed Diggs) are hypnotized by Dease’s work at his first show. It was almost like they could see the spirits moving before anyone else. Were you playing with the notion that fellow artists could see the work more clearly than the capitalists?
I was. I’m an enormous Oscar Wilde fan, and I think he has a quote somewhere, “No great artist ever sees things as they really are…” I was playing with the idea that they could see something prior to other people seeing it and that they had some sort of preternatural gift by being artists that allowed them that.
In Nightcrawler, Lou crossed many lines to achieve success such as sabotaging Loder’s van or hanging Rick out to dry. In Roman J. Israel, Esq., Israel took the reward money. In Velvet Buzzsaw, Josephina stole Dease’s art in order to attain the lifestyle she always wanted. Can you talk a bit about this through line and why all but one of these characters suffered the consequences of their actions?
In all three of the films that I’ve made, I’m interested in what money does to people, and there’s so much money on the table in Velvet Buzzsaw that these people are driven to do things against their better natures. So, I wasn’t trying to say that each one of these occupations are inherently bad, or this world is bad, I just thought it was an interesting world where money was applying pressure to people to do things against their nature.
In terms of Lou not suffering the consequences of his actions, that had a very different message. I’m trying to say that the Lous of the world are winning. In Nightcrawler, I was saying that this has now become a world of hypercapitalism; it’s the law of the jungle. The weak are going to get killed, and the strong are going to get stronger. I always saw Nightcrawler as a cautionary tale: watch out because the Lous of the world are going to take over if you’re not careful. The horrible celebration of his crimes was really a cautionary tale.
Israel was the most noble, but he made one mistake and paid for it.
He did make one mistake and pay for it, but it was the idea of redemption. It was the idea that he had carried a symbolic cross around for so long, and the weight of it finally caused him to make a mistake. I see Roman J. Israel, Esq. as a spiritual film to some degree, and I see Roman as somebody who redeems himself at the end. Redemption, to me, is the holiest thing on the planet.
Have you known any Cocos (Natalia Dyer) in Hollywood, assistants who’ve worked for everyone in town?
Yeah! I think it’s a very difficult time now to be a young person making their way. I think a lot of the work is piecemeal; it’s difficult to have a steady job. Job security is so much a thing of the past. I’ve definitely encountered younger people who are struggling and trying to get some sort of stability in a job. I think Coco is representative of that.
Now that you’ve made 3 films of your own, I presume they’ve been the most fulfilling works of your career. When you perform studio jobs now, such as doing a pass on a franchise movie’s script, has that work become less rewarding given your newfound perspective as writer-director?
I wouldn’t say it’s inherently less rewarding. It’s less rewarding in the sense that all I do is write the script and hand it off to someone else. So, I become ultimately less involved on that level. It’s less rewarding because I’m not involved all the way through, but I thoroughly enjoy a good, entertaining film like the ones that I’ve worked on. It’s just I become disengaged when the director comes on; it’s a different level of involvement.
It’s Oscar season, and every Oscar season, we’re reminded that many people felt Jake was snubbed for Nightcrawler. The same can be said for Rene Russo. Even though you received an original screenplay nomination, does Jake’s snub still gnaw at the two of you? Or, do you guys have a healthier perspective on awards?
It doesn’t gnaw at me, and I’ve never heard Jake reference it before. I don’t know if Jake and I are really pursuing awards, as great as they are and how wonderful it is to be acknowledged by your peers. I think Jake and I are trying to do work that challenges us, and if good things come from that, fine. I think the prime motive for both of us is to do work that makes us grow and challenges us. I know Jake very much feels that way.
When the Brothers Gilroy get together to show each other their work, what is that environment like?
The beautiful thing about it is that we’re truthful with each other, and if we don’t like something, we feel utterly comfortable to say we don’t like it and why. When I say “don’t like it,” it’s in the sense of, “There’s a lot of good stuff there, but it could be better and here’s why.” So, when one of us brings to the other, and it happens a lot, it’s always with the understanding of “Hey man, just tell me the truth and how can I make this better?” It’s a very honest collaboration. We’re very much on the same page in terms of what we like, and it’s good to get a second, third and fourth set of eyes looking at things. So, I’m very blessed that I have them in my life.
Lastly, how did Bill Paxton’s son, James, end up in your last two films?
James Paxton! James first came on Nightcrawler as a production assistant. Then, I found out he was a musician and we put some of his songs on the soundtrack of Nightcrawler. Then, I used him on Roman. He’s a tremendous talent. He’s an actor, musician and writer. I wish I had had a part in Velvet Buzzsaw that more aligned with that; he has a very small part in it. James is out there doing a lot of work, and I’m really happy for him. He’s just a wonderful guy.
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