Jake Gyllenhaal, 'Nightcrawler' Director on How Language and Michael Moore Shaped Story
The media is just the scene of the crime
On its surface, Jake Gyllenhaal’s new movie Nightcrawler is about local TV news in L.A., focusing specifically on the titular freelance videographers who prowl the streets at night, filming the crime scenes and accidents and selling their wares to networks. But there’s more to the movie, and the work done by Gyllenhaal, co-stars Bill Paxton, Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed and writer-director Dan Gilroy as they prepared for and worked on the indie film that hits theaters Friday.
Gilroy explained that as he was researching the world of local TV news, “there was a more nuanced story that I uncovered.”
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“I was very aware of what Michael Moore brought out in [Bowling for Columbine] of how [those who work in TV news] sell a climate of fear,” the writer-director told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet ahead of Monday night’s New York premiere.
“The real story is urban crime creeping into the suburbs, trying to instill suburbanites with the idea that there’s this nefarious presence that’s about to creep over their hedges,” Gilroy explained. “I think it’s very destructive, and I think it creates a climate of fear that negatively impacts how we all live.”
Gilroy said he hopes that those who see Nightcrawler think about their own news consumption.
“I think to some degree it’s certainly an indictment of local television news, but I’d like to cast a wider net in the sense that all of us really watch these images. They’re really satisfying a demand that we all want,” he said. “I would hope that maybe a viewer would take it a step further and maybe go, ‘Why do I watch these images and how many of these images do I want to put into my own spirit?’ ”
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For Gyllenhaal and the other actors, researching the world of TV news and their characters’ professions was just part of their preparation.
Both Gyllenhaal and Paxton, who play rival freelance crime videographers, said they went out with some real stringers, with Gyllenhaal adding that he did that for a few nights, with Gilroy and the film’s cinematographer, “all of us venturing into that world,” he said.
But Gyllenhaal added that he spent a lot of time dissecting the language in the script and examining Gilroy’s word choices.
“One of the very first lines in the movie is ‘I was under the opinion this was a detour,’ ” he said. “ ‘Under the opinion’ is such a strange thing to say.” His much-discussed weight loss was also key to his getting at the character’s mentality.
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“I spent a number of months preparing for the character because we looked at him like a coyote. We wanted him to be hungry and be sort of starving in a way,” he said. “I lost weight, but I was mostly trying to find a space in which I was perpetually hungry.”
That neediness is also at the heart of Russo and Ahmed’s characters, both explained.
Russo, who plays the news director at an L.A. station, said she didn’t spend time in news stations or talk to those who worked there, simply because she’s found that such research doesn’t really help her. But the actress said she truly understood the character when she realized how desperate she is.
For Ahmed, his character’s need for support was a product of what he believes about his character’s background.
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The actor, who plays Gyllenhaal’s character’s assistant, Rick, said he used the line in the script about his lack of a permanent address as a way in.
“I took that to mean he was recently homeless or ex-homeless or still couch surfing. I just kind of followed that clue down a rabbit hole of homelessness in LA, which is really its own world, its own ecosystem. I got to speak to a lot of people who were in that situation and have come out of that situation, and what it does to you psychologically, needing almost a father figure to latch onto, a big brother, and that’s what Jake’s character is,” Ahmed explained. “That was one of the most helpful things, understanding that cycle of homelessness, abandonment, survival of the fittest. If you can’t be the fittest, you’ve got to get into the slipstream of someone who is the fittest,” he said, adding that Gyllenhaal’s character met that criteria as well.
Gyllenhaal added that his work as an executive producer on End of Watch also prepared him for producing this film.
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“The reason I wanted to produce this one was because I had executive produced a movie with a similar budget and almost the same number of days, called End of Watch,” he said. “It was in a similar sort of world, meaning that it was nighttime, it was in L.A. and there were favors I needed to pull. I sort of understood and learned the craft from the producers on that, and [it was] a nice progression.”
When asked to cite one thing he learned from producing Nightcrawler that he could apply to his next producer gig, Gyllenhaal said, “patience.”
Patient filmgoers also got a surprise as they were leaving the screening of the Open Road film as Jay Z and Beyonce, who weren't spotted on the red carpet, casually exited the theater and walked downstairs to a waiting SUV. Before they left, the power couple stopped to pose with Gyllenhaal, as seen in this photo taken by Kristina Bumphrey.