Nightcrawler - the American dream at its most warped

Jake Gyllenhaal's video journalist character takes a dark ride into the seedy side of news gathering in Los Angeles

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 January, 2015, 4:12pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 January, 2015, 4:12pm

Rene Russo smiles. "The odds are against this movie, and we still can't believe that it happened at all," she says.

The actress is talking about Nightcrawler, a film written and directed by her husband, Dan Gilroy. With a story set in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles television news journalism, it's a blackhearted but utterly compelling drama that even Russo doubted when she first read the script. "I was like, 'This is never going to get off the ground'," she says.

Yet somehow Nightcrawler has crept into cinemas, to deliver one of the creepiest anti-heroes in living memory. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a thief who discovers his questionable morals and appetite for risk are better served in video news. Buying a camcorder, he cruises the streets at night looking for grim road accidents and violent incidents to film and sell to the local TV stations, particularly to Russo's haggard TV producer, Nina.

Inspired by characters such as stand-up comic/kidnapper Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy and Nicole Kidman's demented weathergirl in Gus Van Sant's To Die For, the 55-year-old Gilroy is careful not to label the ambitious, unscrupulous Lou a sociopath. "I was always looking for the humanity inside him," he says. "Jake very much approached the character as a lonely but functioning human being, not a sociopath. He sees the character as an artist, who discovers something that he's good at and cares about."

Delivering the moral ambiguity that was prevalent in 1970s Hollywood, but is now considered box office poison in mainstream entertainment, Nightcrawler is a rare beast. That makes its success all the more surprising. Not only did the film "get off the ground", it's made US$32 million in America, four times its budget. It's even crept into the awards season, with a Golden Globe nomination for Gyllenhaal, four Bafta nominations, and Gilroy up for best original screenplay at the Oscars.

Gilroy is no newcomer to the movie industry. He's been screenwriting since the late '80s, after he made the switch from journalism, when he worked for film industry bible Variety. Estimating only "one in 15" scripts of his ever got made, it's a somewhat less impressive record than his older brother Tony, whose work includes the Bourne films and Michael Clayton. Laughing, Gilroy says: "Some might say he's a better writer than me, and that's why his work has got made."

But there's no sibling rivalry between them. Not only did Tony bring Dan on as a co-writer for The Bourne Legacy, he also acted as producer on Nightcrawler, and got his brother final cut on the film. Without it, Gilroy would have been defenceless against the money men bankrolling the film. "The first thing they'd say is, 'You have to tell us all about Lou - where he comes from. And the ending has to be happy.' Then it'll be 'Rene Russo can't be in the movie,' and, 'We need three car chases, not one'. So when I knew I had final cut, I knew I didn't have to do any of that," he says.

It also helped that Gilroy had Gyllenhaal on his team. The actor's attachment to the project "got the financing for the movie", says Gilroy, pointing to Gyllenhaal's increasing willingness to take risks in low-budget productions. "He doesn't care about the money. He's decided to do films that challenge him. He came to this and said he wanted to immerse himself in it," Gilroy says.

Gilroy watched with amazement as the star he dubbed "fearless" lost 11.5kg to give Bloom a gaunt, haunted look "like a coyote". Dieting like crazy, he also would cycle 25km every night to the set, to help keep the weight off.

"That's dangerous," says Gilroy, laughing. "You have to be crazy to ride a bike in LA. But he would ride, then come and have some kale salad, gum and ice cubes. He was so committed." Russo concurs: "He killed that part."

The same can be said for Russo, whose performance completes a remarkable comeback after ducking out of Hollywood for several years. Playing Nina was a challenge, she says. "It took me a while to discover her, so that was really challenging for me, to find out who she was and where she was coming from. I didn't have that down. It was a little bit scary. I didn't want to just play her as a bitch," the actress says.

Nina and Lou were based in the realities of the profession. Gilroy and Gyllenhaal hung out with real-life "nightcrawlers" - a term for nocturnal newshounds who trawl the streets looking for juicy stories. In particular, they met up with the English-born Howard Raishbrook, who together with his three brothers moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago to form Raishbrook Media Group (RMG) after they realised there was money to be made.

"Cinematographer Robert Elswit, Jake and I went out with Howard and he offered us a bulletproof vest when we got in the car. They shoot at his car all the time; LA at night is a dangerous place," Gilroy says.

Eventually, they got a tip-off. "Three young girls had been in a car, and gone off the freeway at 80mph [130km/h] and gone headlong into a wall," he says. "It was horrible. I have a daughter, and it was hard to look at."

Yet with LA news shows now presented like entertainment, and competing against rival productions for all-important ratings, it's these graphic images that sell, along with peddling unsubstantiated fear to viewers. "If you try the local TV news tonight in Los Angeles, you'll see a fatal carjacking, a rape, a robbery. They're going to try and make it look like it's getting worse," says Gilroy. "The idea is, if you don't watch this, then you're in danger - and it's very effective," he says.


Remarkably, Gilroy had the support of the local city news shows, something which surprised all concerned.

"I didn't think they'd want to cooperate," he says. Several anchormen and women even make cameo appearances in the film. "They were amazing," notes Russo. "You'd think that maybe they would not want to do that, given the script. But they were like, 'Bring it on, let's do it.' They read the script and they still wanted to do it. It was wild."

Perhaps they recognised that ultimately Nightcrawler is about more than TV news, as Lou's drive is an expression of the American dream at its most warped. "He succeeds for all the wrong reasons. If you came back in 10 years, he'd be running a major company," says Gilroy.

"He has no conscience. What I was trying to show is that if you take somebody into this world today and strip away their conscience, they will succeed. That says a lot about our world today, and how scary it is."

Nightcrawler opens on January 29